Southwest Roadtrip (Part II): Zion National Park
Zion National Park had been on our bucket list for quite some time. There is something magical and mystical about this park – think plunging canyons, towering walls and glowing sandstone. We were weary about visiting Zion in December but after enough research, decided there were plenty of things to do in this park.
This is a classic hike in Zion known for its steep switchbacks and sheer drop-offs and was a definite must-do on our list. Our first day in Zion was sunny so we thought it was the perfect day to take in the views from this summit.
The hike started along the West Rim Trail which is a backpacking route up the west side of the main canyon. It’s a series of steep switchbacks and that took us up to a nice viewpoint. From there, the fun began — we continued along a narrow trail where there are chains bolted to the cliff to provide secure handholds. It was more mentally challenging than physically challenging because of the sheer drop-offs on both sides of the trail. At the summit, there was a viewpoint that jutted out to the center of the main canyon, about 1500 feet above the canyon floor. While the views were nice, it was more about the journey of doing this exposed hike along a narrow and precipitous rock formation for us.
The end of the Emerald Pools trailhead converged with the end of our Angels Landing hike so we decided that rather than jump back on the shuttle, we would do this easy iconic stroll instead. This hike is a Zion classic known for being a trail that wanders past a lush stream that rolls down a cliff and creates several “pools”. At least in December, it was just an average walk, but made for a little extra exercise for the day.
This is the narrowest section of Zion canyon and one of the most famous slot canyon hikes. The moment we started researching Zion, we saw pictures of people walking through the Virgin River with canyon walls soaring thousands of feet above them and we knew we wanted to see it for ourselves.
Our first question was if this was a feasible endeavour in December. Just the thought of walking through a river where the water temperatures are in the 30s and the forecast predicts snow is intimidating. But with the right gear, it’s totally fine.
We rented full dry suits, canyoneering shoes, two layers of neoprene booties and walking sticks from Zion Adventure Company and spent an hour with the team there the evening before going through how to be best prepared for this hike.
The next morning, we shuttled to The Temple of Sinawava and walked the Riverside Trail for about a mile before arriving at the river. It was then time to suit up and start our journey walking through the river. We were both very nervous. Did the gaskets on the suit completely seal? Were these canyoneering shoes actually going to keep our feet warm?
As it turns out, the gear was great! While the canyoneering shoes are not waterproof, they are designed to take in water and with the combination of body heat and the dual layer of neoprene booties, the heat gets trapped and keeps your feet warm.
In terms of the hike itself, walking through moving water is a serious workout! Every step we took was on uneven terrain and at times, we were dealing with slippery boulders that felt like walking on bowling balls. We were so grateful for the walking stick which not only helped with the slippery terrain but helped us fight through the current at times – both the upstream and downstream currents were pushing us enough that we would almost lose our balance and “join the Narrows swim team”.
Early in our hike, we met a friendly couple and decided to do the hike together so we could maximise photo opportunities. We made it all the way past the fork in the river and to the famous “Wall Street” section, but given all of our photo stops, we ended up spending nearly eight hours in the river – a lot longer than we had planned!
The experience is unlike anything we had ever done and we really enjoyed it. While I would have loved to be in swimwear hiking in the summer, the beauty of doing it in December is that it is not very crowded and the icicles on the canyon walls are pretty spectacular. Pro tip though: Get a full dry suit and check that it fits! The two learnings were that the couple we met were given waterproof bibs instead of dry suits and one of them fall in and ended up soaking wet and very cold, which could have led to hypothermia if we didn’t have a change of clothes to offer her. Also, check your gear before you leave the shop – not only should the boots fit, but it’s really important that the gaskets/seals on the dry suit are fully intact. While ours were fine, they had sized me incorrectly so I did have water seep into the legs a bit and even worse, I was literally floating in my outfit making all my photos pretty horrendous.
Canyoneering: Huntress Canyon
Prior to this trip, we had no idea what canyoneering was. It turns out this is a method to explore a canyon, usually following the drainage, using a number of techniques including hiking, scrambling, stemming, chimneying, rappelling and the “liquid cat”, a method of squeezing your body to create friction while sliding down small but hard to reach spaces.
We spent a day with Whit from Zion Adventure Company doing just this. It was interesting as all of our ropes skills from rock climbing transferred, but rather than climbing up, we were using these techniques to descend down into the canyon.
We visited Huntress Canyon, about an hour away from Zion National Park, and really enjoyed the experience of winding through the slot canyon. It also started snowing during our trip, making for a very magical and picturesque day.
On our way back from canyoneering, we were considering hiking another slot canyon. With the snow in the background, we were eager to stay outside and take in the gorgeous views of Zion. We were tempted to go off route and explore but as the weather conditions changed, but decided to just stick to a short and sweet famous hike in the east canyon instead. This hike gave us some nice snowy views into the main canyon but the highlight was seeing the mountain goats along the way.
Dining in Zion
In December, eating in Zion is tricky. Many of the restaurants are closed for the seasons and most of the ones that are open in Springdale don’t take reservations or deliver. When we arrived on Christmas day, almost everything was closed. There were three options – Chinese, Thai and the supermarket and all three had lines around the corner so we ended up skipping dinner and eatings snacks that we had with us. What a way to spend Christmas! It got better following Christmas but the options were still limited and there were lines out the door at every place. We ended up dining at Kings Landing which was great. We also tried Stagecoach Grill and Jack’s, neither of which was memorable.