Zion National Park, Utah
Earn access to the inner sanctum
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“Red Yosemite”a label attached to Zion for the coincidence of richly hued, 2,000-foot [610-meter] cliff walls surrounding a lush river valleyis a misnomer.
In truth, Yosemite should be called Granite Zion, since the North Fork of the Virgin River had pretty well finished carving Navajo sandstone into a wonderland of towers, temples, and buttresses millions of years before glaciers got to work in the Yosemite Valley.
The Virgin’s handiwork inspires mad shutter snapping along the park’s macadamized pathways and scenic drives. From farther afield on wilderness trails, it inspires nothing short of awe.
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5 Perfect Days
The Ultimate Itinerary
Stop by the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to pick up backcountry permits for today’s trip and for the canyoneering trip on day four. Resist the temptation to forge right into Zion Canyon. Instead, build the suspense by approaching it at the end of a two-day, 14-mile [23-kilometer] backpack trip on the West Rim Trail.
The route begins at Lava Point, on the park’s northern boundary. Zion Canyon Transportation (877 635 5993, U.S. and Canada only) provides shuttle service from the visitors center to the trailhead for $30. The trail crosses a high, narrow plateau through ponderosa pine, with terrific canyon-country views to the east and west.
Camp for the night in grassy Potato Hollow, where there’s a reliable water source and cliffside tenting overlooking Imlay Canyon, 1,600 feet [488 meters] below.
Today’s nine-mile [14-kilometer] hike skirts the tops of canyons that slice dramatically into the plateau, each more spectacular than the last, then descends to the North Fork of the Virgin River. Along the way, make the short side trip to Angels Landing.
Leave your pack behind as you walk along razor-edge cliff tops. When you get all the way down to the Virgin, either catch the shuttle bus at the Grotto or walk down to the Court of the Patriarchs. Spend the night at tenter-friendly Watchman Campground (for reservations, call 800 365 2267, U.S. and Canada only).
Prepare for tomorrow’s trip into one of the least visited of Zion’s more than 60 slot canyons by taking a canyoneering course with Zion Adventure Company ($149; +1 435 772 1001; www.zionadventures.com).
You’ll learn basic rappelling techniques, knots, anchors, and other vital skills in narrow, fluted Battle Creek Canyon, outside Zion. (Professional guiding is not allowed inside the park.)
“Most canyons in Zion are one-day trips,” says Tom Jones, who runs Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide (www.canyoneeringusa.com/utah/), a Web site for aficionados of the sport. But the 18-mile [29-kilometer] Great West Canyon (aka Right Fork of the North Creek) “is multiday, has a real wilderness feel, and doesn’t require serious canyoneering skills. It’s a classic.”
This off-trail hike moves down Wildcat Canyon beneath soaring cliffs, and privacy is virtually assured, unlike in the adjoining Left Fork, aka the Subway. (Your camp tonight, however, will be at the top of the Left Fork, where there’s a water source.)
After rappelling into the canyon of the Right Fork, squeeze through narrow slots shaded by sheer canyon walls. Ahead lies Black Pool, where you’ll have to swim the length of a football field through ice-cold waters, the overhanging Grand Alcove, and plenty of pools and waterfalls.
The highlight is rappelling 60 feet [18 meters] right beside Barrier Falls. Camp tonight in the canyon.
Permits: Overnight backpacking and canyoneering permits, available at the visitors centers for $5, can be reserved up to three days in advance. Permits for the Narrows are subject to a quota and are available 24 hours in advance.
Contact: For a trip planner, contact the park’s backcountry desk (+1 435 772 0170; www.nps.gov/zion). Zion Adventure Company rents some canyoneering gear, including harnesses and dry bags, but not ropes or belay devices. Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide (www.canyoneeringusa.com/utah/intro/guides.htm) grades the difficulty, danger, and overall quality of the routes.
For the full Zion National Park guide, pick up the May 2002 Adventure.
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