It's easy to be overwhelmed once you pass through the Springdale entrance into Zion National Park. Towering sandstone ramparts soar overhead, and the walls seem to squeeze in on you as you enter Zion Canyon.
With the Watchman, a 6,545-foot sentinel over your right shoulder and the 7,810-foot West Temple off to your left, it can almost feel as if you're about to be swallowed by the shimmering red-rock canyon. Venture into the canyon, though, and you'll be amply rewarded with gorgeous scenery, great hikes, and if you're staying at the lodge, a wonderful place to end the night.
But Zion National Park is more than just its namesake canyon with the Virgin River running through its heart. There's the Kolob Canyons area in the northwestern tip of the park with its great hiking and stupendous rock arch, the Checkerboard Mesa that pinches the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway as it heads east out of the park, and, of course, the sweeping backcountry ready to be explored.
To help you plan your trip to Zion, here's a quick checklist to point out some of the highlights:
* Reserve a bed. If you're not comfortable sleeping on the ground, be sure to land a room at the Zion Lodge. Better yet, reserve a cabin. Built in 1927 by the Union Pacific Railroad, the cabins are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Just about a year ago the cabins got a much-needed makeover. Changes included the removal of carpeting and refinishing the original fir flooring, addition of custom-designed replica furniture by Old Hickory Furniture Company based upon an original dresser using oak and wicker, and the placement of cabin draperies and custom-made blankets to replicate the original Indian designs.
Lighting was fabricated to either match original fixtures or complement them. For example, a scroll design was replicated and used with a candle base to create new double sconces over each bed. The sconces were finished with black powder coating similar to original
lighting fixtures and drapery hardware.
On the comfort side, the cabins feature ceiling fans, air-conditioning, water heaters, desks with built-in power outlets, and beds with triple-sheeted, 300-count cotton.
* Study the history. Plan to stop at the park's Human History Museum, which lies just one-half mile inside the canyon from the Springdale entrance and is a regular stop on the park's shuttle system. While the museum has a rotating series of temporary exhibits, among the permanent ones are exhibits that trace the Native American history in the landscape, as well as the arrival of white pioneers and the evolution into a national park. Understandably, in light of the surrounding landscape, there are exhibits that explain how water has carved Zion Canyon.
There's no specific way to tour the canyon's attractions. You can go south to north, north to south, or skip around depending on your whim. But here are some of the attractions you definitely should consider seeing and or experiencing:
* Temple of Sinawava. This is at the head of Zion Canyon and serves as the gateway to Zion's famous "Narrows," a slot canyon whose walls soar in places to 2,000 feet while embracing the Virgin River. The Riverside Walk follows the Virgin River deeper into the canyon, and where it stops, if the water is low, you can easily step right in and continue to explore this towering slot canyon with its hanging gardens decorating the walls.
* Emerald Pools. This is a series of three pools, linked by a nice loop trail, that get their name from the color cast off by the algae that grow in them. The trailhead is across from Zion Lodge, on the west side of the canyon, and is reached by crossing a footbridge over the Virgin River. The lower pool, which always features a waterfall of varying size, is located a bit more than a half-mile from the trailhead. Middle Pool is 1 mile from the starting point, while the Upper Pool is another three-tenths of a mile farther.
* Weeping Rock. Kids, and most adults, love this in the summer when the canyon can feel like an oven. Located about halfway between Zion Lodge and the Temple of Sinawava, this feature is fueled by a spring coming out of the sandstone cliffside. The trail is but a half-mile, roundtrip, and leads to an alcove in the sandstone that in summer is lush with hanging gardens. You ascend nearly 100 feet in elevation from trailhead to alcove, and there are steep sections to pay attention to, but when it's 90 degrees and the sun bearing down, the walk to this moist garden is well worth the payoff.
* Angel's Landing. For some, this is the ultimate payoff of a visit to Zion. For others, the hike to the top is too dangerous and should be restricted to only the most capable of climbers. But for those with the nerve and the mountain goat ability to negotiate first Walter's Wiggles and then the sharp ridgeline to the lofty perch 5,990 feet above sea level, the payoff are the incredible views of Zion Canyon. This is definitely not recommended for those who fear heights, young children, or hikers without proper footwear (in other words, flip-flops are not recommended). Check out the ehike you can find on this page of the park's website to get an idea of what you'll encounter. The trail had some restoration work completed last fall, so the footing should be fairly good.
* Take A Hike. There are some great short hikes in Zion Canyon that lead you to shimmering pools of waters, and summer's cloudbursts can turn on incredible waterfalls toppling off the cliffsides. For a list of hikes, download this PDF guide from the park.
* Watch Walls. Actually, this involves watching climbers inching their way up the sides of Zion Canyon. The spectators might not number as many as those in the Yosemite Valley watching climbers assault El Capitan, but watching nimble climbers work their way to the clifftops, if only for 10 or 15 minutes, is interesting. You can also watch for birds at the same time, as nearly 300 bird species pass through the park each year, including peregrines that nest on some of these cliffsides.
* Kolob Canyon. Though visiting this corner of Zion, which drew its name from Mormon cosmography -- Kolob is the "star nearest to the throne of God" -- requires some time in your vehicle, if this is your only visit to the park you should seriously consider the trek. While the drive along the 5-mile-long Kolob Canyons Road is pretty enough with its viewpoints and overlooks that help you understand the park's geologic basement, if you're not averse to a hike you can find one of the world's largest sandstone arches, 287.4-foot Kolob Arch. This corner of Zion also harbors Double Alcove Arch, which entails a much shorter hike to reach and doesn't disappoint.
* Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Checkerboard Mesa. The highway is an attraction in its own right, as it zig-zags up out of Zion Canyon and then passes through a mile-long tunnel bored through the mountains between 1927 and 1930 at a cost of $1.9 million. The tunnel, which has six windows, or "galleries, that were knocked through the sandstone walls, was built to provide somewhat easy access between Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon national parks.
The Checkerboard Mesa draws its name from the criss-crossing lines carved into ancient sand dunes that were turned to rock.
* The backcountry. Venture away from civilization and Zion's backcountry offers an intriguing landscape to explore. Hardy hikers set their sights on the 16-mile Zion Narrows Trail, which starts north of the park and follows the Virgin River down through a deep slot canyon and ends at the Temple of Sinawava.
For those seeking a more rustic camping experience than staying at either the Watchman or South campgrounds in Zion Canyon, but don't want to walk too far, the Lava Point Campground can be reached via the Kolob Terrace Road in the northern end of the park, about an hour from Zion Canyon via the Kolob Terrace Road. However there are just six sites here, and there is no available water.
The hike to Kolob Arch is 14 miles roundtrip, and is best done with an overnight spent in the backcountry. There are designated campsites, many along La Verkin Creek, that you can reserve through the park.
Double Alcove Arch is at the end of an easy, 2.5-mile-long trail that leads you past soaring cliffs and weary homesteaders' cabins.
* Springdale. This small gateway town is easy to walk and offers a nice mix of art galleries, restaurants, and lodging accommodations.