We only had three days to explore Zion National Park, or “step two,” on our climb up the Grand Staircase, so we had to make some tough decisions on how to best explore. Honestly, you could fill over two weeks with hiking, backpacking, and touristic excursions between the National Park and the lively town of Springdale. With only three days at our disposal, we admit we missed a lot.
Luckily, the hikes and excursions we did experience left us wanting so much more from this amazing National Park. Even just riding the free-park shuttle gives you a glimpse of the massive rock formations, the lush oasis along the Virgin River, and the various wildlife who call the park home. However, the magic of Zion can only be experienced by hiking the canyon floor, walls, and rim during your time in the park!
Observation Point Trail
We chose to begin our exploration of Zion on the Observation Point Trail. While this may not be the most famous trail in Zion (that title goes to the death-defying Angel's Landing), it does offer the most famous view of Zion Canyon from the summit. We happened to visit Zion on “National Public Lands Day” so park entry was free and the place was flooded with people. We waited 20-minutes just to get on the shuttle. Obviously, we recommend visiting on a different day if you don’t mind the $20 park entry fee.
While Observation Point may be less-fear enducing than Angel’s Landing, this is by no means an easy hike. This 8-mile round trip trail gains elevation almost as soon as you step off the shuttle and doesn’t let up for most of the way. However, this quick gain in elevation means you’re rewarded with gorgeous views almost the entire way up, including a walk through a hidden slot canyon about a third of the way into the hike.
We started early enough that we were in the shade for most of the hike. Once you finally reach the top, the hike opens to the rim of Zion Canyon and the last 20-30 minutes is a leisurely (but hot!) walk to Observation Point. Bring lunch to enjoy at the top and be sure to take plenty of pictures in this quintessential spot. You’ll be in-line behind every other tourist up there, but this is a view you can’t miss capturing.
For our last day in Zion, we opted to trek The Narrows – arguably Zion’s most popular hike. However, this trail is not for everyone. Approximately 90% of the hike requires you to trek through the Virgin River which is rushing, cold, and ankle-to-knee deep depending on the season. Be sure to check the water levels before you head out and wear shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting wet. Also – dry bags for your cameras, phones, wallets etc. is a good idea.
Derrick and I opted to splurge on water shoe rentals which included neoprene socks and a walking stick. This bonus add-on ended up being a necessity when navigating the slippery rocks of the river bed. You can wear your own shoes but we’d recommend the rental if you have it in the budget!
We opted for the “Bottom-up” route through The Narrows or the most popular and easy day-hike option. The Bottom-up route ends at the narrow slot canyon landmark known as “Wall Street” about 3 miles up the Virgin River. You can also choose to hike The Narrows from the “Top-down” but you’ll need a permit to do so and an early start to conquer all 17-miles in one day.
While hiking The Narrows, be sure to stop and take in the towering walls above you throughout the hike. We were so focused on not slipping on the rocks that we let most of the canyon views go by unnoticed. Paying attention is necessary when on the move, but there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way!
Where to Stay
One of the only things we didn't love about Zion was the crowded and pricey camping options in and around the park. The first-come, first-served campground at the park entrance is full all summer and you'll have to get in line at 5:00 am if you want to get a spot. There were other campground options outside the park boundaries, but we found most to be expensive or full.
If you’re planning to camp during your stay in Zion – book well ahead of time or arrive early! Luckily, we found a dispersed spot about 15 minutes outside of Springdale (Zion's town center) that offered incredible views of the surrounding canyons and valleys. If you have a 4x4 vehicle, head to the Eagle Crag Trailhead in Rockville, UT and park in the 4-5 spots just past the parking area. The ‘spots’ are on BLM land and therefore free to camp if you can reach them!