Hiking Zion in a Rainstorm

The scenic drive through Zion Canyon is open year-round. I think the canyon is most beautiful during stormy weather. The colors in the park deepen when the rocks are wet. If there is much rainfall, or snowmelt, myriad waterfalls cascade off the cliff faces. Clouds lose their way and get stuck between pinnacles, shrouding the rock walls. Finally, the sun’s rays penetrate the clouds and illuminate selected monuments. The combined effect can be very striking.

Much of this symphony of rock, sky and water can be witnessed from the comfort of a vehicle on the paved roadway. Much, but not all. If the canyon is beautiful from the canyon floor, it is even more beautiful from lookout points along the trails that ascend the canyon walls.

During my last visit the storms came in waves. We hiked during the calmer periods, never minding a light drizzle. But we were sometimes caught out during a deluge, and jumped for whatever cover we could find.

The trails along the river to the mouth of the narrows, and up to Weeping Rock and Emerald Pools, are appropriate for people who want an easy hike. However, even they can be dangerous during winter or extreme weather. You never want to enter the Narrows during stormy weather because of the flash flood danger. And all trails are hazardous if there is ice.

Our desire was to challenge the rock, and we found opportunity during periods of calm. We hiked angel’s Landing and Hidden Canyon, and the Canyon Overlook trail, which begins at the east end of the tunnel. These are popular trails that are well maintained and patrolled. They expose the hiker to cliffs with long drop-offs, and care must be taken at all times.

Angel’s Landing is one of my all-time favorite hikes. It’s interesting— even for experienced hikers. It’s intense and carries an element of danger. It’s perhaps the most thrilling hike I dare recommend for people who are not seasoned in the outdoors. It can be a great hike for supervised teenagers but is not a good choice for younger children.

Angel’s Landing sometimes elicits surprising responses from people. Most get to the top with little trouble. But I’ve seen big, tough guys whimper in fear as they look back down at the narrow trail, and the cliffs that fall off for more than a thousand feet on both sides. It’s a popular hike, and there are almost always people around who can provide help, if needed.

The Virgin River Narrows also ranks high on my list of best hikes. It has long been a popular outing, and masses of people now enter the canyon every day during the summer months. People usually start hiking the Narrows in early June, but even then the water can be high with runoff, and very cold. Conditions are much more pleasant during the heat of summer, which extends from later June through September. Flash floods are the big danger in the Narrows. Park rangers post advisories at visitors’ centers and at the trailheads. A permit is needed to hike the Narrows from top to bottom.

I was astounded at the number of people in the park. I expected crowds of tourists during the summer, but school hadn’t even let out yet. The parking lots were overflowing, and groups from tour buses were attacking the trails. The busy season begins in March and extends through October. Millions of people visit the park every year.

Zion Canyon has become a place to share— not a place to find solitude. It’s always fun to see how many languages you hear spoken along the trail.

A new bus system will begin operation next year, and private vehicles will not be allowed in Zion Canyon. That should help ease congestion. Until then, begin hikes early in the day. Parking spaces are easier to find in the early morning, and the trails are less congested. Temperatures are also more pleasant for hiking during the morning hours.

The Zion backcountry is also growing in popularity, but it still offers opportunity for world-class hikes in relative solitude. Groups doing day-hikes should include at least one seasoned leader who knows the terrain. The “Subway” has become a popular backcountry outing; to protect its environment and preserve the quality of the experience, a quota on hikers has been imposed and permits are required. Check at a visitors’ center for details. Overnight trips require permits from the Park Service.