MY DREAM CAME TRUE!
Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Exploring Zion National Park

Living in Southern California, I'd heard about how wonderful it is to hike in Zion National Park, and so when my friend and I planned a six-day/five-night whirlwind road trip to see some of the most spectacular national parks in the USA, Zion made the list.
         When we arrived at Zion in mid June 2018, we'd already spent two nights at the Grand Canyon, made a quick detour to visit to Monument Valley, and stopped for a tour of Antelope Canyon and a visit to Horseshoe Bend. Our last stop would be Bryce Canyon National Park.
         Having read numerous reviews about how pleasant it is to stay at Zion Lodge (Zion National Park's only in-park lodging) and how convenient it is to be authorized to park at Zion Lodge (in the summer, non-hotel-guests are not permitted to drive any deeper into the park than Canyon Junction), I decided to book a room there. Since we didn't start planning this portion of our trip until two and a half months in advance, it took daily checking for cancellations on the Xanterra website in order to find a cabin (which I preferred over a lodge room because I thought it would feel more cozy) on a date that worked for us. About two months before our trip, we received the coveted red parking pass in the mail that would allow us to park at the lodge.
         We entered Zion National Park through the park's East Entrance. Our admission was free because we'd already purchased an America the Beautiful - National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, which allows the card holder and a few guests (generally up to 3 adults who are all riding in the same car) unlimited visits to the National Parks for one year.

First impressions

         Almost immediately upon entering, we were treated to awesome views. First, we spotted Checkerboard Mesa, an interesting rock formation that bears a vague resemblance to a checkerboard.
 
Checkerboard Mesa
 
          Then, we drove through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, a unique tunnel with large windows on one side that offer impressive views of the park. After exiting the tunnel, we descended into the canyon via the switchbacks of Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, surrounded by towering mountains. Without even exiting our vehicle, we were already impressed with Zion.
 
A view from our car window as we drove the switchbacks on Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
 
         We attached our red Zion Lodge guest pass to our rearview mirror, and we followed a sign to the restricted access road that led us to the lodge. We had no time to waste. It was already almost four o'clock, and my friend and I were planning to hike a bit of the lower portion of the Zion Narrows (a path blanketed by the Virgin River that travels through a narrowing canyon). Fortunately, the sun wouldn't set until nearly nine o'clock that night, but because this was our first time hiking The Narrows, we wanted to allow plenty of time to make it back to the shuttle stop before the last bus of the night.
          In our attractively-furnished cabin nestled between soaring mountains and packed with modern conveniences, like a microwave, a coffeemaker, and a second sink located outside the bathroom, but strangely no refrigerator, we dressed in our quick-dry shorts and t-shirts and packed our backpacks with plenty of drinking water and snacks, along with our water shoes. Then we set out on a short walk to the Zion Lodge shuttle stop.
 
Zion Lodge cabins
 
The interior of our cabin
 
The Zion Narrows: a hike in a river

         The bus ride to the trail we would use to access the lower portion of Zion Narrows was accompanied by prerecorded narration that educated us a bit about the park. When we arrived at Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, we made a quick visit to the restrooms and then started out on Riverside Walk (a 2.2 mile round trip walk with only 57 feet of elevation change), which ends with a staircase to The Narrows. A sign at the trailhead warned us that there was a possibility of deadly flash floods in the Virgin River that day, but the risk level was only 2 out of 4, and so we continued on.
 
Riverside Walk trail
 
Riverside Walk trail and the Virgin River
 
          Along the walk, we saw weeping rocks (water spills out of cracks in walls of rock, giving the illusion that the rock is weeping) with lush hanging gardens springing from them.
 
Looking up at a weeping wall of rock along Riverside Walk
 
         We arrived at The Narrows at almost 5:00 PM, changed from our hiking shoes into our water shoes (I put mine on over a pair of SmartWool hiking socks in order to give my feet an extra layer of protection and warmth), dropped our hiking shoes into our backpacks, and descended the short staircase into the Virgin River.
 
The end of Riverside Walk, where a small staircase (on the left) leads into the Virgin River
 
         I had read reviews and blog posts that mentioned that a hiking stick or pole was helpful when hiking in the river. I'd also read that, although the poles can be rented through various outfitters (or, I later learned, purchased at the Zion Lodge gift shop for under $15.00), sometimes "natural hiking poles" (i.e. strong tree branches) were left by previous hikers along the river bank. I hoped that, since it was late in the day, some of the earlier hikers had already dropped off the poles they'd used that day.
         When I scanned the rock wall to the right of the foot of the staircase, sure enough there was a hiking pole waiting there, but only one. Fortunately, my friend is experienced at river walking and didn't want a pole, so I gratefully took it and the two of us started into the river, heading upstream.
 
Heading upstream in the Virgin River
 
 
Hiking in The Narrows
 
         We traveled further and further upstream, pausing occasionally to take pictures with my camera (which I'd slipped into a waterproof camera case before we left our cabin) and to marvel at the majestic scenery. On the day we hiked, the water in the lower portion of The Narrows wasn't very deep. The deepest part I traversed was only up to the very tops of my thighs. There were deeper (chest-high) pockets, but those could be easily avoided.
         It was my first time hiking in a river, and I was glad that I had that "hiking pole." The rocks below our feet were slippery and there were areas where boulders caused the river to turn into small rapids that attempted to drag me downstream. At times, I needed to maintain a death grip on my stick in order to remain upright.
         As we walked on, we noticed that the returning day hikers (a steady stream of whom had been passing us, heading back the way we came) became fewer and far between. Because the river winds and bends, we now often felt like we were the only ones in the river. We kept wanting to go further, to pass around one more bend to see what was up ahead, but we'd already spent about an hour and a half in the river, and it was getting late, and so, after a quick rest stop to enjoy the snacks we'd brought along, we turned back, heading downstream. The river was now almost completely deserted; on our way back to Riverside Walk, only about fifteen small hearty groups passed us heading in the opposite direction. We saw a few of them turn back shortly thereafter.
          The hike downstream was a bit easier for me than the upstream hike, mostly because I now had some river-hiking experience under my belt. Thanks to my makeshift hiking stick, I finished the hike without a single fall but, based on the couple of close calls I experienced, that wouldn't have been the case without that stick.
         When we finally arrived at the stairs of Riverside Walk, I ceremoniously placed my borrowed stick among the half-dozen others that now rested there, knowing that, tomorrow, a fellow hiker would appreciate having that stick to help them make their way in the river. 
 
Returning my borrowed hiking stick
 
         Even though we didn't go far, our hike in The Narrows was one of my favorite hikes ever. We returned to our cabin pleasantly exhausted and, that night, I had my best night's sleep of the whole trip, even though we woke up at midnight to go outside and take in the myriad stars and the Milky Way!
         The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast in our cabin before we packed our suitcases, checked out, and set out for some short morning hikes.

Lower Emerald Pool Trail: a hike that isn't as cool as it sounds but is still good

         Our first hike of the day was Lower Emerald Pool Trail (a 1.2 mile round trip walk with only 69 feet of elevation change). When we first heard the name of this hike, the prospect of seeing an "emerald pool" intrigued us. Having done my research, I knew that the "emerald pool" was underwhelming but, because the hike is short and the trailhead is located just across the road from Zion Lodge, we decided to give it a go anyway.
          We crossed the road and then walked across a charming footbridge that spanned the Virgin River and offered nice views of the river and the park.
 
The footbridge at the beginning of Emerald Pools Trail
 
Looking upstream from the footbridge
 
Looking downstream from the footbridge
 
         From there, the trail was pleasant, though somewhat ordinary. The treat came when we arrived at our destination. Yes, the lower emerald pool was disappointing (it was a large murky puddle with some green algae in the bottom), but the weeping rock and tiny waterfall above it that glistened in the morning sunlight were truly beautiful.
 
"Lower Emerald Pool"
 
A weeping wall and a very tiny waterfall
 
Another view of the very tiny waterfall
 
Canyon Overlook Trail: an ordinary trail with an extraordinary ending

         Pleased with our first hike of the day, we returned to our car with one more quick hike to do before we left Zion National Park: Canyon Overlook Trail (a 1.0 mile round trip hike with 163 feet of elevation change) which ends in a viewpoint that overlooks Pine Creek Canyon and lower Zion Canyon.
         We drove through Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, heading east, and made a right turn into the very small parking lot located just outside the tunnel exit. There was only one empty spot in the lot. (There is additional parking further up the road on the opposite side.)
         We parked and crossed the road to reach the trailhead for Canyon Overlook Trail. The most strenuous part of the hike turned out to be the uphill climb at the very beginning. Other than that, the hike is mostly flat. The unpaved trail is a bit precarious, though, with a few unfenced steep drop-offs on one side.
 
Looking back down at the tiny parking lot after climbing the first part of Canyon Overlook Trail
 
           The views from the trail didn't impress us much until the very end, when we reached the viewpoint. That view was absolutely mesmerizing!
 
The final view at the end of Canyon Overlook Trail
 
         A hike on Canyon Overlook Trail would be a perfect way to begin a visit to Zion National Park, but it is also an excellent way to end it. After we soaked in the view, we hiked back the way we came, jumped back in our car, and headed out the East Entrance of Zion National Park, toward the final destination of our trip: Bryce Canyon National Park.
 

I did this in mid June 2018 in Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah.

Jen (California, USA)
 
You might also enjoy these reviews of the other stops on our whirlwind road trip:

Grand Canyon
Monument Valley
Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
Bryce Canyon National Park