a hitchhiker’s guide to Zion
Zion National Park is Utah’s Yosemite. It is big, beautiful, and full of massive monoliths that tower over a green valley. A placid river winds its serpentine way between the peaks, sometimes flooding the valley in monsoon season. Unlike many of the other parks we had visited during our road trip, which can be seen in a day or two, Zion demands more time and attention. With our stay in Utah winding down, we spent our last three days in the state hiking in Zion.
We got off to a late start our first morning, sticking around Kanab for one last crack at The Wave lottery. We were also feeling sluggish after our photo-walk in Antelope Canyon and the long day in northern Arizona that followed. Knowing that we’d have two more days to explore the park, we decided to cobble together a handful of small hikes rather than doing anything big.
Not only is Zion massive, but it can also easily become overcrowded. As a result, the scenic drive through Zion Canyon is closed to motorists for most of the year. Instead, one must park outside the valley and take the park shuttle to the various trailheads. We arrived the last Sunday in October, which was also the last day of the shuttle’s operation. It would continue running on weekends in November, Zion’s shoulder season, but starting with the second of our three days in the park, the scenic drive would be open to ordinary vehicles.
We started our first day with a hike to the Emerald Pools, which was pleasant enough even though the pools looked far from emerald on that overcast day. The trail was crowded, but most visitors only hiked to the lower pools, while the upper-most pool was quiet enough to make for a nice picnic spot. After descending the Kayenta trail, which overlooks Zion’s Virgin River, we caught the shuttle again, disembarking at the Weeping Rock trailhead.
Layers of impermeable shale prevent rainwater from absorbing all the way into the ground, causing the unique phenomenon that can be observed at the Weeping Rock. The water that seeps into the mountain above spends hundreds of years lodged inside the rock trying to force its way out, which it does eventually — drop by drop. The soft rock wall, impregnated by so much moisture, becomes a fertile breeding ground for vegetation, enabling a hanging garden to flourish high up on the mountainside.
From the Weeping Rock trailhead, it is possible to ascend to the Observation Point atop Mount Baldy, which offers a sweeping view of Zion Canyon. It is an 8-mile round trip hike that we had resolved to do the following day, so instead we took the trail part of the way up and then turned off to go to Hidden Canyon. To reach the fork to Hidden Canyon, we had to ascend a punishing series of steep switchbacks, but the going became a lot more exciting as soon as we left the Observation Point trail.
All of a sudden, we found ourselves walking on narrow stone ledges, holding on to chains bolted into the rock walls to help us avoid tumbling into the sheer precipices that opened up a few feet from the cliffside. Just as we reached the entrance to Hidden Canyon, we saw a big-horned sheep nimbly scrambling up a dizzyingly steep rock wall. The ascent to Hidden Canyon proved to be only half the fun. A sign marking the end of the one-mile trail advised hikers that the way forward was unmarked, uncleared, and would involve scrambling. We hiked almost another mile into the canyon, navigating a few somewhat sketchy sections until the canyon became all but impassable without equipment.
That night, and the two that followed, we stayed with D’s friends in Ivins, which is a little more than an hour away from Zion. We left a little late the next morning to return to the park, but figured that since we could drive all the way to the Weeping Rock trailhead, we’d have plenty of time to reach Observation Point and get back down. What we hadn’t realized is that the park rangers in Zion keep a count of how many day hikers drive their vehicles into Zion Canyon. The small parking lots along the scenic drive tend to fill up by 9am. By the time we arrived, the scenic drive was again closed off, only this time there was no shuttle for us to take to the trailhead.
We parked along the road, just outside the Zion Canyon entrance and trudged past the barrier. To say we were not thrilled with this unexpected development would be an understatement. The Weeping Rock trailhead is four miles into Zion Canyon, which potentially meant up to eight extra miles of hiking along the scenic drive in addition to the eight miles we hoped to hike on the actual trail. Fortunately, the park rangers did let a handful of cars through as long as the occupants promised only to drive in, take some pictures, and go out again. We were able to hitch a ride with three nice ladies who had no intention of hiking that day, and on the way back we got another lift from a couple we met on the trail.
The hike to Observation Point is excellent. After the aforementioned switchbacks, the trail passes through beautiful Echo Canyon before ascending up more switchbacks on the backside of Mount Baldy. There are no chains but, as with Hidden Canyon, a sizable section of trail clings to a narrow ledge high above the canyon floor. One would be hard-pressed to find better views of Zion Canyon than the one from Observation Point. We had just enough daylight after returning to our car to do another small hike, so we parked at the visitor center and hiked the Watchman Trail to a nice lookout with views of the lower canyon.
After two days, we had covered everything substantial in Zion Canyon except for the park’s two signature hikes — Angel’s Landing and the Narrows — which we saved for our last day, which also happened to be D’s birthday.