Zion Canyon in a Weekend

Some camping in Zion National Park was long overdue for me. My dad and I will frequently drop down there for a quick hike and some photo opportunities and return in the same day. That is nice when you have a busy schedule but just enough time to run away from work for at least 11 hours. However, I do recommend a slow, leisurely weekend; enough to accommodate all the hiking you want in one trip.

Some friends and I left on a chilly day in Salt Lake and Utah County, but arrived very warm in the Virgin area. It was extremely pleasant day in early June to start our weekend adventure. June is usually a very safe month as far as comfortable hiking goes. Any earlier and you will want to watch the weather very carefully, and any later and you may want to do your hikes fairly early in the morning so that you avoid extremely hot weather.

Our suggested plan for the weekend went as followed:

  • Thursday, after a long drive and arriving mid-day, we would hike up and through to the Upper Emerald Pools,
  • Friday, we would start our hike to Angel's Landing in the late morning and end the day by hiking in the Virgin River Narrows, according to however much time we had left, and
  • Saturday, we would hike from the bottom of the Subway to the dinosaur tracks and return back down to go home.

This seemed like a nice, flexible itinerary with room to budge, and as it turned out later, we needed that. The Emerald Pools was a nice beginning to the trip, seeing as you can make it as hard as you want. No matter how many times you visit this part of the river and canyon, it will always stun you how unique and beautiful it is. You can hike up to the lower pools- a very short hike, the middle pools, or the upper pools- still not a difficult or very long hike. The group I was with stopped periodically to try some strategic rock climbing, wading in the river, and taking some candid photos- hence the note that you can make this hike as long and hard as you want. Also, there is a trail that takes you from the Zion Lodge straight to the pools. This is a longer hike and has been known to tire some people out. So, if you want an easier stroll during any part of your vacation, I would recommend going one stop further than the lodge and beginning your hike there.

During our stay, we camped at two of Zion Canyon's campgrounds. Remember that you can make reservations beforehand, and if you haven't made reservations, you should arrive at the campsites early each morning to make sure you can reserve a space. From the campgrounds you have close access to the Visitor's Center and to the shuttles.

From the shuttle on the second day, we began our hike to Angel's Landing. We got off the shuttle at the Grotto stop and began our hike. The hike is not long, but is very steep the whole way and so most people take frequent breaks to catch their breath. Also, as you probably know by now, the top of Angel's Landing is narrow (for almost the last 1/3 of the hike) with sheer drop-offs of almost a thousand feet on both sides. People are very cautious and willing to help and accommodate others on the hike. It is extremely rare for accidents to happen, so if anything you might be afraid of the height. This was the fastest I had ever hiked Angel's- under an hour, but the hike can take up to two hours for the average person.

The hike itself was, as always, incredible. That's probably the tenth time I've been up, and I always just stand there and think how incredible it is, what I am seeing, and I wonder if I am not viewing reality. You can look at pictures or watch videos, but you will never experience the intensity of how beautiful Zion Canyon is unless you are standing at the top of Angel's Landing.

On the way back down we stopped in Refrigerator Canyon (after the first set of switchbacks on the Angel's Landing trail, a shaded part of the hike following the riverbed) and jumped down into the riverbed to do a little exploring. We had been eying the little canyons branching out from the bottom of the canyon since we were on top of Scout Lookout. We took the first little slot canyon to our left after we had wandered off up the riverbed. This hike probably added an extra two miles to our trip. Part of the fun of going back the same way we came was that although you had figured out certain climbs and particular areas, going down was quite a bit differently. This canyon was pretty technical in some areas, requiring at least some experience bouldering over rough places beforehand. There was a rope someone had left behind over one dry fall that you used to pull yourself up and to repel back down. There were places that if you didn't want to wade through some pretty cold, nasty water- you needed to bridge your body between the two (close together) canyon walls and maneuver over the top of it. Also, on the way down there was quite a bit more sliding down rocks and boulders than the original climbing that you'd done in the first place. Overall, taking that detour and earning quite a few extra scrapes and bruises (don't wear shorts) was worth it. I wanted some good challenging climbs and that is what I found in the slot canyons just off of the Angel's trail.

Our plan was to cool off in the Narrows for the rest of that afternoon but we first set off to get the backcountry permit for the Subway. We arrived to late and it was full, which taught me that they issue them 24 hours in advance, so I will be sure to get there early in the morning next time I need one. There were no worries though, because Zion Canyon is full of all sorts of things to do, you will never get bored or run out of fun. Even if you were there for a month, and did every hike in the park, you could spend another three just exploring the little branches of canyons in every direction.

We headed up to Checkerboard Mesa instead. You stay on Hwy 9 (not taking the left fork that takes you up through the shuttle part of Zion Canyon) and follow that up switchbacks, to Zion's Mile Long Tunnel, keep following the highway till you go through another shorter tunnel, and you will not long after come to a lookout point with a sign that says Checkerboard Mesa. These mountains are white sandstone with checkerboard looking cross-grain. In a lot of areas you can see the stone fade from red to pinkish to white sandstone. One of my friends described it as "Neapolitan ice cream." This area is fun to just run around in, or follow trails that lead around the cone shaped mountains. After our short visit the mesa we drove back to the campsite and called a night after a long, challenging day.

In the morning once we were all awake and packed up, we rode over to the last stop in Zion Canyon; the Temple of Sinawaba that has the riverside walk called the Narrows. Now that this hike had been bumped up a day, we had all the time we wanted to go as far as we pleased. This turned out to be for the best. If we had gone the night before we would have needed to turn back after not very far due to the lack of sunlight. But after starting at about noon, we arrived at the first fork in the Narrows called Orderville Canyon after only forty minutes (the estimated average time was 2 hours) and followed that up as far as was permitted. Once you branch off into a canyon, you may have to scramble up a few waterfalls that you don't have to worry about in the main canyon.

So, the overall trip turned out fantastic. Even our food worked out great. Some easy things we packed were fish and veggies for tinfoil dinners, cans of soup that are easy to warm up on a camp stove, eggs and tortillas for breakfast and some simple rolls and sandwich ingredients for lunches. We had a terrific time and I can't wait to get back and explore some more canyons around the Angel's area!