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Zion National Park, UT

Zion National Park RecreationBiking, swimming, backpacking, fishing, hiking—whatever your interest, make sure you experience these recreational highlights, as chosen by AAA editors.

By Frank Swanson

Because Zion National Park is largely undeveloped desert and steep-walled canyons, outdoor activities are limited mainly to hiking—although it's hard to imagine more spectacular day hikes than those offered here. Most trails are in Zion Canyon, but three in the Kolob Canyons area are popular as well. The less difficult trails tend to meander along the bottom of Zion Canyon to picturesque settings, while those ascending to truly breathtaking viewpoints require a more, well, breathtaking hike.

Some of the easiest trails lead to the three Emerald Pools (the trailhead is across from Zion Lodge). The .6-mile concrete path to the Lower Emerald Pool is no more challenging than a city sidewalk. A waterfall spills into the green-tinted pond from a curved rock overhang, and pinyon pines and junipers line the way.

Once you reach the lower pool, the pavement continues behind the falls to a short but steep unpaved trail leading to the Middle Emerald Pool. From there, climb another 200 feet—this part is strenuous—and you'll reach the Upper Emerald Pool at the base of the cliffs below Heaps Canyon. From the Emerald Pools you'll have a great view across Zion Canyon to Red Arch Mountain.

The Watchman Trail, which begins near the Zion Canyon Visitor Center , starts out among the water-loving cottonwood trees bordering the Virgin River and winds into a dry, sunny canyon strewn with boulders and dotted with prickly pear cactus. This moderately strenuous trail ends at an overlook on a low hill, a vantage point that encompasses Springdale and the lower portion of Zion Canyon. You'll also be in the shadow of the trail's namesake, a jagged 6,545-foot peak known as the Watchman.

On the western side of the park you'll find another moderate trail extending from the parking lot at Kolob Canyons Viewpoint to Timber Creek Overlook. The view of the series of reddish peaks marking the entrances to five “finger” canyons is actually best from the parking lot; hiking the rocky .5-mile ridgetop trail to the overlook adds little to the spectacle. You will, however, have a nice perspective at trail's end of the mountains and mesas south of the park, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the Kaibab Plateau at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Near Zion Canyon's northern end, where the Virgin River slinks around two slivers of rock known as Angels Landing and the Organ, are two of Zion's most spectacular overlooks. To get to either one, however, you'll have to hike your heart out. Angels Landing Trail , the somewhat easier trek, ascends the towering, same-named formation, a climb of about 1,490 feet over a distance of 2.5 miles. A chain embedded into the rock guides you the last half-mile out onto Angels Landing for a gorgeous 360-degree view. Have someone take a picture, because you'll want proof that you're crazy enough to scramble out along a ledge with a 1,500-foot drop on either side.

Although harder on the body, the 4-mile-long Observation Point Trail is a bit easier on the nerves. The drop-offs are just as dizzying but are limited to one side of the trail. You do have to be prepared to ascend a stamina-testing 2,150 feet. The mostly paved path climbs up the east wall in a series of switchbacks, enters Echo Canyon—a pretty slot canyon with curving, water-smoothed sides—then traverses another set of switchbacks to the East Rim. One more mile atop this plateau and you're there, the Observation Point, from which you'll have what are arguably the best views of Zion Canyon. Standing here, you'll look down on Angels Landing.

flickr/Don Graham
You don't have to endure an exhausting climb, however, to enjoy a wonderful view. One of Zion's easiest trails, and consequently one of its most popular, is Riverside Walk . Following the Virgin River, this paved path begins at the Temple of Sinawava , the last shuttle stop on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and extends 1 mile north. The distance from one side of Zion Canyon to the other gradually decreases as you approach the Temple of Sinawava, and continues to do so the farther you walk. By the time you reach the pavement's end, you'll likely be in the shade of one side or the other.

If you have the proper shoes (waterproof with good anti-slip soles), continue down a short flight of stone stairs that leads down from the end of Riverside Walk to the riverbed and actually hike in the river—a challenge thanks to patches of slippery stones and boulders. You can continue north for another 5 miles up the Narrows, one of the park's most photographed areas.

Splashing through a cool river as it meanders between beautiful, erosion-sculpted sandstone walls soaring thousands of feet above you is an experience you won't soon forget. If you hike the full 5 miles you'll pass Mystery Falls—where streams of water trickle down the rock face, and through Wall Street, which is so narrow it's almost like a tunnel—all the way to Big Springs, where the park service requires day hikers to turn around. Just check at the visitor center to make sure river conditions are safe; you don't want to be caught in a flash flood, a real danger in these parts.

The more easily accessible campgrounds in the park's developed areas fill up quickly, so reservations are advised if you want to camp. Watchman Campground is at the park's southern entrance (campsites right along the Virgin River cost extra). The South Campground is open from early March through late October and also offers sites along the river. Outside the park boundaries are Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort and Zion River Resort , both of which cater mainly to RV owners but rent a few tent sites as well.

Cyclists can take advantage of the 3.5-mile, paved Pa'rus Trail, which follows the Virgin River. And from April through October, when Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open only to park shuttles, cyclists can enjoy the canyon scenery without fear of getting creamed by a driver distracted by the view.

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Zion National Park, UT

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