I had never been to Utah before this trip, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Ranches, cowboys, Mormons?
Southern Utah is canyons and valleys, red sandstone rocks and landscapes that Dr. Seuss would find unique.
We stayed at the Watchman Campground, which is located right inside the gates of the south entrance to Zion National Park. The campgrounds fill up quickly in the warmer months and should be reserved months in advance.
The Watchman is nestled right against a shopping center with coffeeshop, grocery store, the Zion Outfitters store and the Visitors Center where you can catch the shuttle. It is adjacent to the town of Springdale, which has plenty of shops and restaurants to explore between your adventuring.
Zion National Park offers a free shuttle, running about every fifteen minutes, which take visitors to all of the hiking stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Driving is discouraged; cars are only allowed with an additional permit.
As we learned, the shuttle does not run all year long. Winter hours for the shuttle begin the Sunday after Thanksgiving and run through February. During warmer months, the shuttle operates through Springdale as well.
The views from the shuttle bus along Zion Mount Carmel Highway are pretty impressive. Bold and dramatic sweeping views of the canyon loom above, and every stop is a memorable hike just waiting for you. There are striking vantage points for all levels: Court of the Patriarchs, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, and the Temple of the Sinawava. The canyon runs for fifteen miles and reaches an elevation close to 9,000 feet. The area cover 146,597 acres; that’s 229 square miles.
The Narrows, which was featured on National Geographic’s America’s Best 100 Adventure, is through the Virgin River. It's the narrowest canyon in Zion Canyon at only 20 feet wide and canyon walls over 1,000 feet high. It can be done as a day hike or overnight backpacking trek.
For the camping option, the “top down” route, you need need to obtain a permit months in advance.
We pursued The Narrows as a day hike, opting for the “bottom up”’ route. You should be mindful of the time of year you attempt this hike. The Narrows is typically closed between mid-March to late May from spring runoff. You should also definitely check the weather conditions prior to going. This is a serious flash flood zone; they can occur quickly and are very dangerous.
The Narrows can be found at the final stop on the park shuttle, Temple of Sinawava, and at the end of the Riverside Walk paved path which ends at the banks of the Virgin River. This is one of the most popular hikes in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes in the world. You will hear the crowds as you approach.
The water of the Virgin River was chilly. Neoprene socks, shoe rental and water pants is highly advised. We got ours at Zion Outfitters.
We passed a handful of people who were ill equipped with jeans and sneakers. There is no way you’re doing this hike, in November, without the proper gear. The water is cold and pretty deep in some places, and the rocks are slippery. Do yourself a favor and rent the canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks and wet pants. The gear kept us warm and dry, and helped to make this adventure a lot of fun.
The canyons are really gorgeous, but you can’t walk and look up for too long. This hike requires your full attention on where you're walking. The river is crowded in the beginning, but the farther upstream you venture the less people there will be. With each bend in the river, the narrower the canyon becomes and the faster the current. The water varies in places from ankle to waist deep. You will travel over rocks and small waterfalls. The sunlight illuminating the sides of the orange canyon walls, while in other places allowing only a sliver of light.
While you are in the water a lot of the time, there are respites along the banks of the river allowing you to walk on solid ground. The hike was an out and back, so the distance you went is up to you. We hiked three miles in, reaching Wall Street, sat atop rocks and ate lunch. Just beyond where we decided to call it quits, the water was reaching people’s chest. On the trek back you are moving with the current of the river, which I actually found more difficult.
The Narrows is the quintessential Zion hike. It’s simply stunning — and pretty amazing to be miles up a river between towering canyon walls walking along a flowing river, the canyon unveiling itself around each bend. A very cool experience. The trek was about six miles, but with the complexity of hiking in a river bed, we wrapped this hike at about four hours.
The Subway is outside of Zion National Park on Kolob Terrace Road in the town of Virgin. You need to obtain a permit to hike The Subway. In the busier months the parks are busier and permits much more competitive, necessitating a lottery. During the winter months, it’s easier to obtain.
Also note you'll need to pick up the permit in the park at the visitors center prior to the hike, so plan ahead.
The Subway is similar to The Narrows in that you can hike it in two ways, you need to be prepared for flash floods, and renting the water gear is advised. The Subway can be done from the top down or bottom up.
The top-down route is a 10-mile rappelling trek which can take an entire day or more depending on experience level.
We experienced The Subway from the bottom up, which is a 6½ out and back hike. After a mild half mile hike from the parking lot at the North Fork Trailhead, you’ll reach a steep descent into the canyon. After the canyon, around the ½ mark there are dinosaur tracks cemented in gray mudstone. They’re not marked, and we didn’t happen upon them, but the internet tells me they exist.