When early Mormon settlers arrived in southern Utah they told wild stories of an incredible canyon of unparalleled beauty. They spoke of a place with three-thousand foot high canyon walls tapering down in places as narrow as twenty feet. Swamps in the desert, hoodoos and incredible rock formations - their stories were written off as tall tales of the new frontier. The awe inspiring beauty of this place struck the settlers so much, they called it Zion, convinced that God would surely sit in this area upon his return. In 1880 Clarence E. Dutton, a geologist wrote, "...nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion."
As scientific reports and photographic evidence of this wild place spread the stories became truth and in 1909 the area Mukuntuweap National Monument was created. In 1918 it was incorporated as Zion National Monument and in 1919 it became Zion National Park.
Like so many other National Parks, most visitors only see a small portion of Zion's 229 square miles. The most spectacular entry into Zion National Park is by taking the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Heading west from Mount Carmel Junction, you will arrive at the east entrance to Zion National Park. Vehicles over 11'4" in height are restricted from taking the highway due to the spectacular 1.1 mile long tunnel carved out in 1933. Slowly winding it's way down the high plateau, the highway passes Checkerboard Mesa towering a 1,000 feet above the roadway. The crisscross patterns have been created over thousands of years of erosion, heat, cold, wind and water making complex geometric patterns in the stone.
When you arrive at narrow Gifford Canyon to your south, you are at the eastern entrance to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Be prepared for a delay in getting through the tunnel. The narrow passage wasn't designed with today's recreational vehicles in mind, and these vehicles must pass one-way through the center of the tunnel. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel has had a series of cutouts put in it allowing tremendous glimpses of the East Temple, a large mesa that rises over 2,000 feet above the roadway. Each arch cut out offers fleeting glimpses and you will find yourself fighting the urge to just stop your car in the tunnel and stare out at the park.
When you exit out of the west side of the tunnel you will descend down over 1,000 feet through a series of tight switchbacks. When you take the first 180-degree turn to head back east you will be driving towards the Great Arch of Zion. Carved into the side of cliff, the arch is referred to as a "blind" arch because the formation is still attached to the wall and not a freestanding arch like Kolob.
At the base of the switchbacks you will come to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, where most people go when visiting Zion National Park. In 2000 the drive became off-limits for private vehicles and has been replaced by a shuttle service, very similar to the one used at Grand Canyon National Park. The shuttle terminal is found at Zion National Park's main headquarters located a short distance away from the South Entrance. Facilities in this area include campgrounds, a new cafeteria, nature center, several amphitheaters, and a number of commercial hotel properties just past the South Entrance in Springdale.
Although some people are content to simply drive along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, you should give yourself at least a couple of days to explore everything that Zion has to offer.
Taking the shuttle bus up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive you get to see a wild canyon from the bottom up, unlike the Grand Canyon where you stand at the top and look down. A very popular short and easy hike is up to Weeping Rock. Here several natural springs and washes flow down the walls of the canyon on their way to the Virgin River. The steady trickle of water allows a natural hanging garden of green and vibrant colors to grow up against the rocks in this sheltered and damp location.
Another popular hike is up to Emerald Pools on the western side of Zion Canyon. The one-mile trail leads to the lower pool and is easy to get to. From there you can enjoy three waterfalls falling into an oasis of green coming from the Upper Pool and from Behunin Canyon above. For the adventuresome you can hike another mile along the narrow path to the larger Upper Pool that sits at the base of Lady Mountain near a sheer rock wall.
If you are up for a real adventure you can take the five-mile trip to Angels Landing. Starting at the Grotto Picnic Area you climb up Refrigerator Canyon and then take a strenuous set of switchbacks to Scout Lookout which offers views of the Canyon bottom and the Virgin River, over 1,000 feet below. Turn southeast you take the extremely narrow trail to an overlook of Zion Canyon and the Big Bend below. The best time to hike this is in the early morning, leaving just before dawn or in the afternoon. The trail has dangerous drop offs and is not for anyone who has a fear of heights.
The most famous hike of all is up Zion Canyon itself through the Narrows. Getting off at the end of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive at the Temple of Sinawava you head north about a mile up the paved Riverside Walk Trail. The trail parallels the Virgin River and runs next to a desert swamp. At the end of the trail is a sand beachhead that allows you to have access to the frigid Virgin River and is the start of the Narrows Trail. Typically large groups of people can be found frolicking in the cold water and enjoying riding the current downstream.
A hike up the Narrows can be as simple as a day hike or a backcountry experience up its sixteen-mile length. Most of the hiking is done in the river itself. In some locations the canyon walls are less than twenty-five feet apart with the walls towering high above you. Make sure to check the sign for the river conditions. Hiking up the Virgin River can be dangerous, flash floods are possible and on several sections there is no way to get above the high water mark.
If you plan to hike the entire length of the Narrows you will need to get a backcountry permit. Overnight stays are limited to one night and most people will recommend having a good set of trekking poles to help you on the rocky bottom. If you plan to do a day hike, you don't have to travel far to get away from the crowds and get into the narrow parts of the canyon. A two hour trek will offer you solitude and wonder.
The less visited section of Zion National Park is in the northwest corner. Kolob Canyon can be accessed right of Interstate 15 at exit 40. Kolob Canyon is home to Kolob Arch, the largest freestanding natural arch in the world. Extending over 310 feet, it is a fourteen-mile round trip hike in desert conditions to this wonder of nature.
If you're looking for a simpler diversion you can drive up Kolob Canyon Road to Kolob Canyon Viewpoint. An outstanding picnic area, you can take a short hiking trail up to the Timber Creek Overlook.
Zion National Park is one of the greatest treasures in our National Park system and is the crown jewel of Utah's National Park country. With a new shuttle system greatly improving the access of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and offering you more flexibility to move around to the various features on the canyon floor, an incredible adventure can be had by all. Whether you take a short hike to Weeping Rock, simply drive through the park on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, or conquer the Narrows Trail of Zion Canyon itself.
Just The Facts
Name: Zion National Park
Location: Southern Utah, Hurricane
Nearest Major Air Service: Salt Lake City, Utah or Las Vegas, Nevada
Fees & Permits: $10 access fee for seven days or to drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Escort fee required for recreational vehicles going through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Backcountry permits and permits for hiking the length of the Narrows required. Permits for big wall rock climbing required.
Why Visit: Rare opportunity to see a deep canyon from the bottom up, worlds largest natural arch, mystical Checkerboard Mesa, Zion-Mount Carmel Highway one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world, desert swamp, natural hanging gardens, incredible desert views.
When To Visit: Year round, best from May to October, very crowded in July and August
Essential Gear: Depends on activity, sunscreen, bathing suit, water shoes, trekking pole, hat, lip balm, plenty of drinking water, camera, binoculars (other equipment strongly recommended)
You Should Know: Hiking the Narrows is serious business. Flash floods are a possibility. Obey all warnings and heed recommendations from park staff. Summertime temperatures can soar to over 100 degrees, be sure to bring plenty of water and avoid hiking or other intense activity from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
More Information: Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah 84767-1099, (801) 772-3256