Picking an outdoor destination in Utah is challenging. There’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyonlands, Bryce, Moab, Arches, Monument Valley, Capital Reef… you could get lost forever in any one of those places. We chose Zion. Yeah, it’s crowded (after all, aren’t all National Parks crowded these days?), but it’s also glorious. In it’s most dramatic areas it resembles a red, earthen form of Yosemite Valley with its 1,000-plus-foot sandstone monoliths. You can climb and hike and camp and perhaps most importantly, bask in the river when the heat starts to soar.
The Narrows is “the most popular hike in Zion Park, and one of the world’s best canyon hikes,” according to the travel folks at Utah.com. I’d have to agree. The trail is the Virgin River itself. Plan on getting wet. The canyon, at some points, is so narrow that the river covers the bottom you’ve have to wade or swim to continue on. Also plan on some crowds, especially in the summer. If you’d like to avoid the crowds, it just means you have to go further than everyone else. The deeper into The Narrows you get, the more solitude you find.
Angel’s Landing: Some things are popular for a reason, and Angel’s Landing is one of them. If you’re affected by vertigo, think twice. The path is steep—1,500 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles—is well maintained. Most of it is smooth and wide, but the last bit is a narrow channel cut into a nearly sheer slope of sandstone. The view at the top is worth the few moments of potential panic.
Climbing/Canyoneering: Zion has some tremendous big wall climbs. The sandstone stretches thousands of feet into the sky and climbers toil up them, sometimes for days. Unless it’s March through May or September through early November, skip it. The heat of summer makes climbing miserable, as the walls are extremely hot and mostly unshaded. When you hike The Narrows you might see people repelling down into the canyon from way up above. That’s because Zion has some of the world’s best canyoneering routes. It combines hiking, rappelling and swimming through narrow canyons filled with rock and tree obstacles. Check into the following routes if this strikes your fancy: The Subway, Orderville Canyon, Mystery Canyon and Pine Creek. You can find the beta for each here.
Swimming: One of the great pleasures of Zion is that despite the heat, it is escapable. The Narrows is the perfect hike in the summer because you’re constantly cooled by the river, but you can hop in pretty much anywhere. Most of the trailheads begin near running water, and swimming holes dot every stretch.
Camping Options: There are three places to choose from in the park. Lava Point Campground is open June through October and is also first-come first-serve basis. It’s a primitive campground with 6 sites and no water, but it’s free. Watchman Campground, open year around, is open to reservations between March and October. Otherwise it’s first-come first-served. It has 63 RV electrical sites ($18/ night), 16 riverside sites ($20/night), 66 tent sites ($16/night), and 7 group sites ($3 person/night). South Campground (where I crashed) is open March through October and sites are available on a first come/first serve basis. There are no hookups or showers and it costs $16.00 per night.
Eating: The Zion Lodge (the only hotel accommodation in the park) is home to the Red Rock Grill and the Castle Dome Café. The grill is a sit-down restaurant with high quality grub while the café is a more casual, outdoor, cheap(ish) food option. If you’re cooking, pick up your fare outside the park and cook it up on your camp stove. There’s no grocer in park boundaries.
Next Stop: Yosemite National Park via the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Hell, Yeah.
By Bryan Schatz