Hiking in Zion National Park - Utah
Updated: Mar 13, 2020
This year is Zion’s one hundredth year since it was established, so I thought it’s appropriate to celebrate this wonderful park with an article about when we visited it. Zion is Utah's first national park and one of the most visited national parks in the United States - nearly 4.3 million visitors in 2016 and I can understand why. This park is well worth exploring, and just spending a day or two is not nearly enough. Its 232 square miles encompass some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States. Besides that, there are mountains, buttes, mesas, rivers, natural arches, and rock formations - created by sediments deposited over 150 million years ago. Its diverse flora and fauna are also not to be missed when in the park.
If possible, you should plan on visiting Zion together with Bryce Canyon National Park since both are located in southwestern Utah and are not very far apart. You can get to these two national parks by taking US Highway 89. About 119 miles separate them which is about a three and a half hour drive non-stop. I know they seem close together when you look at them on Google Earth, but if you are in the area you might as well do both, believe me it’s worth the drive.
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel is part of the "Grand Circle Tour" of Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks. It is a scenic drive to be sure and you should not miss it.
One special part of this road, besides the stunning views, is the tunnel at the upper end of the canyon. The gallery windows on the side of the tunnel - you can take peek at the view through them while driving - once served as openings to throw out rock debris while construction crews excavated the tunnel. they also supplied ventilation and lighting while they were working inside the tunnel. This tunnel was opened in July 3, 1930. It was built when vehicles back in the days were small, so today, oversize vehicles need to arrange an escort to pass through.
Due to its significant overall design and engineering, as well as planning, skills and materials used, the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was also designated as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in May of 2012.
We went to Zion in the Fall of 2012, as part of our southwest Utah trip. Spring or Fall is the best time to go there since the weather is cooler. It can be really hot in the summer, especially when you plan on hiking.
Zion is fantastic, popular not only for climbers and hikers, but for everyone seeking to immerse themselves in nature. There are many short hikes to the most popular sights in the park. They are accessible from the free shuttle buses that operate in the canyon - private cars are not permitted most of the time, except in the off-season. It is a pleasant way to see Zion, no traffic on the road except for the occasional bus. You can get on and off any time you want at any of the many stops and viewpoints.
Before Zion National Park was established, it was named as Mukuntuweap (mu-koon-tu-weap) National Monument in 1909. It was renamed when it was granted national park status by the U.S. Congress in November 19, 1919, signed by President Woodrow Wilson.
The park has many interesting overlooks such as this unique Checkerboard Mesa. You will wonder how the crisscrossing pattern was made by nature. Nature indeed has many surprises waiting to be be discovered. If you are not in a hurry you can hike at the Checkerboard Mesa Canyon. It is also the gateway to a much longer hike.
The names of the many featured sites in the park, such as the Watchman, the Altar of Sacrifice, the Three Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, the Organ, and the Temple of Sinawava, have had religious significance bestowed by devoted visitors since before the park was established.
THE VIRGIN RIVER
Zion Canyon was not created by glacial activities. It was formed mainly by the work of the Virgin River from which rock and sand carried by the stream cut away at the canyon, widening and deepening it and at the same time, forming the unbelievable features we see today. We might not notice it but the landscape in Zion (and everywhere else) is a continually changing due to weathering.
Human activities in the park’s landscape date back to at least 6,000 B.C. People have called the canyons and plateaus of Zion National Park home for over 10,000 years, from the Anasazi, the basket makers who moved southeast 800 years ago, to the Puebloans, the cliff dwellers. They were followed by Paiute peoples, and then the Mormon pioneers seeking lands to farm and to expand their church.
In 1869, John Wesley Powell, professor, civil war veteran and explorer, together with his adventure seeking companions completed the first exploration of the uncharted canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers and the Great Basin Desert. This was the first scientific exploration of southern Utah and the government became aware of Zion’s existence as a result of this expedition, which later inspired the creation of this park in order to protect it. Mapping of Zion was extended by Maj. C. E. Dutton in 1880.
Fast forward to today, the park is popular for rock climbing and hiking. The trails range from easy to moderate to really serious hiking, meaning strenuous with a lot of miles and elevation gain, not to mention some serious exposure. Depending on the capabilities of a hiker, a moderate hike can be easy for some. Take note, people have fallen to their deaths from some of these trails, which are definitely not for the faint of heart or people with fear of heights. Some of the most popular trails in Zion are not for everyone, such as the Angels Landing, the Narrows, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon to name a few, so check at the visitor center before you attempt to hike these trails, if you haven't hike here yet.
- EASY TO MODERATE HIKES -
Zion has easy day hikes for families, even with easy wheel chair access such as the Pa’rus Trail, a 3.5 mile hike following the Virgin River between South Campground and Canyon Junction. Another easy hike is the Riverside Walk, located at the Temple of Sinawava. Also, there is the Canyon Overlook Trail which is about 1 mile with a view of the Zion canyon.
RIVERSIDE WALK - 2-miles round trip
The Riverside Walk trail is paved and ends at the beginning of the famous Virgin River Narrows. Beyond that is for experienced canyon hikers only, as it is the narrowest section of the canyon. If you plan on hiking "The Narrows", be prepared to get wet, you will have to do some wading into the Virgin River. Also the threat of flash floods is something to take note of - people have died there.
EMERALD POOLS - 1.2 TO 3 MILES
Check out the Emerald Pools Trails, with its spring-fed pools and waterfalls. It’s about 1.2 to 3 miles, depending on how far you want to go. You can hike to the lower, up to the middle, or all the way to the Upper Emerald Pool. It might not be impressive for seasoned hikers, but it will be good enough for families with kids.
THE WEEPING ROCK TRAIL - 0.4 MILE
The Weeping Rock Trail is about 0.4 mile, the shortest hike in the park. The trail leads to a spring where water drips from the Navajo sandstone. They say it's nice in spring here when there is more water dripping down the canyon wall.
- MODERATE TO STRENUOUS HIKE -
OBSERVATION POINT – 8 miles round trip
The trail to Observation Point is one of the longer hikes in Zion. The trail begins at the Weeping Rock Trailhead and follows the East Rim Trail. This is a strenuous hike but is highly recommended, although not for those who have a fear of heights.
The trail was chiseled out of the side of the canyon wall and can be quite hairy when you look at the ravine below. It is a long way down, though the trail is wide enough to allow two people to pass each other comfortably. But accidents can happen, especially when the trail is icy, so you have to be cautious - trail etiquette will be much appreciated. Although it is a well maintained trail and paved part of the way, there are switchbacks and zigzagging sections. Take plenty of water and pace yourself and you will have no problems.
So now, don't be disheartened by the zigzagging trail and long uphill, you will have a reprieve. You will be surprised when you enter Echo Canyon. It is a nice place to stop, recharge and cool off while looking at the interesting rock formations and towering cliffs. You will be glad you brought along some snacks, since there's still a long way to go, so you will need it.
The spectacular view along the way is well worth the sweats and huffing and puffing, so keep going! You haven't seen the best view on the trail yet.
Finally, the summit, the Observation Point’s eight-mile trail is aptly named, the view takes in 270 degrees of the canyon. I think this must be the most beautiful spot in the park. The aerial view is amazing you can see as far as the eye could see. Look down and you will find the popular Angels Landing is much lower than the Observation Point.
WATCHMAN TRAIL – 3-miles round trip
The closest hiking trail you can take in Zion is right by the Visitor Center, just across the street from the shuttle stop. This trail has less crowds than the trails in the canyon, maybe because of its openness. There is not much shade on the trail, which can be really pretty hot, especially in summer. You definitely need to start early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, if you want to hike here.
There is nothing strenuous about this trail - all in all, this trail is an easy to moderate hike. You will pass overhanging cliffs and scrub woodland vegetation - juniper, pinon pine and sage brush.
Unless you are a climber, this trail won’t take you to the top of the Watchman mountain, but you will get a good view of its peak. It is the most recognized feature in the park. It guards the south entrance of Zion, hence its name.
When visiting the park in the fall, you might still find some wildflowers blooming. We did!
After your hike, you probably want to hydrate or have snack. We sure did. Unless you brought your own, the Zion Lodge, located in the heart of the canyon, is the only place you can find food inside the park. This lodge is part of the history of Zion. While resting and recharging, you will enjoy the view of the towering sandstone cliffs.
For more info about the free shuttles, check the link here.