Zion National Park – Day 1

On Friday night, my internship project partner Simon and I headed down to St. George, UT in preparation for a weekend at Zion National Park. We woke up early in the morning to avoid the rush and catch the first shuttle into the park, which ended up being a good move. There was plenty of parking, and the gates hadn’t started collecting fees yet, so we got in for free!

Our itinerary was as follows:
AM – Angel’s Landing
Various small hikes in Zion Canyon
PM – Backpack into Wildcat Canyon to camp
AM – Return to Northgate Peaks trail and climb East and West Northgate Peaks
PM – Return to SLC

Angel’s Landing

1500′ vertical
5 miles
1 hour up, 1 hour down

Angel’s Landing is a well-traveled hike to a sandstone peak right in Zion Canyon. The approach starts from the Grotto shuttle stop and takes the West Rim trail. The initial part of the trail follows the river, then begins to climb into a narrow canyon. The canyon was very quiet and distinct echoes could be heard. In the summer it would be very refreshing to walk through here since it is shaded and a bit damp. The trail then turns up the hill and follows about 10 switchbacks until the saddle of the Angel’s Landing trail. From here, the trail gets more rugged and quite exposed.

Approaching the saddle

At places along the hike, the drop off is almost 1500 vertical feet, but the trail is only a few feet wide. I didn’t find it too scary but some people definitely would.

Awesome exposure

The hike past the saddle and along the knife-edge ridge was pretty exciting. There are chains to hold on to for nervous hikers but I actually found it easier not to use them. We appreciated getting an early start, as no one else had reached this part of the trail on this particular day.

Simon in the narrow part

We soon found ourselves alone on the summit with an unbelievable view:

Nearing the top
View from the top


A few people arrived after about 20 minutes, but we had a chance to eat breakfast and enjoy the solitude on our own. There were a couple of pesky chipmunks which wouldn’t go away – they wanted to eat our crumbs. Don’t feed the wildlife!

Soon more people started to arrive, so after close to an hour on the summit we descended. The route was pretty quickly turning into a zoo, and we spent more time coming down due to people passing along the narrow sections of the trail. Nevertheless, we found ourselves on the canyon floor with the entire afternoon to kill, so we decided to do some side hikes before lunch.

In different light

Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock

We picked out a couple of additional sights to see before leaving the canyon – the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock.

The Kayenta Trail took us from the Grotto over to the pools. The trail to the pools was crowded and flat, with not a lot of shade. We did see a cool cactus flower though – what a great time to see the canyon!

Cactus flower

The Emerald Pools were sort of cool but a little underwhelming after the views on top of Angel’s Landing. In the summer the cooler temperatures by the pool would be a treat though.

Middle Emerald Pools

Next we hiked back to the shuttle and went to the next stop in order to see the Weeping Rock. The rock is formed by a layer of porous rock in the midst of the sandstone which allows the aquifer to leak out all year long, creating a sort of hanging garden. The best place to see the rock is in the overhanging “cave” accessed by the main foot trail. There were many people around but the cave was still worth seeing.

The weeping rock

After seeing the highlights of the canyon, we were tired of tour guides with microphones, screaming kids, and cranky people, so we headed into Springdale for burgers at Oscar’s (highly recommended). After lunch, we hydrated and headed for the high country for some solitude.

Kolob Terrace

The Kolob Terrace is located in the northwest section of the park, and is accessed by a road out of Virgin, UT. Zion is known for hosting several microclimates. The Kolob is higher and wetter than other areas of the park and makes an interesting change of scenery. The drive out to the Kolob took us through arid desert, badlands, cattle pasture, and even a weird family compound.

Kolob Terrace road

We arrived at the trailhead for Wildcat Canyon about an hour after leaving Springdale, and hit the trail at around 4 pm. We made good time across the mostly flat ground along a wide pack trail. Highlights of this part of the Wildcat Canyon trail included the Ponderosa pine forest and views along Russell Gulch, a vast slickrock canyon.

Russell Gulch

After passing Russell Gulch, the trail descended across a recently burned meadow. Man did I miss the beautiful big Western sky living back east for the gloomy months. Originally we planned to camp in the meadow but we still had a lot of energy so we decided to press on.

Meadow east of Wildcat Canyon (good camping?)

Wildcat Canyon had great views of the rock features to the south. There was a well-marked, flowing spring just before the mouth of the canyon but we didn’t elect to fill up water since we already had plenty with us. Above us, we saw a large plateau with imposing drop offs and what looked like a great view of the park. We got out the map and picked out Lava Point as our final destination for the night.

From the head of Wildcat Canyon

The trail to Lava Point was a bit longer than anticipated, and after almost 15 miles of hiking for the day and 2000 ft of elevation we were a bit worn out. We were happy to find a camping space at the Lava Point campground, cooked dinner, then walked over to the overlook to watch the sun set over the park. Here at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, one can see the erosive forces at play in the park and the massive geological formations which shape this area of the country. We lingered for around an hour, and made conversation with Zeke, a retiree who was traveling the country from park to park in his van. Sounds like a pretty good way to spend the summer. He agreed to drop us off back at the trailhead the next morning which was a great alternative to backtracking six miles.

Sunset from Lava Point looking towards the Kaibab Plateau

After the sun went down, the clouds cleared up but the moon was too bright for good stargazing. After a chilly night, we woke up ready to finish out the park with a little bit of slickrock scrambling.

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