best day hikes, utah's

zion national park


zion narrows canyon, utah

Zion National Park, in southwest Utah, preserves the most fairytale landscape in the American Southwest, and offers some of the best day hikes to be found anywhere in the region. I've visited all of the National Parks and many of the wilderness areas in Utah and in my opinion Zion is the one place you absolutely should not miss on a trip to Utah. This page collects a few photos and brief descriptions of the best Zion hikes.

Hiking the Zion Narrows

riverside walk, zion national park narrows of the virgin river, zion hiker in the zion narrows

Trailhead: The hike starts at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead, at the end of the Zion Canyon Road. During the peak months (from April through October) Zion Canyon is closed to traffic and access is via shuttles.

If the weather is amenable, a trip into the Narrows is undoubtably the highlight of a visit to Zion. Beyond the end of the Zion Canyon road, the Virgin River flows for several miles through a narrow gorge that is perhaps a thousand feet deep but only thirty or so feet wide. The narrowest sections, where the river fills the canyon completely, are a majestic sight, and definitely the most memorable part of my visits to the park. On a good day this trip is popular, and depending on your tolerance for your fellow man you might consider it crowded. It's the price to pay for one of America's unique day hikes being so accessible, but it doesn't ruin the experience.

A full trip through the Narrows, going from North to South with the flow of the river, is a lengthy one way slog of 16 or so miles that requires a permit, and either a (long) day or an overnight stop. Spectacular sections lie within a few miles of the end of the paved trail at the North end of Zion Canyon, however, and these are easily reached on a day hike. There's no trail as such, you progress upstream along the banks of the river where they exist, with frequent fordings and extended stretches of wading otherwise. When the river is at its lowest (50 cubic feet per second and below) it is generally possible to stay within water that is not much more than knee deep, though you may run into some waist deep spots. No swimming should be needed. Unless you do more river wading in everday life than me, though, it still feels pretty deep! The water-polished rocks that line the river bed make for treacherous going - boots and a wading staff were essential. One popular turnaround point is at Orderville Canyon, which joins the main canyon close to one of the most impressive sections of Narrows. Orderville Canyon can be explored for some distance itself, but although it's also an impressively narrow (and much drier) gorge it's not nearly as interesting or photogenic as the main canyon. If you're pressed for time I'd recommend instead exploring further up the main canyon, ideally as far as Big Spring (which is where the Park Service requests that day hikers stop).

The sole downside of this hike is that it's dependent on good weather. There are three considerations: the warmth of the water (summer is best - by November you'll need a wetsuit or even a drysuit for the legs, which you can hire locally), the water depth, and the risk of thunderstorms and flash floods. Using historical U.S. Geological Survey data I've made a chart showing the flow rate of the Virgin River in "typical" and "moderately high water" years (for statistical afficianados, this is the median and 80th percentile data). The Park Service issues permits for through day hikes only when the water flow is below 120 cubic feet per second, so taking this as a limit on when the Narrows is hikeable you can see that in a typical year the season starts in late May or early June, whereas in a high water year it might be July before the snowmelt subsides. The video below shows what the hike is like when the flow rate is about 90 cubic feet per second. Also remember that although the average flow in July and August is low, these are also the months when storms pose the greatest risk. All things considered, June, September and early October are probably the optimum times. The Park Service posts the weather forecast and local flash flood danger in the visitors' center, and waiting for a favourable forecast is essential. I've seen the Virgin River in flood (after heavy thunderstorms), and you certainly wouldn't have wanted to venture into the water under those conditions, much less be stuck somewhere upstream in the canyon.

(Click here to view in HD on YouTube)

Photographically much of the canyon is stunning beautiful, though you do need to watch out for the extreme contrast between shaded and sunlit parts. Most of the photos on this page were shot using slow exposures on a tripod, with a polarizer to both cut down the light and reduce reflections off the water surface. Note that it's well-nigh impossible to set up a stable tripod in the fastest flowing sections of the river - the vibration from the turbulent water is too pervasive.

Angels' Landing

Trailhead: The trail leaves from the Grotto trailhead in Zion Canyon. This is a very popular hike (with good reason) so expect the trail to be crowded for most of the day.

Zion's other signature hike is to Angels' Landing, a narrow sandstone fin that juts into Zion Canyon from the West Rim. There are spectacular, almost fairytale, views of the canyon from the top, but this is a hike where the challenge of the journey is as important as the destination. The trail first climbs steeply from the floor of Zion Canyon up to and along a side canyon, before reaching a junction with the West Rim trail at Scout Landing. From there, the route crosses a precarious neck of rock - at one point just a few yards wide with sheer drops on both sides to the canyon below - before climbing again to reach Angels' Landing itself. Chains have been bolted into the rock to provide handrails for the most exposed stretches, but there's no real danger of slipping and falling except, perhaps, in wet or icy conditions, which I wouldn't fancy. Having done this hike twice though - and watched many people turn back at the narrowest section - it's clearly not a place for anyone afraid of heights! The lefthand photo below shows the crux (it's much steeper but also less exposed further up) - if even the photo makes you uneasy I'd recommend hiking instead the Observation Point trail on the other side of the canyon, which is similarly scenic (and even more strenuous) but less vertiginous.

exposed trail to Angels Landing Zion Canyon, Utah

From bottom to top it's about 2.5 miles, and 1500 feet of ascent, with excellent views almost all of the way. For a full day trip, you could tack on a few miles of the West Rim trail, which heads away from Zion Canyon into further interesting canyon landscapes. It's also possible for experts to reach the top of Angel's Landing more directly, by climbing the thing. Good views of climbers at work on the wall can be seen from the parking areas near the end of the Zion Canyon road.

Observation Point trail from Zion Canyon

Observation Point Zion

Trailhead: Weeping Rock in Zion Canyon

Not every trail from Zion Canyon resembles a Manhattan sidewalk during rush hour. The 4 mile (one-way) trail to Observation Point ascends the East wall of the canyon to reach an overlook high on the rim. It's a steep trail (the elevation gain is about 2150 feet) that can be hot in the summer - though if you start early at least the initial climb out of the main canyon will be in shade - but by way of recompense it offers good views along the way of Zion's backcountry together with the payoff panorama at Observation Point itself. You'll surely see other people along the way, but compared to the throngs ascending Angels' Landing (who can be spied, ant-like, below) it's practically deserted...

Zion Subway

Left Fork canyon below the Subway pools below the Zion Subway Zion Subway slot canyon

Trailhead: The Zion Subway is located along the rather prosaically named Left Fork of North Creek. The non-technical out and back hike to the bottom of the Subway starts at the Left Fork trailhead along the Kolob Reservoir Road. Note that permits are necessary even for a dayhike in this drainage. I had no trouble securing a permit for a weekend in November (in fact I saw only two other people all day), but in the summer advance planning is necessary.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with photography of the American Southwest will have seen pictures of the Zion Subway - a beautiful undercut section of canyon pitted with deep blue pools. Providing that you manage to secure a permit reaching the Subway isn't difficult - it's a 4.5 mile one way hike up the Left Fork of North Creek that takes maybe two and a half hours. The hike starts at the Left Fork trailhead and, shortly afterwards, the trail drops off the rim and descends steeply to reach the creek at the canyon floor. From there, it's just a matter of turning left and following the creek upstream to reach the narrow section. There's no formal trail, but although the route requires some scrambling and thrashing through undergrowth there's nothing that will deter the determined hiker. The lower reaches of the canyon are pleasant but unremarkable - the spectacular scenery is all concentrated within maybe half a mile of the Subway. You'll know you're getting close when you start to encounter undercut walls and attractive cascades where the creek flows over staircase-like slabs of rock. At one spot much of the water flows through a narrow crack just a few inches wide in the rock. Just beyond the crack there's an imposing straight section beyond which lies the gloomy entrance to the Subway. Hiking now up the creek, you turn the corner and find yourself in the Subway section. Water flows across the whole canyon floor here and the rock is very slippery - good footwear is needed to avoid becoming part of the classic scene!

Having reached the Subway, there's an almost irresistable desire to explore the canyon further upstream. Alas, it can't be done. Just a few yards beyond the spot where the classic photo is taken the canyon slots up, and futher progress is blocked by a section that requires swimming and, immediately afterwards, an unscalable waterfall. To see the upper reaches you need to descend the canyon on a one-way trip starting from the Wildcat Canyon trailhead further up the Kolob reservoir road. Although this is one of the easier canyoneering trips in Zion, it still requires ropes and a willingness to swim through frigid water to complete.

Kolob Arch trail

Trailhead: Lee Pass trailhead, about 4 miles along the Kolob Canyons scenic drive in the northern section of Zion National Park. Carry plenty of water for this hike - although it's not especially difficult there's not much shade and the return in the heat of the day is mostly uphill.

Although Zion Canyon is deservedly the centerpiece of Zion the Kolob Canyons are also beautiful and well worth exploring - not least as an antidote to the crowds in the main canyon. Although the northern section of park is easily accessed from I-15 just south of Cedar City (about an hour from Springdale) the canyons here are relatively lightly visited. The short scenic drive offers some of the best spots to view sunset in the park (the panorama above was shot from the road side near Lee Pass) and there are a number of good hikes. The best known is a 14.4 mile out and back trip to view Kolob Arch, which vies with Landscape Arch in Arches National Park for the title of longest arch in the world (at least so they say, though how well scouted the further reaches of the world are for rock arches one has to wonder). Having seen both I'd observe at the outset that Landscape Arch is a good deal more spectacular than Kolob Arch, but nonetheless the latter is still an impressive piece of stone and worth hiking to see...

kolob arch, zion La Verkin Creek, Zion National Park Kolob Arch trail Zion

Starting from the Lee Pass trailhead the hike to Kolob Arch is a trail of three halves. The first mile or so runs parallel to the Kolob Canyons and offers excellent vistas as the trail descends to the floor of the canyon to meet Timber Creek (remember that descent as reversing it will be moderately tough labor at the end of the day!). The trail then follows Timber Creek for a while before turning sharply east and descending further through some scrubby forest to reach La Verkin Creek. This second section is frankly rather tedious, and a couple of backpackers I encountered here offered up the concise and unsolicited judgement "it gets better"! They were right too, as once you reach La Verkin Creek the rest of the hike to the arch is much more scenic and the trail, although a bit sandy in places, allows for fast progress. Kolob Arch lies about half a mile up a small side canyon and although you can't easily approach the base of the arch a rough trail climbs above the official viewpoint to allow an unobstructed view of the arch and the attractive canyon it's situated in. I stopped here for lunch and returned the same way (making it back to the car after about 6 hours) but there are excellent camp sites situated along the creek and there are other canyons in the area that you could explore as part of a backpacking trip.

Double Arch Alcove

For a short hike in the Kolob Canyons area I'd recommend the easy trip to Double Arch Alcove, which is reached by following the middle fork of Taylor Creek a few miles upstream into spectacular country. The creek is shallow, and easily forded when necessary, or you can just walk upstream and ignore the trail altogether. Relatively few people seem to hike this route, and the destination - Double Arch Alcove - is a spectacular cave-like sandstone structure set in deep canyon walls. It's a memorable spot, and there are wonderful, almost unreal colours in the late afternoon.

Recommended itineraries

If you're visiting Zion and are not terribly keen on hiking, the best sights are all in or near Zion Canyon and can be seen in a single day. Take the shuttle bus to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and walk the paved path into the start of the Narrows, and then sample some of the many short walks along the floor of the canyon. You won't be disappointed. Fall is probably the most scenic time in the canyon.

If, on the other hand, you're a keen hiker, there are too many must-do hikes in Zion to hit in just a day or two. At least a 3 day itinerary is needed. The truly unique trip is the Zion Narrows, so I'd recommend timing your visit for a period when there's a fair chance of decent weather. You should also do at least one of Angels' Landing / Observation Point, then the Subway (remember a permit is needed for that, so plan ahead) and maybe a hike in the Kolob Canyons or a one-way trip along the West Rim trail (a shuttle service is available that makes that possible). On a first trip to the Southwest, my advice would be to spend more time in Zion and the Grand Canyon even if you have to skip Bryce or somewhere else - it's that good!

Practicalities

The most convenient base for visiting Zion Canyon and the southern section of the park is the small town of Springdale. This attractive gateway has plenty of motels and restaurants, including the highly recommended Zion Pizza and Noodle Co (I recommend sharing their hearty pies unless you've been running laps up Observation Point). Las Vegas is the nearest major airport (160 miles), while the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (120 miles), Bryce Canyon National park (90 miles), and the Paria canyon wilderness (about 50 miles) are not too far away either. For avid canyon hikers, the highlight might well be the famous Paria Canyon / Buckskin Gulch hike, which is one of the few long slot canyons that can be explored without technical gear. If the motels in Springdale are all booked (possible during the most popular weekends), it's perfectly possible to stay in the rather larger towns of Hurricane or St George and drive to the park from there... it will be cheaper and the drive will take an hour or less. Wherever you stay, a car is pretty well essential for getting anywhere in these parts.

Recommended references:

The official website for Zion from the National Park Service.

Current flow rate of the Virgin River, from the U.S. Geological Survey

Joe Braun's guide to hiking in Zion is the best I've found on the web, with exceptional photographs. Highly recommended!

Hiking Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks (Falcon Guide).

 

photography, text and design by Phil Armitage