Colorful towering cliffs. Sparkling waterfalls. Beautiful canyons. Abundant wildlife. And hoards of people. Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks I have ever been in, but it is crowded even in the “off ” season. Hiking and climbing are popular activities at Zion Canyon. There are many gentle or moderate hikes to beautiful places in Zion. They are also typically the most crowded. To really experience the grandeur of Zion, you must leave the crowds behind. For the more adventurous and seasoned hiker, the two extremes of Zion Canyon can best be experienced on the hike and climb to Angels Landing and a trek through Zion Narrows.
Angel’s Landing is not for the faint of heart. There are a few rim trails in Zion, but none are as spectacular or as challenging as the Angels Landing Trail. An extremely steep hike with many switchbacks takes the hiker up the sheer cliff walls to an overlook called Scout Lookout. For the majority of hikers on this trail, this is the stopping point, a place to rest and enjoy the view before heading back down to the trailhead. For the more rugged adventure seekers, however, Scout Lookout is just a place to take a quick break on the way to the summit.
Angels Landing is one of the highest “peaks” in Zion Canyon. The climb to the summit is strenuous, a combination of exposed ridges with several hand and footholds, small foot placements carved into ledges, and chains attached to cliff faces. There are some ridges where the going is easier, if only to give weary legs a short rest. In several places, the climber feels as if the summit has been reached, only to find that over the next ridge is yet one more climb. Take the ascent slowly. Savor it as if it were a good meal. Stop periodically and enjoy the thrill of looking out over the canyon from your perch high above. Feel the rush of the wind. Follow the sparkling blue contour of the river as it snakes between the magnificent cliffs. Marvel at the multi-colored towers of sandstone all around you.
Upon reaching the summit, you will find yourself in the company of very few other people. The masses of hikers who started out with you at the trailhead turned back long ago. It is time to relish in the accomplishment. The reward is an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of beautiful Zion Canyon. This is a perspective only a small percentage of visitors to Zion will ever get. Find a comfortable spot and immerse yourself in the experience. Feel the heat of the sun and listen to the howling of the wind. Gaze down at the birds soaring below. Think about the extreme power of wind and water that carved and shaped these rocks. Bask in the awesome ruggedness of this place, and allow its intense and harsh beauty to permeate your being before beginning the climb back down to the canyon floor.
In extreme contrast to the dry, windy, sun-baked peak of Angels Landing, is the cool, shady, wet canyon called Zion Narrows. The trailhead to the Narrows begins at the end of Zion Canyon at the Temple of Sinawava. The first mile of this trail, called the River Walk, follows alongside the Virgin River as the canyon slowly gets narrower, steeper, and wetter.
The trail ends at the river, and the sheer canyon walls close in around its banks. Here the crowds stare in awe at the mouth of the Narrows, turn around, and head back to the trailhead. A few brave souls will wade out into the shallow current, and maybe venture a little way up toward the formidable canyon, but they will turn back shortly and head to the refuge of dry land. Those seeking the intrigue and wildness of The Narrows will begin their adventure here, in the river.
The canyon beckons, promising treasures seen only by a minority of visitors to Zion Canyon. There are waterfalls, hanging gardens, curious rock formations, and slot canyons. In some places the water is waist deep with a strong current, in others the river ripples over shallow beds of rocks, worn smooth by nature’s power. Echoing throughout the canyon is sound of the Virgin River, punctuated only by the twitter of birds. In some places it is a dull roar, in others a gentle gurgling. The air in the canyon is dense with a cool, moist, pungent aroma of moss, ferns, and fertile soil, in polar opposite of the dry, dusty desert surrounding it. The canyon is a paradox. It is at the same time peaceful and violent. It is pristine yet tainted by the debris of many flash floods. It is forbidding yet alluring. It possesses a raw power that is both exciting and intimidating.
Wade through the water slowly, carefully picking and planning every step. In some places travel is easy while in others it is treacherous. The trip up river through the canyon can be several miles, depending upon how far you wish to go. But on this hike the journey is as important as the destination. Enjoy intimacy with the canyon. Allow its serenity to soak into your soul.
Delight in the aerial antics of the cliff swallows. Admire the waterfall as well as the tiny plants clinging to the rock face. Marvel at the colors of the river rocks, sparkling in the light as the water rushes over them. Think of the journey these rocks have made in distance and time before finding their home in this canyon. Ponder the canyon itself and the forces that created it. Consider the plants and animals that have tamed it and made it their home. Revel in the fact that you are among an elite few who have shared in the deepest secrets of Zion Narrows.
In these two hikes the true beauty and wonder of Zion Canyon is revealed. They are extremes in contrast, experience, and enjoyment, but they must be taken seriously. While the exploration of both the desert and canyon environments is rewarding, it can also be dangerous. Both of these hikes require preparation, careful planning, and good judgement. Dehydration and heat illness are serious threats while attempting to summit Angels Landing, as well as the risk of a fall or injury. In Zion Narrows, hypothermia is a crucial danger, as well as the threat of injury. Weather is also a factor when considering both of these hikes, especially during the rainy season when The Narrows is susceptible to flash floods. Take the time to assess your gear, your abilities, and environmental factors when planning to explore Zion Narrows or summit Angels Landing. Do not underestimate nature or overestimate yourself. Hold the canyon and the river in a reverential awe and you will be rewarded with a extraordinary experiences that will be memorable for a lifetime.
Leaving the Crowds Behind, Two Hikes in Zion National Park by Jenn Jedidiah Free & RocksInMyHead is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.