Our Favorite National Park in the USA
I can’t believe this is the first time we’re writing about Zion National Park because it’s easily our favourite National Park in the US. It’s the one place we just can’t keep away from, especially as it’s so accessible from virtually any major city on the west coast. Just fly into Las Vegas, hop in a car and you’ll be there in 3 hours!
Zion National Park
To give a little background, Zion is a National Park in Utah, world famous for its incredible slot canyons, lava tubes, steep hikes, and of course, rock climbing. The most popular part of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon, a narrow valley with steep, sheer cliffs, eroded by the Virgin River over millions of years. It’s also, not coincidentally, the area where the majority of the Park’s hikes begin, and from March to November there’s a shuttle bus to ferry visitors to/from the various trailheads (more on that later).
Zion is generally famous for its unusual and unique terrain, and millions of people visit annually to wade through the Narrows, explore the ‘Subway’ or to peer into the abyss from Angel’s Landing.
To keep this post relatively short and interesting, we decided to only cover our 4 absolute favourite hikes in Zion this time. There are, of course, plenty more hikes in the area, but these are our absolute must-do’s:
1. The Narrows
The Narrows are possibly the most unique aspect to Zion National Park.
If you haven’t heard of them, the Narrows are the name given to the long slot canyon at the far end of Zion Canyon. The Virgin river still runs through the canyon, but it’s calm and shallow enough to walk up. As a result, one of the most popular things to do is to wade up (or down) the Narrows.
There are two ways to attack the Narrows;
1. From the bottom up,
2. From the top down.
For the majority of day hikers, the bottom up approach is the best option.
For the bottom up route, take the shuttle bus to the “Temple of Sinawava” (the last stop), and walk approximately 1.1 miles along the side of the river until the path stops and turns into the river. From there you can jump in the water and start pushing upstream. The entire system goes for miles and miles, so really you can just keep going until you run out of time!
The route gets relatively deep at times, depending on how tall you are, but you won’t really be swimming at any point. This hike is all about taking in the sights and the sounds as you go, as there’s really no end destination in mind.
For the top-down route, you start upstream and work your way back to the Temple of Sinawava bus stop. It’s a 16 mile hike (25km) and people often take two days to complete it. You need to apply for a wilderness permit for this hike (click here to find out more).
If you have enough time then hey, why not? but if you’ve got limited time, then one day is more than enough.
A few things to note:
- Depending on the season, you might need to opt for a dry suit. We did the narrows in November and I think we would probably have died of hypothermia without one. If you visit in summer you might only need shorts. The drysuits aren’t exactly high fashion, but if you’re a trekkie you might love them (yes, massive nerd here).
- Fighting the current can be tough sometimes, so if you can find a big stick to hike with it’ll definitely come in useful. The easiest option is to rent one from one of the adventure stores in Springdale (e.g. Zion Adventures).
- Don’t go anywhere near the narrows if it’s raining or if there’s been any rain in the area in the last few hours. The area is known for its flash floods and to be caught in one would be deadly.
- Bring a dry bag if you intend to bring any valuable camera equipment!
- The Narrows are typically closed between Mid-march and May as the snow runoff raises the water level during this period.
2. Angel’s Landing
Angel’s Landing is by far the most well known and popular hike in Zion. This could easily be the best hike in Zion National Park, and it also happens to be our favourite. Here’s a quick description:
Take the Zion Canyon Loop Shuttle Bus and exit at stop 6, “The Grotto“. From there you’ll cross a bridge and will very quickly get into some brutal switchbacks. The switchbacks will eventually plateau, before mercilessly starting up again just before you reach the top section of Angel’s Landing.
Once you get to the top section, you’ll get your first glimpse of part 2 of Angel’s Landing and the narrow chain route that leads to the summit. It’s also at this point that you might notice a few hikers lying on the ground trying to muster up some courage…. Seriously, the next section isn’t for everyone.
Almost as soon as you enter the chained section, you’ll notice that there’s very little between you and a 1,000ft drop. Expect jelly legs and vertigo.
Follow the route upwards until you reach the summit and the incredible panoramic views of the entire Zion Valley. Seriously, it’s epic, don’t give up. Angel’s Landing is also probably our favourite spot to catch sunset in the valley.
Things to note:
- This is a short, steep, hike. It’s a real grind (but that’s why we love it)
- Not a good choice if you’re scared of heights (but speaking from personal experience, completing it can be quite therapeutic)
- If you stay for sunset, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get back for the last bus. The last bus doesn’t wait for stragglers and you don’t want to be walking 6 miles back to the parking lot.
- Watch your footing and tread carefully. Last time we were up on Angel’s Landing we passed two injuries. One woman had obviously sprained her ankle and was having to painstakingly crawl down on her hands and bum with the help of the rescue team. It was getting dark and at the speed she was going I’m certain she spent most of the night up there. It’s not worth an injury.
3. Canyon Overlook
This is more of a walk than a hike, but it leads to some best views of the entire valley. The hike is only 1 mile (1.6km) long and 163ft elevation, so you can cruise it at a leisurely pace and barely break a sweat. It’s also a great spot to see big horn sheep, as they often hang out by the road and around the trail.
If you’re feeling lazy, this hike is probably the least possible effort for the maximum return!
The trailhead can be found just after the Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Parking is about 50m further up the road.
4. The Subway
‘The Subway’ is the last and certainly most memorable hike for me in Zion National Park. I have to admit that when we first set off on this hike, I’d done very little research and wasn’t particularly well prepared. It was my first time to Utah and for some reason I was expecting warm weather in November. As a result, I definitely hadn’t brought enough layers and had no idea that we’d be walking 4.5 miles up a river, in the shade, on a day that was barely above zero (celsius).
Again, we rented water shoes from Zion Adventures in Springdale (definitely a good call), and set off at the trailhead. The trail starts above the canyon and rapidly descends downwards towards the river at the bottom. Once you’re at the bottom of the Canyon, turn left and follow the river upstream. You’ll have to cross the river several times along the way, so you can really forget keeping your feet dry.
Towards the end of the hike, the canyon walls will start to close in, and it should become fairly obvious that you’re nearing the famous lava tubes. For the last portion of the hike, there’s no option but to walk up the stream, and the rock underfoot becomes impossibly slippery and smooth. Having a hiking stick here will definitely come in handy.
Finally, right as you round the last corner you’ll enter the much anticipated lava tubes. It’s what you’ve trekked 4.5 miles for so soak it in! I guess I was a little bit frozen when we finally made it, because I was definitely more concerned with warming up than taking photos.
The hike really is one of a kind, especially as access to it is so limited. You’re essentially alone the entire day and you really have a chance to connect with nature and experience something so few people ever get to see.
Some quick notes:
- It’s a 9 mile round trip, full day hike; bring plenty of food and water.
- Make a good mental note of where the trail meets the river at the beginning. It was pitch black when we got back and we got completely lost and couldn’t find the path back up the hill for a long time. Similarly, once you’re out of the canyon, stick very carefully to the path. We were bushwhacking for an eternity trying to find our car again.
- Which leads me to my next point – bring a headlamp/torch
- Bring a hiking pole so that you can plant yourself properly when crossing the stream.
- Access to this hike is seriously limited – entrance permits are drawn via a lottery between March and November and costs $5 to enter. A further fee applies if you win a spot. Check here for more information.
- As I mentioned, the actual lava tubes are literally the last 50m of the entire hike. Don’t expect to see the tubes early on and be able to come back early!
The Subway hike trailhead isn’t in the main Zion Canyon area, but approximately 8.2 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin. The Kolob Canyon area currently has construction in some areas so check the government website for specific details (May 2, 2018).
Getting to Zion National Park & where to stay
To get to Zion is fairly straightforward, as there are some fairly major roads running through the park. We flew into Las Vegas and it was an easy drive through St. George, La Verkin, Virgin and then finally Springdale. You’re going to definitely need a car to get there! Check rental car rates here
Our biggest tip by far for visiting the area is to look into all inclusive packages for Las Vegas, even if you don’t intend to stay there. We’ve flown from Canada several times and often it’s cheaper to book a package deal than it is to book a flight by itself. Plus, you get a couple of nights in Vegas if you feel like it.
Once you get to the Zion National Park area, you’re also going to find that Springdale is extortionately expensive to stay in. There are several decent hotels, like the Holiday Inn Express Springdale and the Hampton Inn & Suites, but we’ve generally stayed in the La Verkin area because it’s still very close. The only actual ‘in-park’ accommodation is Zion Lodge
We’ve also camped in Zion itself and needless to say, that’s by far the most convenient option.
The Zion Canyon Loop Bus
Once you’re in Zion National Park, assuming you’re visiting between March and November, you’re going to have to ditch your car. During the summer season, the Zion Canyon access road closes to everyone except for the free shuttle buses. The shuttles are very easy to use and run at regular intervals.
Click here to see the shuttle route!
Pay close attention to when the last bus is and make sure you’re on it. You definitely don’t want to be hiking 6 miles out of the valley after a long day of hiking.
In Winter, you can drive straight in and park at the various trailheads.
Food in Springdale:
We tried shopping at the grocery store in Zion and after factoring in the conversion to CAD found that we’d spent over $100 on dinner and a few snacks. It’s very expensive so if you can bring your own supplies we suggest you do.
Our favourite restaurant in Springdale is Thai Sapa; a kind of Thai fusion restaurant that offers a variety of different Asian cuisines. We had the won ton soup and some noodles and honestly it was heaven after a long day of hiking. The staff are also great personalities that worked exceptionally hard for us.
When to visit:
Having been at various different times of year, it’s clear that there are perks for each season. If you come during the off-season, you won’t have access to the bus/facilities and it’ll be freezing but at least you won’t have to fight the crowds.
Our latest visit was during Spring Break, and although it was nice and mild, the crowds were insane. I would say if you visit early season when it’s not a national holiday you’re probably going to have the best experience.
If you want to do any of the water based hikes you also want to avoid the rainy season which is between July through Sept..
By the way, if you’re planning a road trip through the area, make sure you check out our post about Antelope Canyon!