Zion blew every national park that I had ever been to out of the water...
So as you can tell, I absolutely LOVED our time in Zion National Park. We had only decided to visit Zion a couple weeks before departing Australia and in fact, our first choice had been Grand Canyon National Park but all the campgrounds and permits were reserved. I can only say that this just proves that everything happens for a reason because Zion blew every national park that I had ever been to out of the water.
In just three nights, we experienced so much more of Zion than I could have ever hoped for. I feel like we definitely made the most of our time there, even when we had to change our backcountry hiking plans due to a lack of water and when our car got a flat tyre! So if Zion is on your travel horizon soon, here are my suggestions to get the maximum out of your adventure.
1. Backpack in the Zion Wilderness
84% of this National Park is dedicated and preserved wilderness so it should go without saying that to really see the park, you should venture into its backcountry. Nothing can compare to waking up surrounded by towering sandstone walls and having to put on a lightweight fleece because the desert heat had melted away sometime late in the night before. Everything was still and so quiet that we could still hear hikers who were already on the trail, 100 metres away from our campsite. As we had our morning coffee, we watched the rock come to life as the sun rose...which was also the signal for us to also get back on the trail before that oppressive desert heat flare up again for the day. The best time to hike in Zion is either in the early morning or late afternoon because the heat is seriously debilitating.
Each year sees 50,000 backpackers enter the Zion Wilderness and in 2016, the centennial of the US' National Park Service, we were lucky enough to be a part of that group. You can secure a permit via the online reservation system for a non-refundable fee of $5.00. You can then pick up your permit at the Visitor Centre's Wilderness Information Desk, at which point, you will be required to pay a permit fee dependent on the size of your group (which was $15.00 for us two). The process is straightforward; you just need to get in quick if you are visiting in peak season.
2. Explore the less popular but very intriguing East Rim
The main canyon is stunning, accessible and well-managed but you will not regret venturing off the beaten path and exploring Zion's East Rim. Zion's East Rim is significantly less crowded than the main canyon and the contrast between the topography and colours of the two is very striking.
You can reach this area by driving 30 minutes along the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway from the Visitor Centre to the East Rim Trailhead. Drive past the signpost for Checkerboard Mesa and soon after, there will be another signpost on your right-hand side, indicating that you will soon reach the East Rim Trailhead carpark. There are no facilities at the carpark, besides bins, but you can find restrooms at the nearby Ranger Station.
If you don't have time or a permit, or if you don't have the water required to hike the entire East Rim Trail, the first section from East Entrance is, in itself, worth it and can be done as a short day hike. It is a pretty pastel-coloured playground where instead of the scorched red sandstone, there is fairy floss pink and white rock that has been carved into whimsical cones and domes and shaped into waves and ripples. You'll be hiking in sand for the most part but the gradient is relatively flat. After about three miles, you will see a canyon named Jolley Gulch. This marks your turnaround point. Just a word of warning: the map shows a creek running alongside this stretch of East Rim Trail but if you are visiting in summer, this creek will most likely be completely dry.
If you want to hike the other end of the East Rim Trail, you will be required to hike up out of the main canyon via the trail to Observation Point. Be prepared for a relentless uphill battle along steep switchbacks - see all those squiggly lines on the map, next to the words Weeping Rock?
3. Drive along the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway
To get to the East Entrance, you will need access to a car but you're in the USA so chances are, you'll already have figured that one out.
The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway is SPECTACULAR. I find it difficult to imagine a more beautiful drive. I have since read reviews that the highway is scary to drive on - it really isn't. Yes, the drive is long with many switchbacks but at no point did I feel that there was significant exposure, which there is plenty of along Tioga Rd in Yosemite National Park. The biggest risk is getting distracted by the epic views! There are numerous spots where you can pull over so make use of them instead of stopping in the middle of the highway (which people do).
You can also access some short hikes along the highway such as a 2 mile (3.2km), 4 hour hike to the park's iconic crisscrossed sandstone hill, Checkerboard Mesa or the 1 mile (1.6km), 1 hour Canyon Overlook Trail, which offers a high elevation viewpoint without the strenuous hiking. For an extensive list of available hikes, click here.
4. Indulge in a buffet breakfast at Zion Lodge
When we were done with our backcountry hike, we headed straight for the Zion Lodge for ice cold water and for their buffet breakfast. It's no Michelin-star restaurant but it sure felt and tasted like one, after a few nights backpacking.
For $15 each, we indulged in a buffet breakfast of bacon and eggs, pancakes, fruit and pastries as well as a beverage such as orange juice or coffee. Luke got overexcited and ordered lattés, which only reminded us that we were not home in Sydney where the coffee culture is well-developed; stick to the filtered coffee, is my advice! As we tucked into our well-deserved feast, we looked out the restaurant window and realised that there were 1,500 foot sandstone walls right in front of us and upon leaving, we even saw deer meandering on the Lodge's neat green lawns.
What I loved most, admittedly, was the Lodge's commitment to sustainability. One staff member was wearing a badge for the Be Straw Free campaign which says no to plastic disposable straws to reduce plastic waste and the Lodge provides fresh spring water, free of charge, which has eliminated more than 60,000 single-use plastic bottles from their waste stream. This, in itself, is good reason for you to stop by the Lodge and support them with your business.
5. Swim in the Virgin River
I have never been so happy to see a body of water than when we saw the Virgin River after returning from the dangerously dry East Rim Trail.
Our plan after breakfast, was to drop off our packs at the car and go for a refreshing dip aka much needed "shower". When we got to our car in the Visitor Centre carpark, we discovered that we had a flat tyre! We spent the next two hours driving through Springdale, then Rockville, then La Verkin, then Hurricane until, four tyre depots and 90 USD later, we finally had a new tyre! When we returned to Zion, there was a sign saying that parking was full which, to us, was a warning that the trails and river banks would be stupidly crowded.
We opted, instead, for George Barker River Park. Here, on soft green grass with a backdrop of that burnt red and orange rock, are picnic and BBQ facilities as well as restrooms. At parts, the current is strong and the river is shallow with lots of rocks so just be mindful of where you enter. If you cross the footbridge and turn right, you will find a little sandy beach area that is a great entry point, and also great if you have kids.
6. Ride the free shuttle
After experiencing Yosemite's traffic (yes, traffic inside a National Park), I am completely convinced that Zion's Shuttle System should be implemented in all busy National Parks. In peak season, that is March through to October, the shuttle is the only way you can enter the main canyon along the Floor of the Valley Road/Zion Canyon Scenic Drive; this removes the congestion and the hassle of finding parking and makes the entire experience more seamless and enjoyable.
The are two shuttle routes; the Springdale Shuttle stops at nine locations in Springdale, the town just outside of the park's South Entrance and the Zion Canyon Shuttle stops at nine locations in the main canyon. The interchange is at the Visitor Centre. Shuttles run often throughout the day and are FREE!
The shuttle is a nifty way to learn more about the park as well; there is interesting information broadcasted over the PA system like the fact that the park is ever-changing as the processes that carve and shape the canyon still occur and the drivers are lovely, funny and very knowledgeable and will highlight points of interest as the shuttle plods along.
And of course, the views are immense. The canyon walls are so tall that you can see them through the shuttle's roof!
7. Hike Angel's Landing
Angel's Landing is a Utah landmark. It is a fin-shaped rock that juts seemingly out of the middle of the canyon floor and received its name in 1916 by a visitor named Frederick Fisher who exclaimed, "only an angel could land on it!". This hike is not for the faint-hearted as there are massive drop-offs, but if you move sensibly and deliberately, you will be fine and it will go down as one of the most exhilarating experiences of your life. (If you want to read in detail about the hike to Angel's Landing, continue on to Live, Travel, Teach)
The shuttle stop for Angel's Landing is The Grotto. From here, the trail is 5 miles and the recommended hike time is 5 hours. We completed it in 3 hours; 1 hour on the series of 21 switchbacks named Walter's Wiggles, 1 hour on the chains and 1 hour on the descent, not including the time spent on the summit. The elevation gain is 1,488 feet (545m) and the summit will have you at 5,785 feet (1,763m).
Some notes and recommendations:
The sun exposure on this hike is heavy, so as with all hiking in Zion, tackle this hike either in the early morning or in the late afternoon to escape the day's heat and crowds. We started at 4pm and the majority of the trail was shaded. The chained section of the hike is tricky at points and is therefore not one that you want to share with too many other hikers. Starting late will also mean that you may get to see the moon dangling in a still vibrantly blue sky! Obviously, check when the sun sets; you should NOT be on Angel's Landing in the dark.
Ditch your backpack and just carry water and your camera. You don't need any distractions or extra challenges on this hike!
The summit is spacious so don't worry about getting there and having to cautiously teeter on the edge. There is plenty of space to relax and take in the views.
We half-jogged down from Angel's Landing. If you are up for it, this is less taxing for the legs as it involves less bracing.
Finally, PLEASE DO NOT LITTER. On the way up, I noticed an empty bottle of Snapple right next to the trail. On the way down, someone had added another bottle. What is wrong with people? It was infuriating. There are bins at the shuttle stop, which is where I disposed of them.
8. Celebrate with a specialty brew at Zion Canyon Brewing Company
To celebrate your Angel's Landing feat and cap off your Zion adventure, head to Zion Canyon Brewing Company which is just outside of the South Entrance in Springdale. The food is decent here but let's be honest, you've come for the frosty cold beers! Cheers!