Zion Canyon National Park

It’s not a long drive to Zion Canyon National Park from the north rim of the Grand Canyon, but it’s a different world – the typical visitor to Zion visits the park from the floor of the canyon along the shores of the Virgin River, whereas the typical visitor to the Grand Canyon views the canyon from the top, either the north or south rim.  Having come recently from a trip along the river in the Grand Canyon, winding down through eons of geologic time and with a different vista around every bend of the river, Zion at first seemed less than ‘grand’. Nonetheless, it’s a stunningly beautiful place – check out the photo gallery, and read on for more.

Andy leans on the railing overlooking Zion Canyon, along the trail to Angels Landing, Zion NP.
Andy leans on the railing overlooking Zion Canyon, along the trail to Angels Landing, Zion NP.

We only had one day to explore the park, so our first step was to hike to Angels’ Landing. This stunning peak juts out into Zion canyon, with views up and downriver, and with a knife-edge approach and thousand-foot exposure guaranteed to give even nimble-footed hikers second thoughts. (At least six hikers have fallen to their deaths from Angels’ Landing in the past decade.) Clearly, other visitors had heard about this classic hike, so the trail was busy and the summit area held several dozen people throughout the period we were there. (Thankfully, we reached it in mid-morning, before even-bigger crowds and before the hot afternoon sun.)  The kids and I stopped for the photo below at the point where the trail narrowed to cross the knife edge; although Andy and I shuffled along further, gripping the safety chains at all times, I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk to proceed so we turned around. Some great views in the photo gallery.

At our high point, close to Angels Landing, Zion NP.
At our high point, close to Angels Landing, Zion NP.

After a picnic lunch on the lawn at Zion Mountain Lodge, the in-park hotel, Andy and Mara and I hiked to the Emerald Pools, another classic route.  Although it had rained recently, these pools were a bit disappointing at their present state of low water and minimal waterfalls.

A group explores the Narrows at Zion NP.
A group explores the Narrows (click to see larger image; people at center).

We were due to leave the next morning, so I rose early and headed back into the park as the sun’s first rays illuminated the sandstone cliffs.  On this hour-long drive twisting up into the park and through tunnels into Zion Canyon, I was held up for while by a herd of Bighorn Sheep grazing lazily in and beside the road. Reaching the trailhead for The Narrows just before 8am, I was one of the first people of the day to wade and rock-hop upstream along the Virgin River into the upper reaches of Zion Canyon.  (On my way out, two hours later, there were hundreds of people wading upstream, despite the NPS warning of “probable” flash floods today.) With the water-worn cliffs rising hundreds of feet on either side of me, and the cool stream underfoot, I found photo opps at every turn. I’ve included a few in the photo gallery.

We stayed at the Zion Mountain Ranch, a comfortable but quirky site just outside the east entrance to the park. To reach reception you step between the free-range ducklings and chickens, pausing to pet the rabbits and glance over the fence at their herd of bison. Beyond reception is an open-air dining area (“The Buffalo Grill”, get it?) that looks past the barnyard ponies to the pasture, so you can watch the bison stroll away as the sun sets and you munch on, um, buffalo burgers.  Best damn buffalo burgers we’ve ever had – and the rest of the menu us outstanding too. The kids loved the farm animals, and the individual cottages were comfortable and convenient.  It’s a great option for a visit to Zion, if you’re coming from the east and don’t want to stay inside the park itself.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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