Father, son share breathtaking views hiking through Zion National Park
What we found was a very accessible, reasonably priced, genuine adventure that anyone in average physical shape can experience and be thrilled by.
The only necessary skill? The ability to walk.
Imagine two of the most unique, yet utterly different, day hikes in America. They're only shuttle stops away from each other in Utah's Zion National Park (nps.gov/zion). One hike is to an ethereal spot called Angel's Landing. The other snakes through a claustrophobic canyon called the Narrows. Both can be completed by nearly everyone, and even those who only do partial hikes won't ever forget them.
My son, Scott, and I chose late September for our three-night trip to Zion for several reasons. The summer crowds and traffic are fading, and the Virgin River that carved the canyon is lower, slower and less prone to flash flooding.
We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car and drove three hours to Springdale, Utah. We stayed at the Quality Inn at Zion Park (435-772-3237, choicehotels.com/utah/springdale). It's a half-mile from the park gate and 40 feet from a shuttle that will take you to the pedestrian entrance. A hidden perk of the hotel is that the Zion Adventure Co . (435-772-1001, zionadventures.com) is across the street.
The company rents canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks to help folks navigate the slick rock of the river. These aren't required for the hike, but I recommend the shoe/sock combo that includes a walking stick ($23). The shoes grip the slippery stones like gecko feet, and the stick is invaluable.
Scott and I attempted the Narrows our first morning at Zion. After getting outfitted and driving to the visitor center, we caught the park shuttle for a 35-minute ride to the trail head. Grab a window seat if you can, as the views through Zion Canyon are astounding.
Hikers are dwarfed by the giant rock faces in the Narrows at Zion National Park.
The trail literally is the Virgin River, where, in late September, the water was mostly ankle-to-calf deep, but occasionally up to our waists. We had also rented drypants to keep the 52 degree water off our legs. There are stretches of bank along the route where we could walk dry land, snap pictures or eat a snack.
About 1.5 miles upstream is a junction with Orderville Canyon. Past that is the iconic part of the hike, a section called Wall Street, where the river's width is squeezed to 30 feet by 1,500-foot-high cliffs.
Scott Szypulski in Orderville Canyon at Zion National Park.
While hikers are permitted another 2 miles upstream, many choose to linger in this perspective-crushing sweet spot before turning back, which we did, too. On the return, we made a wise choice to enter spooky Orderville Canyon. Scott and I both found this smaller, narrower chasm to be as impressive as Wall Street and easier to hike.
Famished from four hours in the Narrows, we returned to Springdale for a delicious lunch at Porter's Smokehouse & Grill, after which we rented bikes and rode back into the park.
Most bikers cruise the Scenic Drive used by the shuttle to transport Zion visitors, but we chose the Pa'rus Trail, the only one in the park allowing bikes. A 3.5 mile round trip, the path twists along the canyon floor, using footbridges to cross and re-cross the Virgin River. With named peaks all around us, even on two wheels, we sensed what it might've felt like to be cowboys riding the open range. The majestic Watchman spire seemed to guard the path. We enjoyed the Pa'rus so much, we rode it twice.
The next morning, we took the park shuttle to the trail head for Angel's Landing. This 5.4-mile roundtrip hike rises 1,488 feet from the canyon floor to the top of a spine-like rock formation with 1,000-foot drop-offs on each side. We learned it was best to start early to beat both the heat and the crowds hitting the trail by midday. There are chain-assisted sections on the final ascent, and the early start helps avoid many of the single-file, wait-your-turn bottlenecks that come later. We started walking at 8:40 a.m.
The trail began with an easy ascent along the desert floor. At a canyon wall, the going got steeper, as paved switchbacks led us up the rock face. Carrying plenty of water is a must. We rested and drank often, marveling at how the view changed at each higher bend.
After finishing the first set of switchbacks, the trail leveled off and sliced through the narrow, aptly named Refrigerator Canyon. This cooler, breezier section of the hike refreshed us just in time for a new challenge.
Exiting the canyon, a short rise brought us to the base of Walter's Wiggles, an engineering masterwork. Named for Walter Ruesch, the park's first superintendent, think of the Wiggles as "switchbacks on steroids." This set of 21 short, steep, zigzagging stone paths was designed for maximum elevation gain across minimal horizontal width.
Does it ever succeed!
The payoff to conquering the Wiggles was reaching Scout Lookout, a sandy rest stop with pit toilets. Another 100 feet beyond that, across a bit of cliff-hugging trail with cliff-bolted chains, brought the real jackpot: Our first, intimate look at Angel's Landing and the exact nature of what climbing the thin saddle of stone would entail.
Some folks will arrive here and choose not to do the remaining half-mile scramble up the formation's spine. It's not failure. Just the view from that decision point and the effort it took to reach it stamps their hike as a heart-pounding, hair-raising success and proud accomplishment.
The Watchman at Zion National Park from the bike trail.
Scott and I pressed on. At this point, the need to be careful, smart and diligent in finding solid contact points was essential, but the carved footfalls and bolted chains added a level of security that kept us from ever feeling at risk. If possible, the final ascent felt both dangerously thrilling and safe.
Reaching the breathtaking summit at last, we sat, sighed and rested with others, all trying to mentally absorb the 360-degree view of Zion Canyon. I'm not spiritual, but sitting there with my son, in a place of uncommon natural beauty, it was easy to understand why some find Angel's Landing to be just that.
In due time, we descended to Scout Lookout. From there to the canyon floor, our legs were battered by the constant downward strides, but our hearts were glad and our smiles wide, because father and son both knew that we had just lived an adventure we had been excited to share.
It didn't take a trip to Nepal. It only took two successive mornings in Zion National Park.
Robert Szypulski, a computer programmer with Windstream Communications, lives in Penn Township. His son, Scott Szypulski, is a financial research administrator for the University of Pittsburgh who lives in Oakland.