Spanning 229 square miles across three counties in southern Utah, Zion National Park is a decadent canyon with a rich cultural history that dates back 12,000 years. With a 5,000-foot elevation change between the park’s highest and lowest points, Horse Ranch Mountain and Coal Pits Wash, respectively, the diverse landscape is home to plateaus, tall ridges and peaks, arches, sandstone cliffs, and slot canyons. The Virgin River carved out and continues to nourish Zion, feeding a number of springs, waterfalls, vibrant hanging gardens, and the park’s pine and juniper trees.
Zion’s breathtaking views have been in the making for around 250 million years, an ancient history with a palpable presence. With names like the Temple of Sinawava, Angel’s Landing, Court of the Patriarchs, and the Watchman, the colossal geological formations combine with the serenity and calm of Zion to create the feeling that you have ventured onto sacred ground. By the end of your visit, there will be no doubt in your mind that you have.
One of the most popular (not to be confused with easiest) hikes in the park is Angel’s Landing. The strenuous trail will bring you on a 1,500-foot ascent that peaks at an elevation of 5,790 feet. The 2.5 mile hike can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, beginning with over 50 steep switchbacks that will take your breath away long before the views have a chance to. The final 21 switchbacks, named Walter’s Wiggles, end at Scout Lookout, which should probably be the end of the trip for anyone with a serious fear of heights. From there, the last half-mile consists of extremely narrow trails along the ridge’s spine. At times guided by chains fixed to the rock, the trail shrinks to less than 2 feet wide with sheer drop-offs on either side. The final scramble to the summit is actually considered a climbing route rather than a hike. It should go without saying that the view from the top is worth the difficult hike, but I’ll say it anyway: the view from the top is definitely, absolutely, without a doubt worth the very demanding trip up.
One of Zion’s most unique attractions is the Narrows, a slot canyon hike that has you trekking through the river. The North Fork of the Virgin River provides a trip that is truly whatever you make it. You can turn around at any point, head up to the fork at Orderville Canyon, or keep going 2.5 miles to Big Springs, any travel beyond which is prohibited by park rangers. Along the way, you’ll navigate upstream in and out of the water, sometimes ankle-deep and occasionally almost up to your shoulders (well, my shoulders- I’m 5’2” so do your own math there). The canyon twists and turns and narrows considerably as you go farther upstream, providing some of the most incredible views and a genuinely irreplaceable hiking experience. Grab a walking stick at the start of the river (people leave good ones there on their way out) and hop in. Just keep in mind that, unlike most other hikes, the trip back out will take as long as the trip in. I also highly recommend picking up a cheap tube to float back down. While the river occasionally becomes too shallow or obstructed to float the whole way down, navigating the rapids past envious hikers that wish they’d had that idea is an incredible experience. Hang onto that walking stick for weaving through rocks and steering away from the canyon walls.
When planning your escape to Zion, it is extremely important to check weather conditions prior to and throughout your trips. Cell phone service is almost nonexistent within the park and while rangers do their best to alert you of any potential threats, it is ultimately up to you to remain aware of your surroundings at all times. The park’s precarious weather patterns, narrow canyons, and high peaks create the perfect conditions for both flash floods and forest fires. Check weather forecasts before you enter the park, be aware of rapidly changing conditions that could indicate inclement weather, and always check http://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/trailconditions.htm for trail conditions and park warnings before heading in.
It is also important to be prepared. Conditions change seasonally, but each season has its own risks. Summer temperatures often break 100 degrees during the day but drop significantly (often as much as 30 degrees) after sunset. Bring layers to wear at night and thin, sweat-resistant clothing (read: not cotton!) to protect yourself from the sun during the day. You’ll want a brimmed hat to wear and a bandana or two to keep the sweat off your face.
With elevations up to almost 9,000 feet above sea level and a dry desert climate, you are going to be thirsty at Zion. Drinking water is available at most trailheads but not throughout the trails, so bring at least 2 large water bottles and don’t forget to ration your intake as you hike. Throw in a few snacks, too, as many hikes are long and strenuous. Granola bars, apples, and sandwiches are good sources of energy that don’t take up too much room in your backpack and can usually handle the heat.
The park offers much more than you’ll likely be able to fit into one trip.I hardly made it out of Springdale before I was planning my return. It will be hot, cold, exhausting, dirty, unpredictable and potentially dangerous, but at the end of the trip, it’ll be hard to tear yourself away from Zion National Park.