Zion National Park
Zion was our last stop in Utah on a 16 day trip that we took across Colorado and Utah (click here for that trip overview page). Each of the Utah parks has a different ambience. Zion is a stark contrast from Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands. Zion sits at about 3,666 to 8,726 ft in elevation, however, the Virgin River flows through the canyon and even though the park is in an arid environment the canyon floor in contrast to the other parks is much more verdant and full of trees, plants and animal life. We were pleasantly surprised by the greenery.
The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools creating waterfalls and hanging gardens which are accessible by hikes ranging from easy (the lower pools and middle pools) to more moderate to strenuous (the upper pool). The Emerald Pools hikes are located across from the Zion National Park Lodge which is situated in the canyon and surrounded by grass and trees.
The Zion Mount Carmel Highway and Zion Canyon Scenic drives offer stunning overlooks and views of steep cliffs and jagged peaks. Zion Mount Carmel Highway cuts from the east entrance of the park to the center of the park and you can drive your car while the Zion Canyon scenic drive is only accessible by bus due to the volume of visitors each year.
Hiking the Narrows is one of the most popular things to do in the park because you get to hike in the Virgin River through narrow canyons where there is no trail. You must get your feet wet for this hike and it’s best to have a hiking stick. You can stop when you want and turn around or attempt the entire ten mile trip. Many people rent special shoes to hike the narrows. Some options for renting equipment and "river walking shoes" are; Zion Outfitter and/or Zion Guru.
The trail starts at the Temple of the Sinawava trail which to reach this trail you hike along the river for about a mile. Many people, just do this part of the trail for it’s beauty and verdant hanging gardens and scenery and to watch all of the people heading into the Narrows at the end of the trail. Please note that The Narrows can be dangerous if there is a flash flood so check the warnings before entering.
This is a our Zion National Park video - there is a suggested itinerary as well as some good tips, information about hikes, etc.
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- Zion’s elevation varies by 5,000 feet; Elevation ranges from 3,666 feet at Coalpits Wash to 8,726 feet at Horse Ranch Mountain in the Kolob Canyon section of the park.
- Zion National Park’s geology features some of the tallest sandstone monoliths in the world.
- Zion National Park boasts canyons as deep as 500 feet and rock monoliths as tall as 450 feet.
- Checkerboard Mesa’s distinct crosshatch pattern is due to wind and weathering.
- The north face of the Great White Throne rim rises 2,350 feet from the Zion canyon floor.
- Angels Landing is one of the most daring hikes in the world.
- The Watchman trail is a climber’s paradise.
- Zion has one of the longest freestanding arches in the world; Spanning 287 feet, Kolob Arch is believed to be one of the longest arches in the world.
- Zion comprises 146,597 acres, 229.058 square miles in size.
Where is Zion National Park located?
Zion has two entrances, a south entrance and an east entrance.
The South entrance is where the Zion Visitor Center is located and is also where the town of Springdale resides which is where many people stay when visiting the area.
The east entrance is the best way to enter if you are traveling from the Bryce Canyon area. However, there is a tunnel that has restrictions including no bikes or pedestrians and height and width restrictions.
WARNING: Any vehicle over 13ft, 1 inches or higher can not pass through the tunnel. We saw a family in a camper get turned away at the entrance due to the height restriction. It is a long way around to the south entrance and needless to say the family was not happy. refer to the National Park Services website for specific restrictions.
Zion has a large number of visitors each year and we found it to be the most crowded of the parks that we visited. To help with the crowds there are two free shuttle buses; One that runs through the town of Springdale and drops you at the park entrance and one that drives along the Zion Canyon Scenic drive and stops at various viewpoints and hiking trails along the drive.
The Zion Canyon Shuttle connects the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to stops on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Shuttles leave every few minutes and go either north or south. You can exit the shuttle at any open stop.
Check the map to see what to expect in the park. You may get on and off at any open shuttle stop. Most visitors start shuttle trips at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, but if you are staying at the Zion Lodge, you can board the shuttle there. You cannot board a shuttle to go up canyon (north) at Canyon Junction.
Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park
We selected a Hilton property because of it's proximity to the Park Visitor's Center and additionally because there was bus service between the hotel and the park.
OK we are enthusiasts of the Hilton Hotel chain, but this is a nice property and with restaurants just across the street and bus service to the park, this was a good place to be. With limited parking available in the park, there was no reason for us to hassle over parking when the bus service was right outside our hotel.
The Zion Mount Carmel Highway (it is the same route as Utah route 9) is a scenic drive which cuts through 10 miles of Zion National Park. It connects the South and East entrances of Zion National Park. It passes over bridges, switchbacks and through the Zion Mount Carmel tunnel, which cuts through the deep stone mountain.
The tunnel is 1.1 miles long and was constructed in 1927, and completed in 1930 by the Nevada Construction Co. Prohibited vehicles include those over 13 feet 1 inch tall, semi-trucks, vehicles carrying hazardous materials, vehicles weighing more than 50,000 pounds, single vehicles over 40 feet long, or combined vehicles over 50 feet long. Bicycles and pedestrians are also banned from the tunnel, which has no artificial lighting.
We decided to explore the Virgin River trails that start immediately next to the Visitor Center's parking lot. The Watchman Trail splits into two parts just before the south campground where the Watchman Trail continues heading east on the eastern side of the Virgin River and the Pa'Rus continues north alongside the south campground.
For our first full day's adventure, we left our car parked at our motel, took the shuttle bus to the park entrance and walked in. The visitor center was our first stop, because everything starts from there. The bus stop was very busy, so our first exploration was to take a quick walk through the Visitor's Center and then we headed over towards the Virgin River and the trail that parallels the river next to the south campground.
After we got back from our river exploration, we decided to head back to the motel and take advantage of the hotel laundry and the swimming pool.
The Emerald Pools Trailhead is across the river from the Zion Lodge (shuttle stop #5). From the shuttle stop, you will follow the sidewalk across the Lodge Lawn to the crosswalk. Cross the Zion Canyon Road and continue across the bridge. Follow the trail on the right to begin hiking Lower Emerald Pool Trail. This is not a difficult trail at all, and the shade is frequent - the payoff is the falls that are to be found at the end of the trail.
As you can see on the above map image, there are three trails associated with the Emerald Pools (after you cross the bridge):
- Lower Emerald Pools - less than ½ mile from the river, an easy family stroll.
- Middle Emerald Pools - if you continue on beyond the alcove you will climb some steps to bring you on top of the cliff that you walk under in the lower pools trail.
- Upper Emerald Pools - The final stretch is a hot and sandy quarter mile, but it is well worth the effort to get to the final pool at the base of the 300-foot cliffs above.
Our second day goal was to take the park shuttle bus to the top of Zion Canyon scenic drive - the entire route is "bus only". The shuttle bus
stops at a number of places, each providing different hiking trails. Our first hike was the Lower Emerald Pool Trail. The shuttle
bus stops at the Zion Lodge, and the trail head is just across the street from the lodge.
NOTE: Each Shuttle Bus Stop is numbered, pay attention to where you got on or got off, so that you can navigate properly.
After our hike to the Lower Emerald Pool, we jumped back onto the free Zion Canyon shuttle and went to the top of the Canyon - the Temple of Sinawava. We then hiked up the Riverside Walk trail and then continued hiking to the first river crossing to see some of the best "narrows" sections of the North Fork of the Virgin River.
Nope, we did not go the rest of the way to see all of the Narrows as we did not have river shoes, nor enough water to keep us hydrated. So we reluctantly had to hike back and catch the shuttle back to the Visitor Center so we could head back to the motel and take care of our growing pile of dirty clothes!
You can see in this picture the people behind us starting to cross the Virgin River to begin their hike to the Narrows. The canyon is a bit narrow, hence the name.
NOTE: You can see in image # 4 that many people were wearing similar "river walking shoes" all in the color red. This was because everyone was renting those shoes from the same place in Springdale!
Quick History Lesson: Geologist Grove Karl Gilbert was the first recorded caucasian man to travel the Zion Narrows, in 1872 as part of a government survey expedition led by Maj. John Wesley Powell (note; yes, the same person who explored the Colorado River down to the Grand Canyon). Gilbert made the trip on horseback, and it is believed he was the first to use the term "the Narrows."
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