How to Work Zion National Park

The United States had 61 National Parks, along with a slew of national forests and monuments, federally protected land, and state parks. The vast majority of these parks resides in the Southwest. Places like Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon all make up the Arizona/Utah section filled with national parks.

The view from the Watchman Viewpoint, looking into Zion. Photo by Cady Russell.

Zion National Park is a wide canyon with massive sandstone walls of pink, white, and red created by the Virgin River in southwestern Utah. The Virgin River here is fresh from snowmelt and freezing even in the height of summer. It a smack of green in the middle of the desert.

This oasis, once long far from any major American city, now rests only two hours outside of Las Vegas. As a city with an international airport, people from around the world flock to this American wonder as they traverse the fabled ‘Great American Road Trip.’

My family did the same thing this summer. Both my parents love the outdoors. My mom grew up on an Iowa farm, growing corn and raising cattle and pigs. My dad, while born in the city, took every chance to escape the crowds and be outside in peopleless places. My parents took this love for nature and instilled in me and my brothers from a young age. By age 16, I had visited 110 national parks, monuments, and forests, along with an innumerable amount of state parks. 

A smaller amphitheater in Bryce Canyon, looking towards the Grand Canyon in the far distance. Photo by Cady Russell.

For the first half of our trip, we took to seeing peopleless places to heart. We did what many Zion adventurists did, and flew into Las Vegas. We stole my mom away from her work conference and hit the roads in a 30ft driving RV, hitting every American road trip stereotype in the process. We visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which sees about one million visitors annually, much less than the South Rim’s five million. We took ATV’s out to Peekaboo Canyon, a much harder spot to get to, with the same great slot canyon views of Antelope Canyon. We hit up Bryce Canyon, and while heavily populated with tourists, we took every hard to get to spot we could get. Bryce Canyon also has plenty of spots for visitors to spread out and see.

Zion is different. There are people everywhere. In the summer, you can only take a bus system throughout the canyon. The line to get on the bus at the visitor station looks like Disneyland. For many, this is the first real experience of the wild outdoors. But for outdoor people, it’s terrible.

Don’t get me wrong, Zion is a gorgeous place. It’s a must see on the road trip list. But if you do it wrong, people ruin the experience. On our way to the Narrows, the most popular place in the park, two young women passed us carrying a boombox. Who brings a boombox to a national park?! It’s not a city park, and by doing this, they have completely ruined the soundscape.

The line at eight am take two hours. Everyone crowds up the Narrows, which of course, is a slot canyon at the top of the park. All you hear is people talking. A picture of the park is bound to have at least one person in it. There’s too many people. There’s only about eight stops for people to get out and do, crowding people to trails. You can hardly escape the concoffany of humans in the canyon.

But how do you do Zion right? How do you take these awful parts and make it better?

First of all, you have to wake up early. The park shuttle opens at six am, and you need to be the first in line if you want to hike the Narrows. However, The Narrows requires hiking sticks and special boots to traverse through the river upstream. These can be checked out at a number of shops in Springdale, a town just outside the park’s entrance. If you want to go full peopleless backpacking and see the same thing,but even better, try the Paria Canyon. It requires you to win the backpacking permit lottery, but for the avid backpacker, it’s the way to go.

Second, if you miss the six am call, go at one pm. Not only has pretty much everyone entered the canyon and is now getting ready to leave, the Disneyland line is almost nonexistent.

Third, hit up other places too. Big Bend has no hiking trails, but one can take a short jaunt down to the Virgin River. People hardly go down to the river, and if someone does, it’s around one to two people. Much less than the hundreds that swarm The Narrows. 

The sandstone overhand at the Lower Emerald Pools. Photo by Cady Russell.

Fourth, do longer hikes. Hit up the Upper Emerald Pools, doing some minor elevation climb. Watch the sunrise from the Watchman Viewpoint in the early morning. For the more adventurous climbers, do Angels Landing and cross the narrowest pathway hundreds of feet into the air. These places lack the people wanting to see Zion from a quick walk and also lack crying kids, who while typically sweet, ruin the soundscapes.

Fifth, if entering with an RV, go through the Springdale side. The other entrance to the park has a tunnel built in the early 20th century. Large vehicles like RVs can not get in until eight am and require a pass, because they must go down the middle of the tunnel, stopping oncoming traffic. By then, the lines are too long to get into the canyon.

Zion is a wonderful place to see, but you have to do it right in order to get the true experience. Otherwise, people ruin what other people came out to do, see, and hear.

By Cady Russell, Online and Social Media Editor

Featured photo by Cady Russell

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