Utah's first and most popular national park, Zion is a spectacularly beautiful spot that offers a wide variety of sights and experiences. The park is home to creatures of practically all shapes and sizes, from the minute Zion snail -- almost too small to see at all -- on up. Massive rock formations, such as the Great White Throne, give one the feeling that this land is something permanent, but the beautiful Narrows, where time and water have carved huge chunks of stone into a delicate work of art, prove otherwise.
Tips from a Park Ranger
"One of the most spectacular places on earth," is how Ron Terry, Zion National Park's former chief of interpretation, describes the park. "Its beauty and grandeur are overpowering. You cannot visit Zion without being inspired and awestruck by the immensity of the towering sandstone cliffs and deep, narrow canyons."
However, even though Zion is the most visited national park in Utah, Terry says it is still possible to find solitude in its numerous out-of-the-way places.
"One of Zion's lesser-known but stunningly beautiful areas is Kolob Canyons," Terry says. "The Kolob Canyons Scenic Drive includes numerous pullouts, providing a chance to get out of the car and drink in the beauty of the red sandstone cliffs and hanging valleys of the Finger Canyons of the Kolob."
"The hike up the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek to Double Arch Alcove is well worth the trip, as is the more strenuous hike to Kolob Arch," Terry says. He advises that visitors should be sure to stop first at the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center for current hiking information.
"If you visit Zion in March, April, October, or November you will be sharing the park with fewer people and still have access to most of the park's trails," Terry says. "October and November are particularly beautiful," he adds. "The yellow and gold leaves of the trees along the Virgin River and in its side canyons contrast wonderfully with the reddish colored sandstone of the canyon walls."
According to Terry, your first stop in the park should be at a visitor center to get current weather and flash-flood-potential information, purchase any needed backcountry permits, and get advice from rangers on which trails and attractions are best for you.
Attending one of the park's ranger naturalist programs will also enhance your park experience, according to Terry, who adds, "The time spent attending one of these programs is time well spent." During warmer months there are nightly programs in the campgrounds and at Zion Lodge; plus there are daily talks and ranger-guided shuttle tours.
Terry also suggests a visit to the Zion Human History Museum, which opened in 2002 and features exhibits on how humans have interacted with the geology, water, plants, and animals of the park. An informative orientation film is shown in the museum auditorium.
Although the vast majority of Zion's visitors have a thoroughly enjoyable experience with no serious problems, the park does have some very serious potential dangers.
The Narrows hike, in which hikers spend most of their time in the water, is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but also one of the most potentially dangerous, according to Terry. Before attempting this or any hike in a narrow canyon, visitors need to check at the visitor center for weather forecasts and flash-flood potential, he says.
"Cold and swift water, slippery and uneven walking surfaces, potential flash flooding, and potential hypothermia are all factors to be considered when planning for this hike," Terry says. "Good footwear with ankle support is a must. A walking stick will make the experience much more enjoyable."
Also very popular at Zion are canyoneering and rock climbing. "Canyoneering is a strenuous activity involving traversing narrow slot canyons, usually requiring rappelling equipment and skills," Terry says, and "climbing the towering vertical cliffs in the park is a high-risk activity that should only be attempted by expert climbers."
The soft sandstone of Zion's cliffs and the prohibition of drilling into the rock make climbing in the park doubly dangerous, according to Terry, and climbers who are not experts should obtain their experience in other less extreme conditions.
"Zion is in a desert environment and the summer sun can be very hot," Terry says. "Whatever activity you are participating in should include carrying and drinking plenty of water. Hats and sunscreen are also a must. Know your limits and don't be afraid to end an activity and return another day."
Where to Find Restrooms in Zion
The all-important restrooms at Zion are generally well maintained, but vary considerably in the facilities they offer. As at most national parks, the best restrooms are at the visitor centers, where you'll find heated rooms with sinks and flush toilets. There are also public restrooms at the Zion Lodge shuttle stop. South and Watchman campgrounds, the Grotto Picnic Area, the Human History Museum, and the Temple of Sinawava Trail Head have sinks and flush toilets. Lava Point Campground, Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, Scout Lookout, and Weeping Rock and Canyon Overlook trail heads have vault toilets. Although essentially outhouses, this type of facility has come a long way in the past 25 or 30 years -- they're clean, sanitary, and, best of all, they don't smell. However, they lack lights, water for hand washing, and heat. There are no toilets along the trails or in the backcountry.
During busy times, some facilities may run out of toilet paper, so it's best to carry a backup supply.