After Nevada’s muted color palette, Utah is shockingly bright. Zion National Park is our most vibrant park yet! It’s like a kaleidoscope of color. The rocky peaks and cliffs are bright red and orange with bands of black and white stripes. The sky is pretty much the exact color of the sky blue crayon. And lush green vegetation grows near the water sources. Even the sand at Zion is brilliant.
Shuttling the Masses
So this first one isn’t part of the official list (or very exciting), but if you go in summer you’ll almost certainly have to ride the shuttles. The main attraction at the park is Zion Canyon. It’s a 15 mile long canyon carved by the Virgin River. In summer, private vehicles aren’t allowed on the canyon road so all visitors must ride the shuttles. We’ve heard fellow travelers sing the praises of Zion’s shuttles for a few months now. We’re happy to report that unlike some parks (ahem Glacier) the folks at Zion have the whole shuttle thing down. The park says you’ll never wait more than 15 minutes for a shuttle. We never had to wait more than 5.
Zion is one of the most visited parks in the U.S. so crowds are expected. We thought that going after peak season and once school’s back in session would help. Also, we stayed out of the main canyon on Friday and Saturday thinking those would be the busiest days. We were wrong. The parking lots were packed. The shuttles were packed. The trails were packed. The bathrooms were…you get the idea. It was hard not to feel like we were at an amusement park. Looking at the picturesque rock formations through the large glass shuttle windows made me think I was on my way to West World. Fortunately, Ed Harris didn’t show up shooting and there weren’t any human-like robots. Or were there? Our point here is be prepared for crowds even if it’s not peak travel season.
Okay, without further ado here’s our list of 5 awesome things to do in Zion National Park.
1. Tunneling to the East Side
In an effort to avoid the main canyon during the weekend, we opted for a drive through the tunnels to the east side of the park. I say tunnels, plural, but there’s one main 1.5 mile tunnel and another very short one so it’s really like one tunnel and one large doorway. Driving the tunnel is something you want to experience—especially heading west. Coming back through the tunnel you get an expansive view of the canyon spreading out in front of you. It’s truly breathtaking.
2. The Narrows
The Narrows is probably the most famous feature in Zion. It’s a slot canyon that begins at the end of a 1 mile trail. The Virgin River runs through the Narrows which means that you hike right through the water. The danger aspect of the Narrows comes from flash flooding. Since slot canyons are so narrow, water rises rapidly. Rain a few miles away can cause a flash flood. These floods bring debris and other hazards (like trees and giant boulders) swiftly down the river which can be deadly if you’re caught in a canyon. The park posts the level of flash flood possibility for each day. We chose a “no flash flooding expected” day to hike the Narrows and the highest water we encountered was thigh-level.
We heard a lot of people saying how cold the water was. Honestly, it was cold, but not that cold. I guess all our time in glacial water this summer finally paid off! This was our first time in a slot canyon and our first time doing a “river hike” and not just a crossing. It was a truly unique experience. It’s like a different world at the bottom of the canyon. Cool, green, and shady. An oasis in the desert.
A few tips for the hike:
- Make sure your shoes strap on tight because the water is very swift. Closed-toe shoes are recommended, but our open-toe water sandals worked just fine.
- Get an early start. We thought there were a lot of people hiking The Narrows when we started. There were at least three times more people just starting the hike by the time we finished in the early afternoon.
- Use trekking poles if you have them. If not, a nice sturdy walking stick does the trick. Tom being the tough dude he is, used just his two legs for balance (and only landed bottom down in the river once)😉 I opted for a stick and it helped a ton! I’m sure I would’ve gone down a dozen times without it.
- Patience is very important on this hike. There will be a lot of people (notice any trends yet?). If you rush, you’ll a) just end up waiting for someone right around the bend or b) stumble and fall into the river (possibly ruining the nice snacks you packed, which would be really sad).
- Oh yeah, final tip—bring food to snack on. Preferably something protein rich. You’ll burn a lot of calories and stress your muscles more than you think because you’re moving against the current the entire first half of the hike.
3. Angel’s Landing
This was our favorite hike in Zion and the most challenging on multiple levels. The hike itself is challenging. It starts with gentle switchbacks that lead to a series of 21 short steep switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles (sounds fun right?). At the top of those, the real excitement begins. The rest of the hike is along a narrow ridge that has 1,000 foot drop-offs on both sides. You use chains connected to metal poles to pull yourself up over boulders and balance along ledges.
Crowds are also a challenge on this hike. There’s a steady stream of people ascending and descending. Some areas of the trail are single file so you wait where there’s room to wait and take turns passing. The summit is called Angel’s Landing because early settlers said that only angels could land on the peak. Well we’re no angels, but eventually we landed on the summit. The view of the canyon from the top is phenomenal but I think it’s the experience of the ascent that brings the crowds. It may be the first hike I’ve completed and thought “Yay! I’m so glad I didn’t die!” Sorry Mom—I swear I was careful.
4. Kolob Canyons
This was one of our favorite areas of the park—probably because it’s where we finally found some solitude. It’s in the Northwest side away from Zion Canyon and the crowds. There are stunning viewpoints and lovely trails leading to cool formations. We hiked to the Double Arch Alcove along a meandering path through the forested canyon. It crosses a creek about a dozen times, leads past old settlement cabins, and ends at a narrower area of the canyon where you find the alcove. There’s a longer trail in the area that goes to Kolob Arch and lots of backcountry camping opportunities.
5. Zion Park Human History Museum
You knew we had to put a museum on the list, right? Human presence in the area has been dated back to 12,000 years ago. Different groups of native people hunted and eventually farmed here. The most recent native inhabitants—the Paiute—named this place Mukuntuweap which means “straight canyon”. In the mid 1800s Mormon pioneers settled near the canyon. They called it Zion or “promised land”. You can see a theme in their naming throughout the area—lots of temples and angels. There’s an entire museum in the park devoted to the human history of Zion and it’s definitely worth getting off the shuttle for.
Have you been to Zion? What was your favorite experience? If not, which of these would you most like to do?