Visiting Zion National Park, August 2017
In 2017, I moved from my longtime home in Western Massachusetts to the San Francisco Bay Area. I managed to free up a lot of time and took advantage to see a bunch of things I had wanted to see. This article is about one of those places.
Right after Bryce, I went over to nearby Zion National Park. I really wasn't sure if some of the negative feelings I had during my Bryce visit would carry over to Zion. If you haven't read or seen my experience in Bryce, you can check that out here: https://composedandfocusedstudios.com/blog/2019/3/14/visiting-bryce-canyon-august-2017
Anyway, Zion National Park felt entirely different when I visited. I felt revitalized, even on my first drive into the park! The views lifted my spirits as they gave me a sense of how big the park was and how many trail options I would have.
There were a few things I put on my original itinerary, with some typical "must see" things. I had planned on staying in Watchman Camp https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/watchman-campground.htm and needed to get there very early in the morning to hope for a walk in spot. Trail-wise, I wanted to hike up Angel's Landing for the view and to check off a must see item. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/utah/angels-landing-trail I had also looked at going up to Upper Emerald Pool since it was recommended by the National Park Service, and the pictures I'd seen made it look really pretty. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/utah/emerald-pools-trail And of course, I wanted to do the Narrows Riverwalk from the bottom up. https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/thenarrows.htm I know it's as famous as Angel's Landing, but I had actually heard about it through friends who had done it and they described an amazing experience that I wanted for myself.
My original itinerary planning was a mixed success. I did end up getting a campsite at Watchman Camp and it was one of the last ones available. When I asked rangers about the current park conditions and if my choices of Angel's Landing, Upper Emerald Pool, and the Riverwalk were good ones, they suggested alternates. By the time I had camp set up at about 9 am, the rangers said that Angel's Landing would be so packed that the hike would be significantly more dangerous and suggested Observation Point for views. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/utah/east-rim-trail-to-observation-point They also said all of the Emerald Pools and falls were dry with the pools themselves looking pretty gross because of the still water and tourists wearing sunscreen and such wading in them. The Riverwalk, they said, was still a great idea, but they wanted me to make sure the trail was open on the day I went.
Know the park amenities really well before you arrive.
I knew Watchman Camp is a really popular camp, so I drove there straight after sunrise in Bryce to get in the walk-in line. I also knew that you have limited road access in private cars in the summer, and that the park has a free shuttle service so I did a lot of planning around the shuttle schedules and drop off points. https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/shuttle-system.htm
After my chat with the rangers, I packed up my photo gear, hopped on a shuttle, and made my way over to Weeping Rock to get up to Observation Point. The East Rim Trail I used is hard. Lots of elevation gain with little shade, but the views really are amazing. You look DOWN on Angel's Landing from the top and you can see all of the hikers making their way along the Angel's Landing trail.
Afterwards, I went to the bridge that overlooks the Virgin River to try to get the poster shot of Zion…I went for planning purposes and to get a feel for what the place is like. Well, it's busy. Not just with photographers, but also because there's no sidewalk or platform and you compress in on the shoulder to avoid getting hit by cars and shuttles. However, this visit helped me figure out when I'd have to be there for photos the next day…
For day two, I decided to give my feet a bit of a break and do the Narrows! I checked the conditions, then headed over to Zion Outfitter to rent some stuff for the hike. https://www.zionoutfitter.com/
Bring or rent a dry bag, rent the waterproof shoes and walking stick. I used https://www.zionoutfitter.com/
I say rent the walking stick because the river bottom will mess up fancy trekking poles. If you have a thick wooden hiking stick that you don't mind fraying, feel free to use that.
The Riverwalk is truly an awesome hike and I heartily recommend people do it. It was not a difficult hike, but does require attention and care. There's tons of small rocks and divots in the river that can mess you up. I also highly recommend renting canyoneering boots and a walking stick from Zion Outfitter because I saw a bunch of tourists going in flipflops and moving at maybe a step a minute. Flipflops have almost no traction there and the flowing river makes it even harder to get grip.
Take it easy on the Riverwalk. Just enjoy the walk and be safe.
A tourist saw me truckin through the river with my big 645z hanging around my neck and said "You are an extremely confident man." Maybe too confident that day.
Did I actually water damage two cameras? Yes, that's 100% true. If you look carefully, you'll see that I stopped recording videos with my Canon EOS M right around the time of my Riverwalk in the Narrows. I was walking along and tapping the riverbed in front of me with my walking stick, and everything felt normal and level, but I ended up stepping into maybe a 10 inch wide gap that I didn't feel out and it was just enough to dip the bottom of my EOS M into water and kill it. Because of my significantly reduced carrying capacity on the river, I didn't have my second EOS M body and had to use my phone in a waterproof pouch.
I also did unfortunately soak my beloved Pentax 645z. I had wanted to get back to the Virgin River Bridge to get photos of the sun setting on the Watchman, so I power walked back to the drop off area. Talking 3-4 miles per hour…because I also needed to use the bathroom and the station area is the only one on the Riverwalk. At one point, I accidentally knocked a lens cap off my 645z and swung at the floating disc with my hiking stick to stop it... I ended up slipping on underwater rocks and going for a swim. My reflexes were just fast enough to grab my 645z and lift it above my head, but the strap caught around me and I couldn't clear the water. Yes, the 645z body is sealed, but I don't own any of the sealed lenses. Also, "weather sealed" does not mean "take into water". The camera started acting weird, so when returned to camp, I opened all the ports I could and let it sit on my car dashboard to dry out.
When I got to the shuttle stop, I realized that my cameras weren't the only things messed up from the hike. I had my tripod tucked behind my back and into the drybag straps and when I fell, the tripod actually bruised my hip something fierce. All of this combined meant an easy night without trying to get photos at the overlook bridge.
The next day, I decided to take things easy and decided to find a coffee shop to upload/back up photos to the cloud, work on photos, and plan for the next places to go instead of hiking Angel's Landing. I ended up spending almost the entire day at Café Soleil in nearby Springdale http://cafesoleilzionpark.com/, and I really liked that place! The wifi was solid, the food and coffee were good, and I could just pack up and go for a walk if I got cabin fever. Later that night, I did go back to the bridge overlook and got some photos at sunset and with the Milky Way rising over the Virgin River.
That astrophoto? Total luck. I was chatting with a few other photographers and tourists and some had mentioned that I was very lucky because the Milky Way doesn't normally rise straight over the Virgin River! Speaking of other people, I met a few cool people in Zion! Ended up meeting a guy on a similar journey of getting over a bad part of life while I was up at Observation Point and he seemed really cool! I hope you're doing well if you see this! There were a mother and daughter that I chatted and hiked with on the Riverwalk. Shout out to https://www.instagram.com/lisa.crawford.tx/ and https://www.instagram.com/alli_nicole__/ too because I still see them on Instagram and Facebook and they're awesome! There was also a really cool photographer https://www.instagram.com/jom_ba_juice/ I met while recovering in a coffee shop. And two photographers, Deb https://www.facebook.com/debbie.s.bounds and David https://www.facebook.com/david.bounds1 helped me plan for the Milky Way AND even gave me a spare set of eclipse goggles they had since I ended up going all the way back to Idaho Falls to see a friend and the total eclipse…
I definitely want to go back to Zion since I didn't hike all the trails I wanted. I want to go see the Emerald Pools. Also, the East Rim Trail had some splinter trails that looked really cool if you have some canyoneering gear and experience! https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/utah/hidden-canyon-trail Lastly, I am extremely interested in hiking the Subway Trail. The photos and experiences I've seen people have look awesome.
And of course, Zion is much larger than what's in Zion Canyon. In the northwest is another huge area that's considered part of Zion National Park called Kolob Canyons https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/kolob-canyons.htm
Just like in Bryce, be sure to know the historical climate data for your planned visit and definitely check the weather forecast for the day.
In Zion, the summer storms don't necessarily cause lightning worries, but flash floods! The Park will generally close the Riverwalk if they believe that there's a flash flood concern, but it's always good to check for yourself
Do not expect to drive in the park! Know the shuttle schedules and use those as the park heavily restricts the usage of private vehicles during certain parts of the year (like peak visiting time in the summer)
Know your limits! For example, don't do Angel's Landing if you're scared of heights, crowded conditions, and narrow places and especially avoid it if you dislike the combination of all three.
Check out the local places in Springdale! Café Soleil had great food and coffee, for example, and I heard there's some awesome ice cream in town too.
For sure, know the weather conditions! In Bryce, you have to worry about lightning, but in Zion, you have to worry about flash flooding.
All Trail and Weather Conditions: