After three days of working at Trading Post (pictured) I finally get to go inside Zion, although it teases me from the bluff overlooking the campground on a daily basis. On my first day I took a quick hike up this bluff and get a shot of park of the campground from above, and also overlooking the valley that runs into Zion. The park starts less than a mile from where I’m living, so close I can almost touch it.
It costs $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass into the park. Motorcycles are $12 as are bicycles and walk-ins. If you’re going to be driving your RV through and it’s taller than 11’4″ or wider than 7’10” you’ll have to pay an additional $15 fee for traffic control to get through the tunnel, and there are time of day restrictions as well. Vehicles longer than 50′ or taller than 13’1″ are not allowed.
Route 9 is the only road you can drive on during the busy season, it cuts from east to south and covers a pretty small portion of the park in Pine Creek Canyon. The free shuttle service goes up Zion Canyon and is the way to access most of the park’s hiking trails and see most of the views. I found the shuttle service a little confusing at first so let me try to explain it in a way that’ll make more sense and get you the most out of your visit.
Although there is parking at the Visitor’s Center just inside the park’s south entrance, it was completely full up when I went on Friday morning, and the pamphlet I got says it’s usually full from 10 am to 3 pm in the summer. If all you have time for is a drive through the park and don’t particularly care about seeing the Visitor’s Center, then go ahead and pay the vehicle fee and take Route 9, there are several pull offs for pictures and it also access to the 1 mile round trip Canyon Overlook Trail, which gives a panoramic view of Pine Creek Canyon where it meets Zion Canyon. This trail is rated moderately difficult and has a few steep drop offs. The first six of my pictures after the two from the campground were all taken along Route 9 and this trail. This road also includes an impressive 1.1 mile tunnel that was quite fun to drive through and a steep section of road with six switchbacks.
If you want to spend more time in Zion, or want to see the Visitor’s Center during busy hours, you’ll need to get on the shuttle. There are two shuttle services, the first ferries people from various stops in the town of Springdale just outside the park’s south entrance right up to the entrance to the park, where visitors then walk into the park and arrive at the Visitor’s Center and can take the second shuttle service, which goes from the Visitor’s Center to various stops along Zion Canyon. If you’re staying in Springdale, I’d just leave the vehicles alone and use the shuttle service. If you’re coming from farther, you can try to pay the vehicle fee and park at the Visitor’s Center to catch the shuttle service going up the Canyon, but as I said parking is hard to come by. I ended up driving all the way through the park into Springdale and catching the shuttle back in because there simply wasn’t room to park at the time. It was a bit of a time waster, but worked out in the end.
Once you’re on the Canyon shuttle, the fun begins. The round trip is about 80 minutes and has eight stops. It’s free, so stop as often as you like to get off. Shuttles run every 15 minutes from 8 am to 8 pm until Labor Day.
There are 18 day trails in the park, and 14 are only accessible from the Canyon shuttle. I’ve only done three of them so far – the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails and the Canyon Overlook Trail but they’ve all been great. Zion is definitely a good park for hiking, as I do more of them I’ll be posting about the experience.
My advice on the Emerald Pools, the lower one is great and is rated easy with a paved trail. The trail cuts behind the falls and you can get misted and cool off if you go under it. The waterfall into this pool was quite small when I hiked it due to the dry conditions, but it was still really neat to see because the undercut cliff it flows off of is so tall. The trail to the next two is unpaved and rated Moderate, the middle pool isn’t far from the lower but isn’t as scenic, the upper pool is considerably beyond that but quite pretty. There is no waterfall here, but the pool is larger and set at the base of an impressive cliff and is shaded in the afternoon. Either stop at the lower and turn around (1.2 miles round trip) or go all the way to the upper pool (2.2 miles round trip).
Photography is stupidly easy inside the park, because it’s just that breathtaking of a place. Point your camera and snap the shutter and you’ve probably got a worthy photo. I believe I have something like 15 photos in this post, and I could have easily had twice that. Every curve of the road gives another view just begging to have it’s picture taken. The lack of foliage makes it easy to get pictures of the geology, and where there is foliage, it’s contrast to all of the reddish rock makes an equally compelling picture.
The east end of the park has smoother more rounded rock formations that aren’t as tall but have incredible patterns and grain to them. In places it looks like hot fondue was poured slowly and allowed to harden in waves of rust and cream. Stop at any of the pull-offs along route 9 in this area for a fun picture.
Once you pass through the long tunnel you’re in Pine Creek Canyon which also makes for good pictures in a different way. The mountains here are tall and much steeper and make a great backdrop, and there are several arch-like formations in this canyon that haven’t become true arches as the rock wearing out underneath hasn’t hollowed all the way through. Zion Canyon that you see with the shuttle is similar. I wonder if in a million years or so, this area will be like a new Arches park.
As you get close to the Visitor’s Center and the Virgin River things green up and there are actual trees. The river is quite clear and remains cool even in the summer, I believe at the Visitor’s Center the temperature was listed as 64 degrees. The park’s two campgrounds are near the Visitor’s Center and the water and are shaded, but it’s hard to get in right now. The South Campground is first come first served, so if you arrive early enough in the morning you have a chance. The Watchmen Campground is a reservation campground, and it sounds like it gets booked up months in advance for the summer.
As far as amenities go, every stop has water fountains where you can fill up your water bottles, which is good if you’re visiting this time of year. The Visitor Center and the Lodge stops on the shuttle tour have restrooms, and the Lodge also has a little cafe, gift shop, and lodging.
Beyond all of that basic stuff, let me just say that Zion is everything I’d hoped it would be when I envisioned a trip out West. It’s just so different from anyplace I’ve been so far. The only additional recommendation I’d make at this point is to say that if you can manage it, visiting in spring or fall would probably be even better – less crowds and better daytime temperatures, although with the humidity as low as it is here, while I’ve been hot it hasn’t dampened my outings so far. Tomorrow I’m going with some coworkers to hike the Narrows in the park which I’m really excited about, I won’t spoil all the details but it entails hiking up a slot canyon in water. Have a good week everyone!
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WiFi is being too slow to get all the pictures up right now, I’ll edit the post and get the rest of them later.
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