A couple of months ago, I decided I wanted to do one last camping adventure with some friends before leaving for the Peace Corps. Since this was a trip I wanted to do, I decided to plan it myself. For the past two summers, I had gone to Yosemite and camped for 3 days. This year, I wanted to go somewhere different and to a place I hadn’t gone to before. I picked Zion National Park in Utah.
I booked a campsite at the Watchman campgrounds last March. Spots were running out fast, so I was glad to get a site. Three friends were willing to make the trip with me, and so last Friday on May 11th, we headed out to Zion. From where I live, Google Maps estimated about 7 hours of driving. We would be taking route I-15, driving north past Barstow and Las Vegas, crossing not just Nevada, but also a tiny sliver of Arizona before reaching Utah. Once at Zion, we bought some last-minute essentials (i.e. food, firewood, beers, ice, etc.) at the local grocery shop nearby and then checked into the campground. We set up our campsite rather quickly considering it was in the dead heat of the day, in the high 80s to low 90s.
Once everything was all set up, we decided to start our hikes. Our first excursion was to drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, which connects Zion Canyon to the east side of the park. It’s a 1 mile tunnel that cuts through the mountains and was built in the 1920s. It’s amazing that there are no electric lights in the tunnel; only a few side openings in the mountain every couple hundred feet are present to let in light. At night, it would be pitch black driving through the Tunnel.
Once outside the eastern exit of the Tunnel, we parked our car and took a short easy hike on the Canyon Overlook Trail, with lots of nooks and lookout points to explore.
At the end of the trail, you get a nice glimpse of the entire lower portion of Zion Canyon. Some sites visible from the overlook include the West Temple, the Altar of Sacrifice, the Streaked Wall, and the Sentinel. Overall, the overlook was a magnificent first glimpse of Zion.
Later at night while resting back at camp, the night sky over Zion was speckled with stars. It was a great evening to end our first day in Utah.
On Day 2, we set our sights on Angel’s Landing. This famous rock formation takes about 4-5 hours to hike. We left camp at 9am, a little later than we had hoped. The trail was paved for most of the bottom and mid portions. Steep switchbacks made the climb tiring and tough. Walter’s Wiggles, a portion of switchbacks leading to the higher elevations, made for a fun picture. At the top, chains mounted to the rocks help you trek up the side of the cliffs. For a good half mile or so, you are climbing along a narrow ledge where loose footing can send you plummeting down on either side of the mountain.
However, this narrow path makes for an exciting, heart-stomping hike. The entire chain portion of the trek is filled with great views of the valley below, and when you finally reach Angel’s Landing, you get a picturesque view of Zion Canyon. (Here are three videos of us hiking to Angel’s Landing that I posted on YouTube: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3.)
Although we were at Angel’s Landing at around noon, winds and cool air at the top of the mountain kept us fairly comfortable. At the bottom of the valley, the heavy heat slowed us down, so we decided to go for a little dip in the Virgin River. Refreshing! It was just what the doctor ordered! Afterwards, we headed to Zion Lodge to grab some smoothies before heading to our next hike, the Emerald Pools. This little hike leads to three small pools of water, the Lower Pool, Middle Pool, and Upper Pool. The Lower Pool, which was the easiest hike and only took us 20 minutes or so to reach, was by a tiny little sprinkling waterfall. The Middle Pool was a little further up a ways, but it was mostly dried up. The Upper Pool was a slightly tougher hike. The trail crept towards the mountain, leading to the mountain’s rock wall where an oasis, the Upper Pool, emerged from the sandy trail. On the mountain wall, we found rock climbers belaying down from the very top. After watching the climbers come down the mountain, we headed back to Zion Lodge, grabbed some beer to cool our thirst, and then made our way back to camp for dinner.
Day 3 was our last day at Zion. We packed our tents and gear back into the car, but headed out for one last hike. We got onto the shuttle and headed to the Temple of Sinawava stop. There, we were going to follow the Riverside Walk Trail. This paved trail follows the Virgin River along the bottom of a narrow canyon. At the end of the trail, we decided to switch into our water shoes (me in my Vibrams Five Fingers KSO shoes) and plunge into the river to get a taste of The Narrows hike. Hiking The Narrows basically means hiking in the Virgin River, where most of the hike is spent wading, walking and even swimming in the river. We weren’t planning on doing The Narrows when we came to Zion, so we weren’t going to do the entire length of the river (not to mention, we had to drive back home that same day). For about an hour, we followed the river upstream, the cold water reaching all the way to my lower thighs. Although we only went about a quarter-mile into the river before turning back, it was still a wonderful experience and a great way to end our trip to Zion.
This has been a refreshing and much-needed adventure. I got to spend quality time with terrific friends, I got to travel and explore new places, and I got to relax while having fun.
Zion, I plan on coming back, and I have my eyes set on you. The Narrows… The Subway… be prepared. I’m going to hike both of you next time I’m there!