Zion National Park

Drive to Zion

We left the Grand Canyon around 5pm. I knew we’d be driving after dark, but we ended up leaving the Grand Canyon later than I thought we would. We also encountered a time change, so we lost an hour too. It was kind of scary driving at night. We were driving through wide open fields - I had no idea what kind of wild life might run across the road in front of me, and it’s totally dark everywhere except where my headlights were. Just a wide open, 2 lane road, with a speed limit of 70+ mph.

Finally my cell phone got service and I could confirm we were going the right way. We were heading to the town of Springdale, Utah. I did not realize, however, that the way we were going was actually going to take us through Zion to get to our motel. There’s no one at the entrance gates to the park after a certain time, so we just drove through. My GPS said that it was less than 20 miles to go, but it was going to take 45 minutes. I thought that seemed weird...then I realized why. We were on this crazy, twisty, windy road -- I told my mom “I think we are in between huge rocks, we just can’t see them…” It was pretty crazy. We literally could not see anything around us because it was so dark. The turns on this road were really sharp! There were no guardrails and I was pretty sure there was a cliff just on the other side of the road.

We approached signs for a tunnel. Before coming to the park, I had read that there was an interesting tunnel, but didn’t know much about it (and at this point I still didn’t really know where we were). OH MY GOD THIS TUNNEL. It’s 1.1 miles long, through a mountain rock. No lights inside of it - totally, completely black. It’s curvy too, so my headlights would hit the sides of it when we were going around curves and we kept thinking “when is this going to end?!” It was wild.

Finally, eventually, we came out of the tunnel, and a few miles later, started seeing lights and buildings. We arrived at our motel (Quality Inn & Suites), and the guy who checked us in gave us a map of Zion and recommend some hikes, which was super helpful. It was really nice to have the map ahead of time, instead of just getting it when we entered the park.

We went to sleep, anxious for the daylight so we could see what was around us!!

Zion Day 1

When we left our motel in the morning we saw we were surrounded by huge rocks. It was pretty cool. The free shuttle to the park had a stop right outside of our motel, so we hopped on that after a quick breakfast at the motel. The town we stayed in, Springdale, is right outside the entrance to Zion. There’s lots of unique restaurants (not chains), souvenir shops, gear rental places...it was nice. There’s 9 shuttle stops in town before you arrive at the entrance to the park.

Once in the park, you have to get onto the Park Shuttle to get around (which is also free, and it’s larger than the town shuttle so it holds more people). This was the first time we encountered a line for anything, but we only had to wait in it for about 5 minutes. Lots of people were dressed in gear to hike The Narrows, and a park employee was warning them about the signs of hypothermia because the water in the Narrows was about 40F.

There are 9 shuttle stops within the park, and most stops have several trailheads you can choose from. We rode the shuttle to stop 5 then got off to hike. We started off on the Lower Emerald Pools trail, then connected it to Upper Emerald Pools. This started out very easy, but by the end we were scrambling over big rocks and the trail was pretty rough. I was surprised, because from what I had read these trails were rated to be pretty easy. Also surprising was the amount of people you see out on these trails who do not look to be prepared for hiking at all. People wearing flip flops or fancy shoes, carrying shopping bags, not in hiking clothes. I was surprised how far out on the trail we were seeing people like this.

At the end of the trail you come to a small “pool” of water. It was pretty. There were lots of people here though. We rested for a bit and had a snack, then headed back on the same trail for a while until we could connect to another. We then hopped onto the Kayenta trail, which eventually brought us out at shuttle stop 6.

We took the shuttle back to stop 5, where the Lodge is, so we could get lunch. We also bought a walking stick for my mom. One thing I really liked about the Zion shuttle system is that the buses run in both directions. So at every stop, they have 2 “loading zones” - one for people who want to go up the canyon, and one for people who want to go down. This means you don’t have to wait very long for shuttles and you don’t spend as much time riding on the shuttles.

In the afternoon we rode the shuttle throughout the park and got off to hike to Weeping Rock and the Riverside Walk, which takes you to the Narrows. I stuck my hand in the water at the start of the Narrows and it was really cold. The air temperature was probably in the high 70s, and lots of people were wading through the water barefoot. Most people that were actually hiking in the narrows had rented waterproof pants, boots, and neoprene socks. You can rent a whole kit to hike the Narrows at the park entrance - you can basically get a full wetsuit, boots, socks, a walking stick, etc. We didn’t do that on this trip (I didn’t think my mom would want to hike through a river) but I would definitely be interested in doing it if I go back. 

We decided we would stick to relatively easy hikes on our first day and then do a harder one the next day. We got off at a few more stops for sightseeing, then went back to the park entrance to hike the Watchman Trail. It was hard to find the trailhead, but eventually we did. By this time it was late in the afternoon and it was pretty hot. We had already walked a lot and this was the only hike the whole trip my mom complained on. It was steeper than we thought it was going to be, and the water we had to drink was pretty warm, so...not very refreshing on a hot hike. I kept telling my mom that we could turn around, or she could wait for me in the shade if she didn’t want to go all the way to the top, but she said “no, I’m not a quitter!” We made it to the top together, and there were some pretty nice views. I asked my mom while we were hiking up if she was wishing that she chose a beach vacation instead of this hiking vacation, but she still said no, even though this hike was hot and hard, it was worth it!

We hiked back down and then stopped for a beer at the restaurant/brewery that is at the park entrance. When we met the hostess I told her we only wanted to get beers and she said “you can’t, you have to get food too.” I thought she was joking so I kind of just laughed and stood there, but she just stared at me. Finally another hostess said that it’s a law in Utah that if you are at a restaurant you have to order food, you can’t just get alcohol. I definitely did not know that.

We thoroughly enjoyed our cold beers and some onion rings as we watched people coming and going from the park. We went back to our motel for a little while, then went back through town to find a place for dinner. Since most people visiting Zion stay in this town, all the restaurants were really busy. We eventually got a table at a Mexican restaurant that had terribly slow service and their food was not very good. Oh well.


Zion Day 2

Our plan for the second day was to get an earlier start and hike the Angels Landing Trail, which is one of the most popular and well known trails at Zion. We had breakfast at the motel again, then did the shuttle routine out to The Grotto, stop 6 in the park, where the trail begins.

The beginning of the trail isn’t too steep. The entire trail is actually very easy to walk on - it’s wide and smooth, although there are big drop offs in several spots, but the trail is wide enough that it’s not scary. It does get pretty steep after a while though. My mom had her hiking stick now, which helped, and we took lots of breaks, which was easy to do because there were awesome views the entire hike. This trail was pretty crowded, but again, since it was wide it wasn’t that big of a deal.

We made it to Walter’s Wiggles, a section of steep switchbacks. That was pretty cool. Soon after we were at Scout Lookout, which is a lookout spot where many people turn around. The trail continues out to Angels Landing on a very narrow trail (if you even want to call it a “trail”) that has very steep, severe drop offs on both sides. There is a chain you hold on to to get up this section, and many parts are single-file only so you need to take turns for people going up and down to pass each other.

I knew my mom would not want to hike out to Angels Landing. I had considered it, but people I had talked to the day before told me it took them 1 hour and 15 minutes to hike from Scout Lookout to Angels Landing and back because of how often you had to stop and wait for people to pass. The trail was PACKED and there were people all over this very steep cliff. I think I could trust my own ability to make it out and back on this trail, but, I don’t trust all the other strangers who I would be on this cliff with, having to pass on very narrow ledges. So, we hung out at Scout Lookout for a while, then headed back down.

It was only mid-morning by this point, so we  hiked an easy trail for a while back towards the park entrance instead of riding the shuttle. We stopped and bought some souvenirs and then had lunch in town at a great little restaurant called MeMe’s Cafe. The food was great and they had tons of good vegetarian options. Our waiter was super friendly and gave us recommendations of which trails to check out at Bryce, the park we were going to the next day. We sat outside, surrounded by beautiful scenery, after a good hike that morning. It was really nice.

We went back to our motel and got our rental car, then drove back into Zion and drove through the crazy tunnel and windy roads that we had only been through in the dark a few nights before. It was pretty cool. We parked just on the other side of the tunnel and hiked the Canyon Overlook Trail. This trail was recommended to us by the guy who checked us in at our motel. Otherwise, I probably would have overlooked it because it’s only accessible by driving to it yourself (the shuttle doesn’t go to this part of the park).

The trail was fairly easy, but still more difficult than I thought it would be. A few places had some steep drop offs and narrow trail, but there were some great views at the end. We made our way back to the car, then started our ~2 hour drive to Bryce National Park.

Overall Impressions

I was really looking forward to visiting Zion, and it did not disappoint. The shuttle system was great, the town of Springdale was great, the hikes were challenging but offered great views, and the scenery in the canyon was beautiful too. I think out of the 3 parks we visited, this one had the most strenuous hikes, and since the road and main park is in a canyon, you need to hike up to get long distance views. At the Grand Canyon and Bryce, you are at the top of the canyon, so you can get these great, long-range views by just walking around the rim.