“The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.” – Psalm 87:2
There are less-memorable places to lose your first baby tooth. And my 5-year-old’s gap-toothed grin, sparked by the towering canyon walls above us, the Virgin River below us, and the warm sunshine surrounding us, showed that she would remember this hike for the rest of her life. And not just because we popped out her first baby tooth the night before.
We were in Zion.
Not the Biblical city of paradise, but the National Park in southern Utah. Close enough to paradise for me.
After a long snow-and-inversion-filled winter in the Salt Lake Valley, capped off by a bad cough for my daughters and myself, we had to get out of town. President’s Day Weekend was our chance. So Katie and I gathered our girls – Geneva, 5, and Norah, 4 – and headed out.
Because of uncertainty about the weather (and a busted tent pole from last time we went camping) we decided to stay in a hotel in the park entrance town of Springdale, Utah. It wasn’t a long drive – just a little over four hours from our home. We pulled into Springdale about 30 minutes before time to check in, so we just pulled into the park to check out the visitor center and stretch our legs and to gawk in disbelief at the perfect weather (almost 70 degrees and deep-blue skies). A dinner at a local brewpub, some pretzels for the kids, and boom – her bottom tooth popped out without hardly any coaxing from us parents. I don’t know when I lost my first tooth, but I’ll always remember when Evie lost hers.
Compared to the winter in Salt Lake, I could see why people retire to southern Utah. The temperatures in wintertime average mid-50s for highs, and just barely below freezing for lows during the winter months. I was tempted to test the limits of my work’s telecommuting policy and move to Springdale for good, until I was reminded that the sunny and warm temperatures would be sunny and hot during summer time. July’s highs average near 99 degrees. That makes summer the last time I’d want to be in Zion.
Zion is also dry. It’s in the desert after all. The annual rainfall is around 15 inches per year, according to the Western Regional Climate Center. (Salt Lake is around 17 – 20 inches, depending on what part of the valley you’re in).
When I say Zion is dry, I’m only talking about what’s in the air. There isn’t much falling from the sky and the air that hangs around you is dry (and smells great. Thank you sagebrush). But look on the ground and on the walls.
The Virgin River flows through Zion’s narrow canyons, bringing lush green life to the floor. Rock walls weep springwater, leaving black streaks down to the floor.
Along the Virgin River, swampy marshy areas call to coyotes, foxes, mule deer, and whatever else calls the park home.
That river carved through the sandstone over millions of years, cutting an oasis into the redrock.
People have been living in Zion for thousands of years, of course (if there’s an ideal place to live in the desert, this is it. Indeed, the first white explorers saw corn planted on an island in the river. So don’t call yourself discoverers, settlers).
What made the living easy also makes the hiking serene and spectacular. Unlike other canyon-based national parks, most of the park’s infrastructure is on the canyon floor. You don’t start at the rim and hike down. You start at the bottom and hike up.
River Walk (Gateway to the Narrows)
For our first hike, we chose the classic River Walk Trail (it used to be called Gateway to the Narrows). This is the trail you start out on if you’re going to hike the world-famous Narrows. We were not going to hike the world-famous Narrows because the water was about 40 degrees and we did not have wetsuits. About a dozen years ago, on a road trip with my best friend Ben, we did hike the Narrows. You’re going to want a walking stick to prod the river in front of you. I did not have one and stepped into six-foot deep water. I can swim, so this story is not tragic.
But this year, our family could do the two-mile trail to the entrance to the Virgin River. If you’re new to the area and want a little getting used to the altitude (Zion sits at about 4,000 feet – not a killer, but maybe worth taking a day or so to get used to if you’re from sea level), this is the trail to start out on. It’s no harder than a stroll on the sidewalks through any suburban neighborhood. But the views are an order of magnitude greater than anything you thought this earth could provide.
As a hike to get your legs under you, the River Walk is how you’d want to start Zion. This is also an A+ chance to let your kids get out and explore Zion. Unlike some of the higher-altitude trails where there’s a thousand-foot dropoff on either side, the River Walk is wide and ground-level. My girls were enthralled by the water seeps and wet marshy areas. Here, a keen observer can spot animal scat from mule deer, hares, coyotes or foxes. My children, through whatever feat of parenting I managed to pull of, were as interested in animal scat as they were anything else. So we found ourselves stopping every few steps to check out some pile of poop. I can’t think of a better way to get kids to love nature.
In addition to a whole lot of animal poop, the trail brings visitors face to face with the towering cliffs before hitting the sandy beach where you’d wade into the water if you were to do the Narrows. When the girls are a little taller, we’ll come back and do that.
The next hike went a little higher and was a great little bit of exercise. The Emerald Pools Trail was a hike I’d not heard of as much as The Narrows or Angel’s Landing. But it wound up being one of the family’s favorites. Emerald Pools takes you up to a series of three pools fed by springs and snowmelt. They feed each other, the top pool trickling into the second, which cascades down into the first.
An easy hike on a broad trail leads to the first pool. This was a good wildlife viewing spot for us – we saw several mule deer making their way down through the forest. At the first pool, you walk under a rock overhang, where a constant stream of water coming over the top kept us cool, and the trail muddy. Norah took the chance to play her favorite game, “Mud Mud Mud Stomp Stomp Stomp.” You play it pretty much exactly like it sounds.
After the overhang, the trail gets a little steeper, but not overly tough. It must have been enough to deter the crowds, because they really started to thin out after the first pool.
Just a half mile or so of climbing and you’re at the second pool (it feeds the bottom pool — they’re pretty much stacked on top of each other). If you’re in for it, a steeper trail and even fewer crowds leads to the top pool.
We were almost alone when we got there. A massive snowbank was slowly melting off into the top pool (which fed all the others). One other family was there, offering a nice, cool (chilly) respite from the rest of the park.
If you want a fun hike with just the right amount of physical activity, this is a great one.
Weeping Rock & Hidden Canyon
Time to get high. The girls were still a bit young to do the Angel’s Landing, so we went another route: The Weeping Rock & Hidden Canyon trail.
The Weeping Rock trail is extremely short – probably only a quarter mile or so. It’s a nice detour to come up under a rock overhang that’s constantly trickling water down (another chance to explore Zion’s wet ecosystem).
After that, a longer trail leads up to Hidden Canyon. A series of switchbacks quickly takes you up about a thousand feet or so, with sweeping views of the canyon floor and Virgin River below. There’s an appreciable dropoff, but it’s not straight down, so no worries about the kids being up there. After a long bit of hiking, we came to a bunch of snowpack. We hadn’t brought our hiking sticks or Yak Trax (sort of slip-on covers for your shoes with spikes on the bottom for walking on ice or snow) so we called it a day and enjoyed a lunch looking at the canyon below.
I made it a point to try and look up just as often – Zion is home to some California Condors. I didn’t see any this time, but did catch ravens, magpies, and a hawk (red tail possibly? I’m not the best at ID from a distance).
Other Zions stuff
• The visitor’s center at Zion is worth a mention for its passive-energy architecture alone. South-facing windows and stone walls collect sunlight and store heat in the winter time. During summer, a tall passive cooling tower draws air past water. The cool air descends and escapes into the center. No heating or cooling utilities needed.
• If you want to camp in the park, reservations are recommended. Even in February, the Watchman campground was full (we were there on President’s Day weekend, so it was a bit more crowded than usual). If you don’t want to camp in the park, there’s lots of BLM land around. Our family got a hotel room in Springdale, a small, picturesque town with a lot of hotels, restaurants, galleries and such that is just outside the park gates.
• As we are learning, if you want to beat the crowds, time it right. The earlier the better. Start your outside day around dawn and the parking lots will be empty.