We made plans to meet up with my brother and sister-in-law in Utah. My brother looked at all the places we were traveling and decided the best time to join us would be when we went to Zion National Park. He and his wife could take time off from work in August. So, we planned our route to land in Utah at that time. My first tip for Utah travel is: don’t go in the Summer if you don’t have to. The heat in the desert is pretty miserable. But, I love my brother. So, we made it work.
Utah is famous for the “Mighty Five-” the 5 National Parks in the state. We decided that we wanted to do a tour of all of them. We started with Zion. Zion National Park is the Southernmost park in Utah.
Neighboring towns of the park include; Springdale, Rockville, Mt. Carmel Junction, Hurricane, St. George and Kanab. We stayed at Zion River Resort in Virgin, UT. It’s a nicely kept RV park with a great store, laundry, pool, and hot tub. There are cabin rentals there as well. The nearest entrance to Zion from Virgin is Springdale, UT.
Parking at Zion is first-come first-serve and very limited. So, we found that the best way to tackle this is either to get up super early in the morning and cross your fingers or park in Springdale and take the shuttle in. There’s plenty of parking in Springdale and there are nine shuttle stops where you can meet the bus. Shuttles come by every 10-15 minutes all day. You will have to pay for parking. It’s $12-$20 per day for parking fees depending on the lot you choose. There’s also an option to pay by the hour. There is no fee to ride the shuttle. It is completely free and provided by the park service, even in the areas outside the park. Also, you don’t need a ticket or a reservation. Just park and show up at a designated stop.
The shuttle system is the main way to get around inside the park too. Cars are not allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive during shuttle season. Bikes are permitted. There’s also a bike rack on the shuttles if you want a break from pedaling. Most of the time, shuttles run from March through November. There are also shuttles at the end of December for the holidays.
You can drive a personal vechicle on the Zion-Mt.Carmel highway. This is the conector road for Rt. 9 through the park. You also have the option to drive on Kolob Terrace Road and Kolob Caynons Scenic Drive.
Zion is a very busy park. There were more than 5 million visits in 2021 alone. So, I would suggest coming in the off-season, on weekdays, or early in the morning to help avoid crowds. If you are a seasoned hiker and camper, consider night hikes and wilderness camping in the park as well. Also, there are extremely popular trails (the Narrows and Angel’s Landing) and less popular trails (like the trail in the Kolob Canyon area of the park). So, plan accordingly.
There are different ways to enjoy Zion National Park. At the time, my family of four was just starting our fitness journey and we weren’t used to putting in miles of walking/hiking on a daily basis yet. My brother and his wife were in terrific shape and worked out hard on a daily basis. They also didn’t have children with them. So, their approach to Zion was very different from ours.
We took a “slow and steady wins the race” approach. We spent time at the Zion Human History Museum and the Zion Canyon Visitor’s Center. Our daughter completed a Junior Ranger badge. We also enjoyed a Ranger-led program at the Zion Nature Center where we learned about mountain lions. We chose three hikes from the “easy” hiking list in the Zion Canyon area. We purchased a couple items from the gift shop. Then, we called it a day and headed back to the campground.
My brother and his wife “hit the ground running.” They headed right to the Narrows, my brother completed Angel’s Landing, and they also hiked most of the other trails in the Zion Canyon area in one day. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
We took time another day to explore the Kolob Canyon district of the park. There is a visitor center here where you can get a stamp for your national park passport book, pick up a Junior Ranger book, or a trail map. There are exhibits to check out as well. The Rangers are friendly and helpful. This part of the park is less crowded and really beautiful. There is a five mile scenic drive that leads to an overlook. There are numerous hiking trails in this area as well. We enjoyed the drive but got caught in a thunderstorm and downpour. So, unfortunately we didn’t get in much hiking and I couldn’t get very good pictures.
We also spent a day in Bryce Canyon National Park. We drove the Zion-Mount Carmel highway through Zion National Park to get there and went through the Zion tunnel.
This area of the park has a lot of rock formations that are different than other areas of the park and are really beautiful. Instead of red rocks, they are white. There is a ranger station at the East Entrance of the park as well. In this East end of the park is the Checkerboard Mesa. Hikes are the short Canyon Overlook Trail or the long East Rim Trail into the wilderness.
So, maybe you are wondering, “What are the Narrows and Angel’s Landing? And, “Why are they so popular?”
First, let’s cover The Narrows.
For the “bottom up” version of this hike, access it via the Riverside Walk Trail (2.2 mi roundtrip.) This is shuttle stop #9 Temple of Sinawava. The Narrows is up to 9.4 mi and can take up to 8 hrs. The distance and the duration are dependent on the current conditions and how far you want to go. People basically hike in as far as they like and then turn around and come back.
The other option is the “top down version” is a 16 mi. adventure from Chamberlain’s Ranch and requires a wilderness permit. It takes about 10-13 hours to complete as a day hike. So, some do version as a backpacking overnight trip. At least 60% of the trip is in the Virgin River. The canyon walls rise on either side, creating a narrow gorge. Hikers wade, walk, or swim against a quick-moving current. The water is very cold, even when the outside temperatures are sweltering. The NPS recommends close-toed shoes, a hiking stick, and synthetic layers of clothing. Outfitters in the area rent out full-body dry suits and special neoprene boots. Obviously, hiking in a river is rough and slippery. There are boulders strewn throughout the river. The river, in some areas, is only 20-30 ft wide, but the canyon is thousands of feet deep. So, during the Summer, thunderstorms can cause flash flooding in the canyon. This can cause water volume to double or triple in a very short amount of time. Flash floods can happen with sunny skies overhead. If you chose to hike this trail, keep in mind, six inches of water can potentially knock you off your feet. Blunt force trauma is the leading cause of death in a flash floods, and you can’t outrun a flash flood. Also, park biologist have found toxic cyanobacteria throughout the park, including the Virgin River. There is no known recreational filtration system or disinfectant product that can lower the amount of toxins enough that the water safe to consume.
This fact alone was reason enough for me not to attempt a Narrows hike with my children. My brother, on the other hand, wasn’t going to miss it. It is a world-famous slot canyon hike that was a bucket list item for him. It’s labeled one of the most iconic hikes in the Southwest. It’s unusual, challenging, and beautiful. He loved it. My sister-in-law did as well. It was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.
Unfortunately, the week we were there, a multi-day search and rescue attempt was made to recover a twenty-two year old woman who got separated from her group on the trek. Her body was found 6 miles downstream from where she was hiking. She was swept up in the current during a flash flood.
I share this story to remind you that Zion is a wild, beautiful, untamed place. Be responsible when planning adventures. Train and plan accordingly. Know current conditions and stick to treks that are within your ability.
The other world-famous hike in Zion is Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is a 5.4 mile hike. The elevation gain is 1,488 feet. Most hikers take about four hours to complete the hike. It is a very strenuous chain assisted rock scramble. It is a mentally challenging hike as well as being physically challenging. The heights are extreme (1000 ft drops on both sides of the trail) and the trail is extremely narrow and crowded. Few hiking trails in America have a known death toll. But, Angel’s Landing does. As of this writing, there have been 14 in the last twenty years. This is the type of trail to train for and come prepared. It is not for people afraid of heights and it is not for unexperienced hikers.
Still wanna do it?
The first thing to know is that you need a permit to hike Angel’s landing. This is done with a lottery system on Recreation.gov. There are two options. One is a seasonal lottery and the other is a Day-before lottery. It cost $6 to apply for a seasonal permit that covers 6 people. When you apply, you are given windows of days and times you would like to hike. If you are awarded a permit, you will receive an email confirmation and will be charged an additional $3. You’ll need to print this email out and bring it with you on your hike. Don’t rely on showing the confirmation on your phone because there won’t be cell signal at the trailhead. You’ll present it to the Ranger at the trailhead. The Day-Before Lottery opens at 12:01 am (MT) and closes at 3:00pm. By 4pm, confirmation emails are sent out. Cost for the day-before permit is the same as the seasonal permit
Photo credit: getyourguide.com
Next, you need to take shuttle stop 6-Grotto, to start the hike. Cross the road and then cross the footbridge to start the West Rim Trail. There are 21 switchbacks sometimes dubbed “Walter’s Wiggles” that lead to Scout’s Overlook. This is an overlook of the canyon below. If someone in your group wants to hike to a nice view but doesn’t want to do the dangerous stuff- this is their stopping point. They will not need a permit to go this far. If you decide to continue from here, use this first part of the trail to practice using the single support chain. The trail with continue to get more steep and more narrow from this point. Single file is the only option. It’s knife edge narrow in some spots.
My brother completed Angel’s Landing with a GoPro camera strapped to his head. Watching the video later that night confirmed that I made the right decision by not joining him. It looked terrifying. You could see the fear in the eyes of some of the people he passed. They were in tears. Others looked completely exhilarated and so excited. Especially the ones coming back down the trail. He felt really accomplished and proud to complete it. I think he counts it as one of the best outdoor experiences of his life. My husband watched it and said “No way.” My daughter watched it and vowed to go back and do it when she is older.
I expect that she will complete it someday. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it with her.