September 2017 marked our fifth anniversary, and we knew we wanted to do something special to celebrate. Onur had taken a day trip to Zion National Park—located in southwestern Utah—in 2016, and suggested we return for our anniversary. He didn't have to ask me twice; I was in!
Zion is famous for its sheer, multi-colored cliffs—uplifted layers of sedimentary rock known as the Grand Staircase—carved into a dazzling canyon. The Virgin River flows wide and easy along the length of the canyon, while soft brick- and sand-colored walls of sandstone rise like cathedrals from the valley floor. It was easy to lose ourselves in the magnitude and wonder of the place.
Here are our favorite memories and tips for your own Zion adventure!
1. Enjoying the evening light among the Patriarchs
On our first day, we drove from Las Vegas through the thick, skin-prickling heat to Springdale, Utah—an easy, 2 hour, 45 minute drive from the airport. Too excited to wait until the next day, we hopped on the Springdale and Zion shuttles to see what they were all about and do a short hike before dinner. I chose the Sand Bench Trail based on a suggestion in the Moon Zion and Bryce Handbook: we were looking for something short and scenic, and boy were we blown away. Walking across a bridge over the Virgin River and following the trail beneath the Court of the Patriarchs gave us a breathtaking taste of the majesty of Zion Canyon.
2. Scrambling up to Angels Landing on our anniversary
On our anniversary, we began to feel the effects of the heat and altitude. While not as high as the "mile-high" city, Sprindale still sits at roughly 3900 feet, and temperatures were hitting the upper 90s. We were determined, however, to make it to Angels Landing to do something special for the day. We packed up our gear and hit up the Springdale and Zion shuttles once again, heading to stop 6 in Zion Canyon (The Grotto). On a Friday evening, the trail had lots of folks, but never felt overcrowded.
What made the hike memorable was starting along the Virgin River, climbing steeply beside the warm, burnt-orange walls of Zion Canyon, navigating the last 0.5 mile of sharp, undulating rock with narrow passageways and steep drop-offs, and the 360 degree views you finally reach at the top, panning north and south along the length of Zion Canyon with tiny white shuttle buses inching along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive like caterpillars below.
3. Trekking through the Virgin River up The Narrows
The Narrows is a 16-mile long passageway of the Virgin River through the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. It can be hiked as a thru-hike, an overnight camping trip, or an out-and-back hike. The most popular option is hiking The Narrows northward from the last shuttle stop in Zion Canyon (shuttle stop 9: Temple of Sinawava). This was the option we chose.
After hopping off the shuttle, we hiked beside the Virgin River for about a mile, and then, when the trail ended, hopped into the river to hike upstream (the "bottom-up" approach). The turn-around point is your choice. Many people hike to Orderville Canyon for about a 5.0 mile roundtrip hike from the shuttle stop. We hiked a bit past Orderville along "Wall Street", a stunning, narrow section of the canyon, for about a 6 mile roundtrip hike.
The soaring sandstone canyon walls and the novelty (and sheer fun!) of hiking in the Virgin River are arguably what makes The Narrows so special. When we went, the water flow rate was low (the park service closes the hike when the flow rate is more than 150 cubic feet per second) and the weather conditions were clear. We were good to go.
Many people rent special shoes and socks to hike in the river from vendors outside the park, and the people we talked to who were wearing them found them to be very helpful. Onur and I wore sneakers and thick wool socks, and they gave us just enough grip and agility to experience the hike. In Utah's summer heat, they also dried super quick--about 24 hours after the hike--in comparison to our Seattle climate!
We also believed that we wouldn't have been able to hike as far as we did without the sturdy hiking poles we had brought with us. The rocks underfoot were uneven and slippery, and the current was strong in several places. Poles helped us keep our balance, gave us extra support as we leaned side-to-side and waded through the current, and took some of the load off of our legs. If you don't have poles, you can rent a walking stick from outfitters like Zion Adventure Company and Zion Outfitter. Over the four miles we hiked in the river, about 60% was in ankle- to thigh-deep water. It was so much fun.
4. Driving the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Tunnel
The dizzying cliff-side views and hairpin turns on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway are incredibly scenic and fun to experience, along with the cold, eerie, and narrow 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. To get there, drive north through the south entrance of the Zion National Park and stay straight as you pass the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive on your left. One of our favorite hikes, the Canyon Overlook Trail, starts just past east entrance of the tunnel. There is a tiny parking lot on the right, with room for about eight cars, as well as an overflow lot up the road on the left.
5. Stargazing in Springdale
One night I was having trouble sleeping, and decided to see what the star situation was all about. Stepping outside at about 4:00 a.m. with my camera and tripod, I couldn't believe how many stars were visible, even with the lights from town and cars traveling by. Soon I started to see what looked like a small sun rising over the mountains to the east, and after quickly downloading a star app (SkyView Free), I realized it was Venus!
1. Taking a shuttle bus around Zion (and Springdale) is easy. There are two shuttles: one for the town of Springdale (The Springdale Line), and one for Zion National Park (The Zion Canyon Line). The Springdale line takes you from Springdale to the south entrance to the park near the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The Zion Canyon Line takes you from Zion Canyon Visitor Center to trailheads in Zion Canyon. Here's a link to maps and more information about the shuttle service.
2. The shuttles are free and run fairly frequently. Both shuttles are free, with clearly marked stops numbered one through nine. The first shuttle from Springdale to Zion National Park starts at 7:10 a.m. (May-October) and the first shuttle within Zion National Park (from the Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinawava) starts at 6:00 a.m. Buses run about every 5-15 minutes and can fill up quickly on busy weekends (even on the first shuttle of the day).
3. You can drive and bike too. If you're keen to hit the trail before the crowds, or just want a little more flexibility, you can drive through the south entrance of the park. Past the south entrance, make a quick right to park in a lot near the Visitor Center and shuttle buses, or stay straight to head northeast on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway towards Bryce Canyon National Park. Keep in mind that parking space is limited near the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and can fill up by 10:00 a.m. (March to October).
Park roadways and the Pa'rus Trail in Zion National Park are open to cyclists too, the park service just asks that you pull over and stop and when a shuttle bus approaches you from behind. Cyclists also need to hitch a ride through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.
4. Water is available at visitor centers, most shuttle stops, and the Zion Lodge. Several shuttle stops along the Zion Canyon Line also have restrooms. Check the Zion National Park map and guide for more more information. The park service recommends carrying one gallon of water per person per day.
5. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles from April to October. Cars are allowed if you have a red permit, issued to overnight guests at Zion Lodge. From November to March, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to private vehicles.
6. Reserve in advance or show up early if you plan to camp inside the park. There are three campgrounds in Zion National Park: the South Campground, Watchman Campground, and the Lava Point Campground. The South and Watchman are near the south entrance to the park, and the Lava Point Campground is in the northwest corner. The South and Lava Point Campgrounds are first come-first served, the Watchman accepts reservations up to six months in advance. Learn more here and make reservations for the Watchman Campground here.
7. We liked Deep Creek Coffee in Springdale for a caffeine hit with a view. With an herbal tea for Onur and a delicious cortado for me, we took the stairs up to their deck overlooking the canyon and town, and enjoyed sipping our drinks in the slow pace of the morning.
8.. Consider visiting in early spring or fall. Although we had a great time over Labor Day weekend, and found the park to be beautiful and professionally run, there were crowds. The altitude and hot temperatures tired out us out a bit too. We asked local shop owners for their opinion, and they said the park was gorgeous in the fall, as well as early spring. Here's more info about the weather and climate at Zion.
9. Here are a few planning resources we found helpful too:
d. Zion Guru