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Zion National Park

A sandstone masterpiece millions of years in the making

Apr 13, 2016Words By Liv CombePhotos By Alex Souza
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"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view."

Edward Abbey

An Insider's Guide to

Zion National Park

Huckberry insider's guide zion national park mesa
We arrived in Zion after the sun had gone down, snagged a campsite at South Campground, and were just settling in for a late dinner at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub when we met Barbi. Our waitress for the evening and a longtime resident of the area around the park, Barbi knew her stuff when it came to Zion. And luckily for us – myself, Huckberry’s Head of Photography Alex Souza, and Huckberry Ambassador Chris Brinlee – she was happy to share. 

“If you’re not ready to do some technical climbing or get into the backcountry, there’s only so much you can do here,” she began. “But that being said…” 
Barbi was right – there’s a finite amount you can do in Zion’s frontcountry before you have to venture into the world of technical climbing, canyoneering, and backpacking. The thing is, though, that everything in Zion’s frontcountry is incredibly awe-inspiring and more than worth your time. If you have more than three days on your hands to spend in Zion, all the better – it’s off the beaten path and into the backcountry with you. Less than three days? You're still in for an amazing time exploring Utah's first national park. 

Whether you're in Zion Canyon or Kolob Canyon, get ready for stomach-churning heights, dizzying slot canyons, and majestic red sandstone cliffs (potentially dusted with snow). Already 250 million years old, Zion's only getting better with age.

Why Go Now?

Zion (that’s ZAI-un, as the locals pronounce it, not Zai-AWN) National Park is an otherworldly place year-round, but April is an especially good month to visit. Temperatures can reach beastly highs in the summer and frigid lows in the winter, but spring typically falls somewhere in the middle. With average highs in the 60s and lows in the 30s, you’ll be comfortable during the day and not too cold at night. Even when it snowed on our hike up to Observation Point, we were plenty comfortable in our tents and sleeping bags down on the canyon floor.
National parks during the summer are notorious for being mobbed with visitors on vacation, and Zion is no exception – it’s one of the top ten most-visited national parks in the United States. Visiting earlier in the season means the park will be relatively empty; on certain days and off the beaten path of Zion Canyon, we were almost entirely alone. 

A third reason to visit in April? Down on the canyon floor, the world is coming back to life after winter! At the confluence of three separate ecosystems, Zion plays home to more than 1,000 species of plants ranging from riverside cottonwoods to pines and firs, cholla cactus in the desert environments to colorful hanging gardens within the slot canyons. April wildflower blooms pepper the park with color. These plants, in turn, support Zion’s diverse wildlife, approximately 319 different species in total. As you hike up Angel’s Landing, keep an eye out for the endangered California condor, which, if you’re lucky, you can spot soaring above the canyon.
On a more serious note, springtime means more rainfall and higher snow melt, which increases the flow rate in the Virgin River. If the rate of cubic feet of water per second goes above 150, the Narrows will be closed to hikers; once it’s below that rate for at least 24 hours, it will be reopened. Zion goes to great lengths to educate visitors on flash floods, which you should learn as much about as you can. If you’re in a slot canyon like the Narrows, these flash floods can be incredibly dangerous and even deadly.

Check the weather before you go; if there’s a 50 percent chance of rain or more, there could be a flash flood. If inclement weather threatens, do not enter a narrow slot canyon. If heavy rain starts, the water level rises and the current feels stronger, or you start to notice the water color turning murky and brown and carrying more debris, immediately get to higher ground – at least six feet above the normal water level, and higher if possible. If there’s no higher ground available, get behind a large boulder or wedge yourself into a crack in the canyon wall. If you’re caught on higher ground, always wait out the flash flood – do NOT attempt to hike through it.

As is the case in any outdoor activity, your safety is your responsibility. Make smart choices!

Know Before You Go

There are endless resources for Zion research before you head to the park itself. (You can thank us later for compiling it all for you into this handy guide!) An excellent resource – which we heard people referring to several times during our trip – is Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park. What began as a photographer’s personal blog has evolved over the past 14 years into one of the more in-depth guides to Zion we’ve come across. We’re particular fans of Joe’s backcountry recommendations. Speaking of, if you're planning a backcountry trip you should also take a look at Zion National Park’s official Spring 2016 Wilderness Guide
Social media is another quick, easy way to learn more about Zion. The park’s official Facebook page has daily updates on campground availability and Narrows openings and closings; keep an eye on it as your trip approaches for any seasonal or last-minute changes. We also checked out Visit Utah’s Instagram to learn more not only about Zion National Park, but its surrounding areas. While you’re on Instagram, make a quick search for hashtags like #zionnationalpark#angelslanding, and #thenarrows – you’re sure to see visitors uploading new photos every hour. 

And then there’s the big one: the pack list. When you’re getting your gear together, the most important thing to remember is that you’re packing for both hot and cold conditions. When we were in Zion, it felt like we experienced four seasons in as many days! Aside from your typical camping, backpacking, and/or climbing gear, here’s a quick list of our must-pack items: a down jacket; a waterproof outer layer; warm, flexible pants and lightweight shorts; hiking boots and/or breathable trail running shoes; gloves, socks, and a knit hat; a knife, a dependable watch, a headlamp, a dry bag, and a map.

One of the best resources Zion has to offer is its incredible proximity to Springdale, the town just outside the park’s main entrance; if you forget anything, there are plenty of stores and gear outfitters to keep you safe, warm, and dry in the park. We hit up Zion Adventure Company several times over the course of our visit. (If you’re in the market, they also offer guided tours throughout the park – caving, anyone?) Make a reservation for gear ahead of time or take your chances and walk in to see what they have – we went for the latter and were fine.

Beat the Crowds

Just because Zion is one of the most-visited parks doesn’t mean that you won't be able to find yourself alone in nature. When it comes to beating the crowds, the strategy is all about hitting certain trails at the right time of day, being willing to go out in less than perfect weather, and pushing through the initial touristy sections of better-known hikes to the lesser-populated portions. On top of Angel’s Landing, for example, we found a ledge that took you out of sight and earshot of the hundreds of other hikers. Similarly, the further into the Narrows you go, the fewer people you see. 

From where to stay to how to get the “secret” shot, here’s everything you need to know to have an amazing experience in Zion National Park. Don’t stress too much, though – you’re going to be blown away even if all you do is dip a toe in the Virgin River and head back out.

What's the best way to get to Zion National Park?

We opted to fly from San Francisco to Las Vegas, rent a car, and drive the two and a half hours through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah to reach the park. All in all, it was an incredibly easy and affordable experience; use a Google flight tracker to find the best prices from your home airport, and take your pick of car rentals with varying prices. Before you head out of Las Vegas, hit up a grocery store to stock up on food and supplies for camping.

Another option is to fly into the St. George Municipal Airport, which will touch you down less than an hour’s drive from Zion’s main entrance. The flight costs are typically more expensive to fly to and from this regional airport, but if you’re looking to save time and are coming in from any of the major western cities, it’s worth considering. Hertz, Alamo, and Enterprise all rent cars from this airport.

Keep in mind that during peak tourist season (from March through November), Zion National Park implements its free shuttle system throughout Zion Canyon; all other vehicles must park in Springdale, at the Visitors Center, or along Highway 9 just before you hit Floor of the Valley Road. We’ve since read a few unsavory reviews about this shuttle system, but we had nothing but good experiences during our visit. The shuttle picks up at stops throughout Springdale and at the Zion Visitor Center, and makes nine stops throughout Zion Canyon. Think of it like a guided tour bus – recordings play over the loudspeaker to teach you about different aspects of the park (don’t feed the squirrels!) – that also entirely eliminates vehicle traffic and overpacked parking lots within the park. We can't find anything wrong with that.

Where should I stay in Zion National Park?

Whether you’re camping in a tent, an RV, or opting for a hotel room, you’ve got options. If you’re camping, like we did, try to make a reservation at the Watchman Campground as far ahead of your trip as you can. This campground is open year-round and features both tent and electric campsites. Tent sites are $20 per night, and electric are $30.

If it’s already full, do your best to arrive before Friday at 9 am to greatly increase your odds of snagging a first-come, first-served campsite at South Campground, which is typically open from late February through late November as weather allows. We stayed at campsite #82, a great spot next to the Virgin River with quick access to the paved Pa'rus Trail and prime tent views of the Watchman in the morning. Each spot has room for two or three tents, two vehicles, a picnic table and fire pit with a removable grate, and access to a heated bathroom building with flush toilets, cold drinking water, and trash and recycling containers. Each campsite is $20 per night; if you use Chris Brinlee’s National Parks pass – or your own! – it’s only $10. Pro tip? Bring a Goal Zero or two to keep your phone charged; I swear this campground has some of the best cell service in all of Utah.

From June through October, or as weather allows, the Lava Point Campground provides six primitive (pit toilets, no water) campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Can’t snag a campground, or just prefer to have a shower handy? We can’t blame you. Springdale has dozens of hotel options with high and low price tags, but our favorite spot has to be the Cliffrose Lodge. It’s one of the closest to the park’s main entrance, has a variety of suites and rooms to choose from, and – best of all – a waterfall hot tub out back. Take a nighttime soak and gaze up at the stars spinning above the canyon.

What’s the one shot of Zion National park that I have to get?

No question here – Angel’s Landing. Since it's the most iconic hike in all of Zion (the Narrows comes in at a close second), this trail is incredibly packed, but still so worth it; Alex Souza called it one of the most fun hikes he’s done in his life. The two-mile ascent takes you from the Grotto trailhead and winds slowly up the West Rim canyon wall to Walter’s Wiggles – a series of 20 switchbacks that, like most of the trails in Zion National Park, were built during the 1930s. Take a break at Scout Lookout, a (relatively) wide area at the top before the scary part starts – a mile out-and-back of chain-lined trail which, at certain parts, is only a few meters wide with gut-wrenching, 1,500-foot dropoffs on either side. 

Scared of heights? Angel’s Landing probably isn’t for you. Getting out of your comfort zone is one thing, but putting yourself – and the people around you – in real danger is another. Again, your safety is your responsibility. Take a leaf out of my book and check out the view from Scout Lookout while the more sure-footed among your group make the trek out and back. You can also continue up the West Rim Trail to get a higher-up look down onto the canyon. 
For those of you out on Angel’s Landing yearning to get away from the hundreds of other people up there, walk to the farthest-out point you can; look down, and you’ll see a small ledge on the canyon-facing side of the Landing about 100 yards away, lined with small cairns. Alex and Chris made their way down there and snapped a few shots; from this vantage point, you can’t even hear the other hikers above you, much less see them. Except for a shuttle bus passing by on the canyon floor below you every 10 minutes or so, you’ll feel like you have Zion entirely to yourself.

And if you've got the time and inclination to wade through some chilly water, definitely check out the Narrows. Outfit yourself with dry pants, canyoneering boots, and neoprene socks from Zion Adventure Company, hop off the shuttle at the Temple of Sinawava, and hike the mile-long approach along the Virgin River to the point where you enter the tall, narrow canyon. The bottom up hike from the Temple of Sinawava requires no permit, but the top down portion from Chamberlain's Ranch does; if you're an experienced and confident hiker with at least one or two days on your hands, we'd definitely recommend getting a permit and hiking the 16 miles downstream. Otherwise, spend a few hours hiking as far into the bottom up portion of the Narrows as you can – the number of hikers you'll be sharing this incredible canyon with will decrease with distance.
What’s the secret shot I have to get in Zion National Park?

 

Look at a map of Zion – we recommend this topo map from National Geographic – and you’ll see a smaller section of the park jutting out of the top left corner. This part of the park, home to Kolob Canyon, is much less-populated than Zion Canyon, and we headed over this way to make the short hike to Kanarraville Falls. 

From Springdale, it’s about an hour’s drive to the small town of Kanarraville, just outside the boundaries of northwest section of Zion. Park in the lot at the trailhead in Kanarraville ($10, please) and hike the one and three-quarters miles along the trail following a stream until you reach the mouth of the slot canyon. From here, it’s a very short distance to the small waterfall, which you can climb over using the provided ladder to continue your hike. 

On first glance, this canyon isn't as mind-blowing as the Narrows. But stare a little longer, hang out for a while, and you'll start to notice that this canyon is taller, narrower, but brighter sandstone walls and patterns. The small waterfall is incredibly serene, and whoever installed this ladder knew what they were doing when it comes to framing photos. Best of all? Odds are there won't be another soul around. 

We rented the same gear we wore for the Narrows for this hike to Kanarraville Falls, but the water level is much lower here – just up to your shins if you choose to step in the deeper parts, and those are relatively easily avoidable. If you’re looking to save some money – and it’s warm enough out! – you could make this hike in breathable trail running shoes or a pair of water-resistant hiking boots. 
Where's the best place to get off the beaten path in Zion National Park?

 

Like Barbi said, some of the best treasures of Zion National Park are found in the backcountry. Head to the Kolob side of the park to get away from the crowds in Zion Canyon and explore climbing and canyoneering, caves and pictographs from Zion’s earliest people.

Are you a climber? Then Zion – as its Hebrew roots, meaning “refuge,” suggest – is the place for you, with some of the most scenic big wall climbing in the world. Pick up a copy of Supertopo’s Zion Climbing: Free and Clean to stake out some routes before you go or do your research online (Supertopo and Mountain Project are some great resources). Try your hand at Moonlight Buttress (5.12+), which is arguably the longest and hardest sandstone climb in the world. Never try to climb these routes during or after a rainstorm; Zion’s sandstone walls are extremely fragile when wet, and you could permanently damage the rock. Don't be that guy.
Backpackers, rejoice – there’s plenty for you in the 100-plus miles of backcountry trails that Zion National Park has to offer. We didn’t have the time to make any overnight trips while we were there, but given the opportunity, I would jump at the chance to do the Trans-Zion Trek. Traversing the park from north to south over three to five days, the 47-mile trail takes you up and down incredible elevations gains and drops, along canyon rims, across streams and mesas, and through all of the breathtaking natural beauty Zion has to offer. 

As with any multi-day backpacking trip, a good amount of planning ahead is required. Any backcountry trip in Zion requires a permit, so pick yours up at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center, which is close to the Trans-Zion Trek trailhead at Lee Pass in the northwestern section of the park. You’ll need to arrange a pickup for the end of the hike, as park shuttles don’t connect the two. Remember to bring along a water filter and ask about water availability when you get your permit. 

Looking for a shorter trip? Check out the options along the West Rim Trail, which continues up from Angel’s Landing.

What’s the best day hike in Zion National Park? 

Observation Point was recommended to us by Barbi on our first night in Zion, and we couldn’t have been more stoked to spend a full day on this hike. Eight miles, 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and some slightly nerve-inducing dropoffs give this hike a strenuous rating, but it’s accessible to anyone with strong legs and five hours to spare. Start at the Weeping Rock trailhead and be sure to bring an extra layer, water, and plenty of snacks. (Never hurts to throw a headlamp in your pack, either.) 

Especially at these higher altitudes, expect some unpredictable weather in the spring; it started snowing as we took the turn into Echo Canyon, and didn’t let up until it was a full-on blizzard at the top. We hear the view from Observation Point rivals that from Angel’s Landing, but you’ll have to let us know – it was a complete whiteout by the time we reached the summit. 
Where should we eat when we're in Zion National Park?

 

Set aside that Clif Bar for dinner – when in Zion’s frontcountry, it is essential that you head into Springdale for at least two meals a day. Trust me on this one. Springdale has blossomed over the past decade; what used to be a tiny hamlet has since become a kind of chic base camp, hosting Zion's visitors and providing them delicious food.

Looking for a big breakfast? Oscar’s Cafe is the place for you. Chris ordered the Green Chile Horseshoe, and couldn’t have been happier – the piping-hot ceramic dish comes to the table straight out of the oven, and is filled with seasoned potatoes, melted cheese, shredded pork, Oscar's house verde sauce, eggs any style, guacamole, and sour cream. If you’re in the mood for something lighter, head across the street to Deep Creek Coffee. Great coffee, homemade baked goods, and menu items like the bro-rito (yes, we spelled that right), açai bowls, and avocado toast give it a trendier vibe. 
Hit up Sol Foods Market for organic snacks and supplies for your day in the park, then swing back around to Springdale for dinner. We went to the Zion Canyon Brew Pub to chow down on applewood bacon burgers more than once – remember that Utah has some pretty restrictive laws when it comes to alcohol, so all beer brewed in-state has no more than 3.2 percent alcohol – and The Bit & Spur, a southwestern saloon, was a second-place favorite. Order the brie, walnut, and apple quesadilla appetizer with jalapeño jelly.

And when you’re camping, of course, you need to spend at least one night cooking dinner over a fire. We gathered a few ingredients from the market and grilled up some campfire tacos after our day hiking Observation Point, and stuffed our faces as the sun set behind the canyon walls. My down jacket still smells like campfire, and it's glorious. [H]

This guide is dedicated to Harrison Fast, the most intrepid of explorers, who built a life around getting outside his comfort zone. May he rest easy in the mountains. 

 

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Zion National ParkBy The Numbers

  • 3,662,220Visitors to Zion National ParkIn 2015
  • LASMcCarren International AirportFly into Las Vegas and rent a car. From here, Zion National Park is a stark and beautiful two-and-a-half-hour drive through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah
  • 34-62Degrees FahrenheitAverage low and high temperatures for Zion National Park in April
  • 8,726 feetHorse Ranch MountainThe highest point in Zion National Park
  • 100Miles of backcountry trailsGet away from the tourists filling Zion Canyon and into the park's less-explored backcountry
  • 229.1 Square milesOf land in Zion National Park
  • 1919Founding yearZion is Utah's first national park
  • 250 million Years of geological formationOver millennia, the Virgin River slowly cut through layers of iron-rich sandstone to form the 2,000-foot-tall walls of Zion Canyon
  • 3Frontcountry campgroundsWatchman Campground is open year-round, South Campground is open from late February through late November, and Lava Point Campground is typically open from June-October as weather allows
  • 124,406Acres of designated wildnernessThanks to President Obama, who signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act in 2009, much of Zion is designated wilderness. “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Know Before You Go

  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park frederick dellenbaughTopographer, chart maker, and painter Frederick Dellenbaugh presented a series of oil on canvas paintings of Zion National Park at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, introducing Americans to the otherworldly colors of Zion Canyon.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park bryce canyon national parkJust over an hour’s drive from Zion National Park (which takes you through the famed mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel), Bryce Canyon is a small but mighty national park, home to sprawling views of the park’s crimson-colored hoodoos, spire-shaped rock formations.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park liv combe grandmother2The author's grandmother, right, who spent her summers working in Zion National Park in the 1940s.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park instagram visit utah2If you're looking to do some Instagram research before you go, give Visit Utah a follow. These guys are the official tourism bureau for the state, and have plenty of recommendations for what you should do and see in around the Mighty 5 Utah national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park what to read desert solitaire2Before you go, pick up a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. A classic work of environmentalism in the American southwest, Abbey wrote this autobiographical book after working as a park ranger at Utah’s Arches National Monument.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park what to pack waterproof shell2Be prepared for rain, snow, sun, and everything in between when you visit Zion National Park this time of year. We experienced what felt like four seasons in four days! A lightweight waterproof shell was an essential item on our pack lists.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park what to pack myles shorts2Not only were the Myles shorts the perfect layer to wear underneath dry pants when hiking to Kanarraville Falls, they were flexible and cooling on the strenuous hike up Angel’s Landing.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park what to pack topo daypack2Zion is full of spectacular day hikes, which meant we needed a rain-or-shine day pack to bring along our water, snacks, and an extra layer. We used our go-to Topo Designs Klettersack everywhere from hiking Observation Point to wading through the Narrows.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park what to pack2No technical gear of your own? No problem. The folks at Zion Adventure Company in Springdale will hook you up with the dry pants and suits, neoprene socks, and canyoneering boots you need to hike into the Narrows and Kanarraville Falls.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park zion brewpub2Go to Zion Canyon Brew Pub for some local knowledge (our waitress, Barbi, had some amazing recommendations for off-the-beaten-path hikes), stay for the Applewood Bacon Burger and a house-brewed Zion Pale Ale. Pro tip: eat on the back patio.
  • Huckberry insider's guide zion national park chris brinlee rumplWrap yourself in a Rumpl blanket to make getting out of your sleeping bag in the morning way easier.
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