Many of the national parks are simply too grand to see all in one visit. The first time you go, you probably will focus on seeing the main sights. Returning to a national park gives you the time to revisit places you enjoyed and explore new things the park has to offer. Recently, we were able to return to Zion National Park for another epic adventure.
If you have followed our blogs, or if you look them up in the Index under “Zion”, you will see that we’ve visited several times and have enjoyed many aspects of the park… staying at the Zion Lodge, visiting the main sights and going on a trail ride, hiking East Rim, and taking the scenic drive and hiking in Kolob Canyon. But, we can attest that even after you think you have seen everything, Zion still has more to give.
This visit we combined a bit of old and a bit of new… revisiting some of the main trails in Zion Canyon, hiking a different trail in Kolob Canyon and taking an amazing scenic drive.
Usually we try to avoid crowds, but we wanted to revisit some of the iconic hikes within the park. So we got up early and took the first Zion Canyon shuttle at 6 am. This is the only way into the park during the summer season. Private vehicles are not allowed unless you are staying at the Zion Lodge.
Riverside Walk Trail
We took the shuttle all the way to the last stop, at the mouth of the famous “Narrows”. The river was running far too fast for anyone to attempt hiking in the water, but the east Riverside Walk Trail (2.2 miles round trip) takes you along the river right up to the point where you have to get your feet wet.
It was gorgeous, especially early in the morning when only a handful of people were out.
Sheer canyon walls reaching up the sky, hanging grottos with seeping water feeding a cacophony of wildflowers, and deer browsing along the path, so silent you might walk right by without realizing they were there.
After a lovely morning stroll along the river, we took the shuttle to the next stop – The Grotto. This is a very popular shuttle stop, the trailhead for the other famous hike at Zion – “Angel’s Landing”. (You need a permit to hike the entire way to Angel’s Landing, but anyone can hike up as far as Scout Lookout.)
We took the other trail from this shuttle stop, heading down canyon to Upper and Middle Emerald Pools, a lovely hike to waterfalls.
From there, we continued downhill along the Sand Bench Trail all the way to the Court of the Patriarchs.
Usually you can pop off the trail at the Zion Lodge, but after record rainfalls this year, the bridge was out and that trail was closed. But that wasn’t a problem, from Grotto to the shuttle stop at the Court of the Patriarchs it was only about a 6 mile hike, mainly downhill, with gorgeous views.
Our last hike in Zion Canyon was right from our campsite. This visit we were fortunate enough to get a campsite at Watchman Campground in the park, along the north fork of the Virgin River. It is a pretty nice campground and from many sites you can hear the water flowing over the rapids. You also look up at one of the most photographed peaks in the park – “The Watchman”.
The Watchman Trail starts right outside the campground, beside the shuttle stop. The ranger recommended this as either an early morning or late afternoon hike to see the changing colors over the canyon. He was right. The views and colors were stunning.
It is a 3 1/2 mile round trip hike, climbing up 400 feet along switchbacks to a magnificent viewpoint. Don’t stop there though. There is a short loop trail at the end that offers even nicer views, looking up at the canyon walls towering above. It is probably the closest one can get to being inside the Grand Canyon, with 1/10th of the switchbacks!!! Certainly it is a perfect example of hiking in the southwest.
Taylor Creek Trail
While we were at Zion, we couldn’t help from doing a short day trip out to Kolob Canyon. We consider this one of the nicest parts of Zion National Park. It offers a lovely scenic drive, great hiking, awesome views and far fewer people. It is a bit of a drive from Springdale (see our previous blog) but well worth the time.
This time we did the Taylor Creek Trail, a 5 mile out-and-back trail to a double-arch (500 foot elevation gain). Most of the trail is quite flat, meandering along the creek through cottonwood, maple, oak, pinyon pines, juniper and ponderosa pines, plus a ton of wildflowers.
We counted 51 creek crossings, but there were lots of stepping stones so unless the water is really high, there is no reason to get wet.
It is always fun to hike to a destination and this trail has three. About 1 mile in you come to Larsen Cabin and then a little further on is Fife Cabin. These are both small log cabins built in the 1930’s, nestled in the woods and used as summer cottages.
As you continue deeper into the canyon, you have gorgeous views of dramatic rock walls on both sides. The trail ends at a unique double arch carved from the sandstone. Water seeps through this porous rock, nourishing lush vegetation and hanging gardens full of colorful wildflowers. Seeping water leaves behind minerals, creating a rainbow of colors on the walls. This is truly a destination worth the effort, and now probably our favorite hike in the park.
Kolob Terrace Road
On our way back to camp, we took a detour to drive up Kolob Terrace Road. This is a 20+ mile scenic drive along a paved country road, only accessible May through September. It winds in and out of Zion National Park, and offers spectacular views at every turn. Trailheads for many of the more strenuous backcountry hikes (permit required) are along this road. Just one trail – Wildcat Canyon – doesn’t need a permit.
The paved road ends at Kolob Reservoir. At almost 8000 feet in elevation, even in early spring you will still see snow and experience cool temperatures. Just before the reservoir there is a turnoff on an improved dirt road that takes you back into the National Park. Take this to Lava Point Overlook where you will have an incredible view of the entire Zion Canyon including the Narrows and many of the most iconic peaks.
Note: if you like to camp, there is a tiny campground at Lava Point. Just 6 sites, reservation only, no services and maximum size 19 feet.
Canyon Overlook Trail
Our last stop leaving Zion was the Canyon Overlook Trail on the east side of the tunnel. There is very limited parking, so you need to get there early. It is only about 1 mile round trip, fairly easy, with guardrails at the scary spots!
It offers a great view into Zion Canyon and if you are lucky, you’ll catch sign of a big horn sheep.
This trail is a great introduction to, or farewell to, Zion National Park.
Plan to return… With so much to see and do, it is simply impossible to see Zion in just a few days. It is a place that you can easily return to again and again. Encompassing 229 square miles of stunning landscape, there is so much to explore!
Are you trying to visit all the National Parks or National Park Units?
If your goal is to visit them, one or all, we’d love to help you strategize. Give us a call at (480) 609-3978 or drop us a note here. We always enjoy talking with people who share our passion for visiting these gems of the National Park Service.