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Southwest Adventure Part 2: Zion National Park

Photo: Canyon Junction Bridge Sunset, Watchman Peak

This is Part 2 of a planned 10 part series covering our U.S. National Park adventure across Utah, Northern Arizona, and Western Colorado. We will spend one whirlwind week traversing1500 miles, exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities. Our travels will take us on a zigzagged route across the southwest from Las Vegas airport to Salt Lake City. In Part 2, we'll travel to Zion National Park, taking in the park's red sandstone peaks, admiring the expansive view from the Canyon Overlook Trail, hiking the famed Narrows slot canyon, watching a picture perfect park sunset, and exploring downtown Springdale.

The peaks of Zion National Park are quiet simply spectacular. Their red hue, soaring height, and sheer mass towering overhead are enough to give you a neck cramp. The immensity of these vermillion cliffs cannot be truly captured in photographs. It certainly didn't stop me from trying, though! Zion's sandstone giants are particularly vibrant at sunrise and sunset when the suns rays, concentrated over the horizon, blaze across the peaks' varying shades of red and orange, alighting them as if fanning the licking flames of a fire.

Photo: Peaks of Zion

The park has something for everyone, but Zion truly caters to the adventurer--from Angel's Landing, a steep 4.5 mile hike with sheer drop-offs and chains supporting the most narrow portions ending in a rewarding view (we skipped this one) to The Narrows, a hike literally up the middle of the rushing, rocky Virgin River (our favorite hike of the trip). For those looking for slightly less physically exerting activities, the park has scenic drives, paved walking/biking trails, gorgeous mountain views from pretty much everywhere, and shorter hikes with easy and moderate ratings. If that's not enough, the town of Springdale directly outside of the park is a comfortable haven of restaurants, shopping and lodging options, complete with a local brewery.

As one of the top reasons to make a trip to Utah, adding Zion to our National Parks itinerary is a no brainer, and given its location in the far southwest corner of the state, it makes the most sense to have it as the first stop along our route. Zion is not exactly readily accessible in tiny Springdale, though. The closest major airport is Las Vegas McCarran in Nevada, and even from there, it's around a three hour drive to Springdale. Our flight is in the early morning; so we land around 11:30am local time, but it takes us another hour to collect our luggage and rental car before we can get on the road. Plus, we will lose an hour when we cross time zones into Utah.

Photos: Flight to Las Vegas, Airport, and Rental Car

We are spending one night in Springdale, so we only have this afternoon and tomorrow in Zion. However, even knowing much of today would be slipping away to travel, I had initially wanted to detour to Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park en route to Springdale. Thoughts of going anywhere outdoors in Nevada at midday in June are quickly vanquished by simply taking my first steps outside the airport, though. As I pass through the automatic doors at the exit, I feel as if I have walked straight into an oven. It is quite literally a wall of heat. I've never experienced temperatures like this; it's suffocating. As we stand on the sidewalk waiting for a shuttle to our rental car, I can physically feel the heat coming up off the asphalt and waving over me as if I am baking on a convection setting. The southwest is currently experiencing record breaking heat, and the warnings have clearly been no joke. As we climb into our rental car and I see the thermometer on the dashboard flash 122 degrees Fahrenheit, my decision to skip anywhere aptly named the Valley of Fire is firmly cemented.

Photos: Drive Across Nevada to Utah

I plug our hotel's address in Springdale into my phone's GPS decisively, and we head northeast across southern Nevada. Nevada outside of Las Vegas is pretty much how I imagined it would be--fairly barren, desert-like, and dusty. It is a bit more mountainous than I had expected, though, and there are definitely some scenic spots. It takes us about an hour and a half to cross into Utah. The landscape doesn't change much immediately, but as we get closer to Springdale, the mountains become redder and the rock walls towering over us more sheer.

Photo: Entrance to Springdale

Situated at the edge of the Colorado plateau, the red vermillion cliffs surrounding the town of Springdale make up a portion of the Grand Staircase. Nestled in the shadow of their immense bulk, the quaint town somehow seems to blend in with the scenery. I immediately like it. Unlike some of the loudly colored tourist destinations I have encountered elsewhere, many of the town's brick and wood buildings match the color palate of the landscape around them. Springdale is not a large place, but it's certainly more developed than many other towns bordering U.S. National Parks that I have visited, and its layout seems better designed.

After checking into our hotel, dropping off our luggage, and filling up our hydration backpacks*, we decide to explore a bit of Zion. It's already half past four, but sunset isn't until nearly 9pm, and we don't plan to do any long hikes. We agree we won't try to take the Zion Canyon Shuttle today, so that limits how far we can travel into the canyon anyway. Instead, we settle on tackling the relatively short Canyon Overlook Trail and maybe checking out a section of the paved/easy Pa'rus Trail** around the Canyon Junction Bridge after--depending on how we feel.

*Safety Tip: A hydration pack is key to hiking in the heat; we each brought a hydration backpack with a 2L water bladder. They were comfortable, adjustable, lightweight, and had just enough space in the compartments for what we needed throughout the day (snacks, headlamps, walking sticks, money, extra memory cards, etc.). The 2L size worked well for us, but keep in mind that you should calculate for roughly 1/2 of a liter of water per hour for normal hiking conditions. However, when hiking in extreme heat and/or high altitude, you should increase that amount to as much as double the recommendation. For more information on what to pack and safety gear, see the Part 1: Planning and Preparing "Preparing for Your Trip" section.

**Tip: You can find the latest trail conditions and closures here. As of this writing, the Hidden Canyon and Observation Point Trails are both closed via the East Rim Trail from Weeping Rock due to rock fall (as is the Weeping Rock trail).

Source: (you can find the current season's Information Guide here)

The entrance to Zion Canyon* is only 1.5 miles straight down the road from our hotel. We purchase our Annual U.S. National Park Pass**, collect an information guide from the ranger manning the booth, and are through the gate in no time. Once in the park, we pass by the Visitor Center and some campgrounds and soon find ourselves approaching Canyon Junction. When the Zion Canyon Shuttle is in operation (which is most of the year), cars are not permitted to pass beyond this point. However, we plan to veer east (right) toward the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Zion does not run any shuttle transportation through this portion of the park, so the only way to access this section is via personal transportation.

*Note: Zion National Park consists of two distinct sections--Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon. The Kolob Canyon entrance is located 40 miles northwest from the Zion Canyon entrance. It is significantly less visited--and thus less crowded. Our trip does not visit the Kolob Canyon section of the park, but you can find more information about it here.

**Tip: You can find more information about purchasing the Annual Pass (which will save you money if you plan to visit several parks) in the Part 1: Planning and Preparing "U.S. National Park Pass" section.

Photos: Near Entrance To Zion Canyon (top); View From An Overlook (bottom left); Great Arch (bottom right)

We drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (Hwy. 9) through a series of switchbacks, swishing up and out of the canyon which quickly falls away below us. There are several scenic turnouts along the route, and we stop a few times to take in the view or snap a photo. I'm especially interested in getting a better look at the Great Arch prominently displayed on the horizon, particularly because we will be standing above it relatively soon. The out and back Canyon Overlook Trail dead-ends in a viewpoint directly atop the arch.

As a result of its aerial view over Zion Canyon, the Canyon Overlook Trail is on my "must do" list. I would prefer to do the hike at sunrise* due to the sun's location at the viewpoint in the morning vs. late afternoon. However, this interferes with getting to the shuttle for The Narrows as early as possible tomorrow morning; so, today is our best option. Plus, it's the perfect hiking distance for a hot afternoon with limited daylight remaining!

*Tip: Canyon Overlook is a popular spot to watch the sunrise at Zion. The sun rises behind you, so you can watch the light slowly fill the canyon without any of the glare. If you plan to go for sunrise, go early. Parking at the trailhead is very tight, with only 10 spots in the first parking area. There are an additional 16 spots between a small lot at the next bend in the road and some roadside spaces, but they fill up quickly, and once gone, there's really nowhere else to safely park. Additionally, if you plan to hike to the overlook pre-dawn, bringing along a flashlight or small headlamp is a smart idea.

Photo: Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel Entrance

After getting our fill of views from the canyon side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel*, we head into the impressive 1.1 mile long tunnel carved through this seemingly impenetrable rock. Completed in 1930, at the time, it was the longest tunnel of this type in the country. It is a remarkable feat of engineering. As we come out the other side, there is a small parking lot** near the beginning of the Canyon Overlook Trail; we are lucky enough to find a space and are soon on the stairs that mark the beginning of the trail.

*Tip: If you have an RV or other vehicle that exceeds 11'4" high or 7'10" wide, you will need a special permit to pass through the tunnel. You can find more details here. If your vehicle is longer than 40 ft (or a combined 50' for vehicles pulling trailers) or over 13'1" high, it will not be permitted to pass through the tunnel.

**Tip: As you exit the tunnel, there is a small parking lot almost immediately on your right (if that is full, see earlier parking tip). On your left, you will see a staircase with a metal railing--that is the hike's starting point.

Photos: Scenery from the Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a 1 mile (total) out and back moderately rated hike*. In my opinion, it is on the easier side of moderate, but it is uneven in places and does cross some slickrock. We begin the hike by climbing up some stone steps, but after that, the elevation gain is fairly minimal. The trail does skirt several steep drop-offs, but the majority of these have metal railings installed for safety.

Even at this time of day, the temperature is quite hot--not Las Vegas hot but hot nonetheless. We have prepared well for the record breaking temperatures on this trip, though, and we are well supplied with plenty of water, brimmed hats, breathable clothing, and sunblock. When we come to a spot on the trial under a rock shelf partway into the hike, we stop to have a quick drink of water and enjoy the slight shift in temperature and respite from the sun.

The scenery along the hike is fairly varied, and taking it all in keeps us occupied as we walk. The different rock formations and sporadic bits of greenery all make for a picturesque setting. We encounter a few others along our route, but the trail is in no way crowded. It really allows us to soak in our surroundings uninterrupted.

*Note: It's estimated the roundtrip hike takes about 45 minutes. There are a few shaded spots for breaks, if needed.

Photo: View From End Of The Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is actually the shortest (and easiest) trail in the park with an unobstructed viewpoint of the canyon below. The panoramic overlook provides a sprawling view over Zion Canyon, the Pine Creek Canyon, and the surrounding cliffs. It's a bit hazy given the sun's position ahead of us, but it's still high enough in the sky for an impressive view nonetheless. Given that we have decided not to attempt Angel's Landing, this is as close as we will get to a birds eye view of Zion Canyon, so we stop to soak it in for a bit.

Once we've had our fill of the view, we retrace our steps back to the car, reverse our driving route through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and zigzag back down into the valley below. Around Canyon Junction there isn't much parking, but we find a space for the car and wander toward the Virgin River. The Virgin River, cutting through the center of the park, provides some welcome relief to an otherwise arid landscape. Its powerful flow, ever eroding the area's colorful sandstone, created the slot canyon we stand in today. I find it mind boggling to consider that water is responsible for carving this space through the sheer rock soaring above us.

Photo: Canyon Junction Area Pedestrian Bridge

This area is easily traversed utilizing the flat, paved Pa'rus Trail which runs from the Zion Visitor Center to Canyon Junction (1.7 miles one way*). We don't plan to walk far, but we do wander the path directly around Canyon Junction. There are several pedestrian bridges along the trail, so we take in the view from a few spots. This is an ideal location to explore around sunset, and we make the most of it. In the distance, we can see the iconic--and much photographed--Watchman Peak (article cover photo). Near sunset, its sandstone facade glows red-orange like embers in the sun's dying rays, serving as the perfect backdrop to the Virgin River in the foreground.

*Tip: If you want to walk the Pa'rus Trail but don't want to double the distance and backtrack to your starting point, you can find Shuttle Stop 2 at one end of the trail and the Visitor Center, Stop 1, at the other.

Photos: Watchman Peak (left); Zion's Famous Red Cliffs (right)

Once our explorations around Canyon Junction are complete, we decide to head back to town for a much deserved beer. The Zion Canyon Brew Pub is conveniently situated right outside the park gate* (open 11:30am-10pm daily). Their ideal location along with a comfortable tap room and scenic outdoor patio make it a popular destination with hikers and locals alike. We order our beers in the tap room and perch on a set of stools, enjoying the cold drinks and the very welcome air-conditioning.

*Tip: Zion Outfitter, located next-door to the brew pub, displays predicted hiking conditions for The Narrows. You should still check the park's latest data prior to your hike as it can change (posted outside the park's Visitor Center or on the Zion NPS website here), but it should give you an idea of the likely conditions. Additionally, if you don't have your own gear for the hike, you can rent everything you will need from this convenient location. (They also offer bike and river tube rentals.)

Photos: Zion Canyon Brew Pub (left); SpringHill Suites (center); View From Inside SpringHill Suites (right)

After our beers, we drive the short distance back to the SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion National Park. The outdoor pool (incidentally boasting a gorgeous view of the mountains) looks quite inviting this evening, but we're starving. So, we head back to our room to shower and change for dinner.

I've researched several good places for dinner*, but town is busy and we're hungry. So, we decide to select the closest one--the Bit & Spur Restaurant & Saloon located directly across the street from our hotel. The Bit & Spur serves Mexican and Southwestern fare. They have indoor and outdoor seating, but eating a hot meal in hot weather is not my idea of fun, so we ask for a table inside. My husband chooses our server's recommendation, the Carne Asada (marinated, grilled skirt steak; peppers and onions; avocado; pico de gallo; and queso fresco served with a side of tortillas, Mayocoba beans, and rice). I select my Mexican go-to, Shrimp Tacos (sautéed shrimp, avocado-lime sauce, lettuce, and pico de gallo served with a side of Mayocoba beans and rice). We also get a side of street corn to share. The restaurant is busy, but our meals come out quickly. All of the food is quite good, and it's a perfect meal to cap off our long day.

*Note: Other highly rated restaurants I had researched prior to our departure include: Kings Landing Bistro, Oscar's Cafe, and Spotted Dog Cafe. Deep Creek Coffee Co. was also recommended for morning coffee (opens 6am).

Photos: Bit & Spur Restaurant - Carne Asada, Restaurant Entrance, Shrimp Tacos

We plan to have an early start to our morning. The Narrows is a popular hike, and beating the rush to the park's shuttle is a must. I also want to ensure we get plenty of sleep as the trek can be difficult and rather exhausting. It is not your typical hike; the trail is literally through the Virgin River--straight up the center of it. I'm both excited and rather trepidatious to attempt it, but we're well prepared.*

In the morning, we wake up before dawn. Since the first shuttle departs the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at 6am today, we plan to be at the stop by 5:45am. I've read the earlier we arrive the better as shuttle lines can get quite long and parking can quickly become very difficult. There is a Springdale Shuttle** that runs from various points in town to the park's pedestrian entrance (this is separate from the Zion Canyon Shuttle**), but that doesn't begin until a bit later than we want to depart.

We drive to the park in relative darkness. My husband thinks I'm a bit crazy to have us up and out this early, but after parking and walking toward the shuttle stop, he remarks that I should have made him get up earlier. The line of people there already snakes through the stop's chained waiting area and spills out onto the pavement in front of the Visitor Center. There's a NPS ranger posted there trying to keep order and assemble the waiting hikers. A few minutes after we get in line, realizing our wait may be a while, my husband runs back to the car to grab something and reports that it appears as if the line has doubled behind us in just that short time.

Several of the shuttle stops are closed currently as a result of Covid, so the large majority of the people waiting are also headed for The Narrows with us or to the Angel's Landing stop. Unfortunately, we learn while waiting that for the fist hour the shuttles don't depart very frequently. Since personal vehicles are not allowed in the canyon, we settle in for a lengthy wait and strike up a conversation with the young couple in line in front of us.

They have taken advantage of the pandemic work environment and accepted remote jobs, packed up their belongings, and started RV'ing across the country with no set home address. Most days, they work in the morning and explore the area they are visiting in the late afternoon, but today is Saturday, so they are getting an early start. They mention that they previously tackled Angel's Landing and that the experience was a bit chaotic. In the heat, the chain hikers use to help traverse the narrow rock trail (with very steep drop-offs) becomes burning hot and hard to hold, and the immense crowd on the trail makes it extremely difficult for the two-way traffic to get up to the viewpoint and back down safely. [It's easy to understand why there's a permit process in place now.***] Not being a fan of steep heights ourselves, we're glad to have made the decision to sit that particular adventure out on this trip.

*Tip: Depending upon the time of year, the water of The Narrows can be quite chilly. Cold weather/water condition clothing and shoes may be required in spring or fall. In summer, summer hiking attire should be fine with a few accessories--sturdy waterproof shoes, wool socks, walking stick, dry bag... For attire and accessories recommendations for hiking The Narrows, see the Part 1: Planning and Preparing "What to Pack" section.

**Tip: All of the shuttle stops are back open as of the writing of this article, but you can find the latest information about both the Springdale Shuttle and the Zion Canyon Shuttle here. You can find the Springdale Shuttle stop map here. (The Zion Canyon Shuttle map is posted earlier under the Zion Information Guide.) The Zion Canyon Shuttles tend to run approximately 6-10 minutes apart and the Springdale Shuttles approximately 10-15 minutes apart.

***Tip: If you plan to hike Angel's Landing, as of April 2022, everyone who hikes Angel's Landing is required to have a permit; more details about the permit process can be found at Zion's NPS website, specifically here.

Photos: Waiting for the Zion Canyon Shuttle

I'm not the most adventurous person, so deciding to hike The Narrows is a bit out of character for me. However, after reading about it, I had to add it to my Zion must-do list. It's just such a unique experience. The hike doesn't come without its risks, though. Since The Narrows runs through a slot canyon, flash flood risks are a legitimate concern. The conditions can also vary rather dramatically depending upon the time of year (water temperature) and the current river flow (measured in cubic feet per second or CFS). The higher the CFS, the more difficult the hike.* A 50 CFS or under is ideal, but even at that flow, it is common to encounter a few spots in the river where the water deepens to chest level. The midwest is currently experiencing a drought and a heat wave, though, so our predicted water conditions are a comfortable 62 degrees Fahrenheit and 25.5 CFS.

As the clock rolls around to 7am, shuttles begin to depart at a steadier clip, and the line moves much more quickly. Soon, we are seated on a shuttle and headed down Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.** We have a bit of a ride as The Narrows stop is the last (#9, Temple of Sinawava), and it takes approximately 35 minutes to reach. At The Grotto stop (#6), the shuttle empties a little with those embarking on the West Rim Trail to Angel's Landing. The drive in this portion of the canyon is particularly scenic--thus the road name--and the journey flies by quickly. In what feels like no time, we arrive at our stop, the entrance to the Riverside Walk.***

*Safety Tip: Spring snow melts or rain storms can dramatically affect the CFS measurement, and anything over 150 CFS closes the trail due to safety concerns. Since The Narrows travels through a slot canyon, it is VERY important that hikers not only assess the current CFS before departure but also any storm/flash flood condition predictions. Flash Floods can be deadly! Additionally, ensure you have properly prepared for the predicted water temperatures--spring and fall may require special gear.

**Safety Tip: There is virtually no cell phone service in Zion Canyon. Do not assume you will be able to make (or receive) a phone call or text--or access the internet--once you depart this point (unless you are in the vicinity of the Zion Canyon Lodge).

***Tip: Be sure to utilize the restrooms located at the shuttle stop; there is also access to drinking water if needed. This is the last time you will have access to either on the hike.

Photos: Riverside Walk En Route To The Narrows

The Riverside Walk is a paved trail along the Virgin River that can be done as a separate hike or as the precursor to The Narrows.* It is an easy, wheelchair accessible 2 mile in and out hike. By itself, it's quite a scenic walk, with hanging gardens protruding from the rock walls above and pleasant wading spots. As an antecedent to The Narrows, it's essentially just a mild warmup.

We walk the paved trail skirting the Virgin River, watching the sunlight slowly alight the rock above, spreading along its surface and seeping burnt orange into each crevice as the light inches toward our elevation. Even this early in the morning, there are a lot of people out and ready to attempt this bucket list adventure. The excitement is palpable in the morning air. I'm worried about how crowded The Narrows will be, but over the course of our mile walk, the bunched group begins to thin out, each adjusting to their own unique pace.

The trail dead-ends at a set of stone steps down into the riverbed. When we reach the entrance, there is a seating area conveniently stationed at the water's edge for people preparing to go down into the river** or hike back to the shuttles. We take a moment to settle ourselves and get our gear out, and then we're off into the water with the rest of the hikers.

*Route Note: You can actually hike The Narrows from two different directions, aptly named "Top-Down" and "Bottom-Up." Bottom-Up is the most popular and does not (as of this writing) require a permit. The Bottom-Up route begins at the end of the Riverside Walk and allows you to go at your own pace, hiking up to 5 miles (one way) into the slot canyon and back. (The turnaround point is Big Spring and takes about 8 hours round trip to complete.) The Top-Down option requires both a wilderness permit and your own transportation to the starting point. It is a fairly strenuous 16 mile one-way route starting at Chamberlain's Ranch and ending at the Bottom-Up starting point. More information on the permit process for the Top-Down hike, as well as other useful NPS advice for hiking The Narrows safely can be found here.

**Safety Tip: Under no circumstances should you ingest the water in The Narrows (or submerge your head), it is often contaminated with toxic cyanobacteria.

Photo: Hiking the Narrows

We start off with a bit of a crowd, but like on the Riverside Walk, everyone soon spreads out, picking their way through the stony riverbed at their own own pace. I'm surprised by the size--and consistency--of the stones beneath my feet. I had expected to be trodding in mud or on pebbles with the occasional large stone or strewn boulders in the water. Instead, the entire riverbed is blanketed in large, rounded stones of various shapes and sizes. There's no navigating around them; we must walk over them.

The uneven footing is disconcerting, particularly as it shifts without warning beneath my feet. Staying upright is a challenge at times between the river flow pushing me backward and the balancing act taking place under the water. A walking stick is a must; I'm so relieved we have them! Gripping the rounded stones for balance is uncomfortable for my feet, with my toes periodically jamming against a rock, causing an ankle to turn a bit precariously. I have to watch--or carefully feel when the water is too deep to see--my every step. I can imagine how easy it would be to sprain an ankle on this hike--and how difficult it would be to get back out injured. I trod very carefully!

Photo: Hiking the Narrows

As we walk, the water fluctuates from lapping at my shoes to ankle deep to knee deep to waist deep. In one spot, it does get up near my chest, but with the low CFS today, that's an anomaly. Much of the walk is around shin deep--which is still deep enough to feel myself fighting against the river's current as I push forward up the trail. If this is 25.5 CFS (on the very low end as river flow goes), I can't imaging doing this hike near the top-out point of 150 CFS (the hike closure point).

Despite the challenging hiking conditions, I absolutely love The Narrows. The panoramic scenery engulfs us, too much for any camera to truly capture, and the soaring canyon walls towering above us are breathtakingly indescribable. It makes me feel very small and insignificant in comparison. At times, it's almost difficult to find the sky over the stone slabs walling us in, and around each bend in the river is another surprise. The geology of this section of Zion is truly remarkable. It's worth every wobbly step to be able to experience this one of a kind adventure.

Photo: The Narrows Canyon Walls

It's surprisingly cool in this area of the canyon given how hot the weather is predicted to be in Springdale today. The water is cooler than I expect it to be, as well, and I'm most definitely not regretting my decision to wear wool socks under my water shoes. They keep the warmth in, even as they become more saturated over time. (They are water resistant, but certainly not waterproof.) I'm also glad to have them on as they help to prevent blisters from developing as my hiking sandals rub my ankles with the constant left and right movement of my feet automatically attempting to stabilize atop the uneven rocks partially hidden beneath the surface. Plus, they provide the added bonus of blocking the small openings in my hiking sandals from invasion by tiny river stones.

As the morning goes on, the air temperature slowly warms. Between that and the heat generated from physical exertion, I begin to adjust comfortably to the water temperature, even in the deeper sections of the river. This time of day is ideal for hiking The Narrows in summer; our location is sheltered from the sun by the high canyon walls, and as the air temperature rises, it feels pleasant rather than hot.

Photos: Hiking The Narrows

I have trouble estimating exactly how far we are hiking into The Narrows.* The going is slow, so time does not provide an accurate measure of distance. I am tracking a few landmarks to help me navigate, though. At half a mile in, we pass Mystery Falls which is easily identifiable. From there, we go about another mile to the junction with Orderville Canyon, a narrow slot canyon (you can make a half mile side trip down it to visit Veiled Falls--we skip that). This junction is easy to find because it's the first time there's any direction we can choose to go in other than straight. Past Orderville is Wall Street, the sheerest--and many say most scenic--section of the Canyon. It's all scenic to me, so I have a bit of trouble differentiating. Somewhere along this point, though, we decide to reverse direction to retrace our steps back down the riverbed.

*Note: Hiking distances are as follows: Mystery Falls is 0.5 miles past The Narrows starting point; Orderville Canyon Junction is 1.5 miles past the starting point; the beginning of Wall Street is at Orderville Junction; and Big Spring (the max turnaround point for The Narrows Bottom-Up hike) is 5 miles from the starting point.

Photo: Mystery Falls, The Narrows

Surprisingly, walking back downstream is actually more difficult. I feel the water propelling me forward, slightly shifting my carefully chosen footsteps on the uneven stones beneath my feet. The whole way upriver, I assumed turning around to travel with the flow of the water will be easier, but being pushed by the water is actually harder to adjust to than pressing against the water's resistance when traveling upstream.

We (unsurprisingly) see quite a few people lose their balance during the course of our hike, and I'm no exception. It only happens to me once, but it's during this downstream trek toward the end. The combination of a deeper stretch of water where I can't see my step placement and a narrow groove between two rocks where my foot becomes wedged in conjunction with the river propelling me forward is enough for me to find myself tipping forward. My walking stick slips and I'm left with no way to catch myself. I land with a splash. The water cushions my fall, though, and I manage to regain my balance quickly. Somehow, my camera, luckily positioned behind me, manages to escape the episode dry and unscathed.

Photo: The Narrows Hike

And so, a bit wetter and more tired than we entered The Narrows, we emerge back out of it at the Riverside Walk. We both agree that despite the challenges, we would do it again in a heartbeat. The scenery is unparalleled, and the adventure of hiking through the middle of a river tops some of our most unique experiences to date. The one mile walk back down the paved river path on dry land feels fairly anticlimactic in comparison!

Back at the shuttle stop*, we get on a return shuttle fairly quickly, a welcome contrast from our experience this morning. We are not headed back to the Visitor Center stop quite yet, though. It's now afternoon, and we are going to stop at Zion Lodge** (shuttle stop #5) to get some food first. We're enthusiastically anticipating a hearty meal after sustaining ourselves on protein bars all morning, and I'm particularly looking forward to sampling one of the local beers they serve at the lodge with my lunch.

*Safety Tip: If you are attempting The Narrows later in the day, it's very important to know that the last shuttle back departs Temple of Sinawava at 8:15pm (7:15pm in the off-season). Do not wait until the last shuttle. Due to limited capacity, the shuttle is likely to be full by the time it reaches your stop and you will be left behind. The walk back is FAR, particularly in the dark.

**Note: Zion Lodge offers the park's only dining services. The Castle Dome Cafe is a counter-service style cafe offering coffee drinks, burgers/hotdogs/fries, snacks and ice cream. On the outdoor patio, there is a beer garden serving local brews from a cart. The Red Rock Grill is a sit down restaurant serving up sandwiches, tacos, burgers and salads at lunch time and more elaborate entrees at dinner (they also serve breakfast).

Photos: Lawn Outside Zion Lodge & Red Rock Grill Meal

As the shuttle pulls up to Zion Lodge, we can see people spread out on the green lawn in front of the historic building. They are relaxing and enjoying the view of the red rock cliffs surrounding the lodge on all sides. Having our fill of views for the moment--and being quite hungry--we pass them and head inside in search of the lodge's restaurant, the Red Rock Grill. The host takes our name, and within a few minutes, we are seated upstairs in the restaurant's dining area. For lunch, I choose the Hanging Garden Hummus Wrap (homemade hummus, lettuce, tomato feta, tzatziki sauce served in a spinach tortilla with a side of sweet potato fries) and my husband selects the Southwest Quinoa Salad with Chicken (chilled quinoa, roasted corn, black beans, tomatoes, cilantro, and feta with balsamic vinaigrette). We also each select a beer on tap. The meal is filling and the beer is cold. After a very tiring morning, I couldn't ask for anything more.

Once we're doing eating, we walk back out to the shuttle stop in front of the lodge and catch a shuttle back to the Visitor Center where the car is parked. We checked out of the hotel this morning, so we already have all of our luggage with us to travel to our next destination. However, back in a cell service zone, I notice a message on my phone, and listening to it, discover it's our hotel informing me that I left my glasses in our room. I'm relieved that they went above and beyond to call me and even more relieved that I received the message before departing Springdale. We make the quick detour back to the hotel to pick them up and then are soon on our way back through the park on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway.

Photo: Second (Shorter) Zion Tunnel

We are driving back the way we traveled yesterday when we were hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail*. The park's east entrance is located in that direction, and it's the easiest way to get to Bryce Canyon National Park, our next stop. After passing through the Zion Mount-Carmel Tunnel, we pass through a second smaller tunnel. The rock formations are unique in this part of the park, more textured and rolling as opposed to the sheer cliffs we've experienced in the canyon below.

*Tip: When planning your Zion itinerary, this is another good option for where to fit in the Canyon Overlook Trail as it is directly along the route from Zion to Bryce Canyon.

Photos: Zion Mount Carmel Highway Scenery; Checkerboard Mesa (bottom right)

The drive continues through split rock and some pretty views, and about 3 1/2 miles past the second tunnel, we get our first glimpse of Checkerboard Mesa. Checkerboard Mesa is a sloped beige rock etched with a checked pattern. The rather unique pattern is caused in part by a combination of weather and water forcing cracks into the stone as a result of contraction and expansion. We get out to take a closer look and snap a few photos of this unusual geological feature.

This is our last glimpse of Zion National Park. A quarter mile past this point, we pass through the park's east entrance. As I think of all that we have experience in Zion, I don't know how our next destination could possibly top it, but I guess we're going to find out because we're off toward Bryce Canyon.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins


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