Utah Part I: Zion

Utah Part I: Zion

I visited Southern Utah recently. My route started in Las Vegas and took me through Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks. This is my first post in a series about some very beautiful places in Utah. This post will focus on Zion National Park and surrounding areas.

I’ve seen Utah three times before, but I am always wanting to go back. When I hear the word “vacation,” I immediately picture myself scrambling on the slickrock and looking out on long vistas in the Utah desert.

For my most recent trip in March 2019, I traveled with my partner, A., and my very adventurous friend, J. We planned to travel during academic spring break because it was a good time for us all to take off work. We flew into Las Vegas, which had the benefit of being cheap and close to our final destination. We quickly picked up our rental car and headed for the hills — or Hurricane, Utah, to be exact, where we planned to get some sleep before heading for Zion National Park in the morning. It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time we got our rental car, which made for an arduous drive to Hurricane, but we made it. The distance from Las Vegas to Zion National Park is just under 160 miles, and we stopped a little bit short of that.

Zion National Park

Our first day in Zion got off to a lazy start. We left Hurricane late that morning and got checked into the Zion Park Motel in Springdale, Utah. Springdale has the good fortune of being positioned right at the main entrance to Zion, and you can catch shuttles in town to take you to the park entrance lot, where you catch another shuttle to get into the canyon. The shuttles are free and usually mandatory. There is a small window of time in the winter where visitors can drive into the canyon, but by mid-March, the only choice for getting into the park is the shuttle.

The evening colors around Checkerboard Mesa are amazing (Upper East Canyon).
Checkerboard Mesa in the Upper East Canyon along Route 9 (the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway).
Mule Deer near Checkerboard Mesa in the Upper East Canyon.

Things to Do

My main goal for the trip was the classic Observation Point hike. Observation Point hike starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead, is 8 miles round trip, and leads to one of the most iconic views of Zion Canyon. I completed it in 2013, and hiked it partially in 2016 but stopped due to deep snow on the trail. Unfortunately, the Weeping Rock access trailhead was closed because of a rockfall, and from what I could tell, it was expected to be closed for a while. (Note: Weeping Rock trailhead remains closed as of mid-April, 2019). Observation Point is alternatively accessible via the East Rim Trail, but due to shortened daylight and my chronically injured foot, we opted against a longer hike. Angel’s Landing, another classic Zion hike with a precipitous knife-edged viewpoint, was open up to Scout’s Lookout, but all of us had done that hike already.

Instead, we decided to do some of the smaller classic hikes, and to see parts of the park that we hadn’t all seen before.

Map image from the National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/ZionUnigrid.pdf).

Riverside Walk (2 miles round trip) – This was our first sojourn into the park. It was early afternoon and not too crowded, although Riverside Walk is typically a very popular hike. The trail is completely flat and mostly paved, and takes you to the narrowest part of the Zion Canyon, where you can proceed to wade in the waters of the Virgin River or complete the more strenuous Narrows hike. In the summer, visitors wade the Virgin River in their bathing suits; however, in the colder seasons, Narrows hikers must wear a dry suit that can be rented at one of the outfitters in Springdale. As of April, 2019, the Narrows is closed due to snow melt.

Views from Riverside Walk.
More views from Zion Canyon.

Lower Emerald Pools (1.2 miles round trip) – I remembered this as a magical hike when we did it in 2016. Back then, there was a snow storm in the canyon. We managed to do the hike right before the trail was closed due to hazardous conditions. Everything was covered in snow. The falls were throwing crystal snow dust over the canyon wall and into the pools. This time, it wasn’t nearly as magical, but it was still lovely. The hike has some gentle ups and downs, but is not strenuous. There are lots of opportunities for picture-taking along the trail. My friend J. saw the American Dipper bird, also known as the water ouzel, dipping in the waters on this trail.

Lower Emerald Pools.
Peeking out from the Lower Emerald Pools Trail.
Starting off the Lower Emerald Pools Trail, looking back.

Canyon Overlook (1 mile round trip) – This hike stresses me out. There is so little parking in the Upper East Canyon and there are so many cars waiting to park. But don’t give up. Be patient and look for a spot in the small lot across from the trailhead or a bit further up the road. The hike is short but rocky, with some precipitous edges. Had it not been for a tree and its branches, I think J. may have ended up at the bottom of a canyon after missing a step on the trail. The hike is not strenuous, it just requires some extra attention.

The park ranger we met at the visitor center told us that the view made a good sunrise hike. I’m sure she was right, but sunset was amazing as well. The canyon becomes backlit by the burning sun as it slowly makes its way behind the horizon.

We stayed just until sunset, then hiked back with the hordes of others.

There was still snow on the ground on Kolob Terrace Road.
In March 2019, Kolob Terrace Road was open until a point where it was no longer plowed, about halfway to the end.

Kolob Terrace Road – Just west of Springdale, this road is a beautiful drive with some trailheads that connect to the West Rim Trail. We drove until the road was closed for snow, just to take in the scenery. The road is paved, but there are some dirt side roads. It goes up and up and up, until it’s no longer passable because of snow.

A horse was waiting for someone off Kolob Terrace Road.

Timber Creek Overlook (1 mile round trip) – This hike is in the Kolob Canyons section of the park. This means you have to drive there, and it’s about 30 minutes from Springdale. It’s a short hike along a ridge line with one small climb and many beautiful vistas. We decided to see it since we had the time and we couldn’t do Observation Point. It’s a much less frequented section of the park. There were only a few people on the trail.

To get there, take Route 9 to Route 17 to Route 15 and exit on Kolob Canyons Road. There’s a small visitor center in this section of the park.

A view of the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park.

Unknown Trail (short distance) – Somewhere in the Upper East Canyon, just before you leave the park via the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway east gate, you may see a few cars parked on the side of the road. You may notice a small creek and a drainage going under the road. Follow the trail to the creek, proceed through the which backtracks under the road, and walk a short distance further. You’ll find Zion’s well-hidden petroglyphs. The trail is not marked, and I don’t know what it’s called, but there are some information boards close to the petroglyphs, signs of Zion’s earliest inhabitants.

Scenery near the petroglyphs in the Upper East Canyon.
Petroglyphs in the Upper East Canyon.

Upper East Canyon Drive – On several occasions now, we’ve taken the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway (Route 9) out of the main canyon toward the east gate to the park. This is an overwhelmingly beautiful and underrated (and under visited!) section of the park. We’ve done the drive just before sunset, getting to Checkerboard Mesa when the sky is pink and purple, and the mesa is cream colored.

Checkerboard Mesa from the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway.

A lot of visitors to Zion are on their way to somewhere else. It is frequently a stopping point on the way to Bryce Canyon, as it was for us, or to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Under these circumstances, you may only have a day or a few days here. You can still make the most out of your stay in Zion. You may not have time to see Kolob Canyons, and that’s okay. You’ll see it next time. Concentrate your hikes in Zion Canyon. Talk to the rangers in the visitor center at the main entrance to get some feedback on your plans given trail closures and the season, and I guarantee you really can’t go wrong.

When to Go

March has the benefit of being a shoulder season for this and other Utah national parks. You are less likely to run into a debilitating snow storm, although it’s still possible, and the daytime temperatures are pretty reasonable for hiking comfortably. You will still need sunblock and layers, of course, even though the temperatures may range from the 30s to the 60s (Fahrenheit). Normally, these parks would be less crowded in the spring, but because we chose spring break week, we encountered a lot more families and college students than we thought we would.

On previous trips, I have traveled in the summer. The heat was dangerous. The desert does not mess around. Lots of people go to these parks in the summer, but I don’t imagine it’s very much fun.

I have also traveled in December, around Christmas week. It worked out well for us at the time, but there is always a chance of road and trail closures due to snow, as we saw in some places further north, even in March. It helps to have a backup plan if you can’t access the park.

Where to Stay

For this trip, we stayed in Springdale Zion Park Motel. It was clean and budget friendly, and most importantly, I had two very good nights of sleep here. In the past, I have stayed at Flanigan’s, an inn in Springdale, and at the Zion Lodge itself. The lodge was of course convenient to all the canyon trails, but we had to drive into Springdale if we wanted to eat somewhere else.

Where to Eat

On our way from Hurricane to Springdale, we stopped at River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin, Utah. I am so glad we did. They had pastries and quiches that were phenomenal, and excellent coffee, too. On top of this, they have a beautiful space and a vista 50 miles long into Utah canyon country.

Vegetarian sweet potato tamales at the Bit & Spur.

There are other two restaurants in particular that stood out to me, both located in Springdale. One is Oscar’s Cafe. This small restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating has heat lamps. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a menu featuring bar food (burgers, salads) and Mexican-inspired foods (burritos). They have a rotating beer menu of local selections. Any choice from Oscar’s Cafe is sure to refuel the hungry hiker.

The other place I really enjoyed was Bit & Spur. I first ate here in 2005, so I was happy to see in thriving. In fact, they’ve recently renovated for a much bigger dining space. The menu has a lot of local flavor, featuring foods of the American Southwest, as well as cocktails and Utah-made spirits and beers.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Where have you hiked in Zion? What trails are special to you? Do you have any secret spots?

This post is the first in a series about selected sights in Utah. Next up: Bryce and Arches.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.