The Virgin River carved Zion Canyon out of the same rock layers as the rest of southern Utah, creating a gorgeous red canyon. The steep 2,000 foot tall cliff walls support vertical gardens, spotting the red rock with green plants and trees.
It became a national monument, called Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 and became Zion National Park in 1919, using the Mormon settlers name for the area.
The beautiful scene is not a secret. Zion is the most visited and famous National Park in Utah, and the fourth most visited National Park in America. Park visitation has increased so much in the last decade that the park infrastructure and resources are strained. Similar to Yosemite National Park, most of the park’s attractions are in the valley, so the visitors are confined to a relatively small area. It definitely feels crowded.
Since we were visiting in June, we knew it would be hot. The forecast was in the 90s everyday, with the hottest day reaching 97 degrees. Even though we had been enjoying boondocking, we definitely wanted to plug in so the trailer didn’t bake. We used the Wandering Labs reservation tool made by Tim Watson to check for reservation cancellations to get a last minute reservation at the Watchman campground within Zion National Park. Just a few days before we planned to visit, I snagged a reservation for 4 nights, and felt very lucky!
The day we planned to drive to Zion National Park, I looked up our route and noticed some dramatic switchbacks in the road to take us from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, on the east side of Zion, to the campground on the southwest side of the park. Looking into it more, I learned there is a narrow 1.1 mile tunnel built in 1930 right through the canyon wall.
While I think the trailer would’ve fit, they require a $15 permit to take a trailer through the tunnel and we thought it might be a hassle, so we routed around the south side to the other entrance. When we got to the campground we were impressed to find our site was a huge pull-through right on the Virgin River. Thanks, whoever cancelled their reservation!
The park implemented a free shuttle system in 2000, when parking and traffic in the canyon got to be too bad. During the peak season, the shuttles are the only vehicles allowed in the canyon. Taking a shuttle instead of driving takes more effort and planning, but it’s really nice that the canyon isn’t so clogged. It’s much better for the wildlife, too. We saw mule deer, turkeys, hummingbirds, lizards, chipmunks, squirrels, stink bugs, and vultures. The buses run on propane, so it keeps air pollution down.
We used the same strategy to fight the crowds and the heat, which was getting out by 6 am. The first day we explored Zion Canyon by shuttle, starting at the back of the canyon and working out way back to the campground. At the last shuttle stop, the Riverside Walk meanders along the river until it disappears into a narrow slot canyon.
Even though it was 60 degrees in the campground when we left, it was cool and breezy under the canyon walls. Of course I didn’t bring a jacket, so I wrapped myself in the only thing we had, a backpacking picnic blanket. Made sense to me, and much more comfortable than being cold. We took our time through here, and noticed the hanging gardens from the seeps in the stone.
By the time we left this area, the park was getting busier, but we did a couple more popular easy hikes, to Weeping Rock and Lower Emerald Pools. Both of these featured seeps and hanging gardens. There were Yellow Columbine flowers hanging off the walls.
Because the sandstone is porous, water filters through the stone for a thousand years, until it hits a layer of rock that isn’t porous and the water runs sideways out to seeps, which create gardens. The hikes led to alcoves in the rock under the dripping water.
The most popular hike in Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing, a five mile hike climbing 1,500 in elevation, to a skinny ridge where chains have been installed to help people not fall to their deaths, which still occasionally (though rarely) happens. I didn’t want to do this hike because I wasn’t sure I could handle the heights aspect of it, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. Brian went back and forth on wanting to do it, but decided not to because of the crowds. Pretty much everyone we talked to or heard talking, had climbed or was planning to climb Angel’s Landing. It’s so crowded that at most times of day people are waiting on the skinny ridge more than they are hiking. And, that skinny ridge also needs to accommodate two way traffic, since the way up is also the only way down!
The second most popular hike in Zion is called the Narrows, which is basically wading in the Virgin River through a narrow canyon. We wanted to do this hike, but the river was running too fast and high, so this was closed to hikers. It’s usually open by this time of year, but this year had unusually high snowfall in the mountains and late melt. There were also several rock falls on trails, which meant that many other trails were closed as well, including the trail from the bottom of the canyon to Observation Point. We were a little disappointed at all the trail closures, but still found plenty to do.
Rangers weren’t actively suggesting it, but I remembered that Laura had written about an alternate hiking route to Observation Point which just so happened to be much easier than the trail from the bottom of the canyon, and also happened to be open. So we drove out to the east side of the park and headed to Observation Point on the East Mesa Trail. This hike was about 6.5 miles round trip, but pretty flat, with an occasional interesting view.
The view from Observation Point was amazing, overlooking Zion Canyon, much higher even than Angel’s Landing.
We ended up staying at the top for 3 hours, watching the light enter the valley, and only encountered 7 other people. Two of these people were Michiganders, and we chatted for awhile. They took a much harder hike to Observation Point. Fortunately, we didn’t know this one existed, or Brian may have insisted we take it too. They decided to take the easier way back, and we gave them a ride back to their car at the other trailhead. We also had them over for dinner the next day, which was really nice.
Brian noticed a couple pieces of litter caught a bit down the cliffside and insisted on going down to get them. I tried to convince him not to, so I felt validated when he had some trouble getting back up.
Just on the other side of the switchbacks and tunnel on Zion-Mt. Carmel highway there are two tiny parking lots for the Canyon Overlook hike. We got there by 7 am and found a spot. The hike was pretty short (a mile and a half), but very fun, going over rocks, slick rock and a skinny bridge and under a huge rock overhang. At the end there is a beautiful view of the canyon. By the time we finished the hike and got back to our truck, there were cars parked everywhere, some of them not really in spots.
The only hike we did that we didn’t love was the Watchman Trail. It started near the visitor center and was three miles round trip and climbed 300 feet. The views were beautiful, but it wasn’t doing it for us that day, after the climb in the heat, with a billion other people. We started it around 10 am, and it was already crowded and getting hot. We thought if we were out of the sun by noon we would be okay, but 11 am was our cutoff that day.
The night before we were set to leave, we were able to get two more nights in a different site, which gave us time to explore areas of Zion National Park outside on Zion Canyon. The middle of the park goes over the Kolob Plateau.
We did the 4 mile round trip Northgate Peaks trail, out to a nice view. The hike itself was not that interesting or challenging, through the woods with the mosquitos. The plateau is higher elevation than the canyon, so it was cooler out, and we did the hike in the evening. It’s amazing how much the temperature affects our mood, because we really enjoyed this hike. At the end there were piles of volcanic rocks that we climbed on to see the canyon.
At the north end of the park is Kolob Canyon. This area is beautiful, but gets many fewer visitors than Zion Canyon. It’s amazing how many other beautiful areas are overshadowed by Zion Canyon. In 1937 it was made into a National Monument, and in 1956 it was added to Zion National Park. Until the road through the area was built in 1968 it was inaccessible, but since the road was built right off the main freeway, it’s one of the more accessible park areas, with gorgeous views right from the road.
We drove to the end of the road and did the short (1 mile round trip) Timber Creek Overlook hike to get above the trees. We saw lizards all over Zion and the whole region, but a couple of the lizards here volunteered for photo shoots.
The last night of our stay there was a thunderstorm over Zion. We didn’t get too much rain in the campground, but the river was gushing red water, sweeping new sediments out. We were happy to see it subside pretty quickly before it breached the bank and swept our trailer away.
Our 6 days in Zion were busy, with a weird schedule to try to avoid the summer heat and crowds. We were nervous to visit such a busy popular park during its peak season, but considering all the closures in the park during our visit, we packed in everything we wanted to do, and were amazed at the beauty of Zion National Park.
After Zion, we were planning to visit Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, but half of the park road was still closed due to snow, so mount Wheeler and the bristlecone pine groves were inaccessible. We decided to skip visiting for now. We went to Snow Canyon State Park for a couple days instead. Just about an hour outside of Zion National Park, it feels like worlds away, because the crowds weren’t there. There were walk-up campsites available in their small campground.
Snow Canyon is starting to be Mojave desert, and we went walking at night to see if we could find any desert tortoises or gila monsters. Sadly, we didn’t find any, but we saw a couple red-spotted toads and three scorpions! Scorpions glow under black light, but are nearly impossible to see without it. They were all tiny, under an inch long, and very well camouflaged. We also saw a rabbit and a lizard with bright red stripes.
The canyon is beautiful, with red and white sandstone, meeting in the middle. We did the white rocks trail, which was fun because we could climb up on the sandstone for great views.
We ended our hike at a big white stone basin. Since we did this hike a little later in the day than we should’ve, it was hot. The days we were there were in the mid-nineties which is too hot for us! We hiked back along the road, because it was more direct and a quicker path to the shade and air conditioning of our trailer.
We popped into Jenny’s Canyon for a quick look, which is a very short slot canyon.
Snow Canyon also has lava tubes, which we didn’t explore this time. Maybe we should’ve gone underground to beat the heat!
After a few days we decided to flee southern Utah in search of cooler temperatures.
Day 838 | Mile 87,323
June 11 – June 19, 2019