Q&A: What’s there to do around Zion?

I often get asked about tech, photography, travel and a lot of that communication happens in person, messenger or email. So as an experiment, I’m going to try to commit more of this to writing so that it can remain here for others. Topics will be sporadic and random, but if there’s interest I’ll keep it up.

OK the most recent question…

“If I had a few days to spend around Zion in February, what’s should I do?”.

The friend who asked me this is traveling by herself in February, with a 2WD car. Assuming a few nights stay and interest in hiking, a bit of photography, scenery and generally the awesomness of Utah’s outdoors.

Where to stay

The great thing about traveling in winter in UT is that there’s great availability for accommodation and it’s much cheaper than the peak season of Summer. I think the three best options for staying are either:

  • Springdale, UT. This is right outside the park entrance. For example the Holiday Inn Express — I’ve stayed here and it’s a great option that you can prob get for < $100 during this time of year.
  • Kanab, UT. About an hour away. This is where we usually stay. The Holiday Inn Express is great (will be cheaper than Springdale) and the Days Inn is slightly cheaper.
  • St George, UT. Also about an hour away and a bigger town. We’ve stayed at the La Quinta here and it’s once of the nicest LQ’s we’ve been to.

Springdale is obviously the closest but the other two options are excellent as they are close to a lot of great outdoor options.

Weather

All weather in Utah can be subject to change at a moment’s notice. Watch out for alerts, never hike in or around a slot canyon even if there is rain within 20 miles and have the appropriate gear if there’s snow. As a general guide, the following altitudes are worth noting:

  • St George: ~3,000 ft
  • Zion (Visitor Center): ~4,000 ft
  • Kanab: ~5,000 ft
  • Bryce Canyon Visitor Center: ~7,5000 ft

Obviously lots of other factors affect the weather and the presence of snow, but altitude is one of the most important factors. Although only two hours away, it can be warm and sunny at St George yet snowing at Bryce Canyon.

What to do (easier version)

For a first timer / outdoor enthusiasts, these are a few of the top things I’d recommend:

  • Angels Landing, Zion National Park. Depending on who you ask, this hike is considered one of the best, most epic or most dangerous hikes in the US. Some consider it to be all three. The 5M hike is really in two halves. The first 2 miles is paved, doesn’t have any dropoffs and is a mix of switchbacks and great views. At the end of that you have the final half mile which is where you need to use the existing chains to stay on the trail. No climbing experience necessary — just an iron stomach and careful steps. Photos don’t do it justice but you can find lots of great YouTube videos on hikes up there (e.g. here — the view at 2:55 is a personal favorite). I wouldn’t recommend if raining and certainly not snowing.
  • Observation Point, Zion National Park. What it lacks in Angels Landing’s drama, it makes up for in variety. On this 8 mile out-and-back, you hike switch backs, walk through small canyons and see an amazing variety of scenery and views. There is one section which has a dropoff (the last mile or so) but you just need to stick to the mountain side. One of my favorite hikes of all time and can be done even if snowy (take care, bring microspikes, poles, etc).
  • Snow Canyon State Park, St George. One of the finest State parks I’ve been to. Very well maintained, beautiful red rocks and great hikes. State park fees.
  • Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Kanab. There’s lots of great things around Kanab, and it serves as the location for The Wave lottery. However, a great destination I always try to make it back to is Coral Pink Sand Dunes. These 10,000 year old sand dunes are beautiful at sunrise / sunset, and even better if fresh snow has fallen. State park fees.
  • Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon is an epic adventure. If there is snow, 4WD and more importantly winter tires should be considered mandatory. There’s a ton of great resources available online on hikes to take up at Bryce. This is how it looked in Jan 2017 when I was there:

If you don’t mind the drive, go a couple of hours East to Page, AZ. Here there are two notable things to check out which are a photographer’s dream:

  • Horseshoe Bend, Page. Amazing at sunrise and sunset when photographers will make the early morning or late day pilgrimage. It’s not fenced in so you can get really close to the image, but resist this temptation as the rocks at the ledge are extremely fragile and can collapse under you and your weight (or weaken it for future visitors). The view and drop off is stunning and amazing. Short hike and no fees.
  • Antelope Canyon. Possibly one of the most iconic locations in the Southwest. There’s tour fees as this is on Navajo land which you can just walk up and pay. There’s also a longer photographer’s tour which I plan to go on one day. I took only snapshots the first and only time I was there in 2011 and resolve to go back one day to take something I’ll consider worthy of framing. Pretty much any photos look great there though. You take a jeep out to the location and you spend 20–30 mins walking around inside the Canyon. It’s amazing. Just go.

On the way to Page AZ, there’s plenty of stop off points around Lake Powell (which is where the Colorado River flows into before entering the Grand Canyon). Definitely worth stopping for.

Here’s what all the above recommendations look like on a map:

Link here.

What to do (harder version)

  • Paria Townsite. 30 miles or so East of Kanab. It can be harder to get to because it’s off-road (so 4WD recommended, etc). Beautiful painted hills and an old townsite.
  • The Wave. One of the most sought after, and thankfully also one of the most protected locations. Only a few hundred people per year are given permits (via a lottery) for this hike. I’ve been unsuccessful in person at the lottery 3 or 4 times now. One day.
  • Buckskin Gulch. Once called one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the US. It’s hard to get to, and even harder to complete. Not as pretty as Antelope Canyon, but instead of it being a few hundred yards long, it’s over 10 miles in length . One of the best experiences I’ve had in Utah was hiking a few mile of this. I plan to complete the entire section one day.
  • White Pocket. Maybe the hardest drive of anything listed here, especially in snow which is what we encountered this winter when we made it out there. One of the most serene places I’ve traveled to — worth the drive if you can do it safely. If not, there are tours which you can join.

Most important

Always remember, you’re a guest in these lands and should always strive to leave them in a better condition than when you arrived. We’re privileged to have largely unrestricted access to these amazing public lands, and that only continues so long as we keep it beautiful. Also, stay safe and never drive or hike beyond your ability. I’ll do a few posts later on what I learned on this topic.

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