If you’re afraid of heights, Zion National Park has got your number.
Zion as a national park is simply put, a straight shot through. You can begin your journey at the Visitor’s Center, and travel via shuttle up through nine stops, turn around, and come right back the way you came. These nine stops bear entry to all of the most popular trails Zion has to offer.
We somehow lucked out in early April with a five day reservation at Watchman Campground inside the park’s perimeter. Sites here are tent or electrical only, and there is a water/dump station included in your stay upon entry to the campground.
Here’s how to do Zion: get up early! In comparison, at Yosemite Valley visitors are scattered throughout the park and can opt for the free park shuttle, or drive their own car, or ride bikes/walk to different trailheads and access points in the valley. Here at Zion, you are strictly funneled from one end of the canyon to the other, which means everyone starts their day at the same location. From the Visitor’s Center, stops 3 through 9 can only be accessed via the park’s free shuttle. Cars are prohibited past stop 2. Buses run every 15 minutes starting at 7am and every 5-7 minutes from 8am on. But if you wait any later than 8 or 9am to get started, the line can be hundreds of people long and wind through the visitor buildings out of sight, out of sight again, and beyond.
This hike is a short and steep upward climb with many-a-switchback, landing you on a small plateau before you hit ‘the chains’. This is a line of non-contiguous metal chains that takes you along a shale cliff, where you are feet—seriously feet–away from a 1,000+ foot drop-off of certain downhill death. We got up the first leg of the chains, looked around, felt good about ourselves and very aware of our mortality, and returned. Did we do Angel’s Landing? Kind of. Almost. Pretty much. Good enough.
We trekked up past Angel’s Landing on a bit of the West Rim trail that continues on from there, had lunch, and headed back down. The West Rim trail was fairly deserted and the views were very nice. If you’ve had your fill of Angel’s Landing, continue on for a bit on this trail before heading back.
At the very end of the hike, there are a handful of switchbacks carved into the cliff face. So now are you not only wobbly AF from about 20 million switchbacks leading you up soooo much higher than that piddly Angel’s Landing rock far below, but now there’s nothing between you and thin air but a trail just a few feet wide.
Also the view is spectacular and 100% worth it.
Emerald Pools and the Riverside Walk
The Emerald Pools hike is an easy out and back hike that can accommodate just about any level of fitness. It includes some pretty scenery, water features, and a nice viewpoint. There are three tiers of pools: Lower, Middle, and Upper, with round trip distances of 1.2 miles to Lower, 2 miles to Middle, and 3 miles to Upper.
The Riverside Walk is a paved trail that is nearly flat and leads to the mouth of the Narrows. It follows the river and allows you to get in some nice, easy strolling and a chance to meet some wildlife along the way.
If you’re looking for a quick day hike that is suitable for the whole family, Both Emerald Pools and the Riverside Walk will do you just fine.
The Subway is a permit-only hike that allows up to 80 people to tackle it per day. You can apply by online lottery or try your luck as a walk-up at the Visitor’s Center. We managed to snag two of the last 6 permits for Friday (after striking out on Thursday) by hitting up the Visitor’s Center at 7:30 am (it opens at 8).
There are two ways to hike the Subway. Top-down, which requires rappelling and more advanced climbing and canyoneering skills; and bottom-up, which requires nothing but some waterproof gear and a good sprinkling of patience and fortitude.
To get to the bottom-up trailhead, you have to drive to the Left Fork trailhead. This requires exiting the park and re-entering park boundaries in a wilder area. From the bottom up, The Subway is a 7-9 mile hike through Zion Wilderness to a formation that looks a bit like an underground subway tunnel.
There are Outfitters outside of Zion who will gleefully take your money and equip you with a walking stick, neoprene booties, and waterproof boots and pants. These can be used for either hiking The Narrows, or hiking The Subway. This outfit costs about $40-45 a person. We could have gotten away with just the boots and socks, but without knowing what was ahead, we opted for pants as well. Somewhere around mile 2, when these unbreathable monsters had begun to staunchly adhere like a repressively sticky sweat lodge to my already effort-ridden legs, I sat down and ejected the pants from my body in a fit of rage. Liz persevered with them in place. Results may vary.
Along your route you’ll likely run across frogs, trout, ducks, dinosaur tracks, and other wildlife.
All in all, the hike took us 7 hours. Most of it is carefully picking your way through a gorgeous landscape of wild beauty. But the last leg back up to the canyon rim, after some 6 hours of obstacles, was admittedly rough. This part of the trip albeit short-lived can be challenging. The trail up to the rim is adrift in loose rocks, and slipping from time to time is almost an inevitability. Somehow seeming steeper on the way up, I found myself clinging almost flat to the steep path as I tried to traverse in a half-hiking, half-bouldering, half-crawling display of scrambling finality.
We’d suggest you wind down after your hikes at the Zion Brewery just outside of the park. Be sure to keep your entry receipt or your America the Beautiful card on-hand so you can re-enter the park, and just stroll over the bridge from the Visitor’s Center parking lot. This brewery has $2 6oz tasters of their beers on tap, which if you ask us is a great deal for a thirsty hiker.