Back in 2017, I was concerned when I read about the massive rock slide that closes 2 miles of Zion Park’s Scenic Drive. Luckily, the road was cleared and reopened just after a few days – and it brought back memories of my day trip to the park from Las Vegas. It was always news like this that reminded me of a place I have been to and then I was inspired to create a travel article.
My visit was in December and at that time, I was in Las Vegas for the week with friends. Apart from walking down the Las Vegas Strip, playing slots, watching shows, visiting the Grand Canyon West, the Hoover Dam, and the Fremont Street… (which I will write about the city of Las Vegas in the future) I wondered about any place outside the Las Vegas that we could see. I didn’t know about Zion National Park until I was researching in my Palazzo hotel suite and seemed the place has quite a lot of good reviews on TripAdvisor. So, we drove there on a Saturday morning.
In fact, Zion is not completely strange to the locals in the know, but I considered it a hidden gem because it is sometimes overshadowed by its nearby Grand Canyon. To be honest, if you have only a day for an excursion from Las Vegas, you would probably go to Grand Canyon West. It’s true that the Grand Canyon has a lot to offer, I wrote about places to see in both Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon West. I am not trying to say that Zion is any better than the Grand Canyon and you should choose Zion over these places, however, Zion has a unique landscape and rock formation that you may think twice about skipping Zion when you are visiting Utah.
First, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is a highlight of the national park. Running through the heart of the canyon, the dramatic sandstone formations on both sides makes it a spectacular road adventure.
Secondly, it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Las Vegas. It’s a little bit farther than Grand Canyon West, but still, the distance makes a day trip possible. Of course, there is a lot to see and do in Zion had you have more time, but it would be nice to have a taste of Zion if time is limited.
Lastly, there are so many things to do in Zion that are suitable for different types of travelers. For family, take a pleasant hike along the cliffs, enjoy a great dinner or lodging in Springdale, or go camping in the park; For active travelers, select a more challenging hiking route, or even go rock climbing and canyoneering. Zion has a lot of canyons to explore, but it requires a permit for these adventurous activities.
Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah near Saint George and Las Vegas. The area has unique geography among Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, Mojave Desert regions. It has a variety of life zones with an exciting diversity of plants and animals – in there, you will find habitats ranging from desert, riparian, woodland, and coniferous forest. Almost 300 species of birds (where you can also find California Condor, the largest flying bird in North America), 79 mammals, and 32 reptiles call this area home.
Established in 1919, Zion got its name from the first Anglo-European settlers, Mormon pioneers, who arrive in the late 1800s, meaning a “sanctuary” in Hebrew. The park encompasses an area of 500 square kilometers, welcoming over 4 million visitors every year. The Zion Canyon is the most popular and best-known landmark, which is a spectacular drive that’s suitable for any type of traveler. The canyon is a 24-kilometers long and 800-meter deep canyon. The canyon is two giant walls of reddish Navajo Sandstone, created by the erosion of the Virgin River.
The dramatic and steep cliffs offer a great selection of activities from scenic hikes, rock climbing, to so many more. But other than the Zion Canyon, it is no lack of places that is perfect for all sorts of outdoor activities. One thing that might be of interest is canyoneering – the Zion and Kolob canyons area includes places of over 150 million years of Mesozoic-aged sedimentation.
Zion, do you know?
Here, I would like to share some trivia or fun facts about Zion that I discovered while I was doing some research about this park, of course, these may not be as shocking as I thought to some, but I would like to include this for those who may not know about Zion until now. You are welcome to share your “Zion, do you know” by commenting below, and I would love to know more interesting facts about this place as I read them!
The best time to visit Zion is probably during summer, but the park could also get crowded and busy. In fact, the park looks quite differently at different times of the year, or even in a day. In fact, the weather in Zion could get quite extreme, dropping to as low as minus 30 Degree Celsius, during winter! While we went there in December and it was just a bit chilly, but not freezing, we did get to see the cliffs covered by snow, just like what I saw in Grand Cayon as well.
Before the park is officially named “Zion”, the first monument in the park was known as Mukuntuweap National Monument, probably named by the native Americans. It was later renamed Zion as the park’s area expanded and declared a protected area.
The formation of Zion Cayon took place over millions of years, carved by the Virgin River in a long process, forming different canyons, and passage (known as the Narrows); while the park is a natural treasure to Utah, it was also once a civilization with over 3,00 years of history. It was found that the park had an Anasazi settlement with sandstone villages, networks of roads, and rock art here and there.
The largest flying bird in North America, California Condor, calls this place home. The endangered species was once being threatened of its existence due to lead poisoning, and eventually, the conservation groups applied for a captive breeding program and restored the bird’s number in the 1980s.
Other impressive sights in Zion are its natural stone arches. One of the most well-known arches is the Kolob Arch – it’s also one of the world’s largest arches.
Going to Zion
The drive took a little bit more than 2 hours and we arrived at the South entrance of the park. I supposed the park would be much busier in the summer as it would be much warmer and the park has wonderful campsites and facilities along the Canyon (like the Zion Lodge). Visiting in December though, there was no crowd and we kinda had the park all to ourselves. However, some of the activities and services (like shuttle bus) may be closed in the wintertime.
The weather was nice with a clear sky and we had a nice good view of the entire site from ground level; after a quick visit to the visitor center, we hit the ground and go up, up, and up. There are quite a few walking trails along the canyon, and it’s impossible to finish all of them in a day. We selected a few and the trails usually take about 1-2 hours to complete.
The easiest way to go and explore Zion, of course, is by self-driving. There is a shuttle bus connecting the park from Saint George – the shuttle bus takes off every 40 minutes. For a single ride, it costs only US$1. A Shuttle bus is also available in the park for visitors to get around.
It does not require a permit for a “sight-seeing” visit. A private vehicle costs US$35 and the ticket is valid for 7 days; for individuals, (with no car to the park), the ticket costs US$20 and it covers the Zion Canyon Park and Kolob Canyon areas. This is usually applied to bikers, hikers, or pedestrians. Note that a permit is required for those going rock climbing, canyoneering, and hiking.
Zion, the highlights
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Before entering the scenic drive, we turned to the Zion-Mt Carmel highway. The highway connects Zion’s south and east entrance. It was built in 1930 and it consists of a series of steep switchbacks, a tunnel, and lastly a highway that was constructed on eroded sandstone slopes. The colors and the shapes of the slopes were spectacular and there were occasional turnouts that allow drivers to pause safely and enjoy the scenery.
On our way back to the south entrance, we entered the Overlook Trail. We saw a giant arch, called the Great Arch of Zion, on our way up to the tunnel and the Overlook Trail ends on top of this Arch. At the overlook, a thousand feet above the Zion Canyon floor, you saw patterns that were not evident before: the greener world along the river and the sheer volume of the canyon the streams have excavated. The viewpoint looks across at a panorama of classic Zion cliffs and sandstone towers – from there, the Pine Creek Canyon could be seen and we could look all the way to the Bridge Mountain, Canyon Junction, and beyond.
The trail took about an hour to reach the overlook and it crosses slick rock slabs of the high desert. The trail was generally flat but some parts could be rocky and uneven. It could be slightly challenging to those afraid of heights as it passes some drop-offs (although most of them are fenced) and some connections are merely wood boards.
The fear, though, could be distracted by the joy of seeing the bighorn sheep, peacefully running around on the rocks as they were looking for food.
Afterward, we returned to the Zion Scenic Drive. The Zion Canyon is the most well-known feature of the national park and it’s the largest canyon that covers 147,000 acres of sculpted sandstone canyons and high desert plateaus. The scenic route stretches through the canyon from the south entrance to the Riverside Walk in the north with a paved drive following the path of the Virgin Rover along the canyon floor. Scenic spots include Weeping Rock, Angels Landing, Temple of Sinawava, and Great White Throne. Zion is an outdoor laboratory where researchers and visitors alike can find remarkable biological diversity and observe geological processes in action.
The Watchman Peak is another overlook in the south end of Zion Canyon as if a standing guard of the entire ground. The trail offers a panoramic view of Zion, including the Watchman Trail, Zion Canyon, West Temple, and the town of Springdale (a small town outside the south entrance of the park). It is recommended to hike early or late in the day to witness sunlight that illuminates the canyon walls and casts dramatic shadows.
Weeping Rock Trail
Weeping Rock Trail climbs through the forest to a natural alcove eroded into the Cliffside. Here perpetual springs nurture lush vegetation, and the plant community that lives on a sheer rock surface formed a “hanging garden”.
Court of the Patriarchs
It is a popular year-round destination. The trail ends at an overlook with stunning views of Birch Creek Canyon and its towering sandstone walls. These peaks were named “Abraham, Issac, and Jacob” after the Old Testament patriarchs in 1916 by Methodist minister Frederick Fisher, and his guide Claude Hirschi.
Emerald Pools Trail
The algae in the pool give the water a distinctive hue and hence, give the name for this place. A series of basins have been carved into a rock ledge in the canyon wall by flowing, falling water.
Riverside Walk is a beautiful shaded walk that meanders through forested glens along the Virgin River. While the river could be quiet or raging, it’s a pleasant walk to witness the different moods of water that stream through the cliffs and go deeper into the canyon. The paved trail ends at a river, and it’s possible to tread into the water if the current condition permits, and go further into The Narrows.
Hidden Canyon Trail & Great White Throne
The secret at the end of this trail is Hidden Canyon itself, a deep, narrow chasm separating the Great White Throng from the Table Mountain. The Great White Throne could easily be recognized based on its distinctive feature: a gigantic, steep, and smooth cliff that stands among the eroded rocks and canyons.
The magical moment happened by the end of the day as we were chilling at the Great White Throne viewpoint and we were chatting with 2 rock climbers who just finished climbing the rocks and loading their cars with all the professional equipment, it began to go dark and suddenly the canyon was changing colors dramatically as if there was a multi technicolor light show – If only a man-made light show could have such a scale. The color changed from pink to orange to white and then purple… I was too busy turning my head around in amazement and luckily I took a few photos (while my jaw was still dropped) that captured the moment that ends my visit to the national park perfectly. #jawdropped.
Lastly… our dinner in Utah!
Before heading back to Las Vegas for the night shows, we stopped by the Cracker Barrel in Saint Goerge, UT, for some American classic country meals!