Family hiking vacation, April 2018: athletic, outdoorsy family from South Carolina, with minimal desert hiking experience (56 miles in Grand Canyon). Regularly mountain bike, run, day hike, kayak, and lift weights. Physical preparation: just altered our normal routes to include more hills and stairs with our packs.
Let’s start with the lesser parts of the trip, to end on a high note, so to speak.
Emerald Pools (Upper & Lower): People, man. They suck. Especially parents who are about my age. They’re the worst…and their kids are the biggest brats. Imagine the most spoiled group of kids having a meltdown at Disney while their parents wander off and leave them to disturb everyone else and deface the flower beds, then transport those people to a beautiful natural phenomenon of pristine emerald green pools in the desert, where they throw snacks in the pools, run up and down the trails endangering other hikers, kill the insects and spiders, move rocks and throw them in the pools, and listen to their music blaring on portable speakers — and that’s just the parents. Encapsulate this group of people and you’ll know why people hate American tourists.
Zion Lodge: Stay in a less expensive hotel in Springdale, just outside the official park gates. Take the shuttle into the park, since parking is often full. While clean with comfortable beds and nice bathrooms, there is simply nothing special about this lodge, unlike many historic lodges in other National Parks. It’s definitely not El Tovar (Grand Canyon) and not in the “great location makes the price worthwhile” category, either. We preferred the Watchmen Campground, where we stayed for three nights.
Red Rocks Grill: Absolutely do not waste your time and money, unless you desperately need a spinach salad. If you are staying at the Lodge and want to eat after the shuttle stops running in the evening, you are trapped here for supper. Their signature Red Rocks Salad with spinach, fruit and prickly pear vinaigrette is delicious. Despite having eight servers for twenty tables, the restaurant managed to take over an hour to serve the food each time we ate there. The food itself (trout, steak, hamburgers, supposed grilled chicken on the salad, but much more like freeze-dried dog chews) had absolutely no flavor. I’m honestly not sure how they managed to make the most bland, poorly cooked meals outside of a hospital, but they did it.
The Cafe attached to the Zion Lodge: Bless their hearts. So many people working, yet not one able to actually do their job. I thought one was going to cry when we ordered the bag lunch on their menu. I mean, the sandwiches were already made and in the fridge, but putting an apple, cookie, and sandwich in a bag completely overwhelmed him. If there are 3 people waiting for meals, expect waits of 30 minutes or more for breakfast items. Tip: ask for your coffee cup as soon as you order, because you can drink 3 or 4 cups while you wait..and wait..and wait for your food.
…my opinion, based on my experience April 2018
Now for the great stuff!
Summary: The harder the trail, the more likely that people practice Leave No Trace and proper hiking etiquette. Always be prepared with adequate hydration (and electrolytes, if it is hot). Four liters per person per day is a good minimum. There are NOT places to refill along the trails. Flip flops are not hiking shoes; I did not realize this should be specifically stated prior to this trip. Most of the trails are sand or sand on rock and VERY slippery.
Don’t endanger your safety and the safety of other hikers by being unprepared. This was notable, rampant, and unexpected at Zion. There were many, many, many people on trails that were entirely too difficult for their physical condition and preparation.
The park was “full” when we were there, so I can only imagine how much worse this would be in the summer heat. Prepare all of your food and beverage before you head to Springdale/Zion. Options are minimal and expensive once you are in the area. Start your days early to avoid the worst of the tourists and crowds. Shuttle waits at the Visitors Center can be 3 hours. Really — you’re going to end up as a misanthrope by the end of this trip.
Snow Canyon, St. George: Magical Martian Moonscape! Imagine bright orange whipped cream formations of rock. Amazing. We hiked 5 miles at Snow Canyon, mainly to acclimate our Southern hiking experience to desert conditions and get comfortable with our footing on the sand and sand-on-rocks terrain. So glad we detoured for this hike on our way to Zion.
Observation Point: We took the shuttle from the Watchmen Campground (where we were car & tent camping) to the trail head. As always, if there’s a bathroom, use it. We hiked the 8 mile round trip route (up 4 miles, down 4 miles). Like most of Zion’s standard trails, paths are well-marked, although in many areas, so many people have hiked off-trail, that it can look like there are options, when there are not. Stick to the trails. Parks are not the place to forge your own way. Leave that to the Park Service and keep other hikers safe by staying on the marked trail.
NOTE: If you go off the edge, you die. Adorable, enticing chipmunks scurry around the top, and a toddler would have gone off the edge if an alert stranger had not grabbed his arm at the critical moment. The clueless parents paid no attention at all to their precious child chasing the chipmunk, and got ugly with the person who prevented their child’s death. WTF? People: you suck at parenting if you hauled your pre-schooler all the way up to Observation Point for your family photo, only to ignore their safety to the point that your child almost went over the edge. This hiking trip instilled in me a deep hatred for idiot parents of my generation.
The Narrows (Virgin River): Absolutely worth doing, even when crowded. Wish we had hiked further up the river. Definitely rent the dry pants, neoprene booties, and water shoes non-summer. We found the wooden hiking sticks surprisingly helpful in the current. Proper gear made this a wonderful hike and prevented hypothermia. It was 74F air, but 46F water when we went. FYI The first mile is on a paved path. You can put on your dry pants, etc. when you get to the river, if you’ve brought a daypack, but it’s extremely crowded at the start of the river trail, so it’s simpler to gear up before you get on the shuttle. Experienced Narrows Hikers all seemed to gear up early and wear it all the way back to the Outfitters to return it.
Tip: buy 2 shower coins and take the best 10 minute shower of your life afterwards in the public shower down around back of the outfitter building. Bring your own towel and soap. We also did laundry there halfway through our trip, which was glorious.
Hidden Canyon to Secret Arch: We had low expectations for this hike, but it turned out to be one of our favorites. The “secret arch” is half a mile past the end of the maintained portion of the trail. According to the park service people we spoke with, this is an official-unofficial path and does not violate the LNT ethic. It’s definitely more challenging to navigate because you have to scamper over boulders and “scramble” in several areas. It’s not a “path” in the typical sense. We did not notice the decades-old arrows etched in the rock until our way down.
Grotto Trail: We did part of Grotto Trail as an extension to our Hidden Canyon hike. Beautiful. Not physically demanding.
Watchmen Trail: We hiked Watchmen as an afterthought, but it was lovely. Really glad we added this trail on our last morning in Zion.
Watchmen Campground: We camped for 3 nights in the full campground. Other campers observed the quiet hours, except for one old drunk fart on our last night. There were mule deer behind our tent. Only one of the three bathroom buildings was open. It often ran out of toilet paper and soap. Be prepared. It had a large sink for cleaning cooking equipment and a drinking water hand pump to refill bottles and hydration packs.
Travel Logistics: There are several shuttle companies from Zion to St. George and Las Vegas. For your Zion drop-off/pick-up, book it from the Visitors Center location; do not pay extra for a “door to door” pick up within the park. The traffic is horrible at the entrance and could delay your arranged time significantly, and commercial vehicles are not allowed past a certain point within the park. Cell phones and WiFi are non-existent in the park. Even the supposed WiFi for Zion Lodge guests resembled early 1990s dial-up. Do not count on being able to communicate in any way other than traditional landline.
Gear I’m Super Glad I Brought: Osprey Day Pack, biodegradable bathroom wipes (pack in/pack out, y’all!), chapstick, sunscreen, 3L hydration pack, double walled stainless water bottle, merino wool socks, quick dry underwear, lens wipes, moisturizer, G2 powder, Nuun hydration, snacks, snacks, snacks, & ear plugs.