Updated: Aug 5
I had been to Zion once before in October of 2020, when I was still living on the east coast. My little brother was driving out west to move to Colorado (he ended up in Portland) and I met him out there to camp around the area for a while. We were all stir crazy from covid at that point, and a nature oriented trip seemed the safest way to get the F out of the house and not be a super spreader.
This trip was different. Different time of the year, different point in the pandemic, different camping style, and different company. I'm currently in the middle of a #vanlyfe conversion - a 1999 Chevy Express 1500. She's been camping twice, even though I'm still in the early stages of the build. Coming from tent camping the past 35 years of my life, it's an enjoyable and almost decadent change, even with the minimal amenities.
Zion is about 3 hours from Las Vegas, and we set out in Vangela around noon on a Wednesday. Long drives in the southwest are so different from long northeastern drives. In the northeast, there can be some moments of beauty, when you reach the top of a mountain and you can see the rolling green hills beneath you. But a lot of the time, you can see nothing through the tree lined highways. Sometimes you can take back roads to liven up the trip - the passing farms with maybe a strange animal in the barnyard (is that an emu?!) or bubbling creeks add interest to the drive. Now, I don't need back roads. The landscape here is overwhelming, majestic, and ever shifting. Driving one way looks completely different than driving back. It's hard to imagine it will ever become commonplace for me.
ARRIVING AT THE PARK
My partner in crime for this trip was Jody, my actual partner whom I live with. We arrive in Springdale, the adorable town outside of Zion a little before 4pm. There was some traffic and a road rage incident, so it took us a little longer than the predicted 3 hours. The price to get in is $35, but we have a NP Pass, so we drove right in. Even though it was later, finding parking was a bitch. Zion has become the 10th most visited park, with 5 million visitors last year. I remembered that when Sal (my brother) and I had visited that fall, we drove around for 45 minutes looking for parking. Cars can line the road outside the park for a mile, and another three miles away, you can pay for roadside parking and have a free shuttle take you to the park. All the signs at the park said lots were full, but I managed to find a spot pretty quickly. Don't ever believe those signs, check it out yourself.
Since it was later in the day, we decided to do the Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools. That was the hike I did before, and I knew we could complete it in time. For most hikes at this park, you take a propane powered shuttle to one of 9 different stops (some of these stops are not always open) that drop you off at the trailheads. Truly, this is so much better than letting cars up the two lane road. First of all, it's just so damn gorgeous everyone would be driving super slow, and it's just not fair to the driver! Also, the shuttles are constantly arriving, so more humans being transported up the mountain than if they were divided into individual vehicles.
THE HIKE - LOWER, MIDDLE, AND UPPER EMERALD POOLS/KAYENTA LOOP
You can do this combo trail to make a loop, which will put you at about 3 miles round trip. Get off at either stop #5 (Zion Lodge) or stop #6 (The Grotto) to do the loop, but I recommend starting at stop #5. Once you get off the stop, cross the road and walk over the bridge. Turn right. This is a paved but steep path that leads you to the Lower Emerald Pools. There are super gorgeous views of the valley and steep rock walls as you ascend, and I've seen mule deer, lizards, and chipmunks in this area.
There's a super cool area where the trail kind of goes under the rock wall where water is pouring out above you. The trail can get very muddy, so make sure you're wearing proper footwear. The hikes to the middle and upper pools are unpaved and much more "trail-like". The water level and water flow weren't very high at the pools right now. They really depend on the snow melt from higher elevations, where those elevations should be getting 10-15 ft, last year they only got about 4. This has also caused cyanobacteria blooms, which is a neurotoxin for humans and animals. You aren't supposed to submerge your head most of the water in the park, but you can't swim in this particular area anyway.
One of the coolest parts of this hike were the canyon tree frogs. Because of the time of year, and the time we just happened to end up hiking, the frogs were emerging. I have NEVER heard anything like them. They sounded like bleating sheep, and had the rhythm of a woodpecker drill. There were just SO MANY a the upper pool!!! I loved it.
After hanging out at the big rocks you'll find at the upper pool, and watching the water seeping out of the rock face above, you have to backtrack just a little bit to keep the loop going. Once you descend from the pool, you'll come to a "Y" in the trail - just go the way you haven't gone yet, which should be to your immediate right - there is also a little sign. Now you're on the Kayenta Trail, which will take you back down. I love this part of the hike, as it's along some pretty wild drop-offs (not too scary, the trail is wide) and gives you epic views into the valley. You follow the river a bit and then you arrive at tram stop #6. The last tram from this stop leaves at 8:30pm, but we made it in plenty of time, somewhere a little after 7:30pm. The whole thing took us about 2 hours and we weren't rushing.
CAMPING - NIGHT 1
Since this was a last minute trip, and since I usually try not to pay for campsites, I set out to find a BLM (bureau of land management) area to set up for the night. My go-to app is iOverlander, and I chose an area about 20 min away down route 9, past Springdale. As the sun was setting, we pulled onto a bumpy dirt road, and took Vangela around a wild expanse with little pullouts complete with fire rings. A spot was located on top of a little hill - it was actually the last spot in that area, but also one of the best! You could see other campers in the distance, but we were quite far away from each site.
I scrounged for some kindling in the sagebrush, and Jody began to set up the table and kitchen. We ended up just cooking chicken sausages over the fire, and made them into sandwiches. We played music and watched the stars come out, always one of the my favorite parts since I'm usually residing in a city.
The Second Hike - 3/4 of Angels Landing
After some delicious camping coffee, we packed up and headed back to the park. We arrived at about 10am, and there was a line to get in. Parking was trickier, too, but I had some good fortune in the RV lot. This day, we decided to do Angel's Landing, but there was a caveat. To do the last .5 miles of the trail, the fun and scary part where you hold on to a chain while climbing the spine of a mountain, is by permit only. The permits are by a lottery, you pay $6 to enter the lottery, and $3 for each pass you "win". Well, I forgot to even enter us in the lottery.
I promise, this hike is still worth it. Wear your sunscreen because there's not a lot of shade, and be prepared for a lot of incline on the way up - it's a 5.4 mile out and back trail, but only 4.4 miles when you don't do the permit part. Get off at tram stop #6, the one we ended at yesterday, the Grotto stop. Cross the bridge and take a right. It starts as a series of long paved switch backs up the mountain, providing you with ever more beautiful views of the canyon and Virgin River below. The red and white cliffs dotted with greenery meet you as you hike higher and higher. Next, you'll go through through an alpine canyon. Mexican spotted owls live here, so it's prefered you were quieter through this section. You'll be almost dead at this point, but you still have several smaller switchbacks (also paved) to do, then you're almost at the top. Here you can rest a bit, there's a big open rock area - but be careful of the super aggressive squirrels and chipmunks, they WILL climb on you to steal your food.
It's at this point you need a permit for the narrow and slightly dangerous last part of the trail. It does look super fun, and I plan on coming back to do it in the fall. After some chatting with the rangers up there, we headed back down the way we came. It went much faster going down, and we even ran down some sections, as it was just so steep it was hard to move slowly!
After taking the tram to stop #5 The Lodge, to grab ice cream (we deserved it!) we headed back to the van to take a little rest. I really loved having the van as a little oasis to rest in during the middle of the day. No going all the way back to a campsite or sitting upright in the crowded front seat of a small car.
THE THIRD AND LAST HIKE - THE RIVERSIDE WALK
This was our evening wrap up, goodbye for now hike. You can reach this hike from the last tramp stop #9 The Temple of Sinawava. It's a mostly flat, paved, 2.2 mile out and back hike along the Virgin River. It was a perfect cooldown hike from earlier - the air was cooler, the hike wasn't too difficult, and it was quite beautiful. My favorite part were the flowers and foliage growing out of the dripping rock walls. They looked like something out of Jurassic Park, or even an artistic installation at a flower show. The yellow columbines are so unique and wild looking, and you could find them everywhere on the wall. A few of the bleating frogs were out in this area as well.
CAMPING - NIGHT 2
I wanted to find a different spot than the previous night, not because there was anything wrong with the spot, but because I love to explore. This time, we turned down a road upon leaving town that was before the previous night's spot. Then the camping area was on the right, about a mile down the road. Each spot was a little close, but they were all along a small creek, and water features will get me every time! No fires were allowed in this area, so we set up the kitchen stuff and Jody made these incredible turkey burgers. After some reading and journaling, we went to bed early!
The next morning we were thinking about hitting a rock shop. I'm a jeweler, and I love all the gemstone, crystal, and fossil shops you can find throughout Utah. We were pretty beat, though, and Jody had a shift at Meow Wolf that night, so we headed home to Las Vegas. Overall, we did 3 hikes, found two new camping spots, and spent about $100, 2/3 of that being on gas, the rest on groceries and a few incidentals like the ice cream and a $5 bundle of firewood.
Have you been to Zion National Park Before? I'd love to hear your experiences, especially if you've done the last part of the Angel's Landing Hike!