Established as a national park in 1919, Zion National Park preserves 229 square miles of Utah’s vivid red rock landscape. Once nearly impossible to access due to the isolated location of the canyon, Zion is now one of the most popular national parks in the country. While often plagued by long lines of cars at the entrances, the amazing landscape Zion offers is well worth the wait.
Unlike many of our other park destinations, we stayed at a Campground rather than in the back country for the night. The Watchman Campground is located inside the park, about ¼ mile from the south entrance. There are about 190 sites located relatively close together, so don’t make a reservation there if you’re looking for an incredible amount of privacy. Speaking of reservations, definitely make one. The campground was completely full during our stay in June – which is normal. You can book a spot online exactly six months prior to your stay. To remain more in-tune with nature, we opted for one of the walk-in tent sites. While still relatively close to our neighbors, the site did give us great views of the canyon walls and a variety of deer wandering throughout our camp – while keeping cars a hundred or so feet away. Word of warning for those afraid of the sun – the Utah landscape is burning hot. There are several warnings on the campground website about lack of shade and those are all true. There is nothing but grass and brush which do nothing to keep your tent cool.
Driving 300 miles in our bug-covered 4Runner from Arches National Park, we arrived relatively late in the afternoon, around 4:45pm. Since it’s never ideal to set up camp in the dark, we quickly put up our tents before setting out on our Zion hike. Another perk of the Watchman Campground was that we had a designated parking spot and did not need to attempt to find a spot in Zion’s general parking lots. Parking is extremely limited in Zion, with most spots filling early in the morning. To combat the parking crunch, Zion implemented a shuttle system in 2000 – having over 6.3 million riders in 2017. The shuttle drivers seem very proud of this and will talk about it endlessly. The shuttle runs regularly stopping at the parking lots, visitors center, campgrounds and trailheads. Note: you must take the shuttle at Zion, there are no parking options besides the major parking lots and the campground.
We chose the Angels Landing trail as our first Zion exploration and were not disappointed. To access the trail, we took the park shuttle from the visitor’s center to stop #8 – Big Bend. Thankfully our late start meant the trail itself was not crowded. We would highly recommend a late start, and as our pictures will soon show, a crowded Angel’s Landing would be both dangerous and not enjoyable.
We started the trek up to Angels Landing around 5:30pm, slightly worried about the diminishing sunlight. With five miles and 1,630 feet of elevation gain, we did time it perfectly but would suggest starting slightly earlier as it’s probably the last place in the world you would want to be in the dark. As we started across a bridge spanning the roaring Virgin River, we were greeted by a view of seemingly endless switchbacks.
After what was arguably the most strenuous vertical hiking we’d done this trip, we thought we were close to the summit of Angels Landing. However, looking out from the top of the switchbacks, Angels Landing loomed over a mile in the distance. Also looming within one certain member of our group was a bathroom emergency. Dangerously close to disaster throughout the hike so far, it was devastating to see that we were not near the summit. Notably: there is zero privacy on this hike, the terrain is all rock with little cover. Resigned to his fate, we headed towards Angels Landing’s towering figure. In the distance however, glowing in the fading sunlight like an angel itself was a portable toilet. Whispering a quick invocation to the NPS staff who bravely transported the life-saving toilet up the switchbacks, we did what had to be done and continued on.
Up until that point, the hike had been strenuous but nothing out of the ordinary. Soon however, the narrow path towards the peak came into view and we were amazed by the sheer drop offs on either side. Plunging 1,400 feet to the canyon floor below, there is little room for error when navigating the path with nothing besides a metal chain to help keep your balance if you fall. For some inconceivable reason, certain areas have no chains – you must be able to rely on your own footing and balance to remain on the narrow path. Thus, the term ‘No Chains’ was coined. No Chains: To go about life like climbing Angel’s Landing without chains. Risky? Dumb? Rewarding? It’s up to you to decide. With this experience, our trip motto was formed.
At times the climbing was nearly vertical, the worn rock slippery even on a dry day. If there’s one piece of advice we can give you – do not try this in the dark or when it’s raining. At times there was only room for one person, with a literal thousand foot vertical drop to the canyon floor below on either side. In many areas, advanced acrobatics would be required to pass someone while also keeping hold on the chains. Don’t forget – at many points there are no chains, and nothing protecting you if you were to slip. We were incredibly fortunate that there were hardly any hikers on the trail with us. Of all the hikes and/or adventures we’ve done, this would be one of the worst to do when crowded.
Around 7pm we finished navigating the sharp drop offs and chainless areas. Our reward? One of the best views in the world. Yes, Laj got 99% of the way there and his fear of heights kept him from seeing that spectacular view.
After taking in the scenery and getting up the courage to travel back (yes, the trek down was scarier than going up), we returned to the trailhead around 8:15 PM and took the Zion shuttle back to our campsite. We drove down to the park’s entrance in search of food and found the Zion Canyon Brew Pub and an outdoor apparel store with showers available for a small fee.
To end the night, Laj slept as he usually does, while Eric and Alex sampled some of Moab brewery’s finest beers around a fire in the campsite’s fire pit.
Our original plan was to hike the Virgin River Narrows trail the next morning, but it was closed due to high water levels. We left Zion early, driving through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, using the extra time to stop at Bryce Canyon, adding another national park to our list. Similar to Zion, getting around Bryce Canyon involves parking at a central lot and taking a park shuttle bus. Hiking along the rim of the canyon, we enjoyed the lack of elevation-gain, completely opposite that of Angel’s Landing from the day before. We hiked the Rim Trail trail. While the unique geology of the hoodoos were fascinating to look at, there was little to do on our trail besides walk the rim of the canyon. We were glad to stop for a short trip, but wouldn’t recommend planning an extended amount of time in Bryce Canyon. After finishing our trail and taking the shuttle back to the car, we headed out – again in search of food.
Did someone say BBQ?
Our last stop on this leg of our journey also happened by chance. Driving away from Bryce through Tropic, UT we found a small BBQ restaurant called idk BBQ. It was just as amazing as it sounds, but we still don’t understand the name. We would definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth the trip. With plenty of choices on the menu, any BBQ lover would be happy. We planned the next part of the journey over platters of ribs and brisket.
We thought that Zion was amazing. We wished we could have hiked the narrows, which were unfortunately closed due to flash flooding. We all agreed Angels Landing was in the top 3 hikes we’d ever done. Zion is one of the most popular parks in the country for a reason, but you need to be aware that it is packed. To avoid crowds, it’s best to get an early start or visit in the off season.
Bryce Canyon was a great bonus to our trip, and while we didn’t spend any time in the canyon, walking the Rim Trail gave amazing views. We can’t see spending much more than a day or two there, but it’s definitely worth the trip if you’re traveling nearby.