Zion National Park – Utah, USA

Being in Zion National Park felt like moving through a world you can’t believe exists; an overwhelmingly beautiful place that swallows you whole. As our car motors through switchbacks, my neck is cranked upwards in awe of the cliffs and rock that tower above. After visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, Zion was our last stop and for me the best experience.

DSC03116The view from the Emerald Pools trail

From Vancouver we flew in to Vegas and rented a car to drive out to Utah. Booking the car in advance online, it was easy to find the airport shuttle that took us to the car rental building less than 10 minutes away and drive off to begin our road trip. I chose to stay in Kanab because it’s known for being the central location between the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Kanab is also known as “Little Hollywood” since it’s been a location for several western movies, and driving to Kanab through some long stretches of desert highway did feel like the wild wild west.

DSC03037On the road to Zion

From Kanab to Zion it was a short 40 minute drive. After paying a $25 park entry fee at the East Entrance (per vehicle) we reach a tunnel where we had to wait a few minutes for traffic from the other end to come through. Reaching the other end we make our way through several switchbacks winding through the valley of giant rock formations, and we park our car along the road in the small town called Springdale.

DSC03055Waiting to enter; the tunnel makes it all the more dramatic as you reach the other end suddenly surrounded by towering red rock

The Zion Canyon Scenic drive accessed from the South Entrance is closed to private vehicles from March 15 – October 25, so the easiest thing to do is park your car at Springdale and take the Springdale shuttle bus to the entrance of Zion. You can access the Zion Canyon shuttle which stops at 9 different stops through the area. The shuttle system is free, easy to use, wheelchair accessible and there are bike racks in front to bring your bike for some two wheeled exploring! I’m glad they implemented the system to prevent all the car traffic from damaging the environment within the park considering the millions of people who visit. If you’re a lucky guest at the Zion Lodge, you’re allowed through to drive to the lodge but no further.

DSC03061The bridge going over the Virgin River, leading to the entrance of Zion

One of Zion’s most famous hikes is Angel’s Landing, and after coming across a photo of the incredible views you get from the top I knew I had to try it. The weather, however, decided to not play in my favour and about halfway up strong winds suddenly whipped through the valley followed by torrential downpour… Thinking it was the desert (which should mean dry and sunny!) I was ill-prepared for the hike in summer tourist mode with no proper footwear (worn out purple keds) no rain jacket (cotton sure soaks up water fast!) and the camera gear in my backpack was getting soggy. I carried on as far as Scout’s lookout before deciding to turn back.

DSC03084-2The trail to Angel’s Landing as it winds through the valley and then climbs upwards along the switchbacks

The trail is known to be dangerous, with signage warning me that six people have died falling off the cliff edge since 2004. Having done most of it in the wind and rain, I think in dry conditions it will be the most beautiful and if you’re afraid of heights then terrifying hike you’ll do, but if you take it slow and easy it’s safe. Thousands of people hike the trail every year without incident so just try not to walk backwards while taking a selfie and all will be good. You can find very detailed trail description of Angel’s Landing here.

DSC03073
The wet view from Scout’s lookout. The speck of white in the middle lefthand side is the shuttle bus!

If you don’t plan on going right to the top, it’s still worth hiking up the trail as far as you’re comfortable. You already get amazing views even 1-2 hours in halfway up from the switchbacks as you gaze into the valley below. Overall the hike is about 4km and usually takes between 4-5 hours return.

DSC03080Heading down the trail on the right cut into the cliffside

Since I didn’t get to reach the top of Angel’s Landing, I had some extra time to do try the Emerald Pools hike. From the start of the trail at Grotto to upper Emerald Lake return it’s 3km return if you choose to go back out the same way and will take about 1.5hrs on the mostly flat trail. You can also hike to the Middle and Lower pools but I didn’t have the time to check out the other trails leading to them.

DSC03102
Heaps Canyon in the background with the waterfall flowing into upper Emerald Lake.

DSC03108
Upper Emerald Lake

I can’t wait to return to Zion to try to complete the Angel’s Landing hike and spend more time exploring the other trails. The park is so massive you can spend months there exploring everyday and probably will only cover a fraction of what is available, which sounds to me like paradise. There are campgrounds available but you will need to book them far in advance as they were both full on the day I visited.

I get the feeling that whatever trail you’re on in Zion you’ll always have a spectacular view. I wish I spent more than one day there but it’s just extra motivation for me to come back sooner. If you have the opportunity to spend a few nights in Zion and you love hiking, do it!

DSC03120Heading back to the Grotto shuttle stop on the Emerald Pools trail

DSC03092Who says the desert is dry and colourless. A flower that blooms from this cactus after the rain says otherwise

DSC03121Some blue sky finally appear above the cliffs during a rain break

DSC03097A bridge crossing over the Virgin River leading to the trailhead for Angel’s Landing and Emerald Pools

Top tips:

  • There are many places to stay around Zion. I saw several B&Bs in Springdale, you can opt to camp in the two campgrounds close to the South Entrance, or you can go the more traditional hotel route.
  • Be prepared for sun AND rain. The weather can change suddenly – and this rang true on the day I was there and got soaked. It gets cold with the wind and rain. Check the weather report before you go.
  • Park in Springdale and use the shuttles for free that will take you to the pedestrian only South Entrance of Zion. From there you can catch the Zion shuttle.
  • There are 9 shuttle stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, if you want to take a good look around all of them you can easily spend a day per stop exploring the hiking trails around each stop.
  • For Angel’s Landing Hike get off at the Grotto stop.
  • $25 USD park entry fee per vehicle.
  • For more information visit the National Park Service website for Zion here.

DSC03122

4 thoughts on “Zion National Park – Utah, USA

  1. I did virtually the same thing as you when my wife and I visited Zion in early September 2013. Luckily the weather was a bit better and I was able to get to the top of Angels Landing and then explore the trails up to and around the Grotto. We only stayed one night in Springdale and then continued on, but vowed to return to this incredible area! We had driven all the way from Vancouver which was actually great once we got to Salt Lake City, but my next trip will likely follow your strategy of flying into Vegas and driving from there.

    Thanks for the fantastic photos and the reminder to return!

    1. I’m really itching to go back and get to the top of Angel’s landing, I was actually thinking of doing what you did and driving from Vancouver to give me more flexibility to explore 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment and reading my post!

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