There are hikes, and then there are hikes. So, when my friend Stephanie started talking about a visit to Utah’s grandest national parks, I jumped at the chance.
With months of planning under our belts, our two families packed up our bags for the epic week-long journey west. The goal? To hike the ‘Mighty Five’: Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.
But, sometimes planning isn’t enough.
A stomach virus swept through our entire travel party and many of us couldn’t even leave the confines of our rooms (think - the ‘pie-eating’ scene in Stand By Me….gross!).
Even if we didn’t quite accomplish all our goals, we made the most of it. And in the haze of it all, we turned our cross-state journey into a spectacular trip regardless.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
First up on the roster, Zion National Park. It’s a jewel among jewels in this southwest climate that covers a span of about 230 miles on the edge of Springdale. The landscape includes a range of environments from forest trails along the Virgin River to overlooks that capture the park’s stunning red cliffs.
I found a combination of driving and hiking worked best to truly experience its wide expanse. So, we broke up our visit over two days and traveled to the northern part of the park first.
Even though the Kolob Canyons is the less-traveled region of the park but no less stunning.
The slow, winding road takes visitors through a dazzling array of craggy peaks and sharp drops before ending at a vista atop a peak.
There are several stops along the way and we relished in doing almost every one. There a few trails to explore, too, that bring visitors to spots like La Verkin Creek and Kolob Arch – believed to be the world’s largest freestanding arch.
We took a short trail from the Kolob viewpoint. It provides a panoramic look at white-capped mountains to one side and the orange and red canyons on the other. It’s worth paying attention to the native plants that grow here as well. Prickly pear and yucca plants pepper the landscape reminding us of its true desert roots despite the cold wind blowing at the top of the ridge.
Day two was all about tackling the heart of Zion. Three million people visit every year and most head for the southern portion of the park. Many take the scenic and steep Zion-Mt Carmel Highway which leads drivers through a series of two tunnels and a number of switchbacks. But, the slow-moving entry to the park is so worthwhile.
The cliffs are both jaw-dropping and imposing. But, take a closer look. You can often spot desert bighorn sheep perched precariously on the cliffs, at ease in their cliff-side home.
We quickly found our way to the visitor center which is an important stopping point at every park we visited. The information gleaned here helped us roughly plan out our day and kept us focused.
Even in the spring, the park’s popularity is palpable. Travel within its borders is relegated to hiking, biking and shuttle service. Most follow Zion Canyon Road before breaking off onto a variety of trails and viewpoints, and each stop has its own unique perspective.
With a traveling party of eight, including four children, we varied our stops along the way. We touched upon trails that not only gave us a sense of the park’s vastness, but it’s fragility as well.
Emerald Pools is one such place. Three trails located across from the Zion Lodge bring hikers through a forest array of maple, fir and cottonwood. The trails are about 1 to 2 ½ miles long and vary in intensity. They also include some steep drop-offs depending how far up the mountain you go. But, each focuses on a unique aspect of the forest which includes visions of waterfalls, a hanging garden, and a picturesque pool.
Keeping with the water theme, we ventured along the ½ mile Weeping Rock Trail. Also considered moderate, the trek took us up a steep trail and into a rock alcove where spring flowers were just beginning to bloom. We reached the top as the sun was setting low on the horizon allowing us to capture a quiet moment at the side of this impressive mountain.
One of the last spots we packed into our day was the Riverside Walk. Two miles – round trip – the walk is an excellent way to explore the Virgin River and Zion’s canyons. The path is easy and follows the curves of the river. It leads upstream and into an area known as the Narrows.
The Narrows is a slot canyon popular for those wanting to explore further. However, there is no trail. Instead, consider it a walk or ‘swim’ through the river and into a 1,000-foot chasm that’s only 24 feet wide in some places. It’s not a trek for the feint-of-heart. Flash floods are a danger here, especially in summer, and permits for longer, overnight hikes are required.
But, regardless of what level hiker you are, the park has enough variety to keep everyone engaged. And how can you not? Once you set your eyes on its brilliant sandstone cliffs and breathtaking views, Zion is a place you won’t soon forget.
Emerald Pools Trail
Distance: 1.2-2.5 miles RT
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Weeping Rock Trail
Distance: .5 miles RT
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Riverside Trail/Gateway to the Narrows
Distance: 2 miles RT
Next Up: Bryce Canyon Park and its Hoodoos