We spent the week of March 13-19 traveling in the state of Utah, hitting up a couple different national parks.
For the first three full days of our trip, we hiked through Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, a stone’s throw from the Arizona and Las Vegas borders. The 229-square mile natural wonderland features everything from high desert plateaus and mesas, to mountains and steep narrow canyons hidden within high sandstone rock face, to forests with lush greenery and wildlife, and has a difference of 5,000 feet in elevation between its lowest and highest points.
Zion is most famous for the towering red walls of its main Zion Canyon, through which flows the north fork of the Virgin River which carved it so many years ago. Most visitors to Zion come by way of the south entrance into this main canyon, following a scenic drive along the river to the starting points of several trails that explore the canyon’s natural beauty (in the high seasons of late spring/summer/early fall, scenic drive is only open to the park shuttle and those with special permits). The area off the scenic main road is the most traversed, famous and accessible part of the park and includes enough trails that we couldn’t explore it all in 3 days – and it is only 6 of the park’s 229 square miles! With people all over the world drawn to its stunning canyon views and diverse technical hiking, Zion became the 5th most-visited US National Park in 2016.
We rented a room in an Airbnb in the nearby small town of Hurricane, about 25 minutes from the park (although road construction near the part ended up extending our daily trips to and from). While it may cost an arm and a leg to get there, exploring our wonderful natural parks is incredibly affordable: a $30.00 vehicle pass gets you and everyone in your car into the park for a whole week! Day passes for those not in cars are $15/person.
We kicked off our adventure in Zion with a short hike on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion’s Upper East Canyon, a little off the beaten path from the longer, popular trails around the Main Canyon. To get to this trail head we had to drive part way into the park on scenic drive and then follow the road off to the east, which took us onto the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway and through its historic tunnel that was chiseled into the canyon in the 1930s. The Canyon Overlook trailhead was off the road right past the tunnel.
The trail is about 1 mile round trip with minimal elevation change, winding through the sandstone formations in the high canyon to arrive at a splendid view of the main canyon from the east. Even though it was still morning, the park was filling up and parking in this area is at a premium: the official lots are tiny and road shoulder parking gets hard to come by. Luckily we were able to find something a 5-minute walk from the trailhead.
I was craving an awesome view to kick off our hiking adventures here, and this short trail was a great “warm up” hike. Here we go!
Traipsing through a bit of high desert:
And finally, we arrive at the viewpoint!
After our hike, we drove back down to the main canyon to find a place to park for the day and take the shuttle to some of the more popular trailheads out of Zion Canyon.
This was our big “rookie mistake”: by this point it was 11 AM and there was NO parking open anywhere in the park. We had to pay to park in the lot of Zion Outfitters right outside the park entrance, and by that point the lines for the shuttle at the visitor center were insane. Lesson learned: get there EARLY!
When we finally got onto the shuttle, we decided to take it out to the Weeping Rock trailhead to hike the 3-mile (round trip) Hidden Canyon Trail and then see the Weeping Rock itself (accessible by a .25 mile trail).
Our first order of business was tackling the ~1.5 mile trek up to the Hidden Canyon, which is what’s referred to as a “hanging canyon” up high within the rock face of the east side of the main canyon. The first half mile from the trailhead is hiking steep switchbacks up the canyon face. This nameless introductory part of the trail is shared by hikers making their way to the start of the Observation Point, East Rim and Hidden Canyon trails higher up the cliff. Here we go!
Finally, we reach the point where the trail splits off. We hang a right to get onto the trail that will take us another mile to the Hidden Canyon. (what if we had hung a left instead? Find out in my Day 3 recap!)
Finally, 1,000 feet of elevation gain later, here we are at the entrance to the hidden canyon!
At this point, hikers have the option to turn around and hike back down, or climb over those rocks into the background and keep going into the hidden canyon. Going into the canyon does involve some rock scrambling, and I originally thought we would end our hike here because “rock scrambling” sounded really hard. But we decided to venture in and I’m so glad we did!
It felt so nice in the canyon! With fewer hikers around and canyon walls creating a reprieve from the afternoon sun, the sandy-bottomed high canyon-within-a-canyon was cool and quiet. So peaceful. I could have stayed up there all evening.
Also, the rock scrambling wasn’t bad at all. Climbing over those boulders at the entrance was actually probably the hardest part.
Finally, it was time to turn around and head back.
Bye, hidden canyon! This was one of my favorite parts of our Zion exploration.
Once back down to the trailhead, we regrouped and then headed in the other direction to check out the famous Weeping Rock. Hikers can stand in a large naturally-formed depression in the rockface where water runoff from higher up in the sandstone trickles over the ledge above. A half-mile roundtrip, this “cool down” hike took about 10-15 minutes total.
In this picture, you can see the runoff trickling down that gives Weeping Rock its name:
A close-up of a nearby rock face also “weeping”:
For our final hike of the day, we took the shuttle up one more stop to the Riverside Walk/”Gateway to the Narrows” trail. This is more of a stroll than a hike, as the 2 mile round-trip trail is mostly flat and not technical. The trail follows the Virgin River – the river that cuts through Zion’s main canyon and actually, back in its heyday thousands of years ago, formed the canyon – to the start of The Narrows. It is a good family-friendly or leisurely walk that can be good for seeing wildlife. We thought this would be a relaxing way to end our first day.
And we even saw some wildlife!:
And a waterfall:
Water trickles down the rock face:
All the way to the rocks below:
The hike ends at the mouth of The Narrows!
The Narrows is a famous and popular canyon in Zion. This is the point at which the walls of the main canyon come closer together to form a narrow and deep slot canyon. The Narrows is a wading hike, meaning those who venture in will spend much of their hike in the Virgin River, making it a very attractive and popular option for hot summer days. The Narrows can also be hiked from “top down”, which requires a wilderness permit and is only recommended for experienced canyoneers. Unfortunately, as awesome as it sounded, the Narrows was closed this week due to the higher spring water levels, so it was not meant to be for us. 😦
Turning around and heading back on our last hike of Day 1, a couple up-close shots of the canyon wall. The vegetation that grows up the wall is known as the “vertical gardens”:
That was a lot more time on our feet over uneven terrain than we are used to, and our feet and calves were screaming by the end of the day.