We had been warned that the Zion National Park would be a zoo of people in the early summer months, but we our travel dates were hemmed in by the end school year and the beginning of the Fourth of July festivities. So we celebrated this year’s big birthdays — an eightieth, a seventieth and two fifties — over the last week in June. Warnings were well founded. Zion was a mob scene. And we discovered ways to escape the hordes.
We stayed an hour away in St. George and we arrived at the park later than we should have. By 9:00am the parking lot was nearly full and the line for the shuttles into the park were long. Very long. But the shuttle system is slick. Double buses run nonstop from the crack of dawn to sunset. No air conditioning, but good air flow, reasonably comfortable seats and a combination of taped recordings by naturalists or historians as well as the drivers commentary keep you informed about what you’re seeing.
The newsprint guide handed out at the entrance was great. It described the hikes in terms of ease but also with a stick figure falling to indicate the worst hikes for the acrophobes. As several in our group suffer from that fear, and given the age of our eldest, we opted for a moderate hike for our first effort, the Watchman Trail. It was one of the few trails accessible right from the parking lot, no shuttle needed.
A quick walk along the Virgin River and then we followed a clear trail from the river up the into the canyon. At mid-morning much of the early part of the west facing trail was in the shade, but as we climbed and traversed the switchbacks, the path became more exposed. They aren’t kidding when they say take lots of water. We all went through several liters each! But the view from the top, across the Virgin River valley to the red rock faced walls stunned all of us.
The newsprint guide said the famous Narrows hike was closed — much to our disappointment — too much winter snow meant too much water in the Narrows. But lesson learned. Double check with the rangers. Turns out the trail had just opened and while the river was high, it was passable as long as you were willing to get wet. So off we went.
Do not be deterred by your first impression. The “trail” to the river is handicapped accessible, paved and so crowded you have to walk single file. It feels more like a walk in a crowded city park than a wilderness experience. And at the river’s edge the mob of people walking along the trail congregated. Felt like a party. We hesitated. Did we really want to wade in our hiking boots? Next time we all agreed we would bring sturdy running shoes and swap out our hiking boots. You can rent waterproof walking shoes and a wooden hiking staff for $25, although we all agreed the wooden staff would offer a heck of a lot of resistance in the fast moving river.
Our hiking sticks had been superfluous on the path to the river; once we started wading over large and slippery boulders in ankle to knee high swiftly moving water, we all relied upon those poles to keep two points of contact with the bottom. Even so we made slow progress. Very slow. It took major effort than you might think. When the water became crotch deep, we turned around while many went on. Anyone doing this needs a dry bag for valuables. But the few hundred yards we waded through was worth every sore muscle the next day!
We did talk with those who hiked the Angels Landing Trail. Twenty seven or some such switchbacks and holding on to a chain as you scale a narrow path with nothing between you and hundreds of feet of air, plus the fact that there is often a waiting line to begin the hike was definitively not for us.
Like many popular sites, they are popular for a very good reason. Zion is gorgeous, breath taking and unique and well worth suffering the crowds
If the crowds of Zion get to you, try one of the state parks in the area. We spent one day hiking in the Snow Canyon State Park. An entirely different landscape than Zion. More desert and less green, but still eye popping with a whole lot fewer people. We took a quick walk up a slot canyon. And then spent several hours climbing upon petrified sand dunes.
And some amazing views
Snow Canyon is definitely worth a day, maybe two at the most. And while we ran into a handful of other hikers, we felt like we were far, far away from Zion’s mob scene.