The next two posts will be a hike up memory lane. Zion National Park had been my favorite national park, up until that coveted spot was usurped by Yosemite this past summer, however it still remains, in my opinion, one of the most fun places in the world.
It’s been a few years since we visited Zion as a family, so the photos I’ll share have the children looking a little smaller and me a little thinner, but the good thing is that our natural spaces weather time better, so much of the information from 2015/2016 will be relevant in 2019.
Zion is Utah’s oldest national park and one of the most popular national parks in the United States. According to the National Parks Service, who tracks visitation data, Zion had over 4.5 million visitors to the park in 2018. As social media drives interest in the outdoors and accessibility to protected spaces increase, I would guess that the trend in the number of visitors to Zion and other national parks will be upward. It is one of the “big five” national parks of southern Utah which also includes Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches. Zion is the most accessible, with its main entrance from Springdale being about an hour away from the fast-growing city of St. George. There are plenty of lodging options in St. George and Springdale, not to mention camping in and around the national park.
We stayed a week in St. George on our longest southern Utah trip. We ‘found’ St. George a year prior by way of a night’s stay midway from the San Gabriel Valley to Park City, Utah. Once we arrived in St. George that first time, we quickly realized that we were close to Zion National Park, about 2.5 hours away from Bryce Canyon, and just a stone’s throw away from the scenic Snow Canyon State Park, where famous flicks, such as “Butch Cassidy” were filmed. We drove through Snow Canyon on the way north to Park City making for a gorgeous detour, but would have to return to fully explore the national parks. I am glad to share that we did indeed return for more Utah adventures, however, I don’t think I could ever fully explore all the wonders contained in Zion’s 232 square miles.
Zion is located within what is known as the Colorado Plateau, which extends across the four corners states: Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Millions of years of sedimentation, geologic uplift, and erosion formed and carved out Zion. As uplift gave the streams more strength to erode, the slot canyons that Zion is so famous for were formed. This process continues as flash floods carve the landscape and deposit debris. The Virgin River, which formed the Narrows, is still subject to these changes, and the canyon continues to deepen.
In addition to some truly amazing geology, Zion’s ecology is incredibly varied. There is nearly 5000 feet of elevation change within the park. According to the NPS, this has resulted in various habitats that house over 78 species of mammals, 291 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 8 species of fish. In the four days we spent at the park, we saw lizards, mule deer, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and we think we spotted the endangered but recovering California condor as we looked toward Angels Landing. It was incredible how much wildlife we observed on our visit.
Also with the changing elevations and microclimates, the plant life varied. We enjoyed the lush hanging gardens on water-soaked sandstone, as well as the green cottonwoods and riparian grasses along the river. In the drier areas, drought tolerant plants reigned, moving into pinyon forests as the elevation increased.
There was so much to do and see on our trip. Samantha was a little young for the more strenuous hikes, so we took a pass on attempting Angels Landing, instead opting for an afternoon on horseback with a Virgin River ride. Sami, our horse lover, had a great time on the ride, as did the rest of the family. And we have some great GoPro video to prove it.
Here are a few of the hikes we took. They’re all good for families with younger kids; just be sure to keep close supervision.
Weeping Rock- 0.4 miles, easy- This hike is paved, and ends at a rock with a trickling waterfall that makes it look like it’s “weeping.” The kids were not super impressed with this one, but it was our first hike in the park, and they were a little tired from the travel to Utah the day before. They were more impressed with the deer we found in the trees on the way to the waterfall.
Emerald Pools*- Upper and Lower, 3 miles- I’ve seen different ratings for this set of trails, so I’ll go with ZionNational-Park’s rating of easy to the Lower Pools, moderate from the Lower to the Middle Pools, and moderately strenuous from the Middle to Upper Pools. We did it just after your youngest turned eight while waiting for our trail ride, and other than the many visitors, we didn’t find the trail all that difficult at any point. There was a narrow and kind of steep portion, but it was short and manageable. When we went at the end of July 2015, the Lower Pools were pretty, the Middle Pools weren’t much to look at, but the Upper Pools were a lovely shade of green. I wouldn’t say that there was a ton of water, but there was enough to make them worth the hike. *Unfortunately, at time of writing, the pools are closed on account of a rockfall. There is not date set for a reopening of the trail, so check the NPS site for current conditions.
Canyon Overlook- 1 mile, easy, but use caution- This I think was my favorite short trail of this trip. On the advice of one of the park rangers after getting our junior ranger badges, we drove the iconic Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, and stopped just east of it to hike the Canyon Overlook trail. The trail itself is easy, though there are some steep drop-offs (which are mostly fenced) that require caution, especially if you have young children. My guys were fine, though there were a few moments of minor concern for me. All that said, it is the best easy hike within Zion because it yields a spectacular view of the park. The kids liked hopping on the sandstone and watching the bighorn sheep just a few feet away from us on the trail.
This is just a snapshot of what you can do and see on a visit to Zion National Park. In my next post, I will share our experience hiking in the middle of a river. But before then, here are a few things to note:
Trail and weather conditions can change quickly. As mentioned above, there are currently trail closures. Weather can also make visits to certain areas of the park unsafe. Please check the Zion National Park official site while planning your visit and just before you go.
During Zion’s busy season, from about March to November, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles except for those staying at the Lodge. There is a shuttle running at that time to take visitors along the route, with stops at major points of interest and trailheads. Our experience with the shuttles was pretty positive. We parked in Springdale and were able to get in and out without a problem. The plus was that we didn’t have to deal with major traffic within that portion of the park, something I didn’t truly appreciate until I visited Yosemite Valley this past summer and experienced major national park traffic. Vehicles are allowed in other parts of Zion National Park year-round.
I absolutely recommend purchasing a National Lands Annual Pass. For just $80 annually, this pass allows access to national parks, monuments, historic sites, and other federal lands. I use my pass most to park within our national forest areas, specifically the Angeles in California. Couple that with our visits to national parks and monuments, I feel I get more than my $80 worth. The pass can be bought at REI or here. If you have a fourth grader, they’re eligible for a free annual pass with the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The goal of this initiative is to get fourth graders and their families outdoors and exploring our nation’s rich natural, historical, and cultural sites. My two younger kids benefited from this program their fourth grade years, and it allowed us to visit the Grand Canyon, the Flagstaff National Monuments, Yosemite and more for free. The kids took a short quiz and received a certificate which we traded in at the visitor center for the pass. Visit Every Kid in a Park for more details.
The United States is full of amazing places to explore, and the opportunities for adventure are endless. And Utah especially is a special place for outdoor fun. Happy trails!
Photos: the Haas family