Leaving behind the scorching Fire Valley, we opted for a change of temperature and decided to hike in the cold waters of the Virgin River in Zion National Park.
Zion National Park, Utah’s first national park, is a hiking heaven with incredible, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring views. While Zion is relatively small compared to other national parks, it has abundant hiking opportunities for everyone, with over 200 km of trails leading through dramatic rock formations, hanging gardens, scenic vistas, waterfalls, and free-flowing rivers.
The area was named Zion by the Mormons who came here at the end of the 19th century. In Hebrew, it means an asylum, a shelter. However, the first human presence in the region dates to 8000 years ago. It started as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 but was granted national park status in 1919, changing its name to Zion National Park.
I first heard about Zion while browsing social media when I found pictures of people hiking in a crystal clear river surrounded by a looming slot canyon’s walls. After that, I became captivated; hence Zion National Park became our next stop.
As mentioned, there are many hiking trails, ranging from short family-friendly strolls to long strenuous hikes to remote viewpoints. Two most popular hikes that everyone mentions are the Narrows and Angels Landing. With popularity comes the price, and thus both trails are heavily crowded.
The Zion Narrows trail leading along the Virgin River is one of the most stunning and unique trails I have attempted. According to the internet, Narrows is also one of the world’s best hiking routes, leading through the so-called Slot Canyons.
❗As it is a Slot Canyon, it is often susceptible to flash floods. The surrounding terrain is mostly rock face, which does not absorb water when it rains, changing calm water into a ravaging river within minutes. Check the weather prediction and see if thunderstorms are forecasted in the area. Many signs in the park also indicate the risk levels, and park rangers guard the start of the river trail, informing about the situation.
Thanks to the thunderstorm alert and high flash flood risk, we were deciding till the very last moment if we would hike, finally settling with only walking part of the trail until Mystery Falls.
For most of the trek, we hiked in ankle to the mid-thigh-deep water with the riverbed alternating between sections of sand and sections with a lot of loose rocks. However, depending on the season and the amount of rain/ melting snow, there can be way more water, sometimes going up to the chest. The day before our arrival, a flash flood changed crystal clear waters into a murky brown river, increasing hiking difficulty as we could not see where we were stepping.
The water temperature was manageable, relieving our bodies of ever-present heat while the mid-August sun tried to burn our skin. Initially, it felt slightly cold, but we got used to it fast.
Regardless of the difficulties, it was an unforgettable experience with dazzling and spectacular views. I wish we could have hiked a little bit more. On the other hand, the second we arrived at the bus stop, the sky cracked open, drenching everyone that didn’t manage to take shelter. So overall, we were fortunate, as we managed to hike the river during fantastic weather without having to run back ashore in panic.
There are three ways to hike Narrows:
- Bottom-Up – Hike starts at the Temple of Sinawava (the last bus stop) via the Riverside Walk to Big Spring and back. You can walk the whole way to Big Spring or take a short walk to some vista; remember, though, you must retrace your steps all the way back. On the other hand, the further you get, the fewer people you will meet. It is the only hike that does not require a permit.
- Top-Down Zion Narrows Day Hike (One day) – Hike the whole canyon (27 km) in one day from Chamberlain’s Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava. Shuttle and permit required.
- Top-Down Zion Narrows Backpacking Trip (Overnight) – hike the whole canyon (27 km) in two days. Depart from Chamberlain’s Ranch. Shuttle and permit required.
You can find here an excellent guide about the routes.
You should wear shoes with hard soil, preferably hiking shoes, as the river has a lot of stones and is uneven. If the water is murky, you will not see where to step and might stumble. There is a possibility to rent waterproof shoes, pants, dry bibs, and a walking stick in the city right before entering the park (Zion Outfitter, Zion Guru, Zion Adventures, or ask rangers in the visitor center for directions).
Take a walking stick with you; either bring your own hiking poles or rent one. At the entrance to the river, people leave some sticks, so if you want to go for a cheap option, grab one, and you will be happy you did. I gave my hiking sticks to my boyfriend as he struggled to navigate uneven terrain and stumbled a lot. After initially trying them for a moment, he didn’t want to give them back 😛
Pack the essentials into a dry bag, in case you slip into the water. And above all, take plenty of water to drink. There is a water station at the bus stop where you can refill your water.
Angels Landing, 7.1-km out-and-back trail, offers breathtaking and unforgettable views, also hailed as one of the world’s most dangerous hikes. It is strenuous and steep, with exposure to long drop-offs, many switchbacks over sand and slick rock, and exposed edges. If you are afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. In addition, you will have to pass by other tourists, making it quite a challenging route.
As my boyfriend is an unexperienced hiker ( coming from flat Denmark, he never hiked before), I had to forgo taking up this challenge 🙁
In response to concerns about crowding and congestion on the trail, on and after April 1, 2022, everyone who hikes Angels Landing needs to have a permit. More about it here.
Emerald Pools Trail (4.8-km loop ) is a paved trail to Lower Emerald Pool which then leads to a rocky trail to the Upper Emerald Pool at the base of a cliff.
Zion is a popular place for bikers and rock climbers (more here)
Check out the current pricing here.
We used our “America The Beautiful” annual pass to enter the park.
You can park your car at the parking lot next to the visitor center; however, finding a spot in a busy season might be pretty challenging. You can also park in the neighboring town of Springdale and hop on the free Springdale Shuttle to the visitor center.
A free Zion Canyon Shuttle runs through the park and stops at the trailheads, departing every 10 minutes or so. It runs daily from March to November, with some additional weekends in February.