I visited Zion National Park for two days (three nights) in late March last year. It was one of our stops on a two-week-long road trip around the Midwest, which including the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Park. I didn’t know much about Zion going into our trip, but by the end, Zion was both my and my boyfriend’s favorite stop. With unique hiking opportunities, amazing camping, and fewer crowds than, say, the Grand Canyon, Zion offers a full experience that is often overlooked when it comes to national parks.
Photo courtesy of Bob Schoenherr on Flickr.
We arrived at Zion in the evening on our first night too late to do much. The first thing you notice entering Zion is that the roads transform from traditional gray to a deep burgundy shade, blending perfectly into the grand scenery that surrounds you. As soon as you enter the park, you feel as if you’ve entered a new planet. The road winds between canyons and valleys, a pleasant view as you drive through the park.
So we arrived, and camping was full. Zion’s camping is first-come-first-serve, so you have to get there pretty early in the day to snag a spot. We were traveling late March, so I thought it would be easy to get a spot! Apparently not. The camping is pretty much what you would expect from a national park—spots bordering each other, a fire pit with a table, kids running around the roads. As we drove into the national park, we had passed a camping site called Hi-Road Campground (formerly known as Zion RV & Campground), just outside of the East gates of the park.
Our camping experience here was incredible. The camping spots are very secluded from each other, some fully surrounded by brush for privacy. The road to get to the spots is made of sand/dirt, so they advised us that we needed 4-wheel drive to get to the further away spots, but we made it to one of the last spots in a Prius just fine (I’m not saying you should try this, but it’s possible!).
Our spot was one of the ones surrounded by brush. It had space for quite a few tents, but we just had the one. There’s a firepit, table, basically the amenities you expect from a campsite. Near the entrance, there’s a full-functioning bathroom with showers and hot water. We didn’t use any of the other amenities, but they have a small general store and laundry.
What made this site so special was how removed we felt from society. There was little to no light pollution—perfect for watching the stars. There were traces of animal tracks through our site. I even made my boyfriend do regular checks for cougars or other wildlife at night. When we went, the sites were pretty full, but I never overheard any of our neighbors, so the privacy is refreshing compared to the crowded national park sites.
Zion National Park is perhaps the most known for Angel’s Landing—a hike that ends on a steep and narrow path to an outlook with 1000 feet drops on either side. Since we had two days in Zion, we decided to explore the smaller hikes on day one and work up to a bigger hike (Angel’s Landing?) on day two.
Day one, we parked at the main information center where you can take shuttles to the hikes and viewpoints. No cars are allowed on the road to the different hikes, so the lack of car traffic on the roads makes the shuttles able to travel pretty quickly through the park.
Length: 3 miles round trip (to upper)
Elevation Gain: 350 feet (to upper)
We decided to start at the Emerald Pools. There are three levels of the Emerald Pools. It’s 1.2 miles round trip for the lowest pools, 2 miles round trip for the middle pools, and 3 miles round trip for the upper pools. We did the full trip to the upper pools. The pools are clear, sometimes green-tinged, with small waterfalls feeding into them. Because the trail is short, accessible, and has little elevation gain, it can be crowded with high volumes of traffic throughout the day. We saw lots of kids and elderly on the trail. The first two pools are a fairly easy hike; it’s a bit more strenuous to make it to the third pool. The pools are also a great place to take a break and relax a little. Beware of the cliffside drops—more people have actually died on this trail than on Angel’s Landing.
Length: 0.5 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 98 feet
The next trail we decided to do was Weeping Rock, a steep but short walk up to a large cliff face that seems to weep. The weeping water comes from Echo Canyon, a slot canyon high up above Weeping Rock, and a spring line between rock layers that penetrates through the rock’s face. It really only takes 30 minutes to an hour to check this place out, and it also has good views of the rest of Zion National Park from the rock. If you have time, I’d fit it in.
Our day two plan was to do Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is not just hype; people have died from falling off the trail. One man died just a month before we visited. Part of the narrow trail has chain handhelds to hold onto, but the final stretch is completely exposed. We talked to a ranger at Zion National Park’s info center, and we ultimately decided not to do Angel’s Landing. Here’s why.
The trail is crowded and sometimes only wide enough for people to go single file. Impatient hikers can be pushy, making the trail dangerous for cautious hikers (like me!). Two, after we hiked the first day, I noticed that many of Zion’s trails (including Angel’s Landing, apparently) have large rocks that can be difficult to step or climb over for short people like me (I’m 5’2″!). Lastly, the only reason we’d be doing Angel’s Landing was to say that we did it. It’s not the highest hike and certainly doesn’t have the best view. Instead, we decided to hike to Observation’s Point.
Length: 8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2300 feet
Observation Point is an 8-mile hike that climbs over 2000 feet in elevation to a plateau with panoramic views of Zion. Hands down the most unique and beautiful hike I’ve ever been on. The trail starts with a fairly steep climb up the green mountainside, which temporarily flattens and winds through canyons, including a particularly picturesque area called Echo Canyon.
The surrounding environment and changes in scenery are unbelievable, a photographer’s dream. Then, the real climb starts. When you think you’re almost there, you’re probably about halfway up. The trail switchbacks up a steep incline, sometimes with an over 1000 foot drop on one side. Bring lots of water. Take breaks along the way (more than you think you need). My boyfriend and I are pretty in shape but not expert hikers by any means (and we hiked the trail in our classic Adidas sneakers). There were people who did not make it up the trail. Heavy backpacks and not enough water were both killers for many of the people we say hiking up.
The steepest points have stunning views of Zion National Park with a sheer drop on one side of the trail, though the trail is usually at least two feet wide. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable on the trail. Finally, you reach a plateau at the top of the canyons, and then it’s just a short walk to the final point.
Observation Point has a 180° view of Zion National Park. If you look hard enough, you can see people as tiny as bugs reaching the top of Angel’s Landing. It’s a lovely place to rejuvenate before the long hike down. Just the expansive view makes this hike well worth it.
There’s much more you can fit into a visit to Zion National Park. We had a limited amount of time, but we felt that we got to see a lot of the park with the trails that we hiked. One cool hike I haven’t mentioned is the Narrows, which is one of the narrowest corridors of the canyons. To hike it, you walk up through the Virgin River. We didn’t have the opportunity to do this because the water level was too high when we were there, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing experience for those who don’t mind getting wet.
Right outside of the park gates, there’s the town of Springdale, which has a few restaurants, a bank, a grocery store, etc. It also has lodging options other than camping. If you need to restock on supplies, they’ll have it there. Just be warned that stores and restaurants close early for the most part.