Zion National Park in Utah is one of my favorite parks. From the red sandstone cliffs, the amazing slot canyon that is the Zion Narrows, to the waterfalls and springs that create hanging gardens, Zion surrounds its visitors with its breathtaking beauty. I’ve narrowed down all the amazing things about Zion and have chosen my favorite elements of Zion to share with you.
1. Zion’s Majestic and Colorful Rock Formations
Zion National Park is part of the ‘grand staircase,’ a series of sedimentary rock layers that cover Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park, and into the Grand Canyon. Zion’s mostly sedimentary rocks consist of limestone, shale, mudstone,and sandstone. The uplift from the formation of the Colorado Plateau gave rise to these magnificent formations, monoliths, and stone mesas. Many of the larger rock formations have names like the Watchman, the Court of the Patriarchs, and the Temple of Sinawava. These massive rock formations envelope the canyon and provide a stunning backdrop to the valley.
In addition to stunning rock formations, Zion National Park has rocks with beautiful hues of red, pink, orange, brown, and white. These colored rocks are the result of iron or iron oxide – either in the sedimentary layer itself or carried into the rocks by water. Sometimes streaks of color are seen in vertical lines down the rocks. Bacteria that lives on and sticks to the rocks also can color their surfaces, just as water can leave white salt streaks after evaporation. These red, brown, and white colors make striking contrasts to the green foliage and blue skies within the park.
2. The Zion Narrows
The Zion Narrows is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and a very popular hike within the park. At their highest point, the walls can reach 1,000 feet high, with only a narrow slice of the river in between the rock walls. On this hike, you hike mostly IN the Virgin River, which carved out Zion Canyon. Whether you do the two-day hike of the Zion Narrows, from Chamberlain’s Ranch to its end (at the Temple of Sinawava), or simply dip your toes into the Virgin River at the end of the Narrows, you can gain an appreciation of the carving power of water. Most people, on warm summer days, get their feet in the water at the Temple of Sinawava and walk upstream, to catch a glimpse of the magnificent slot canyon.
3. The Hikes
There are so many fun, adventurous, and beautiful hikes in Zion National Park. Besides the Narrows, there are the upper and lower Emerald Pools hikes, the Watchman Trail, Weeping Rock Trail, and Angel’s Landing, among many others. Angel’s Landing is probably the most well-known of the other hikes, simply because of its sharp and steep precipice upon which the hike ends. Being that I’m not a risk taker, my family and I opted not to hike the last half mile of the hike. There is a beautiful enough vista close enough to the end of the trail without endangering anyone’s safety. If you are the adventurous type, you will enjoy this 5 mile roundtrip hike and take in the view at 1,488 feet above the Virgin River. As long as you are not bothered by steep drop-offs and exposed edges, you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the Zion Valley. Only the most daring will hike that last half mile.
For detailed information on the Angel’s Landing hike, click here to visit Utah.com. For information about all the hikes in Zion, click here to get hiking information from the nps.gov website.
4. The Arches
Even though Zion is not known for arches, there are several arches that can be found within the park. Because the park is mostly composed of sandstone rocks, these natural arches are created when cracks form in the sandstone and erosion eventually leaves these half-moon shapes prominently displayed within the rock.
The arches most well-known in Zion are Crawford Arch and Kolob Arch. Located just behind the Human History Museum, Crawford Arch is named for one of the first Mormon families that settled in Zion Canyon. Kolob Arch is not so easy to see. Located in the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park, you can only reach the arch after a 7 mile one way hike in the backcountry. As one of the world’s largest freestanding arches, Kolob Arch is 287 feet long and an impressive 75 feet thick.
5. Canyoneering the Subway
I have to provide full disclosure here: I have never experienced the Subway. I have, however, read about numerous people who have. The Subway is a short, but scenic area of the Left Fork of North Creek within Zion National Park. Named for its unique tunnel shape underground, this slot canyon is one of the most recognized places to canyoneer.
Being one of the most popular backcountry areas within Zion, you must have a permit to hike the Subway, and they are hard to come by. Hiking the Subway is difficult, as it requires rappelling, down climbing, swimming in cold water, and good physical endurance. Due to the strenuous nature of the Subway, most people choose a local outfitter that not only guides, but provides necessary equipment for the hike as well. Allow a full day for this experience, as it is around 9 miles long and takes 6-10 hours. For more information on canyoneering here, check out canyoneeringusa.com.
Don’t Forget: Kolob Canyons
Tucked away in the northwest corner of the park, is the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park. About an hour drive away from Zion Canyon’s Visitor’s Center, this area of the park is higher in elevation and offers more spectacular views. Although I have never visited the Kolob Canyons area, I do know this area is well-known for its pristine wilderness, peacefulness, and solitude. There is a small visitor’s center, a five-mile scenic drive, and plenty of backcountry camping. If you are interested, click here for more information on the Kolob Canyons area of Zion.
Notable Mention: The Zion Shuttle Service
Because of its size, Zion National Park does not have space for wide roads and parking lots, requiring visitors to use the park’s shuttle service. The free shuttle runs early spring to late fall, and stops at the major viewpoints within the park and in the nearby town of Springdale. This allows many tourists to leave their cars at their hotels and simply walk to the shuttle stop to catch a ride into the park. Note that there are 2 different shuttle buses: one is for the town of Springdale and the other is for the national park. The Springdale shuttle will take you into Zion National Park where you exit and pay your entrance fee. Then, while in the park, you can hop onto the Zion Canyon shuttle to see the sights.
So many times at national parks, you deal with the headache of traffic, limited parking, and noise/air pollution due to cars; because Zion only lets cars in so far as the where the Floor of the Valley Road, Virgin River, and Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway meet, you have to take the shuttle to see any of the sights. The park will allow you to drive along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, but you must continue taking that path eastward/westward. Only shuttle buses can turn onto the Floor of the Valley Road. (You may drive your own vehicles in the park December-March when shuttles are not running.)
The shuttle drivers are very kind, helpful, and offer numerous bits of information about the park to all of its visitors. Having to hop onto a shuttle is not as bad as it seems. When visitor numbers are high, the shuttles come by quite frequently (wait time is 7-15 minutes). During the times I’ve been in Zion, it’s actually been nice and somewhat more relaxing to have to wait for a shuttle and slow our pace down a bit. The park seems quieter, less chaotic, and leaves me with a better experience all around. For more information on Zion’s shuttle service, click here.
What’s your favorite part of Zion National Park? Let me know in the comments!
Sources: canyoneeringusa.com; nps.gov; frommers.com; doi.gov