Exploring Zion National Park

Exploring Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a wonderland of colorful sandstone towers, narrow slot canyons, and hanging gardens—a complete wilderness caressed by the persistent rhythm of falling water. Just an hour or so outside the distant bustle of Las Vegas, this national park is all about getting lost in the canyon country of southwestern Utah.

Zion National Park is an oasis of red sandstone in southern Utah. It always feels like you’re arriving in a place that has been preserved in the present for thousands of years. The relative isolation from other towns and cities is somewhat misleading because you can reach Zion National Park from St. George, UT or Las Vegas, NV with some hours of driving each way. This means that the local area is loaded with accommodations, restaurants, souvenir shops, and more to serve visitors.

The Best Hikes of Zion National Park

Zion National Park has a lot of hikes, and it’s no secret. The red-rock vistas have drawn millions of visitors over the years, and that number continues to rise.

The best national parks always appear to have the best hikes. Yellowstone has Old Faithful Geyser, Olympic National Park rains icy-blue waterfalls, the Grand Canyon seems to drop into a bottomless pit dotted with crimson canyons. For Zion National Park in southern Utah it’s likely these are the first trails that come to mind: Angels Landing (Scary! Steep! Beautiful!), The Narrows (Towering canyons! Risk of death by flash flood!), and The Subway (Coolest name for a trail ever).

Angel’s Landing

The name of this trail says it all. “Angels Landing.” It doesn’t get much more exciting than that, as far as names go. Angels Landing is a narrow ridge with 800 feet drops on both sides located in Zion National Park. The Hike starts at Weeping Rock and ends at the Grotto picnic area which is about a 1.5 to 2 hour hike each way.

Angels Landing is a 3.5 mile round trip hike with extremely steep drop-offs (no railing) with a total elevation gain of around 1200 feet. It’s rated as one of the most difficult hikes in Zion National Park, and it has a “chance of injury” warning on the park literature. So yes, it’s supposed to be scary.

If you’re looking at Zion’s Angels Landing from the bottom, it looks like a ladder. Climbing this “ladder” can lead to views of the park that could only be described as divine. Simply gorgeous.

For those in average physical condition, this hike is a fun and rewarding challenge. There are chains attached to the side of the cliff for your safety and well-being. However, if you have a severe fear of heights, we do not recommend attempting this area.

The hike to Angel Landing at Zion National Park is a popular route, but for a gorgeous view, it’s worth the strenuous trek.

Observation Point

When we told our friends in Salt Lake City we were going to Zion for the weekend, they all said the same thing: You’re going to be hiking Angels Landing, aren’t you? Thankfully, that was not our plan. I had done Angels Landing a few years ago and I already knew that people hiked too closely together, too slowly, and too fearfully. Our plan called for something far more challenging: Hiking Observation Point.

While it’s certainly not the most challenging hike you can take in Zion National Park, its views make it one of the most rewarding. Everything from Angels Landing to the Narrows awaits your discovery, and the trail will take you right up beside all of it.

If seeing the world’s largest atrium of sandstone at Kolob Canyon requires some burrowing, then hiking to the awe-inspiring perch of Observation Point is a great way for the average Joe to feel as though he’s hit the top without some of the hassle. In fact, this hike might be able to replace “Angels Landing” as Zion National Park’s most commonly recommended endeavor.

Observation Point is an amazing place. There’s no denying it — it’s just wow. It’s hard to put into words, and pictures really don’t do it justice either. It’s hard to deny that this is one the coolest things in Zion National Park, and it’s “right there”. It’s just a part of the drive from Springdale to the Narrows/The Subway tourist areas. This makes very easy to visit at any point along your trip, even if you are spending 1 day in Springdale/Zion Canyon.

Often overlooked by hikers in favor of the more difficult hikes of Angels Landing and The Narrows, Observation Point is a great hike to take on a day when the crowd thins out.

The hike up Observation Point is an entirely vertical one that presents to you challenges along each step of the way. Along the way, you’ll be presented with breathtaking views of Angels Landing and The Great White Throne.

Emerald Pools

One of Zion’s most popular attractions, the Emerald Pools hike is a short and easy walk amid lush vegetation, waterfalls and red rock monoliths. Emerald Pools is comprised of four sections, the largest being Lower Pool, Middle Emerald Pool, Upper Emerald Pool and Grotto. Each section of the trail has its appeal, but it doesn’t compare to Great Falls or Angel’s Landing in terms of popularity.

‘Emerald Pools’ is the perfect name for the series of oases that make up the first half-mile of the hike. The pools are separated by lush vegetation and natural rock walls. Each pool is shadier than the last, which creates a natural progression of beautiful colors from emerald to Caribbean blue. Lush green plants contrast against red sandstone that makes up much of Zion’s landscape, which creates a sort of paradise you would expect in an almost mythical land. Emerald Pools is indeed paradise, just not a mythical one. Hiking to the Emerald Pools from the Temple of Sinawava — where most visitors depart on their hike — is a moderate 1.4-mile flat path through trees and relaxing scenery.

The Emerald Pools has one of the most impressive collections of desert oases in Utah’s Zion National Park, vying for the title with nearby Mirror Ponds. While the landscape is as beautiful at each site, the lush vegetation that fans out between and below them is hard to match. Emerald Pools is a great place for hikers of all ages to experience nature’s splendor — from near-vertical walls to hidden grottos and buzzing insects.

The hike to the Emerald Pools is well worth the trip. Anywhere from 1.5 miles up to 6 miles roundtrip, you’ll get a glimpse into the beauty of the desert ecosystem. There are many pools that make up the Emerald Pools hike, starting with Weeping Rock and Lower Pool to Upper Pool and Grotto. There is also a trail up to Council Canyon with a loop that includes Hidden Canyon, which leads you back to the Top of the Watchmen trailhead.

Zion National Park is a stunning array of red rock cliffs, groves of cottonwood trees and collections of impressive monoliths that look like they may have been plucked straight out of Jurassic Park.

When to Visit Zion National Park

Sitting at the junction between the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin deserts, Zion National Park is a stunner. Inside, breathtaking landscape vistas are framed by massive structures formed over millennia by erosion and weathering products, wrinkle ridges, slot canyons and narrows, and cliffs hundreds of feet tall. The most popular times to visit Zion National Park are in late spring/early summer or fall.

Summer: Zion is a hotspot for summer tourism, and for good reason. The scenery is incredible, but the crowds are too — especially at Zion Canyon. Temps can reach a high of 110 in June but the average temperature hovers around 100 degrees. I recommend late May to mid-July for best weather conditions (and fewer crowds). Dress in layers and sunscreen.

Spring: Temperatures average below 90’s. It gets very dry and sunny in the afternoons, which can cause high temperatures; there is often a 20- to 30-degree swing between the temperature at noon and at dusk. The nights are cool, with lows dropping to around 50 degrees (but bring a jacket). There can be afternoon thunderstorms; flash floods are common.

Fall: Zion is perhaps the most stunning park in Utah. Set in the heart of southern Utah, it boasts an enormous variety of geologic wonders including soaring sandstone cliffs that will make you feel like you’re standing in a dream. The park is great year-round, but fall provides some extra perks to those who can make it there during prime temperatures: fewer crowds, more variety of trees and less scrambling over rocks for those who want to capture ideal photos.

Winter: The winter months can be a rough time in Utah. Snow falls, temps get below freezing and the neon is put away until spring. But if you really want to make the most out of your trek to a national park — and who doesn’t? — then you’ve got to borrow some inspiration from Mother Nature. Why not trade your swimsuit for some hiking boots – or snow shoes?

Wrapping Up: Exploring Zion National Park

Crowds are to be expected in Zion National Park during the peak season (March 1 – May 31). Arrive early in the morning, and you might see people lining up for the shuttle buses to the Canyon entrance. Once inside Zion you’ll encounter a bustling lodge, long lines at the visitor center for permits for hikes like Angels Landing. All of these things can take away from enjoying your vacation in this amazing place. Taking a step back from all of this will put you on your way to having an incredible time. Hike into The Narrows section of Zion, hike along the Virgin River, or just enjoy being off-the-beaten-path and having the opportunity to see some of Zion’s gorgeous sites.

There’s a reason National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Zion a must see travel destination. Zion is absolutely stunning. The iconic, red-hued sandstone landscape is astounding. The Virgin River winds gracefully through the canyon, flanked by pine trees and blooming cacti. And despite being just a 50 minute drive from St. George, Utah you are transported to another world as far as wilderness camping is concerned. Zion offers trails that allow you to hike deep into the park and camp off trail at your own waypoint somewhere in the wilderness along the river’s edge.

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