A First Timer's Guide To Zion
Zion National Park is an incredible place to visit, which is no wonder why millions of people flock to this holy land each year. There is so much to see and do, it can be overwhelming for a first timer. We definitely felt a little stunned as we didn't know what we should do with all of the options! Hopefully these tips will help you!
Drive in during the day!
The views as you drive into this park are absolutely incredible and can really get you pumped for your experience. Make sure you drive into the area during daylight so you can witness the thousand foot sandstone cliffs against the desert terrain. If you roll in predawn, you miss out on this awesome experience.
Put Your Hiking Shoes On!
No matter what your exercise level, there is a hiking trail for everyone! For beginner hikers, we recommend the Emerald Pools Trail. There is an upper and lower part, so you can choose which one works best for you. If you visit after a rain, you should see a nice waterfall.
But not matter what trail you take in the park, you are guaranteed to have some amazing views! So make sure you get your hiking shoes on and get out there!
Hike Angels Landing If You're Not Terrified of Heights!
If you want be on top of the world, then make sure you don't miss out on hiking Angel's Landing. This hike ascends the walls of the main canyon in Zion to reach the top of a dizzying 1488 foot sheer cliff, where they say Angels Land. It is not for the faint of heart!!
Most of the hike is pretty easy, just with some elevation gain. Once you get to the last quarter mile, the brave continue from an overlook onto a half mile trail that clings to a narrow fin of rock soaring over the valley floor. You continue to traverse a narrow path with many unprotected straight dropoffs down the 1400 foot cliff. In some places there are hand holds, but some places there are not!
We knew this ahead of time, thank God, because I am terrified of heights. So I stayed behind and ate lunch at a really nice picnic area right before the crazy part. Murray went on ahead. By this time in the day, it was getting really crowded so it took him about an hour to get up there, take a few snapshots and head back down.
He was exhilirated and I was biting my nails the whole time thinking he was going to fall off the cliff! But he survived and loved every minute of it! To say the least, there were lots of kisses when he returned!
Get an Early Start
No matter what activity you are doing, you can only beat the crowds if you are willing to get up early! This means even if it's cold and still dark out. This isn’t always easy if you are staying in the park because it takes the sun a while to clear the rim of the canyon so it feels earlier than it actually is. While we were there in October, the sun didn't rise up in the canyon until 8:00am!
But its definitely worth the effort as popular hikes get very busy by mid morning.
We started Angels Landing mid morning and already started to feel the congestion and traffic. If we started any later, it would have been a much more stressful experience and might not have been possible to reach the top with so many people bumper-to-bumper on the last half mile.
We finally learned this lesson with our last hike to the Narrows, forcing ourselves away at 5:30am. The good news was we were actually able to explore most of the canyon while it was still quiet! Our pictures had no other people in it than us so it was very much worth the effort!
Do Not Leave This Park Without Hiking The Narrows!
As long as you are in good physical condition and not afraid of water, this hike is seriously an experience of a lifetime. It's one of the only hikes in the country that you can hike in a narrow wash with an active river running through it. Depending on the time of year, the water level could be anywhere from your ankles to your waist.
We had such a blast hiking the 10 miles round trip hike, that we forgot all about time! We were grinning ear to ear for the rest of the week because of this amazing life experience.
Rent the right Gear!
The Virgin River is cold...really cold... like 50 degrees. The water runs from melted snow in the mountains and it can be quite bitter if you are in it for a long time. For a hike like The Narrows, we didn't want to get caught in a bad situation in the cold Virgin River water without the proper equipment and 10 miles away from help. So we decided to rent some gear from Zion Adventure Company, which is located just outside the park’s south gate.
Zion Adventure Company has everything you need for this hike including canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, dry pants, and a walking stick for $43 per person. I added fleece pants to the package for an extra $3 because I usually get cold quickly and easily. We also knew we wanted to bring the camera, but hiking in waist deep water with a $5000 camera was not something we were excited about. But Zion Adventure Company also had dry bags for DSLR cameras to rent, so we added that as well!
They offered a short informational video about the hike which made us feel very prepared for it and we were able to take the gear the night before our hike. This was super helpful since we planned on waking up at 5:30 am to get an early start.
Now we have to say we absolutely would never do this hike without the proper gear! We spent 75%-80% of our hike in the water, and not once felt cold or wet. We were very thankful for the boots as the entire river is embedded with river rock and we did not stub our toes or slip as we saw happen with other hikers that were not properly equipped.
We were also super grateful for the walking stick. I was a bit skeptical about it, but once we got in the rushing water, it really helped with balance and traversing the river.
We were so comfortable in the gear, we ended up hiking a total of 10 miles, spending hours in the canyon, enjoying it and taking all the pictures we wanted- something that would not have been possible without the gear.
There were plenty of people we saw hiking in shorts, running shoes or even bare feet, and with expensive cameras dangling around their necks, barely missing the water. Many were slipping and sliding and trying to help each other through the river and then turning back. We felt bad for these guys because they really missed out on an experience of a lifetime!
So spend the money on the gear rental, you will enjoy the hike much more than if you try it in your favorite pair of Crocs.
Hop in the Virgin River
If hiking the Narrows isn't for you, you can always take a dip in the beautiful crystal blue water of the Virgin River. But we warn you, it's quite cold! We saw lots of people playing in the river and even tubing down it, although we heard that it was not really allowed. It's definitely not a river you can kayak in as I think the rocks and boulders would make it really difficult. But nonetheless, you can dip your feet in for a refreshing cool down after a long hike!
Bring Your Bike!
There is a lovely paved path starting in town and entering into the park that you can ride your bike along. We loved doing this and did it almost every day. The views are some of the best in the whole park and it was really fun to see how the canyon colors changed during different times of the day. Our dog Elway really loved the exercise too, since dogs aren't allowed on any other trails here.
Know the Weather Report for the day!
This is one I wish we knew before we started any of our hikes. We only found out about its importance towards the end of our trip, which could have been potentially very dangerous for us!
Zion is in a flash flood zone that is no joke! It doesn't even have to be raining or cloudy anywhere near the park for a flash flood to suddenly occur and cause serious injury and sometimes death. We had no idea and were very lucky during our stay.
It is highly recommended to make sure you know the flash flood warning level and do not push it even if the skies look clear. In September 2015, several people did not heed the warning and lost their lives. So please be safe!
Stock up on Provisions & Booze
As is the case for many national parks and the towns immediately adjacent to them, if visitors arrive without the necessary provisions, it’s possible to find whatever is needed, but it won’t come cheap. I was so happy that we stocked up before our trip!
Zion was one of the most expensive places we found to buy goods. For example, we bought a 12 pack of Coca Cola 12 oz. cans for $11.99 at the store just outside the park gate. Also, if you enjoy alcoholic beverages, buying them in Utah is a special challenge. You can only purchase alcohol at state-run stores, and there is a large mark up. Officially, Utah requires you to pay a tax on any alcohol brought in from other states. No one asked us about the booze we had brought with us in the RV though.
Arrive Early...Really Early... to Stay in The Park!
If you are organized and plan ahead, you can make reservations at the Watchman campground or the lodge, depending on how much you want to be in the outdoors. We had not known when we would be getting on the road, so we didn’t make any reservations. We decided we would just show up and see if we could get a spot as it was Zion’s off-season (fall and winter).
The South Campground at Zion doesn’t take reservations, but instead makes its campsites available on a first come, first serve basis. We heard before we arrived that people start lining up their cars and RVs for these campsites early in the morning. The campground hosts start assigning spots at 7:30AM, but there is already a long line at that point.
We decided we would arrive early to be sure we got a spot. We pulled up with our RV at about 1:00AM and there was already one person ahead of us in line! We parked and went to bed for a few hours and got a spot at 7:30am! But the line behind us went on out past the park.
So it's no joke.... get there early. Also, it helps to arrive on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, as there are usually fewer campers. If rain or other adverse weather comes through, you can often get a spot during these times as well.
It was definitely worth it so we could wake up to this view!
Those are all of our tips for Zion! We hope you enjoy them! Please feel free to post any other tips you've discovered too!