Zion National Park is pretty popular and received some 3.6 million visitors alone last year. Not as much as Grand Canyon’s 5.2 million visitors, but still a sizable number. The key to visiting Zion is knowing what you want to do when you get there. I only had a vague idea of what was available at Zion, so my first stop was to the Visitor center to grab some maps and hiking books.
Many of those who come to Zion are climbing and canyoneering — these are sports that require ropes, helmets, and sometimes wetsuits. The reward with that kind of effort and endurance are stunning views seen by very few people. With trail names as Fat Man’s Misery and Key Hole Canyon, you can understand why these places are hard to reach. Having officially hit the road last December, we are far from fit, so we stick to easy and moderate hikes for now.
From April to October, no private cars are admitted past Canyon Junction on Zion Scenic Drive. So we left the truck at Visitor Center and took the shuttle to our first hike: The Riverside Walk at Temple Sanawava. In theory, this easy 2-mile in-and-out trail should take an hour and a half to walk, but you will most likely take longer, we certainly did. It’s hard to not stop and look. Fremont cottonwood, velvet ash, and bigtooth maples flush with green. This strip of land lies between monstrous cliffs of red sandstone. The sound of Virgin River rushing in the background, and in just a few hundred steps from the shuttle stop, you can see the bluish-green water flowing quickly over rocks and under green drooping trees.
Looking up, we could see hanging gardens upon the cliff face. These abundant assemblages of plants are only found where small seeps or springs flow forth from the shady cliff recesses far above ground level. I can see frilly ferns, sprouting orchids, colorful monkeyflowers, and spring blossoming primroses. It’s so strange to see distinctly wetland plants in what I know is an arid desert, but they are protected here by the cliffs and fed by fresh spring water. At the bottom of the cliff, the spring water collects in a pond where canyon tree frogs more likely heard than seen. They make a loud goat-like trilling song that rings through the canyon.
Along the way, there are points where we can wander to the banks of the river. If you’re lucky you’ll see wild mule deer and wild turkeys that love to frequent the riversides. We only caught glimpses of fluttering butterflies and ground squirrels with near-domesticated attitudes on this hike.
At the end of the Riverwalk Trail is The Narrows. This is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, where the walls are a thousand feet tall and the river as little as twenty feet wide. This part of the hike is very popular to the bi-pedal tourists. To hike The Narrows, you must walk in the Virgin River and wade upstream. The only time you can hike this part of the trail is summer and fall, when the river’s water level is passable. For us, it’s Spring and the snow melt and rainfall are so much that the water is unsafe to wade in. By the way, there’s a big sign at the Visitor Center that lists trail closures, be sure to read that before your hike.
The high canyon walls taunt me. The cold river water scares me. I want to go forward and see things I’ve never seen before. I know it’s better to turn back and come another day. Another day indeed.