Emerald Pools, Riverside Walk and The Watchman Trail
With no camping reservation we headed down early to Zion's South campground, which is “first come first served”. Even pulling in just after 7:30am there was a pretty big queue already so we were a little nervous about getting in. Zion operates a much better system than Sequoia though. It allocates the free campsites as soon as the previous camper leaves (rather than making everybody wait until midday!) Luckily we were in and had the tent up before 9am and decided that we would stay two nights in Zion ($20/night) as we had missed the tent and a real working toilet (having slept in our Chevy - Tyrone - 3 of the 4 previous nights).
The drive into the centre of Zion National Park was pretty cool. Huge red sandstone peaks littered with bright green trees, it just doesn’t look real as you drive in. One road serves the valley and all of the hiking trails. This road is only accessible via the free shuttle buses - no private cars allowed! The shuttles start at 6am and run every 3-4 minutes during the day until 9:30pm so we never had a problem waiting for one.
We decided to take it fairly easy on day one and to only do a couple of short hikes - Lower and Upper Emerald Pools and later The Riverside Walk and The Watchman Trail. Like always, our first stop was the visitor centre where we picked up a map and got some advice on which trails to take. Flash floods are common in the summer so we were told that the famous Narrows were closed for safety.
The trail up to Lower Emerald Pool was a short 1.2 mile fairly flat trail. It follows the river round to the underside of a small waterfall. With summer in full flow the waterfall was only a trickle and the emerald pool had shrunk to a small, brown, muddy puddle. We continued on up the very busy trail to the Upper Pool, another mile but this time quite a bit steeper. Upon reaching the pool the scenic viewpoint was more like St Margaret’s Baths on a Saturday afternoon so after catching our breath in the shade we made our way back down. Instead of walking back along the same route we turned off in the other direction along the Kayenta Trail which followed the river another mile to ‘The Grotto’. This was way nicer with great views of the river. We had lunch on the Zion Lodge lawn pretty happy with life.
After lunch we decided to head to the furthest end of the park, The Temple of Sinawava, which is the starting point for Zion’s most iconic hike - The Narrows. The Narrows is reached by a scenic 1 mile riverside walk to where the trail turns to 60% walking in the actual river between two huge sheer faced cliffs - hence the name. Given the Ranger had advised us against doing this hike as afternoon thunderstorms forecasted increased the chances of flash floods, we were really shocked to see literally hundreds of people wading up the river. If the water were to rise on this trail, you have nowhere to go and could easily drown, so we took the ranger’s advice and turned back to camp.
For sunset we decided to walk up to the overlook of Watchman Mountain reached via the 3.3 mile round trip Watchman Trail. Again the hike itself wasn’t that difficult but the clouds affected what could have been a spectacular sunset. We made it back down to camp before dark - no campfires are permitted at Zion this summer so bedtime smores were off the menu!
Day 31 - Angels Landing
Perhaps the most popular hike now in Zion (thanks to Instagram!) is the treacherous ascent up to Angel’s Landing - a narrow platform almost 1500 feet above the valley below. The hike itself looks easy on paper, a moderate 5.4 mile roundtrip scheduled to take 4-5 hours. However what you can’t see on paper is the trail you’re hiking on for the last half mile!!
With most of the hikes being extremely busy the day before, we thought our best bet to avoid the crowds would be to get up early and hit the trail at first light. That didn’t quite go to plan (we slept in!) and we caught the shuttle just after 7am (we started the hike at around 7:45am).
What the trail lacks in length it makes up for in steepness and the paved switchbacks quickly elevate you up out of the valley to some great views back down the river. Some guy named Walter built part of the trail so the last stretch before you face ‘The Chains’ is ‘Walter’s Wiggles’ - 21 steep switchbacks that really get your heart going and legs burning first thing in the morning!
From the top of the wiggles to the ‘Angel’s Landing’ the trail is definitely a different level of hiking. A narrow ledge makes its way along a plateau and then up, up and up some more along the ledge to the top. Your only safety features are some small posts linked by metal chains to hold on to in the event you slip.
I had always known this was going to be a tough ask for George; either side of the ledge was a straight drop of over a thousand feet which isn’t particularly welcoming to those scared of heights. Its sometimes annoying to hear people claiming to be afraid of heights and then carrying on regardless. They’re either not afraid or they’re putting themselves in real danger. George is petrified of heights. Not wanting to let herself down she made it along the first section of chains but was sobbing throughout. Seeing the final ascent was too much and I’m pleased she had the courage to admit she was too scared. I was worried she’d be so stubborn she’d continue on and put herself at risk by freezing somewhere I couldn't easily help her.
Though I didn’t want to leave her, George persuaded me that I should carry on to the top. She was so worried about me I stopped to wave at each opportunity (as I knew I would be firmly in the optical zoom of her camera every step!)
I couldn’t stop thinking as I climbed up steep rocks and walked along 3 foot wide ledges that the trail should have more of a safety warning. A man died in March 2017 when he lost his footing on the final ascent. There is no way kids should be allowed to make the climb. The level of risk involved just wouldn't be allowed in England.
After a few photos at the top I made my way back down to George, the trail now getting dangerously busy. In most places there is only room for one person, so passing people coming the other way was tricky. We reached the bottom within a couple of hours and George immediately felt disappointed that she didn’t make it all the way to the top. I knew she’d made the right decision but she’s a bit (!) competitive so I promised we could try again in the morning but earlier to eliminate the crowds. With severe storms forecast we headed back to camp for a well earned rest.
After what we thought was just an afternoon monsoon, we caught the shuttle again along the valley to walk the scenic Pa’rus Trail. The paved path follows the river for 3.5 miles offering great views of the valley along the way. Unfortunately the only thing in our view was a big black cloud heading towards us so any scenery admiring was sacrificed for a brisk walk in the hope of making it back to camp before the storm hit again. Luckily, our fast trot paid off and we made it back just as the rain began, it then didn’t stop all night.
The next morning the rain was still pouring so another attempt at Angel’s Landing wasn’t possible (I’m pretty sure George was secretly relieved