Southwest Road Trip: Part Four - Zion
From the depths of the Narrows to the peak of Angels Landing, Zion National Park offers stunning and unique sights found nowhere else.
Just a couple hours southwest of Bryce Canyon is Zion National Park. Driving in from the east, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway enters the park and immediately passes through an area known as Checkerboard Mesa, winding through slopes of cross hatched sandstone. Bighorn sheep perch on the craggy faces, moving effortlessly along the steep rock. The road enters the narrow mile long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and emerges on the other side to switchback down into Zion canyon. The North Fork Virgin River has carved the canyon into a half mile wide gouge with walls reaching over 2,000 feet skyward. A 6.6 mile scenic drive follows the river up the canyon to where it narrows, and is accessible via a free shuttle bus.
We spent our first night in Springdale, Utah, a small community just outside the south entrance to the park. Motels, gift shops, and restaurants line the main road through a town which somehow retains an authentic feel despite its proximity to such a heavily visited park. Since parking is limited in Zion (it often fills before noon), free shuttles from Springdale are another option for entering the park.
The next day, after setting up camp below the towering hulk of a peak known as the Watchman, we hopped on the canyon shuttle and headed for Zion's most popular and impressive hike. The 2.7 mile trail up Angels Landing begins modestly enough, crossing over the Virgin River and meandering through the sandy canyon floor to the base of the sandstone walls. It's an exposed hike, and in the mid afternoon heat we were glad to pull out our umbrellas and hike under a personal shade.
The trail turns into the canyon wall and climbs up steep switchbacks carved into the sandstone. After turning up the aptly named Refrigerator Canyon, the path finally finds shade and cooler temperatures as it climbs to the top of the ridge. A particularly dense set of switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles leads to the top of the ridge, and where the real fun begins.
Angels Landing is a narrow fin of rock that juts out into Zion Canyon, with sheer cliffs dropping away to the canyon floor 1,200 feet below. The route to the summit follows the crest of this fin, climbing to the top along a knife edge trail with the aid of anchored chains in particularly steep sections. It's not for the faint of heart, but is completely worth the effort.
The summit offers impressive views of the Canyon in both directions. As we approached the summit, distant thunder could be heard from an approaching storm, and when the hair on everyones heads began to stand on end (a warning sign of lighting strikes), we backtracked a bit. Luckily, the storm passed south of the summit, and we were able to rest and have a snack looking out over the canyon before making our way down.
The next day we set out on the canyon shuttle to absorb some of the sights along its route. One particularly nice spot was the easily reached Weeping Rock, where moisture seeps through the porous sandstone until finally dripping out. The moist environment creates a surprisingly lush area of vegetation, with hanging gardens clinging to the rock overhang. Most stops along the shuttle route offer impressive views within minutes from the road, and are popular destinations for most visitors to Zion. There are, however, many spectacular parts of Zion that many people overlook, so we decided to visit one that afternoon.
The Kolob Canyons region of Zion is only an hours drive away, but it's rarely visited by the crowds that mass into Zion Canyon. We followed the Kolob Canyons road to its end point to reach views of the Finger Canyons. Along the way the road passes views of Tucupit Point and Lee Pass, where trailheads offer access for hikers looking to venture deeper. The landscape here differs from that within Zion Canyon. The red rock faces rise up 2,000 feet into the air, bisected by parallel canyons that reached deep into the heart of the park. You can truly get a feel for the maze of canyons that lies within. My mind immediately catalogued the area as a prime spot for a multi-day backpacking trip to penetrate deeper into the region.
Since arriving at Zion, Jenn and I had been keeping an eye on the weather, looking for the best possible conditions for a hike up the Narrows. The "trail" for the Narrows follows the flow of the North Fork Virgin River into a slot canyon that shrinks to only 18 feet wide in some parts. Dry ground is almost nonexistent, and flash floods are a very real danger, especially in the summer when afternoon storms up river can cause unexpected rises in the water level.
Our last full day in Zion offered the best conditions, and we left early in the morning to beat the crowds that would surely follow us up river. Getting off at the last shuttle stop, we followed the trail to where it ends abruptly at the mouth of the Narrows. From there on, we were hiking in the water, making our way over the slippery river rocks that form the bed of the North Fork. While Zion can be oppressively hot, the Narrows can grow chilly due to the lack of direct sunlight and the fact that you're often up to you knees or deeper in the cool water of the river. The river twists and turns between 2,000 foot walls carved by its flow, only growing more magical the deeper you go.
We took a detour up Orderville Canyon, an offshoot that offers a more rugged hike, often having to scramble over small waterfalls and across chest deep pools. Back in the Narrows, we ventured as far north as possible without having to swim, just south of Big Springs that is the recommended turnaround point for out and back day hikers. We were met on our return trip by hordes of visitors wading up the river, and were glad to get out before getting too overwhelmed by the crowds.
We concluded our tour of the southwest with a stop at the ghost town of Grafton just outside Springdale before hitting the road back to Las Vegas. Over the course of our whole road trip, we traveled over 1,300 miles in total, stopping at 3 national parks as well as several other amazing places on our route. What's even more astounding is the numerous places in the region we didn't have time for, and will have to return to see. This region of the country is known as the Grand Circle due to its concentration of parks and protected lands. I know that I've only begun to scrape the surface of what the area has to offer, and can't wait to return to explore it some more.