Zion National Park is the fourth most visited National Park, and that’s not by coincidence or convenience – it’s breathtaking in its beauty and fascinating terrain. High plateaus in southwest Utah are ruggedly cut with a maze of deep, narrow canyons.
Towering 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstones cliffs hang overhead in the valley, and give you vertigo when looking down from them at the top. With a total elevation change of about 5,000 feet, Zion National Park provides diverse flora and fauna.
Geology of the Park
The topography of Zion National Park is unique. The Virgin River and its tributaries cut deep into the layers of rock. While backpacking along the West Rim Trail, I took a spur trail to peer over into the canyon below. Looking across the canyon at the wall on the other long lines of crevices drew my eye up and down. And for the first time, I felt I might fall over the edge and into an abyss while on a hike. (And that spot wasn’t even Angel’s Landing!)
Unique geological features, such as The Narrows, the Court of the Patriarchs (several high peaks that towner over the canyon), and the Checkboard Mesa give Zion National Park a distinct sense of place.
History of the Park
People have called Zion National Park home for nearly 12,000 years. The Virgin Anasazi people inhabited the area a little more than a 1,000 years ago. About 800 years ago the Paiute people moved into the area, followed by the Mormon pioneers and other Europeans.
In 1919 Zion National Park President Woodrow Wilson signed the park into being.
No trip to this area of Utah is complete without a visit to a slot canyon. Zion National Park has some of the world’s best canyons. When you think of Zion National Park one of the top images that comes to mind is the slot canyon, The Narrows.
This 16-mile stretch of the Virgin River has towering walls that can reach up to 1,000 feet high and only 20 to 30 feet apart. Those who want to hike the entire section of river can do so either over-night or in one long day hike. But either way you choose to hike the entire Narrows, you need to obtain a permit.
Another option is to do an out and back hike from downriver. This does not require a permit and is what I did. You can read about my hike here.
Another popular hike is Angel’s Landing. If you’ve seen videos of people climbing a mountain holding onto chains with sheer drop-offs on the right and the left, it’s probably Angel’s Landing. The tall narrow wall stands nearly 1,500 feet and is only a few feet wide in places.
It’s almost like someone cut Angel’s Landing out of The Narrows and placed it further down the canyon. Angel’s Landing is a hike not for those with a fear of heights. It also is a fairly steep climb to the top.
Angel’s Landing can be accessed via the West Rim Trail, which I hiked; however, I ended up skipping Angel’s Landing because I had run out of water and didn’t want to put myself in more danger.
If you are not great with a narrow trail or don’t feel like hiking a trail where you have to hold onto a chain, you can go a little ways past Scout Landing along the West Rim Trail and have a nice view of the canyon from above Angel’s Landing.
The Watchman Trail
The Watchman Trail is a great short day hike that gives you views of the Zion Canyon and town of Springdale. The 3.3-mile roundtrip shows hikers the beauty of the desert terrain as well as the abundant life along the Virgin River.
Zion National Park Campgrounds
There are three front-country campgrounds at Zion National Park. The Watchman Campground and South Campground are nestled in Zion Canyon and are near the Visitor Center and the town of Springdale. They can get hot in the summer months and some sites do not have shade.
They can accommodate campers and RVs, but do not have electrical hookups. There are flush toilets, cold running drinking water, and trash, but no showers.
Lava Point Campground is about an hour’s drive from Zion Canyon and is open from May to September. Located at a higher elevation, sometimes the weather can close it. It has six primitive campsites, by reservation, and pit toilets.
The town of Springdale is adjacent to the park and has many amenities, like groceries, gas, and first aid. After a fall in The Narrows, I found myself searching for first aid in Springdale. When I backpacked the West Rim Trail, I used a shuttle service out of Springdale to transport me to the trailhead, and it was close enough for me to walk from the Visitor Center.
However, one important tidbit to note is that there is no free parking within the town of Springdale, which is why I left my vehicle at the Visitor Center. But several shops and restaurants have small parking lots for their patrons at no charge.
Zion National Park Shuttles
Because Zion National Park is such a popular park with not a lot of places to put roads and parking lots, the park service implemented a shuttle system to take visitors into the canyon during the busy time. From March to November the shuttles run daily and are free. They do not run during the winter.
I visited the park in August, and although I did have to stand in line and wait for a shuttle, it was never long, and it was only one time. I had stood in line about 10 minutes, and that was because I was leaving from the first stop first thing in the morning.
Some people complain about the shuttle. They say it gives the park a theme-park feel. However, I will take standing in line and riding a bus any day over the traffic jams I can image they had before them.
Zion National Park
Writing this post and looking back over my pictures, I feel I didn’t appreciate Zion National Park as much as I should have in the moment. It is such a unique and beautiful place. I think sometimes when you are literally surrounded by so much beauty, it’s not until you come home and reflect on being there that you realize how wonderful it was.
I wish I had more time. Because I didn’t have time for all the interesting looking trails and sites to see on my trip. But I will definitely do the Canyon Overlook, Observation Point, and the Human History Museum when I go back. You can learn more about the park on its website.