The Best of Zion National Park
Zion National Park at sunrise. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers settled in what is now known as Zion National Park in southern Utah. When they arrived they thought it to be so beautiful, holy with its towering natural cathedrals made of rock, that they called it Zion, a nod to Little Zion found in scripture in the Bible’s Old Testament. To them, it was a sacred dwelling. It still holds a sacred reverence to all who visit it today and it is without a doubt one of America’s most beloved national parks. We are going to leave the story of the history of the park to those who can write it better, focusing in on what we know best: places to explore when visiting the heavenly landscape. We’ve both been to Zion a handful of times and we managed to pick up some new spots to share during our recent visit. Without further ado, here are our picks for the best of Zion.
Canyon Overlook Trail
Worth the hike, the light exposure, and braving the tiny parking lot at the trailhead ... the Canyon Overlook undeniably has some of the best views in Zion National Park! Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
As mentioned in the intro, we’ve both been to Zion many times, but it was during our visit in 2016 that we first ventured onto this trail located just north of the historic Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. When we arrived at the Canyon Overlook viewpoint, we were both kicking ourselves a little bit for squandering all of those chances to see it in the past (but we are excited to share our new find here!) The views peering across canyons, beehives, colorful striated cliffs, and the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway that weaves through all of it offers one of the best views in the park. If you are looking for a high-elevation overlook with easy access, this is the spot. There are moments of exposure on the short hike out and when you reach the fenced overlook, but they are manageable even for those who aren’t crazy about exposure (Stefanie.)
On the Subway hike through Kolob Canyons — walking through water on a Tuesday afternoon! Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
Located in the peaceful northwest area of the park and away from the landmarks that draw the highest concentration of crowds at Zion is Kolob Canyons, a beautiful off-the-beaten-path area to explore. The five-mile scenic Kolob Canyon Road winds through a quiet and rugged stretch of land with viewpoint stops along the way, and provide passage to trailheads leading into incredible backcountry hikes featuring cascading waterfalls, canyon streams, and colorful Navajo sandstone. It was in Kolob where we finally felt like we had the park all to ourselves... and where we hit the hike outlined next which we absolutely loved called “The Subway.”
Stef strikes a pose inside of the Subway at Zion. We think it is one of the best hikes in the world! Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
Starting from the Left Fork trailhead in Kolob Canyons we ventured out on what would result in 9 miles of pure hiking bliss! This has got to be one of the coolest trails out there as it has everything one could yearn for while tackling a big hike. There is route finding (real exploration!), river crossings, bouldering, steep climbs down and back up—it’s a diverse adventure in terms of activity. And that is just the getting there. The “Subway” is a geological feature that mimics a basement train in shape. Once you are standing in the center of it, you’ve reached the end and can start the grueling hike back out (this is based on the bottom-up hike—there is a top-down hike that is beloved by climbers and canyoneers.) But that’s not all—just before you reach the Subway, you are walking through canyon streams cascading down, and by this point, you’ve done enough river crossings that you are wet up to the knee-caps and welcome the slog through rushing mountain water. I think we were there on a Tuesday during the early afternoon because as we stomped through the water we acknowledged how lucky we were to be in the wild depths of the canyon instead of in the wilds of conference rooms at work. Sorry! In any event, this hike is a can’t miss in Zion. Permits are required and run on a lottery, but they are free. Just plan in advance as only a small batch are allowed each day and this is a very popular hike - but not busy - thank you to National Park Service permitting!
Angel’s Landing & the West Rim Trail
A peer down the Western Rim Trail en route to Angel’s Landing and Scout’s Lookout provides views of switchbacks zig-zagging down to the valley floor. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
Angel’s Landing is THE classic Zion hike and is one of the most famous hikes in the world. The first four miles bring hikers along the West Rim Trail that leads to Scout’s Lookout from where you can take in the views while deciding whether you have the guts and desire to brave the final one-mile climb along the narrow canyon spine with support chains in hand to the landing. This last section is not for those who fear heights, exposure, and crowds while at serious heights while facing exposure. Fatalities are not common but they have occurred, and like all hikes and adventures in any national park, safety is the responsibility of the traveler. If you don’t feel comfortable climbing a cliff-face (you are not alone), don’t do it. You can still enjoy the hike along the West Rim Trail. There are incredible views the entire way up to Scout’s Landing—the switchbacks criss-crossing the valley floor are incredibly photogenic. If you are well-matched for a climb to the high peak, you will reach 1,500 feet and views of the entire valley, and can count yourself a member of the I Hiked Angel’s Landing club.
An enchanted waterfall at the middle section of Emerald Pools. It’s awesome to be able to stand behind the falls. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
This is a choose-your-own adventure area in the park with three main hikes among lush vegetation leading to different water features at each. The lower pool is perfect for those desiring a relaxed wander and for those with strollers and wheelchairs, ending at a collection of mountain streams and small pools. The middle trail is a more moderate hike gaining 150 feet leading to an overlook of the pools found on the lower trail and small waterfalls; and the upper pool is a strenuous climb up 350 feet to a waterfall that streams down from a cliff. What we love about this area is that it’s easy to access and an easy place to capture nice photographs ... and you can also walk behind waterfalls — what’s not to love!?
Zion: a river runs through it. And you can walk on water through the Virgin River while exploring it. This is an iconic hike in the park and it is easy to know why after braving it. Decked out in a dry suit—Zion Outfitter in the nearby town of Springdale can hook you up with water repellent gear and info—you will make way on foot along a 30-mile wide riverbed beneath limestone canyon walls towering 1,000 feet above the way early explorers and natives once did. There is no trail so-to-speak, the trail is the riverbed. Sublime! Permits are required and water level and weather are factors in whether or not a visit there is possible as flash floods in the park occur often during peak season and are a danger. Unfortunately, we had to miss the Narrows hike this year due to spring runoff from snowmelt, but we’ve done it before and can unequivocally say it is one of the best experiences to have at Zion.
The Watchman viewpoint
Photographers line up to photograph the Watchman at sunset. Can you spot Jonny? He nabbed the best spot on the bridge! Photo credit: Stefanie Payne
Guarding the southern entrance of the park, the Watchman is arguably the most iconic scene and provides some of the best sunset photography in the park. There is a 3-mile trail leading to a lookout of the towering peak, but this entry refers to the viewpoint as seen from Canyon Junction, with the Virgin River winding right through the middle of the scene. It is so picturesque that you might even feel compelled to put your camera down for a moment to simply admire the landscape. So much beauty in one peripheral spot is almost hard to take in, and even for photographers, can command full attention. Get there early to settle in with other shutterbugs as the sun falls against the red rock and the seafoam-colored water.
Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel
Wally the Airstream took several long wanders along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. To go through the tunnel, we had to force one-lane traffic... apparently this is common in the park — the rangers had the exercise down to a science. Photo credit: Stefanie Payne
Cruising the 6-mile Mt. Carmel Highway through the park provides visitors easy access to viewpoints while offering that windy-road experience that also makes for magnificent on-the-road shots. It is paved well (smooth), easily accessible throughout the most popular area of the park, and the richly brick-colored highway with canary-yellow stripes plays really well visually against the soft color of the canyons.
A few miles along the highway up from the Visitor Center you will cross through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel, completed in 1930, a landmark with a rich history that at the same time allows modern travelers like us all passage THROUGH a mile of canyon in what feels like the dark of night. It’s a trip to travel through a canyon.
Step out of your room at the Zion Lodge and THIS is the view. There is no better place to stay in the park for immediate access to beauty. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
During the majority of our road trip this year we are living in Wally the Airstream, but every once in awhile there is an iconic park lodge ran by independent concessioners that we feel we must patronize in order to get the full experience. For all of the bells and whistles of a visit to Zion, the Zion Lodge is unmatched in terms of location and class. You can walk outside of your room in the morning, look skyward, and get views of the park that have awed visitors for over a century. A Historic Hotel of America, Zion Lodge is located in the heart of the park and provides any amenity you could desire, and the large oak tree in the middle of the grassy area in front of the lodge makes you want to lay out a blanket and relax the day away beneath Mother Nature’s best work.
We recommend positioning your stay at Zion Lodge or south of the park in the town of Springdale, where you can find a U.S. Post Office, Zion Outfitter (the resident leaders aside from the Park Service in outfitting and providing information for park adventures), and great restaurants like the Bit & Spur (upscale Mexican,) Cafe Soleil (awesome breakfast and coffee,) The Pioneer Restaurant (classic diner breakfast!) and Jack’s Sports Bar, where we found the staff to be every bit as knowledgeable about the park as anyone in the area, as they are mostly seasonal workers and are really in Springdale to enjoy the park when not working anyway.
19 parks down, 40 to go! Photo credit: Stefanie Payne