Zion National Park is an incredibly beautiful national natural landmark that deserves far more pomp and attention than it receives. Located in Utah, Zion has been a protected National Park since 1919, though today it is unfortunately occasionally overlooked in favor of the more famous National Parks in the area including the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.
Indians have lived in Zion for thousands of years, but it received the name it holds now after Mormon settlers arrived in the early 1860’s. The story goes that after crossing the harsh midwest, the settlers arrived at the stunning, sheltered, green and lush canyon area and deemed it a truly heavenly site. The central feature of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon, though the varied landscape of the 229 square mile park includes desert, woodland, mountains, canyons, buttes, rivers, arches, and more.
Visiting Zion National Park was high on my bucket list for at least a decade before I was finally able to make my way there this spring. The reason? Angel’s Landing.
Angel’s Landing is the name given to a 1,500 foot tall rock formation artfully positioned at the intersection of three canyons. A short but rigorous 2.5 mile trail leads from a base in the Grotto, up through a series of switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles, and past Scout Lookout. Scout Lookout is the final destination for many, because past that the trail narrows drastically. Often only two feet wide, the trail has been forcefully carved into cliff sides anchored with chains for balance and support. At other times a mere three feet separates travelers from plummeting cliffs on either side. But the view from the summit is worth every terrifying step. Stand at the point of Angel’s Landing and feel the vast windy emptiness of open canyons surrounding you on three sides. No matter how long you sit taking in the view, you will always wish you had sat just a little bit longer.
I had two days to spend in Zion, but after my first glance at the stunning canyons and sandstone cliffs I knew I could have spent a week there and still not been satisfied.
So what did I do? Where did I stay? What did I see?
Camping in the park is hard to get. The reserve sites fill up quickly and the rest is first-come, first-served. So instead of camping in the park itself, I reserved a spot at the privately owned Zion Canyon Campground in Springdale.
Springdale is a tiny mountain resort town situated just outside the gates of Zion National Park. It has camping, bed & breakfasts, and motel lodging; several great restaurants and bars; and a general store or two stocked with postcards, tourist souvenirs, and any last minute camping gear an intrepid adventurer may have forgotten. A free shuttle makes frequent laps between points in the town and the entrance to the park, so staying in the town is a convenient and easy choice.
If you’ll remember from last week’s adventure, I left Las Vegas in the late afternoon after dropping my friend off at the airport. I made a bee-line for Zion, and arrived just before dusk. I quickly checked in and set up camp in the dwindling daylight. All set for the night, I went for a walk. Springdale in the evening has a welcoming and friendly feel. Warm glowing lights and the jingle of laugher pours from the restaurants and bars in the evening. Pass other vacationers on the street and you’ll get a friendly wave and a smile, and occasionally a bit of conversation.
Though the bar sounded inviting, I decided to turn in for the evening. I was still working off the last of my Vegas hangover and I wanted to be able to hit the trail early the next morning. So, with a contented sigh I returned to my quiet camp and settled in for the night.
The next morning I packed a daypack, strapped on my boots, and took the shuttle to Zion National Park. At the front gate hikers disembark from the town shuttle, pay the entrance fee, and enter the park. There are hiking trails of every length and for every athletic level available in Zion. Locating the trail head for Angel’s Landing, I hopped on another free shuttle bus, this one designed for inside the park, and made my way to the Grotto.
True to it’s description, the trail to Angel’s Landing isn’t long, though it is steep and strenuous at times. I took my time, enjoying the sweeping vistas and stunning canyons all along the way. At Scouts Landing I took a break before conquering the final half mile to the summit. That last bit is really tough! Parts are down right scary. Especially hiking alone. Luckily I went on a busy enough day and met several friendly hikers that let me hike with them for a spell and encouraged me to continue the few times I almost froze.
Of course I passed, or rather was passed by, the stereotypical “Colorado Boys.” You know the type. Far to fit, laughing and joking as they devour strenuous trails in Rainbow flip-flops and hemp t-shirts. I tried not to be too disgusted with them or with myself as they skipped past me in sandals while I struggled to swallow my fear and take one more step forward.
Eventually I made it to the top. It was just as incredible as I hoped it would be. I sat with my packed lunch and enjoyed the view. I sat until I got cold and stiff, trying to record every stunning detail to memory. The way the canyons faded from a bright orange sandstone to a darker grey rock. The hints of bright yellow and white stone that laced its way in layers throughout each wall. The way the river wound along the canyon floor. The way the lush green vegetation grew up from the river along the the walls of the canyons, eventually petering out to bare sheer rock. The way the crisp spring afternoon sunlight cast one side of the canyons in sharp bright relief and kept the other side in dark cool shadow. The way the wind was just strong enough to be a little bit frightening when I stood at the edge of the cliffs. The warmth of the stone when I laid down and stretched out to get a closer look at the edge. The vast empty space you feel sitting at the edge of a point a only few feet wide surrounded by plunging cliffs and deep canyons. I snapped a few photos but I knew nothing could ever capture the incredible view before me.
Finally, with a sigh, I began the climb down. Back in the Grotto, I spent the rest of the day exploring Kayenta Trail and the Lower Emerald Pools.
The next day I went back to the park and rode the shuttle on the full loop to get a simple tour of Zion Canyon. I was just as happy to see the hawks and deer the driver pointed out as I was to see long skinny ropes hanging from cliff faces, dancing lightly as rock-climbers made their way up and then repelled back down. I got off the shuttle at The Temple of Sinawava and walked into The Narrows. The Narrows is a slot canyon hike in which hikers can venture deep into Zion Canyon along the Virgin River. Unfortunately the day I went The Narrows were closed because of the risk of flash flooding. I have heard great things about the hike though and highly recommend trying it. If I ever find myself back in the area I know where I’ll be spending the day.
After that I wandered the park for a bit longer before deciding to head south for a spontaneous addition to my road trip. That morning I had learned about the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and felt that I just couldn’t pass up a chance to go walking in pink sand dunes. Yes, PINK SAND! Awesome!
Check back next week to hear about my adventures in another little celebrated park, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park of Utah.
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Have you ever had the urge to just drop what you were doing, pack a bag, and set out on an adventure? Seven years and over two dozen countries later, Aeri Rose is proof that excitement, independence, and discovery await those who are bold enough to say “yes” to life’s craziest choices. When not exploring the world with her little grey backpack, Aeri Rose an be found living a nomadic lifestyle traveling the United States as an artist and entrepreneur. To follow Aeri on all her adventures, check her out online at travelingwithaeri.com; or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aerirose.