“All this is the music of waters.” John Wesley Powell, 1895
Dominated by beautiful green canyons and surrounded by dramatically steep red cliffs carved out by the Virgin River, Zion National Park is a thing of awesome natural beauty and a place we’ll never forget.
It may be a relatively small national treasure, in relation to its fellow famous canyons such as Bryce or the mighty Grand Canyon, but it’s Zion’s compactness, accessibility and awe-inspiring views that drew us in, and we were not disappointed.
There’s plenty to see and do in Zion National Park, from short and long hikes, to simply touring the park by free shuttle bus (see more information on this at the end of this article!). You could easily fill a few days or even a whole week here! However if like us, you only have a couple of days to explore, it can be tricky to decide between the various viewpoints and day hikes.
Zion National Park Hikes
We’d done our usual research and whittled the many hike options down to a decision between two – the famous ‘Angel’s Landing‘ or the less famous but also popular, ‘Observation Point‘. Both hikes promised sweeping vistas over the canyon but ultimately our decision came down to two things: 1) Angel’s Landing can be famously overcrowded, particularly towards the top as the final section involves traversing a sheer cliff using chains and guard rails (eek!), and 2) although slightly longer in distance, Observation Point is at a higher elevation (over 2,000 feet) providing arguably the greatest of all vantage points, including a view over Angel’s Landing! So without enough time to do both, we decided on Observation Point and geared ourselves up for the 8 mile roundtrip to the highest point in Zion National Park!
For lots of useful information on getting to Zion National Park, entry costs and useful tips on the park’s free shuttle service etc, see the end of this article. For inspiration and the story of our hike to stunning Observation Point, then read on!
Hiking To ‘Observation Point’
Based on our trusty national park guide, we prepared ourselves for the fairly strenuous 4-6 hours round trip to Observation Point. Although we were taking on the hike in spring rather than peak summer, we’d been warned about the desert conditions and the unrelenting midday sun, so we decided to set off early in order to make most of our ascent in the cool of the morning, which turned out to be a great idea! Not only was it a pleasant temperature, but it was great for capturing photos while the light wasn’t too bright. And of course, good photos = a happy Barry!
The trail to Observation Point begins at the famous ‘Weeping Rock’ (the 7th stop on the free Zion Canyon shuttle) and it isn’t long before you get a spectacular elevated view of the canyon. We’d recommend taking a break around half way up the first section of the zigzag trail to catch a breath and enjoy the view!
It was another half an hour or so later when the trail got really interesting. Having completed the first section of the hike on a steep but mostly paved route, we turned a corner and entered what felt like real canyon territory. All of a sudden we were facing a dramatic backdrop, surrounded completely by deep reds and oranges, we’d entered Echo Canyon!
Echo Canyon was a fascinating section of the trail. For around 20 minutes or so, we climbed and jumped from rock to pool to rock, pausing along the way to admire the natural beauty surrounding us.
Thankfully our early morning start had afforded us a quiet trail so we took our time, peering through the various canyon slots and beautiful sedimentation along the way. It was like a beautiful painting from every angle!
By this point, we’d reached the half way point of elevation at around 1,000 feet above the valley floor and thankfully our legs were still full of energy to push onto the second half of our ascent. It was time to leave the heart of the canyon behind and experience yet another dramatic change of scenery.
We’d reached the other side of the canyon and were now surrounded by vast dry stream bed. The deep reds and oranges of the canyon wall now gave way to the exposed whites and greens of the ‘Temple Cap’ formation layer. The variety of scenery we’d encountered already was amazing and we still had a way to go, we couldn’t believe it!
It was vast and breathtakingly beautiful, but we’d left the pleasant shade of the canyon behind so it was time to push on to what was about to be the toughest part of the hike. With mostly sheer cliff drop offs to traverse now, it was time for the steep switchbacks we’d read about – eek!
So with our sun cream topped up and plenty of water on hand, we got stuck into the final ascent through the white cliffs. Although it was a little tough in places, especially when the wind picked up and we had to pause to grip onto the cliffs(!), it was an exhilarating challenge. Though we imagine it would be a much different experience in peak summer!
We encountered lots of different types of hikers along the way, providing encouragement and support to each other as everyone endured the steep incline of the cliff face. We lost track of time a little at this point, but it was at least another hour or so before we reached the highest elevation of the trail and could celebrate that the hard part was mostly over.
We’d finally reached the highest point of the trek! So at around 2,100 feet above the valley floor, we stood on the rim of the sandy upper plateau and took in the stunning 180-degree canyon view below us. It was hard to believe that we’d only been hiking for a couple of hours or so and reached such a high elevation, never mind such an incredible viewpoint, and yet we still had the best to come at Observation Point! How could it get much better we asked ourselves? Well of course we wanted to find out!
Picking up our backpacks once again, we pushed on to reach our final destination. Thankfully the last section of the trail is mostly flat, so we made quick work of the final mile along the northwest loop to Observation Point. Passing through trees and a few crowds that had already arrived, we finally made it to the magnificent 270-degree rim vantage point. Wow, it certainly didn’t disappoint!
There’s no doubt that it far surpassed our already high expectations. Every angle presented a different but incredibly stunning view of the red canyon and lush valley below. If we looked close enough, we could also see some fellow hikers atop the ridge of Angel’s Landing below, what an incredible view!
After enough time for photos and admiring the view, we happily took our spot under one of the many trees to rest our weary legs and munch on our well-earned lunch!
Suitably rested and re-fuelled, we made a start on our 4-mile return journey, but not before one last look at the incredible view below.
Thankfully the descent was easier than expected, and remained interesting with lots of incredible viewpoints along the way, which were now even more enjoyable knowing we’d already achieved the summit of Observation Point!
Admiring the view from Observation Point was undoubtedly the highlight of our visit to Zion National Park, and a day hike that we’d HIGHLY recommend! Just be sure to take your time descending as the paved trail is not kind on the knees, so allow plenty of time and take it easy.
Useful information for your visit to Zion National Park
Prior to our day hike to Observation Point, we spent our first day at Zion touring the various viewpoints and stops using the park’s excellent free shuttle service. It was most definitely the perfect introduction to the park providing lots of useful information along the way and a great way to get our bearings so we’d highly recommend doing this first, if you have time to do this and a day hike. Otherwise just go for the hike as all of the valley floor views are easily more impressive from above!
How To Get There
Zion National Park is situated in southwest Utah near the town of Springdale, and is only a few hours drive from Las Vegas, so is a great way to take a break from the city and get outdoors! It’s also a pretty straightforward route along the I-15 North, with beautiful views along the last half an hour, so be sure to have your camera ready before you even get to the park!
Getting Around The Park
From April to October, cars are not permitted to drive through Zion Canyon, so your best bet for getting around is to use the park’s free, fast & easy shuttle bus. (Note that if you visit between the months of November and March, you are allowed to drive in the Canyon and can park in any of the parking lots for free!)
Using The Free Shuttle Bus!
Once you arrive to the town of Springdale, look out for the orange coloured shuttle stop signs. There are 9 in total starting at the Majestic View Lodge and ending at the Zion Canyon Village. Simply jump onto the free shuttle bus at any of the stops signposted along the route, most of which are adjacent to plenty of free parking areas to leave your car. Parking gets busier the closer you get to the park. With buses every 5-10 minutes, you don’t need to wait long! Zion Canyon Village is the last stop on the Springdale shuttle loop, before you have to get off and transfer to the main park shuttle, just passed the visitor centre and formal park entrance.
The shuttle service is totally free and a great relaxing way to tour around the park itself. There are also 9 shuttle stops within the park at various viewpoints and hiking locations, so simply pick up your free guide at the park entrance to find out about each one. The shuttle departs from the Visitor’s Centre every 15 minutes or less and you can just jump off wherever you feel like exploring. We recommend covering the whole shuttle bus loop however as it’s a great way to see all the main spots inside the park, with the added bonus of interesting information about the geology and history of the park being narrated along the way!
You can find the park map and guide here.
The standard entrance fees at Zion National Park are $30 per vehicle, and $15 per person. Both of which are valid for 7 days.
When To Visit
While Zion Canyon can be visited year-round, it is said to be most pleasant in the months of April, May, October, and November. Summer time is extremely hot, and in the winter there is the possibility of snow, especially at the canyon rim’s higher elevations. However note that access to the spectacular ‘Narrows’ is usually closed from mid-March to late May. We were disappointed to miss this as we visited in April, but hope to return some day!
Where To Stay
We opted to stay in a small B&B outside of the park, however there are some lodging options inside the park at the Zion Lodge or various camping grounds. It is better to book ahead however as the accommodations in and around Springdale get booked up quickly, especially during peak season.
Other Zion National Park Hikes
Though we’d highly recommend the hike to Observation Point, there are many other hikes available at Zion National Park. Click here for a link to the park’s official hiking guide, including a list of all of the available hikes with difficulty ratings, estimated times and descriptions.