Last year, I had two opportunities to explore Zion National Park, once in the spring and again in the fall. The limited crowds and amazing colors that present themselves before and after the summer heat left an indelible impression on me as a hiker and photographer.
Zion can be complex in terms of logistics and permits, so some research and planning can be hugely beneficial. The National Park Service provides some great planning resources. If all goes right, you might find yourself hiking, wading and rappelling through some iconic places. Here are some moments from three of Zion’s classic hikes.
The most straightforward of these three outings is the Angels Landing trail. A shuttle bus drops you at the trailhead, and no permits are required. What this hike lacks in logistical complexity, it more than makes up for in breathtaking exposure. A series of steep switchbacks will lead you to the upper stretch where you’ll find yourself gripping the safety chains for dear life as you make your way across the narrow ridge toward the final lookout.
Not for those afraid of heights, the top of the hike will reward you with amazing views up and down Zion Canyon and an opportunity to stare into the abyss with nary a railing to be found. Select one of the many amazing rock perches from which to take in the view as the last sunlight of the day illuminates the towering east walls. Hike early or late to avoid the crowds that can congest the narrow passages to the high point.
If you’d rather be in the heart of the canyon than perched atop one of its high precipices, The Narrows will surely not disappoint. One of the world’s truly unique hikes, this “trail” relies heavily on the consistently wadeable Virgin River, as mile after mile is passed by means of wading through ankle-to-chest-deep water. Depending on the season, the water can range in temperature from refreshing to frigid. Early or late in the season, bring or rent river shoes and dry pants from a local shop to make the hike exceedingly more safe and comfortable.
Your efforts navigating the cold water and slippery rocks of The Narrows are constantly rewarded as each new bend in the canyon reveals unimaginable scenes of geologic sculpture and exquisite plays of light and shadow.
If you choose to hike The Narrows from the bottom — the most straightforward approach — you’re permitted to hike a round trip of up to 10 miles without an additional permit. Even stout hikers will find this to be physically challenging as hiking through the constantly moving water introduces endless challenges to footwork and stamina. Before hiking this route, be very aware of weather and river conditions as flash floods can be catastrophic. Information is available at the Zion Canyon Visitors Center.
If standing atop the towering canyon walls or hiking up the heart of the canyon leaves you hungry for more, Zion offers another challenge — the Left Fork of North Creek, more popularly referred to as “The Subway.” Whether approached from the top or the bottom, permits are required and can be challenging to attain in the height of the season. The “top down” approach yields amazing access to all of the sights but requires rappelling skill, as well as unavoidable swims through pools of often-frigid water.
You may find the camping inside of Zion to be somewhat cramped and often at capacity, but you have other options. The surrounding Utah desert provides ample opportunities to pitch a tent atop a mesa, watch stars fill the desert night sky and recount your epic adventures in the park.