This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.
I have a particularly special relationship with Zion National Park. I believe I was age 11 or 12 when I first visited - very briefly. We were on our way home from the Grand Canyon, having seen first the south rim then the north rim, and we decided to drive through the park on the way to St. George. I don’t think we even had time to drive the canyon itself, so we saw the east part of the park and the tunnels and not a whole lot more. But it was enough that we determined to come back and soon. It must have been later that year or maybe the next spring that we planned a trip solely to see Zion, and hiked a few of the shorter trails.
That was the beginning of a love affair that brought us back to Zion at least twice a year. Living first in Los Angeles, then near Frazier Park, and finally in Bakersfield, St. George was all of six and a half hours away, and the park less than an hour from there. Often, we would leave at midnight, drive straight to the park for an early start, hike until mid afternoon, then soak in the hot tub at the hotel, hike the next day, and drive back the day after, for a long weekend of at least ten miles of hiking and exploring. Each time, we would try to take someone who had never seen Zion with us.
I remember that first time at age 12 ascending Angel’s Landing. We were fairly inexperienced at strenuous hiking, and we were so sore afterward that getting to the second floor at the hotel was painful. But the views were so spectacular, we purposed to hike that route as often as we could. Angel’s Landing remains one of my favorite hikes - and it has been both thrilling and terrifying to introduce the kids one by one to it.
(The last half mile is on a knife edge with sheer dropoffs literally 1500 feet straight down on each side. You have chains to hang on to - it isn’t for the faint of heart. The heights didn’t bother me as a kid. Watching my kids now, it is a whole different ballgame.)
I also remember the time when I was a teenager when we hiked the Kolob Arch trail in a day. The 15 miles wasn’t the problem - it was fairly flat. It’s that the whole trail was this deep soft sand. We were so dead by the end, then we had to hike up about 400 feet of elevation to the trailhead - and a summer thunderstorm blew through. Soaked, hoping not to get hit by lightning, and dead exhausted. Good times.
After I moved out in my early 20s, we had a bit of a gap in our visits. Life got busy, I wasn’t flush with cash, and I had a girlfriend who I couldn’t exactly take along, as much as I wanted to. (Both of our parents would have strongly disapproved of such a scandalous thing…)
After we got married, things were obviously different. We visited together during our first year of marriage. Of all the odd things to remember about that trip, I recall watching the Lakers and Kings battle it out. (The end of the 2000-2002 dynasty.) But also, it was Amanda’s first trip up - where else? - Angel’s Landing. (Her dad is a legendary hiker, but he cannot do heights at all.)
Our next trip was when our eldest child was a year old - and Amanda was six months pregnant with our second. (Yeah, our first three kids are ridiculously close in age. Crazy times.) I had Ella on my back in a backpack and Amanda was rather gravid. So naturally, we tackled a trail 10 miles round trip with 2000 feet of climb. Because we could. We both remember her blowing by some college aged guys who gave her dirty looks because they couldn’t keep up. I just about died hanging with her myself. (In fact, my knees hurt so much on the downhill that I worried I was going to have to give up hiking. Instead, I made a lifestyle change toward regular exercise, taking up first soccer then running and making sure I did it 3-4 times each and every week. It made all the difference in the world, and the kids and I hike 120-150 miles together each year these days.)
Since then, we have gone back more or less every other year. My oldest two daughters have been up Angel’s Landing with me, and all the kids have gone to the overlook just before the chains on their own two feet. Last year, in our most recent visit, the two of them went partway up the Narrows with me, which was a fun adventure.
So what is Zion? To put it one way, it is a gigantic fossil. The sandstone cliffs are 3000 feet tall - they are petrified sand dunes from the ancient past. Actually, the entire area is a remarkably intact section of the geologic column. You can go from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the formations on the mountains above Bryce Canyon National Park and traverse nearly a billion years in history.
The layers at Zion are particularly thick, and they are revealed by the action of the Virgin River, which has carved a slot through the sandstone, making a dramatic and unforgettable canyon. Even taking the shuttle through the canyon drive is a spectacular experience, but you really must get out and hike to get the full experience. Don’t expect solitude, but the spectacular views are worth it. Also, just like anywhere, the further you get away from the road, the fewer people. A short hike like the Emerald Pools (which you should do) will be crowded. The top of the overlook on the East Rim is less popular because of the long and strenuous hike to get there. Likewise, if you take the road toward the Kolob reservoir, most of those trails are empty during the week. The Kolob section of the park is also a great place to hike, with fewer people. The cliffs aren’t as high, but you get some excellent slot canyons.
Zion has always been a popular park, but the last decade or so, crowds have increased a lot. It is worth it to visit during the week, if you can - and definitely NOT during Spring Break. (They had record crowds, and despite an excellent shuttle system, parking was full by 8 AM many days.) The best times to visit are in Spring and Fall, but the park has its charms other times of the year. If you go in summer, hike early, and bring a lot of water. The sandstone concentrates the heat, and there isn’t much shade. I haven’t been there in the winter, but I think it could be interesting then as well.
If you have the time, there are also other places to see in the surrounding area. If you are there in the summer or fall, Kanarraville Falls is an amazing slot canyon we discovered last year. No technical skills are required. If you want solitude, get an early start. Snow Canyon State Park is also a delightful spot, with several short hikes with good scenery. It too is rarely crowded. Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument are all relatively close destinations. There is also a museum in St. George with dinosaur tracks that were discovered there. It’s a worthwhile place to visit.
Hotels in St. George are ludicrously inexpensive, which is why we don’t generally camp there. Good food can sometimes be difficult to find in smaller Utah towns - St. George is heavy on burger chains, for example. But there are some good exceptions here. We are particularly fond of the Mongolian BBQ place - a little hole in the wall that knows our family well. The Bear Paw Cafe is a good place for breakfast and coffee. Recently, a brewpub opened right by the entrance. Due to quirky Utah liquor laws, you have to have food if you want booze. But the food is solid, and the beer quite good, particularly after a hot hike. I’m happy to see places like these pop up. (One observation from our travels in small towns in flyover territory: brewpubs often have higher quality food - more imaginative and less 1950s - than other places. Yelp is your friend too. The 21st Century is looking to be a golden age for us foodies.)
From 2004: The very small Ella and a younger, thinner me. The backpack finally died after the fifth kid, but I am still hiking with that hat and stick - both of which I have had since my teens. The hat was from a tourist trap near Zion. The stick is diamond willow from Alaska, which a friend brought back for me. I sanded it and give it a new coat of tung oil finish every few years.
Amanda in 2004. She was 6 months pregnant with Cora here. This is at the entrance to Echo Canyon, on the East Rim trail.
Ella, Cordelia, and Amanda in 2006. Ted would have been an infant that year.
This is the Virgin River on the Gateway to the Narrows trail.
Cordelia, Ella, and Ted on the Emerald Pools Trail in 2009.
Ted, Ella, Cordelia, and Fritz on the Angel's Landing Trail, 2011.
Ella, Fritz, Amanda, Lillian, Ted, and Cordelia on the "Walter's Wiggles" section of the Angel's Landing Trail, 2013.
Real trails have curves. These are the lower switchbacks on the Angel's Landing Trail, viewed from the bottom of Refrigerator Canyon.
Ella on the edge of the world. This is the sheer north face of Angel's Landing,
literally 1500 feet straight down in front of her. (2013)
Cordelia, Ella, and me in the Narrows, 2016.
A better view of Walter's Wiggles, 2016.
Ella and Cordelia on the top of Angel's Landing, 2016.
Trying to capture the scope of Zion with a camera is difficult.
This is one of my favorite pictures, from 2016.