This article was written by Suzi Iverson. Visit her website Travel With Monsters for itineraries, guides and other tips on how to travel with little ones without losing your mind.
There’s a reason Zion National Park is the most visited park in Utah, and it’s not just because names like “Angel’s Landing” and “Weeping Rock” and “Checkerboard Mesa” make you feel as though you are stepping forth on a magical mystery tour. It’s because Zion’s attractions — from the Narrows to Northgate Peaks — are just that impressive. Four million people a year can’t be wrong, right?
5 miles // Strenuous // Good for adrenaline-seekers, bad for people with acrophobia.
Does teetering on a razor edge of rock 1,000 feet above the valley floor sound fun to you? No? Then don’t teeter. Clutch tightly with both hands to the chain that has been thoughtfully bolted into the trail. The expansive views of Zion Canyon from Angel’s Landing are worth the trip, provided you do not have a debilitating fear of heights.
Yes, the final stretch up to Angel’s Landing, called the Hogsback, is a rocky ridge with sheer drops on either side that feels terribly dangerous. But when you make it up (clinging for dear life to the chain handrail), you’ll be rewarded by the stunning views at Angel’s Landing plus bragging rights when you get home.
2 miles // Easy // Suitable for everyone, from newborns to grandmas to that one kid who “hates” hiking.
This your chance to go to The Narrows without actually hiking The Narrows. Start at the Temple of Sinawava, where you’ll notice the walls of the canyon starting to close in on either side of the Virgin River. Meander down the sidewalk, splash in the river, or just stop and let your jaw drop in wonder. At the end of the walk, you’ll notice people starting to head up the river; these are the serious people who are “hiking the Narrows.” If you prefer to keep your feet dry, turn around, and enjoy it all again on the way back.
9.5 miles // Technical // Requires a permit; don’t attempt this hike unless you know what you’re doing.
This is the classic semi-technical hike of The Narrows, requiring ropes, bouldering, a knowledge of canyoneering and a shuttle waiting for you at the bottom. If you can come up with that stuff (and aren’t afraid of getting your feet wet or enclosed spaces) you’ll be rewarded with waterfalls, pools, a tunnel of red rock (the “subway”) and dinosaur tracks.
This hike starts at the Wildcat Trailhead on Kolob Reservoir Road 15 miles above the town of Virgin. When you reach Left Fork Canyon and Russell Creek, you’ll scramble down into the slot canyon, where the real fun begins. You’ll be hiking through the river, down waterfalls and over boulders. It’s a steep climb out at the Left Fork Trailhead, where you best have a car waiting for you. If not, you’ll have a really long walk home.
1 mile // Easy // A must-do for your Instagram feed.
Looking for the perfect, expansive shot of the valley floor? Don’t miss Canyon Overlook Trail, which leads to a lookout that has been delighting photographers for decades. Hang on to your kids, as there are some cliff edges here, but otherwise every hiker can (and should) do this trail. You’ll find the trailhead at the east entrance of the Mount Carmel Tunnel.
0.4 miles // Easy // Toddlers can hike this trail, so you can, too.
This popular site is a major stop on the shuttle that runs through Zion Canyon, making it very accessible. An easy trail (not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs but doable for most everyone else) leads to an unusual sandstone cliff covered in tiny rivulets of water. The tears of this rocky wall feed ferns and mosses, while the Great White Throne towers overhead.
8.6 miles // Moderate // Check the weather and pack the right gear.
True story: in 1963 my dad, uncle and grandfather were caught in a flash flood while hiking The Narrows and escaped death by clinging to a hardy tree overnight and eating canned peaches and raw bacon. We now take family pilgrimages to The Narrows to thank said tree (and then argue about which tree it is). I was thus raised with a decent appreciation for the dangers inherent in hiking slot canyons in general and this one in particular. And who doesn’t love a little danger? The Narrows is stunning, with sheer red rock walls towering over you as you hike up the
Virgin River. Around every bend is a new surprise: a hardy tree, or maybe a waterfall. If you make it all the way to Big Spring, you may be rewarded with a gorgeous pool. All of this being dependent on weather and river levels, of course, which is what makes it so exciting.
This isn’t a trail. It’s a river, but as long as you don’t mind being knee-deep in water and walking on rocks, it isn’t a difficult hike. The difficulty depends on the time of year and the water levels, which should be checked before you head out. You’ll need a walking stick and the right footwear. The best time to hike The Narrows is the late spring and summer.
1.2 miles // Easy // Take the whole family!
Across the street from Zion Lodge you’ll find this paved trail, which makes it possible for strollers and wheelchairs to navigate up to this little oasis. Here, water from the Middle Emerald Pool above drips down the sandstone and into the Lower Emerald Pool, nourishing lush hanging gardens and occasionally turning into an actual waterfall during spring runoff. When you feel like you’re about to crinkle up and turn to sandstone yourself in the heat of a Zion summer, consider a rest at Lower Emerald Pool.
0 miles of hiking // Drive by and check it out.
Zion has plenty of must-see attractions for armchair geologists, and this is one of the most famous. This sandstone butte is covered in crosshatches — horizontal cross-bedding formed over eons by layers of windblown sand and vertical cracks caused by stress and erosion on the stone surface. If you’re thinking you should try playing checkers on the side of this mountain and take some sweet pics, I’m thinking you’re right.
Checkerboard Mesa isn’t on the shuttle route, so you’ll have to drive over to this hunk of rock if you want to see it. It’s located just inside the East Entrance to the park.
0 miles of hiking // 6.5 miles of driving in the winter or shuttle-riding in the summer // See it all from the comfort of a seated position.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive provides the chance to see the towering majesty of Zion National Park from your automobile. This road along the valley floor runs from the visitor center all the way to the Temple of Sinawava, and past many of Zion’s most famous features, including the Great White Throne, the Grotto, and Angel’s Landing. Due to the number of visitors in the park these days, you can only drive your car through this area during the winter; the rest of the year, you’ll have to take one of the park’s shuttle buses.
Under the Radar Hikes:
Turns out, Zion does exist beyond the shuttle route. Probably you should see some of it.
2.3 miles // Moderately strenuous // Here’s your chance to escape the crowds.
Here’s a hike that will get you away from everybody else, and give you a view of hoodoos, interesting pothole formations, and maybe even a few tadpoles. This “trail” is a drainage, one of a pair commonly called the Root Canals. Rain and snowmelt cascade down the rock walls here, filling the pothole formations and forming fun little pools. Many Pools is off the shuttle route (BYOC — bring your own car), on the east side of the park, along UT-9.
4.2 miles // Moderate // See a quieter part of the park and get a new view of Zion.
To see these peaks, start at the Wildcat Canyon trailhead near the town of Virgin. After about a mile, you’ll see a sign for the turnoff for Northgate Peaks. At the end of the trail you have to scramble up a small hill of lava rock: your reward is a vast southern view of Zion National Park, with twin peaks in front of you.
Places to Stay Near Zion
You'll need some time to check out all the sights above. Make sure to stay at one of our favorite places near Zion for an unforgettable vacation.
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