It was hard to believe we were in the desert.
With its lush trees and flowing waters, Utah’s Zion National Park looked more like Maine’s 2,000-miles-away Acadia than Nevada’s two-hours-away Valley of Fire, where we’d hiked the day before on the first stop of our side trip from Las Vegas.
But the towering walls of golden red Navajo sandstone gave it away.
Like most visitors, we were spending our day in the colorful Zion Canyon, a 2,500-foot-deep gorge in the western part of the 229-square-mile Park, which takes its name from the Mormon pioneers who settled Utah after fleeing government persecution in Illinois during the 19th century.
Just after sun-up, we crossed the Virgin River via a footbridge toward the Emerald Pools Trails, a popular hike through tall cliffs and welcoming cottonwoods.
The three pools are shallow basins of water named for the greenish tint of the algae they host. The trails to the lower and middle pools are pretty easy; the steep climbs toward the upper pool classify it as moderate. So it was a good choice for my companion and me; physically fit but hardly Ironman competitors, we often seek our weekend work-outs by hiking through scenic parks.
Zion quickly became one of our favorites. It took us most of the morning to complete the two-mile Emerald Pools loop over dusty paths and steep rock, but that was because we stopped so often to savor the scenery.
I loved the green foliage.
So did a mule deer, apparently so used to people that she just kept grazing while we strolled by.
But my favorite was the waterfall.
With its sheltering orange walls, welcoming broad trees, and refreshing cool waters, hiking through Zion is like watching the most glorious elements of nature all playing together.
What to know before you go
Where to stay
In Springdale: Springdale is the gateway town to Zion, with lots of lodging options, as well as restaurants and shops.
In Hurricane: A little further is Hurricane, with several highway hotels and more limited restaurant choices.
This is where we stayed.
In St. George: St. George is the closest city, about a 50-minute drive.
Whatever you choose, make your reservations early; Zion is very popular, and lodging fills up fast.
How to get there
By shuttle: There is a shuttle bus system that transports visitors from Springdale to the Park’s pedestrian entrance. The shuttle is free; most of the parking in town is not. The pedestrian entrance fee to the Park is $20 per person older than 15, good for one week; younger children are free.
By bicycle: The weekly entry fee is also $20/bicycle.
By motorcycle: The weekly entry fee is $30/motorcycle.
By car: The weekly fee is $35/car, up to 15-passenger capacity. There is limited parking at the entrance to Zion, and it fills up early.
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We thoroughly researched options, at one point even considering Ubering to Springdale to hop the shuttle. Then we met a delightful young couple in the hot tub at our hotel who’d visited the Park that day and were planning to return the next. After riding the Springdale shuttle that day, they decided to drive to the Park on the following and recommended that we do the same. We arose around 6:00 and fueled up at the hotel breakfast. We made it to the Park by around 7:10 and found the lot about half-empty. This option worked out well for us, and we would choose it again.
How to get around
This will largely be determined by what time of year you visit. There are paved roads and parking lots inside the Park, but personal motor vehicles are banned from Zion Canyon during March through October except for visitors staying at the Lodge. Bicycling is permitted. During March through November, there is a free shuttle that loops through the Canyon. (This is different from the Springdale shuttle, which you would disembark at the pedestrian entrance; then you would line up to board another shuttle into the Canyon.) The line was already long by the time we reached the Park entrance, and we waited around 20 minutes for a bus. After this initial ride, the shuttles remained crowded, but we never had to wait more than a few minutes. There are nine stops near various trail heads. Most of them have rest rooms, water fountains, and sun shelters. Overall, the shuttle system is very efficient and intuitive to use, and there is an audio feed giving helpful information.
What to wear
Comfortable clothing. This too will depend on the time of year, and of day, you visit, as well as on your own style. Annual temperatures in Zion range from low 20s to high 80s. When we arrived before sun-up on a Saturday in May, it was cold, but we decided to leave behind our hoodies and windbreakers. As we waited for the shuttle in line with dozens of serious hikers swaddled in warm layers, we worried that we’d made a big mistake. We hadn’t. Once the sun rose, so did the heat. To us it was worth enduring 25 chilly minutes not to have to carry extra layers of clothing. Late in the morning, we encountered one young couple turning back because they’d over-dressed and were facing heat exhaustion. My recommendation is a base of comfortable clothing suitable for the day’s expected high, and extra layers as dictated by your own plans and preferences. There are gift shops at the Visitors’ Center and the Lodge where you can buy (overpriced) clothing in a pinch.
Comfortable sturdy shoes with a good tread. I was fine in my Skechers for the Emerald Pools, but wear real hiking boots if you’re planning on the more strenuous trails.
A hat, sunglasses, and high-SPF sunscreen. Once the sun comes up, it is strong.
What to bring
Sunscreen to re-apply.
A change of socks.
A compact camera. You’ll see people doing it, but I really don’t recommend bringing a DSLR and tripod, especially if you’re going at a popular time. A small snappy would be manageable, but I took the pictures in this post with my iPhone.
Where to eat
There are lots of beautiful places to picnic throughout the canyon, but we ate lunch at the Red Rock Grill in the Lodge. It was reasonably priced for a tourist place, and the service was pleasant. We both opted for the taco bar available that day, making a few trips to fill up on ground beef and chicken and vegetables, going easy on the tortillas and chips. We sat out on the large porch to savor the scenery along with our lunch.
For current conditions: The @ZionNPS twitter feed tweets frequently about logistical issues that could affect your visit, including trail closures, weather threats, and parking availability.
A word on crowds: Millions of people visit Zion National Park annually. It’s easily the most crowded national park I’ve seen, including Grand Canyon. Early in the morning, it was mostly older, experienced hikers in line with us for the shuttle. By mid-morning, there were lots of young families on the Emerald Pools Trails. There are also a fair amount of visitors from cultures that don’t share the American preference for personal space. But except for one tall 60-something with hiking poles who nearly knocked me over on the descent from the Upper Emerald Pool, most people were pleasant and polite. It’s no wonder that so many people travel to Zion. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.