The Short Version
- 4 hour Drive from Flagstaff to Zion
- Cookies at Jacob’s Lake Inn Halfway to Zion
- Slept on public camp land on Sheep Bridge Road
- Angels’ Landing Hike in Zion National Park (5 Miles)
- Lunch at MeMe’s Cafe
- Bouldering in Moe’s Valley
- Slept in Zion visitor center parking lot
- The Narrows (21 miles)
- Slept at Watchman campsite in Zion
- Breakfast to go from Oscar’s Cafe
The Long Version
Much like Moab I considered heading to St. George/Springdale area because the South West corridor of Utah has some must do hiking in the U.S. However, much like Moab, the living arrangements didn’t work out leaving this to be another weekend excursion. The Zion area is a four to five hour drive North West from flagstaff. There are actually two ways to get there. the direct route is North past Page and up into Utah then across. The second route is 20 minutes longer but is in my opinion the better option because you can stop at Jacob’s Lake Inn/Lodge in Jacob’s Lake. Park, walk in, go to the bakery counter to the left and ask for one of every cookie (about 14 kinds). Why? Because they are crazy good. I ate about half of them and gave the other half to people I met to make instant friends.
A couple hours past Jacob’s Lake is the outskirts of St. George and a right turn to the town of Springdale which harbors the main entrance to Zion. I got to the Hurrican area (30 mins East of St. George) at around 9:30pm on a Friday with the expectation of eating dinner but found that all places in this area (and Springdale) basically close at 9 except for one Mexican food place (more options if willing to drive to St. George). Keep that in mind if you drive there late and forego eating dinner in anticipation of eating a late dinner. Also, the supermarkets close at 11ish (and earlier in Springdale) so stop early to stock up on next day snacks.
Instead of driving to the rest of the way to Zion I pulled off onto Sheep Bridge Road which is a fairly well maintained dirt road that leads to open camping areas. It was hard to tell where exactly to turn off (and where my Elantra cold turn off at) but after a couple miles I bit the bullet and turned off and fortunately had enough clearance to make it into one of the small clearings beside the road that was occupied by a few campers. From previous trips I am aware that my car is not comfortable to sleep in, however, that night I made an interesting discovery. Before leaving flagstaff I borrowed a medium sized crash pad from a friend (for bouldering) which I threw in my back seat. It just so happens that with the other junk (clothes and what not) that occupied underneath the crashpad it was propped up to thw height of my backseat windows. I had also recently learned that my city-dweller-look-I-camp-walmart-sleeping-bag (rated to 50 F) was not really protective against the elements. In lue of this information I bought an actual sleeping bag (rated to 15 F). Backseat+Crashpad+sleeping bag + Pillow +roll down one window and stick my feet out equates to a pretty comfortable sleeping arrangement.
Saturday: From the random sleeping spot I was at it is a 30-minute drive to the South entrance of Zion (which is the main entrance). The main road goes through the small city of Springdale which harbors the entrance to Zion. Springdale is basically a single road city lined with places to eat, small shops, hotels and adventure companies for a couple of miles. The city lives off tourists passing through on the way to Zion so the city it is well maintained and lined with large trees that recedes into the canyon walls and river. Past Springdale the main road leads to the entrance to the park. A pass to the park costs $30 (for cars) and grants entry for a week. Just past the entrance on the right is the visitor center and shuttle buses. From the map (that they give after purchasing a pass) I could easily tell where I wanted to go (Angel’s Landing Trailhead), but I soon found out that you cannot drive up to the trail head, that privilege is reserved for the shuttle busses. So, I turned around and went back to the visitor, parked, hopped on the shuttle and was at the Angels Landing Trailhead 25 minutes later.
Angels Landing might be the most famous hike in Zion, therefore, I considered it a must do. Most descriptions I found online and the information provided by the park stress that this is a very strenuous and dangerous hike. The hike (roundtrip) is only a little over 4 miles but has hundreds of feet of ascent so I give it the benefit of the doubt and planned for it to take around 3-4 hours. The hike starts on a dirt road that follows the river for a couple hundred yards until turning into a steep paved trail that switches back and forth up the Canyon wall. The first set of switch backs ascents a couple hundred feet then turns into a straight path that follow a dried creek bed. This time of year the creek bed was lined with delicate trees full of vibrant red, yellow and pinks colors. The explosion of colors was an unexpected treat to say the least. After another hundred yards the path turns into a steeper set of switchbacks for another couple hundred of feet. At the top of this it will feel like the hike is almost over because the its less than mile to the end. However, the rest of the is slow going because the trail is steep, narrow and can get congested. The remainder of the hike is a guided by a metal chain that winds up the canyon. Some parts get very narrow with thousand foot drops off either side and some parts consist of easy rock scrambling. After a mile of up, curves and climbs I finally arrived at the peak of Angels Landing. An astounding lookout to the vast glory of Zion Canyon. The peak is actually not at the top of the Canyon, but this makes the scene more mesmerizing because I was still engulfed in the canyon while gazing at the green and brown valley that lead into the vanishing horizon. There were 20+ people also Angles Landing, but even though it is a small space it wasn’t very hard to get an unobscured viewpoint and picture. The trip back down is the same as the way up which would be simple if it wasn’t for the people coming up the trail. After waiting in lines, I started to make unadvised shortcuts to jump ahead of people. Then once at the switchback I actually found it easier (funner (not a word I know)) to run the rest of the way because of the steepness. Despite its popularity, the hike was still exciting and I definitely still consider it a must do. If you are debating doing it because of the steepness and narrowness of trail I would say go for it. I saw all types of people and I met people that claimed the be deathly afraid of heights that made it to the top. Yes some parts are narrow and yes its thousands of feet on either side, but grab the chain, take a deep breadth, look up and put one foot in front (directly in front) of the other and you’ll be at the top in no time (besides it is the way down that you should be scared of because you will staring all the way down the whole time). Only 7 people have died on the trail…
Angel’s Landing took me less than 2 hours so I had an unexpected abundance of time. I drive back to Springdale and ate a delicious lunch at a road side creperie café. I could have done another hike, but I wanted to check out the Bouldering scene in the area. A park guide told me that Moe’s Valley was the local hotspot for boulder. Moe’s Valley is NorthWest of St. George so it was about an hour drive to get to the first place where I got lost. There is not a paved road to actual bouldering area, rather a single dirt road that leads to more dirt road. I took my low clearance, two wheel drive a hundred yards on the dirt road until I got to a parking looking area at a split in the road. One road went steep right up a hill and the other road went slightly less steep left up a hill. I didn’t think I could make it up either way so I parked and grabbed by gear (crashpad, shoes, chalk and a red bull) to start walking. Fortuanly (or I thought), an older gentleman in a doombuggy drive driving by for some off road fun. I flagged him down and asked where the climbing area is. He directed me over the hill to the right…so I went right…up the hill…there was nothing at the top of the hill to the right…thanks sir. I followed the ridge to the left with all my junk until I got to another parking lot and another split in the road. I chose poorly again. After two miles of walking up and down the valley (which I guess was Moe’s) I finally found boulders slapped with white chalk (actually not that hard to find if you know where to look). By this time the sun was starting to set so I climbed by myself for less than an hour. There are a wide variety of routes and problems, but I stuck to a couple of routes to fail at. Except for a couple of people on motorcycles I didn’t see any other until I was about to leave. The sun past the horizon before three people walked past me from further up in the Valley…turns out there is better bouldering further up the Valley.
After the trek back to my car I drove into downtown St, George for dinner (kind of hard to find downtown St. George on the map). I went to local restaurant that was popular and had a decent dinner at their bar (too long of a wait for a table). During small talk with the couple next to me I learned about the interesting alcohol laws in Utah (and this is the only reason I am still talking about dinner in St. George). Visitors to Utah be aware that restaurants cannot sell a alcoholic drink by itself, one must order food as well (so there is no getting a drink at the bar while I wait for my table). Beers on tap can only have a max of 3% alcohol, really strict on drinking and driving (like one drink max) and a bunch of other rules on when and where alcohol can be sold (just look them up). Utah, great for sober adventures. Equipped with this information I carefully drove back to the Zion visitor center (being two beers in, more than normal because my college football lost). I scouted Zion’s visitor center parking lot earlier and it seemed suitable for car camping so I parked near the back of the lot and set up my backseat bed for the night.
Sunday: I woke up at 7am the next morning to catch the first shuttle to my next hike, the Narrows. I thought I was waking up at 6am because I set my alarm for 7am then put it on airplane mode thinking it wouldn’t observe daylight savings (by the way this was daylight saving eve), but its smarter than I thought. I woke up at 7 and it was 7 and the first shuttle was at 7 so I didn’t make that one (they run every 20 minutes so not that big of a deal). I got on the shuttle shortly after 7 and rode it through Zion to the last stop, the Narrows. The Narrows is another very well-known hike and again I think it is a must do for Zion. What makes this hike different is that it completely in water. You basically follow the river that flows through Zion Canyon as it twists and turn through wide and small alleys of the Canyons. There are two options for this hike, the top down and the bottom up. The top down is a one-way hike that starts higher up in the Canyons and ends where I started. It is a two day hike where hikers camp at campsites in the Canyon. This route takes some pre-planning for reservations and permits but I wish I had done the pre-planned once I finished my hike, the Bottom-up hike. This hike is basically an out and back where people can hike upriver as far as the Top-Down campsite (although most people turn around well before this). I usually do not do any prep for these popular hikes but being November the water temperatures were in the 40s and I am a pansy when it comes to being cold. So the previous day I went to Zion Adventure Company and rented their Narrows hiking kit (water hiking boots, neoprene socks, dry pants and a walking stick) for $40.
I actually started the hike two other people that I met on the shuttle. The three of us stepped into the water and braced ourselves for the cold water to fill our socks. After the initial chill, we started the journey upstream. The hike is gorgeous. The river twists and turns through the red-brown sandstone walls that tower thousands of feet. The water alternated between a gentle flow and a powerful rush as we trudged through. Wide straightaways would morph into 20ft wide alleyways. I hiked with the two companions for a couple miles as a pace slower than I desired so I jumped at the opportunity when another solo hiker went flying by. Its was awkward ditching my new hiking companions but I’m sure they understood…(it was more awkward when we crossed paths later in the hike, ‘Oh hey, ya I don’t know what happened I turned a corner and you guys were gone when I looked back’). A couple miles into the hike there is a slot canyon that splits off to the right. This route goes for a couple miles over a few small waterfalls. We hiked until we reached a 6-foot waterfall that we were not able to climb over. We could have made it over with some more effort but we also knew this was technically the park mandated turn around point (back country permit required for hiking further). We scrambled back up the main canyon for miles until reached the campsites. It was a lot of fun scrambling over rocks and trying to find the routes that save us from having to go for a swim (the deepest we had to walk through was about waist high). If our rental equipment didn’t have to be turned in by 6 pm we would have kept going up the Canyon, but we decided to head back. I usually find the backs of the out and backs are boring as I retrace my steps but this felt like a completely new hike. It was around 4pm when we got back to the start which was now crowded with people staring down the Narrows. In total the hike was 21 miles over a 7-hour period.
After returning the hiking equipment I decided to stay one extra night before returning home because my hiking companion and I were lucky enough to get a camping spot in Zion ($20 per night). Pro tip: there are a couple of camp areas in Zion. One is first come first serve that usually fills up before 10 am. The second campsite is by reservation that fill up months in advance. However, people cancel regularly so you can usually get one of these cancelled slots like we did. A night of relaxing, drinking and eating (and hot tubing but I’m not giving that secret away) in Zion was the perfect way to cap off this amazing weekend.