Zion National Park: Majestic Red Rock Cliffs

Zion National Park is very popular because of its majestic red rock cliffs, and its relative close proximity to Las Vegas.  It is one of the “Mighty Five” in Utah, along with Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.  Each of these parks have its unique variation of the red rock landscape.  Zion’s claim to fame is the tall, imposing cliff that rises steeply from the valley floor.

In most places, visitors view the canyon from  above.  At Zion, most visitors view the canyon from below.  The steep walls that rise 2,000-3,000 feet in a narrow canyon accentuate the majestic scenery.  The sandstone rocks reflects the early morning or the late afternoon sun, bursting with color.  The scenery is awe inspiring.

Dramatic Scenery in a Short Drive

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The 6.5 mile Zion Canyon Drive packs many attractions.  A shuttle system is in place to handle the large crowd that was causing severe parking problems and driving away wildlife.  The compactness, quality, and variety of the attractions make this the best ride in any National Park.  The Court of the Patriarchs, peaks named after Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, reach into the sky for one of the most imposing feelings in the park.  Photographs cannot capture the large scale of these rocks.  One has to be there to really get a sense of the grandeur.

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Mule Deer Watching Hikers at Lower Emerald Pools trail
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Waterfall at Lower Emerald Pool

The narrow canyon opens up to a meadow at Zion Lodge and the Grotto area, with multiple trail heads.  The Lower Emerald Pools trail climbs 80 feet up the west side of the canyon to a waterfall and a small pool.  It provides a good view of the canyon floor and the North Fork of the Virgin river.  The hike is very enjoyable because it’s not particularly difficult and leads to a path behind the waterfall.  From the Lower Emerald Pools, the trail climbs another 360 feet to Upper Emerald Pools where you look up at a waterfall from the pool.  Mule deer often graze next to the trail, affording a nice closeup view.

A short, quarter mile hike from shuttle stop 7 is Weeping Rock and Hanging Gardens.  The rock is carved out with continuous water seeping through the rocks, allowing moss and other lush plants to grow right from the rock.  Geologists estimate the water seeping through could be 1200 years old.  If that is true, the thought of touching and feeling flowing water from more than a millennium ago really puts things in perspective.  We are here on this earth for a brief time, and need to be good stewards of this land.

The End of the Road

This beautiful drive ends at the Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon walls converge to form the Narrows.  Riverwalk, a flat, easily accessible paved trail, follows the Virgin River for a pleasant walk in the shade.  The sound of rushing water compliments the beautiful river scenery.  The narrowness of the canyon at this point provides heavy shade for most of the day, yet, looking up, the brilliant sun lights up the rich color of the sandstone canyon wall.

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North Fork of Virgin River as viewed from Lower Emerald Pools trail
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The Start of the Narrows

At the end of the Riverwalk trail, the cliffs merge with only a small slot visible.  This is the start of the Narrows trail for the more adventurous.  The river is the trail here and the trail is 16 miles long.  The canyon is 2,000 feet tall and only 20-30 feet wide in places.  To get a sense of the scale for city slickers,  imagine standing in the middle of a street where buildings that are taller than the Freedom Tower in New York line both sides, with no gaps, and for as far as the eye can see.  

Preparation is essential to hike into the Narrows.  The water and the air are much colder than the rest of the park and 60% of the hike is wading through water of various depth.  The scene is dramatic, with towering cliffs that nearly merge, smell of sandstone, clear stream underfoot, and rich, red color when the sun peeks through.

Where Angels Land

At the Grand Canyon, overlooks are easily accessible by just driving up to the rim.  The same perspective at Zion Canyon requires a strenuous hike.  Angels Landing trail is a popular but difficult trail that is short, but steep.  It rises over 1,400 feet in 2.5 miles, with portions near the top only a few feet wide with big drops on both sides.  This video gives a good sense of the trail.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

Highway to the East

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Checkerboard Mesa

Heading east from Canyon Junction, the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway travels 12 miles to Zion’s east gate.  The road climbs over the eastern Zion Canyon wall after Canyon Junction in a series of switchbacks that lead to a 1.1 mile tunnel straight through solid rock wall. After the tunnel, Canyon Overlook is a half-mile walk from the road to cliff’s edge with a knee wobbling view of the river below.

The road provides many pullouts that give visitors a place to stop and marvel at the valley and the various rock formations with different colors, shades, and hues.  Shortly before the eastern entrance is Checkerboard Mesa, where the horizontal lines in the rocks are bisected by vertical joint cracks, forming a checkerboard like appearance.  


Thought for Zion

A challenge that seems impossible, like the cliffs of Zion, can be solved by breaking it down to small steps.  Take that first step and conquer one switchback at a time.   Soon, you will be on top of the mountain, satisfied with your accomplishments.

Impressions of Zion

Zion has one unique feature that is simply awesome and without parallel: the tall rocks.  The scale is difficult to describe in words or pictures.  The rich color reflecting off of the morning or the afternoon sun creates a vibrant scene that is beautiful to watch.  The river and the vegetation adds life and more beauty to this wondrous place.  The compactness of the paved road area and the numerous short distance hikes make it easy to visit but also a magnet for crowds.  The shuttle system works extremely well to handle the crowds and makes it easy to do one way hikes.

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Practical Info for Visiting Zion

  • Springdale is a quaint town and the gateway town to Zion.  It has numerous hotels, restaurants, shops, and outfitters to satisfy most needs.  
  • There is no need to stay inside the park at Zion Lodge, since Springdale is so close and the park is so compact.
  • During peak season, the shuttle has stops in Springdale.  Take the shuttle, don’t fight the crowds.  You may not find parking at the visitor center.
  • If you only have one day, ride the shuttle to Zion Canyon Drive.  Get to the Temple of Sinawava first, do the River Walk and part of the Narrows if equipped.  Get off at each stop on the way back.  Then, take the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway.
  • There are hikes to suit all abilities at Zion.  For the young and strong, the Narrows and Angel’s Landing are excellent trails.  For the older set, Emerald Pools+Kayenta, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook are good bets.
  • Consider using an outfitter to hike the Narrows that provide appropriate equipment.

Zion Facts

  • Size: 146,597 acres, ranked 25th
  • Visitors: 3,648,846 in 2016, ranked 6th.  2015 set a new record and 2016 will again set a new record.
  • Peak Month in 2016: July with 599,961 visitors
  • Low Month in 2016: January with 78,318 visitors

Date Visited: October 13, 2016

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