Weekend Warrior Series: 3 Days + 3 Hikes in Zion National Park
The chance to take weekend trip to Zion National Park in Utah? Yes PLEASE! For this weekend warrior series trip, we celebrated my friend Laura’s birthday in the best way possible- outdoors in the sunshine with a group of ten super and cool like-minded adventure seekers. We took the trip in March when the weather was mild and there was still some snow on the mountains, having the second opportunity to use our annual National Parks Pass after purchasing it at The Grand Canyon in January.
Did you know that Zion is the first National Park in Utah? The canyons within are a result of millions of years of erosion from the Virgin River, which is a tributary of the Colorado River that runs in the U.S. through the states of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.
Zion National Park is drivable distance from Los Angeles. It’s about 6 hours and a little over 400 miles one-way. It’s an easy drive- a straight shot up the 15 North through CA, NV, and briefly through the corner of AZ- you can even get a peek/make a stop in Las Vegas on the way if you’re feeling wild. 😉 If you’d like to see some desert art, the Seven Magic Mountains art display is directly off the highway about 30 minutes South of Las Vegas.
Our large group of ten adventure-seekers lodged in an AirBnb in the town of Hurricane (we were wondering why on the name, too), Utah which is about 40 minutes outside Zion. If you’re looking for a more affordable alternative for visiting during a peak season, staying in nearby towns of Hurricane or La Verkin is the right option for you. If you’re looking to be very close to the park and/or not wanting to have to drive to get to all of the action I would recommend staying in the town of Springdale which is wonderfully cute vacation town directly outside the park’s gates.
The most important lesson we learned upon arrival to Zion is that motor traffic is extremely limited inside the park. You have to take a free shuttle if you’re going to explore popular locations like the Zion Lodge and The Grotto Trail (where the Angel’s Landing hike starts). These shuttles run from the months of February to November, and leave from the Visitor’s Center parking lot extremely frequently- as often as every seven minutes during peak season.
From our experience, it is easiest to drive from wherever you’re lodging and park in the town of Springdale. There are free shuttles from town directly to the entrance to the park, where you can enter the park (parking is pricey, but you’ll be saving wasted time trying to find a place to leave your car inside the park) on foot and then proceed to the park’s shuttles at the Visitor’s Center to start your day of adventure.
On our trip we did three hikes inside Zion: The Canyon Overlook Trail, The Lower Emerald Pool Trail, and Angel’s Landing Trail.
The Canyon Overlook Trail
The Canyon Overlook Trail is located on the side of the park opposite from shuttle access, in the Upper East Canyon. You’ll definitely want to explore this side of the park if you do have a car with you. The winding road snakes upwards through a valley of sandstone rock formations and offers the opportunity to see scatters of bighorn sheep from your car. This hike is only accessible by driving a car along Route 9 through the upper East Canyon and parking roadside, to walk to the trailhead.
It’s a shorter hike and not particularly strenuous, just over a mile roundtrip and requiring about an hour of hiking time. This path isn’t overly steep but has a few treacherous drop-offs which require holding onto a railing for safe footing. About halfway along the path to the peak there’s a shaded alcove, a nice break from the direct sunshine on the rest of the walk and a great photo opportunity- but beware that it can be a slippery area in the Spring months from puddles of snowmelt.
When you get to the end of the trail you’ll reach the viewpoint which sits on the rim of Pine Creek Canyon, which adjoins Zion Canyon to provide massive views of thousand-foot tall cliffs. There’s a plaque which explains all of the relevant sights in the canyon. Some interesting features to look out for include the switchbacks of Route 9 below, Bridge Mountain (the highest peak on the left side of the canyon), the East Temple (the impressive rock formation above the viewpoint to the right), and the Pine Creek stream which you can hear faintly flowing in the Spring.
Be careful exploring and/or taking photos near the edge of the rock-face (don’t become the next person to fall off a cliff taking a selfie) because the 1,000+ foot drop-offs would be fatal to fall from. Once you’ve enjoyed a snack and taken some pretty pictures, go back the way you came keeping an eye out for more local bighorn sheep!
Lower Emerald Pools Trail
This out-and-back 1 mile trail is unchallenging- even wheelchair and stroller accessible. Much of the walk is paved and it begins right across the road from the Zion Lodge (which is the shuttle stop you’ll want to get off on for this hike).
The walk begins by crossing over the Virgin River and then turns West toward Heaps Canyon with beautiful views up the main canyon toward Angels Landing, and sheer Navajo Sandstone cliffs.
Along the path grows an abundance of lush vegetation. There are many guardrails on the side of the trail which keep hikers on track and out of the water which is not allowed. The furthest point you can hike on this path is to the lower falls, because severe storm damage has closed the middle and upper pools indefinitely at this time. Beautiful reminders of Mother Nature’s workings in a desert landscape!
The third and final hike we did in Zion was the famous “Angel’s Landing.”
It truly lives up to its name- If I were an angel this is for sure where I’d be landing to hang out and enjoy the incredible view. The 5.2 mile 1,500 foot elevation gain hike is one of the most magnificent trails I have ever been on, because it’s so unique compared to any hike I’ve done up to this point.
It is a strenuous journey requiring mental and physical strength on some sections more treacherous than others, and requiring an adequate sense of balance and arm strength. With that warning in mind, it’s not as bad as the crazy drop-offs you’re picturing when everyone talks about the peril of the trail. In fact, we saw one guy hiking it with his six year old tied to his belt- dad goals, perhaps? I would just not recommend it to anyone with a fear of heights.
The hike takes between 3-6 hours depending on your fitness level and how crowded the trail is on that particular day (only one person can go down and up on a chain at the same time- see the photos below).
To begin the hike, take the shuttle to the “Grotto Trailhead,” and cross over the bride above the Virgin River toward the West Rim Trail on the West side of the main canyon.
The first part of the hike is a series of 21 challengingly steep switchbacks on a paved path (these switchbacks are apparently are called “Walter’s Wiggles,” hehe- the name comes from Walter Ruesch, Zion National Park’s first superintendent, who in 1926 set about constructing a trail to Angels Landing), with incredible views of the canyon below. When you reach the top of the West Rim Trail, you’ll be at “Scout’s Lookout”- a first look at the majesty of Angel’s Landing and what will be the remainder of your ascent.
The first section of chain hiking is up against the side of the rock-face, only exposed to one side of drop.
The second half of the chain section is more exposed, sometimes with drop-offs of thousands of feet on both sides- again, don’t like heights? This might not be the right hike for you…
Follow along these chains for the next 1.5 miles or so, and be courteous to people who are traveling in the other direction. One of the reasons this hike takes so long is that it can get pretty bottlenecked on the chains with people trying to go up and down at the same time.
After a steep climb toward the end you’ll reach the top of Angel’s Landing where you will be able to walk along the spine of the ridge toward the edge and peer over the vast canyon below with 360 degree views of Zion.
When you’ve had your fix of the insane views (and a snack- carefully avoiding the fearlessly aggressive chipmunks) at the top, head back down the way you came. As with all trips experiencing nature, remember to “leave no trace” and pack in what you pack out- these chipmunks don’t need anymore freebies 😉
It’s a less strenuous journey back, but still as potentially dangerous as going up if you’re not careful.
Zion’s was an incredible trip. These three hikes were all extraordinary expereinces. The park offers activities for all types of skill levels to appreciate the feat of thousands of years of Mother Nature’s workings showcasing Earth’s natural beauty.
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