HIGHS AND LOWS AT THE UNEQUALED ZION
We’ll tell you straight out… we had very high expectations for Zion. Out of the 11 parks we had scheduled for our first leg Zion was the one we were both looking forward to most. Crazy slot canyons, one-of-a-kind hikes and spectacular rock formations all make Zion a crown jewel of the NPS. We found that Zion delivered on all its promises and even threw in a few surprises. It definitely earns its spot as one of the most popular Crown Jewels of the NPS.
But before we get into our Zion experience we need to mention a bit of a change in our blog strategy. For the 5 parks we’ve visited so far, our written blog posts have been mostly recaps that included lots of detail on our itinerary and the logistics of our parks adventures. Going forward we want to focus less on details and more on experiences and impressions of the park. However, we still want to provide our itineraries and descriptions of our activities for those who are interested in using those details to plan their own parks adventures. So we will be putting our itineraries, trail evaluations, favorite activities, etc. on a separate “itineraries” tab. And hopefully this will allow our posts to be more flexible, less bogged down with detail and focused on things unique to each park.
Looking back at our 4 days in Zion, we realized it came with a lot of highs and lows…
LOW- The time we spent waiting on a shuttle. In 2000, Zion prohibited cars and implemented and implemented a shuttle system for the single out-and-back road to the main attractions in Zion Canyon. This cuts down on traffic jams, huge parking lots, car commotion and environmental impact. But the best part is the shuttles come every 5-8 minutes, so we barely ever had to wait! However, bikes are allowed on the road still. So when we were targeting a really popular hike on our last day, we rode our bikes to the trailhead before the shuttles started so we weren’t caught in the first-shuttle-rush.
HIGH- The view from our first hike to Observation Point. We got to Zion on Labor Day and were really worried it would be really crowded. It was. So we took our time setting up camp and getting oriented at the Visitors Center and Museum until afternoon when we hiked the strenuous and lesser-hyped 8-mile out-and-back to Observation Point. Two Zion regulars (our friend Sam who hosted us in St. George, UT and a couple from St. George we met on OP) said it was their favorite hike in the park. As Sam says, it has a little bit of everything: climbing up from the canyon bottom, peeks into slot canyons along the trail, views of the landscape on the backside of the canyon walls and of course a gorgeous lookout over a huge swath of Zion Canyon (including a view down onto the famous Angels Landing point far below). The hike was a great overview of the canyon we would be exploring over the next few days and an equally great way to climb out of the crowds.
LOW- Our perceived chances of getting a permit to hike The Subway. Many of the backcountry hikes in Zion have a limited number of permits granted each day to control crowding and impact on the area. One such hikes is the Left Fork (AKA The Subway), which came very highly recommended by a friend of Maria’s (Elizabeth’s sister who was joining us for Grand Canyon and Zion). We missed the advance reservation window and now had to bank on the complicated last-minute lottery or walk-in permit system (if you want advice on how to score a permit, comment below). Long story short, some people canceled their permits so we were able to walk-in at 7am when the Permit Desk opens and get 3 permits for that same day. We didn’t hesitate to shift our whole itinerary for it. The 4-mile approach on an unofficial trail had us cross-crossing a creek, scrambling up boulders, climbing broad waterfalls and finally brought us to The Subway portion where the canyon walls arced overhead the creek bed turned into huge wading pools. Our 9-mile out-and-back hike ended in the waterfall room where steep walls prevented us from climbing any further. But many hikers use rappelling gear to lengthen the hike and go from the “top-down”, and we vowed to attempt this on our next visit. The incredibly beautiful creek and one-of-a-kind formations made The Subway our unanimous favorite at Zion.
HIGH- Number of Bighorn Sheep sightings on our twilight drive on Mt. Carmel Highway. At the end of our second day, Elizabeth and I took this scenic drive that leads you away from the main Zion Canyon through the eastern half of the park. We stopped for a short 1-mile hike to the Canyon Overlook and were immediately rewarded when some people along the trail pointed out a group of four Desert Bighorn Sheep grazing on the opposite side of the canyon. We were just talking that day about how we hadn’t had any big wildlife sightings yet and would love to see some of the park’s elusive sheep! So it was super cool to watch the sheep prance around the steep rock like it was what they were born to do (which it was). Towards the end of our drive we almost ran into another sheep as it walked ran up alongside us in the dark.
LOW- The temperature of the water in the Narrows. On our third day we got out early to do the much-lauded Narrows hike that leads through the upper Zion Canyon where the walls get narrower to the point where the only place to walk is straight up through the water of the Virgin River. Since we were starting so early and the walls were so narrow, we didn’t even see the sun until we were halfway done with our 6-mile out-and-back walk in the river. Many people had rented special canyon erring shoes with warm neoprene socks, but we decided to save money and we didn’t regret it – the girls used their Chacos and I wore my Vibrams. But the cold water was a very small price to pay for the incredible experience and perspective of the canyon as we sloshed over the river rocks and waded through pools. This is a must-do for any first-time visitor to Zion (as evidenced by the throngs of people we saw on our way back – get out early!).
HIGH- Our heartbeats on the exposed, high-wire trail that is Angels Landing. For our final day we had saved the iconic Angels Landing hike- a 5.5 mile out-and-back trail that included a .5-mile catwalk of climbing big boulders and using chains to traverse the ridge of a narrow rock fin leading to Angels Landing point. Of course, we were reassured by a sign at the trailhead that told us how only 6 people had died on the hike since 2004. Honestly for all we had heard about the freaky exposure of the ridge line climb, Maria and Elizabeth both agreed that it was not as bad as they expected (and I like heights, so my opinion didn’t matter, haha). Like the narrows we tried to get out early trading our bikes to trailhead, but we found there were plenty of people already on the ridge and the point when we got there (although not nearly as many as we saw on our way down – get out EARLY!). Also like The Narrows we fee this classic is a must-do for your first time in Zion and it tied the water trek for my second activity.
All the highs and lows combined, Zion definitely delivered on its reputation as a park packed with unique hikes, majestic vistas, mind-bending slot canyons and, yes, people. But as much as we tried to avoid the throngs, we were often reminded when we struck up random conversations that everyone is there to enjoy the same beauty and no one is entitled to it more than another. And we wouldn’t want it any other way!