I love Zion National Park. I’ve been there twice in the last two years and can’t get enough. The soaring mountain peaks that overlook the canyon, the verdant green valley along the river, the bighorn sheep I’ve seen every time I’ve passed through the area; these all make it remarkable and incredible. Of the National Parks I’ve been to, it’s the only one that feels less like a unique piece of landscape that deserves protection, and more like a other-worldly oasis that should be kept hidden from the world. I almost feel bad for going there and adding more traffic.
Zion isn’t a secret. It has become immensely popular with hikers to the point where they are now considering a lottery system for entry. Hiker line up along the trails during the peak season and you have to take a shuttle to even reach most of the park. But, heading there in early December, the park is perfection. The shuttles don’t run so the entire park is accessible by car, the crowds are low, and with an early start, the trails are pretty empty.
For all it’s beauty, Zion is known as a hiking destination primarily. It’s worth the visit just to see the sights, but getting out on the trails really adds to the experience. There are trails of any difficulty level from easy paved routes on flat ground, steeps across a moderate incline around pools, and intensely difficult ones that hang off the side of cliffs. It’s important to know one’s limits, but Zion offers such a variety that everyone will find at least one trail.
These trails are my favorite hikes at the park, covering a variety of terrain and difficulty.
Easy: Riverside Walk – 2 miles
This hike is most certainly a walk in the park. The path follows a riverbank for about a mile. On my last walk here, I spotted a red deer drinking along the river, completely unafraid of me. The path is very level and packed down, almost like a paved trail. Toward the end the walls of the canyon close in a bit lending a boxed in feel and some great light when the sun is low. Start at the Temple of Sinawava and follow the river.
Easy: Emerald Pools – 2 miles
Just slightly more demanding than the Riverside Walk, this trail has a bit more elevation change and a moderate incline from the parking lot. The trail meanders just above the river with small ledges beyond. It ends up at two pools where the water runs off the mountain walls before joining the river. These pools are surrounded by lush vegetation, a relative rarity in the canyon. The higher pools are a bit of a climb from the lower.
Moderate: Canyon Overlook – 2 miles
For the most stunning view of the canyon without a doubt, and a good chance to see Bighorn Sheep, this 1 mile out and back trail is ideal. It’s not for the faint of heart as one section involves a short traverse while holding a rope hanging over the walls of the canyon, and the end is a ledge overlooking the entire canyon with minimal railings. Along the way I saw a trio of sheep up very close, both of use were quite startled to discover the other. I could sit and watch the sun rise and set over the valley for hours.
Difficult: Angels Landing – 5 miles
The most famous hike at Zion, and one of the most famous in the world. this is a true hike. It’s not a walking trail hikers can just waltz down. The first 1.5 miles are slowly increasingly difficult with steep uphill climbs with little respite. Even in the winter it can get hot with the sun bearing down. A series of tightening switchbacks finally gets hikers to the landing where it gets really hard. The remainder of the hike involves traversing the crest of the ridge out and above the canyon floor. Hikers have to hold chains attached to the rock, made far more difficult by the two way traffic that requires frequent pauses to let others pass. For those brave enough to actually look around and down while on the chains, the views are completely worth it. This is the kind of hike that takes all day and some advance prep for. For those interested in the views but not the chains, turn around at Scout’s Lookout.
This trail is best left for those in good shape, comfortable with their balance, and preferably with some strenuous hiking experience. Definitely not for young children. For those who don’t qualify, there are plenty of other great trails at Zion.
Zion has the perfect blend of trails for the beginner hiker to the extremely experienced. Many offer great views from either above or the bottom of the canyon valley. There’s also a good chance of seeing wildlife along the way. As my favorite park, it’s well worth the journey out to the middle of nowhere in Utah to experience this amazing little slice of perfection on foot.