The drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park took two hours, including the wait time to pass through the Zion-Mount Caramel Tunnel located inside Zion National Park. From Bryce Canyon, we drove Highway 89 to Highway 9 which brought us to the East Ranger Entrance of Zion. It was a surprise to us that we’d be driving through the park to get to our hotel in Springdale (south of the park).
There are multiple overlooks on Highway 9 inside the park but it is difficult to get good photos from these overlooks because they are so close to the stone and the stones are incredibly tall. The other big issue with photography in Zion is shadows. The massive stone cliffs cast huge shadows on the opposite sides of the canyon making what would be an amazing photo, totally shitty. As with photography in Arches, it would take a week of research in the park to figure out the best time of day to get the best photos.
The road through the tunnel is two lanes (one in each direction). It is an arch tunnel and due to the low clearance on the sides, buses, campers, and other tall vehicles can only pass through the tunnel by driving down the middle of the two lanes. Due to this, there are designated times of the day when the tunnel is open for one-way traffic only so that tall vehicles can pass through.
We happened to arrive at the tunnel entrance shortly after the tunnel had opened to one-way traffic going the opposite direction as we were traveling. We were stopped and queued up for 15 minutes before the tunnel cleared and opened for us to pass through. If this happens to you, give Mother Nature a hand and turn your car off.
After arriving in Springdale, we ate lunch and saw a couple we’d seen on the Peekaboo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon earlier that day. We took a much-needed break that afternoon and relaxed at our hotel’s pool which was set in beautiful scenery with nearly 360° degree views of tall stone plateaus. It was lovely and although the pool itself was nothing special, it is one of my favorite pools.
Zion is one of the nation’s busiest parks so to beat the crowds and heat, it is best to visit the park early. Early is defined as being on the Zion park shuttle no later than 7am.
Springdale and Zion shuttles
There are two shuttle services that run in Springdale and Zion National Park and they are not affiliated. This is confusing to many visitors. The Springdale shuttle runs in the city of Springdale only and the Zion shuttle runs in the park only.
The Springdale shuttle’s route follows the main road (leading to the South Park Ranger Entrance) and is free to ride. We used the Springdale shuttle to travel from our hotel to restaurants and I used the Springdale shuttle to transport me from Zion National Park to our hotel one day when Peter had the keys to the car (we hiked separately).
Stop #1 on the Springdale shuttle is located south of the South Park Ranger Entrance. It is important to note that only vehicles can pass through the South Park Ranger Entrance on the road. All foot traffic must follow the footpath along the river and around the backside of the Zion Park visitors center. The Zion shuttle stop is next to the visitors center.
Highway 9 is open to vehicular traffic and with the exception of the overlooks and the Canyon Overlook Trail (very little parking), Highway 9 is used to travel through the park.
All other trails are accessible via the second road, Floor of the Valley Road/Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Vehicle traffic is not permitted on this road (exception: vehicles traveling to Zion National Park Lodge) from early spring to late autumn. During this period, you must use the Zion shuttle to get to trailheads and other sites within the park.
Observation Point Trail
We went on two early morning hikes in Zion, drank beer at lunch, and spent our afternoons at the pool. It was the perfect combination of exertion and relaxation.
At the time of year of our visit, the Springdale shuttle began running at 7am which was an hour too late for us so we drove to the Zion visitors center and parked in the lot for free for both of our hikes. There were plenty of spaces at 6:30am but at the rate, cars were pouring into the lot, my guess is that the parking lot was full by 7am.
Our first hike in Zion was to Observation Point. The hike to Observation Point was eight miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet. The inclines begin immediately at the trailhead and continue for 1.25 miles at which point the trail will level out for a long enough to allow your thighs to stop burning and your brain to stop cursing.
Before I knew it, the incline was back and the trail continued at an incline until the completion of the third mile. At the beginning of the fourth and final mile, the trail dipped slightly and anger immediately washed over me – I had just spent tons of energy walking uphill and the last thing I wanted to do was walk downhill only to walk uphill again.
To my surprise, there wasn’t an incline after the trail dipped and the last mile of the trail was sandy and flat. I was surprised to be walking through a sandy beach on top of the rock formation but that was exactly what we were doing.
The elevation of Observation Point is 6,521 feet and just like our hotel pool, provides near 360° views. Angel’s Landing – known as one of the most dangerous hikes in America – can be seen from Observation Point. I hiked Angel’s Landing the following day and it’s a large rock formation but it looks so tiny from Observation Point. Even the impressive and narrow “spine” of Angel’s Landing is visible from Observation Point; the spine is even more narrow in person (about four feet wide with 1,000 ft drops on both sides).
Due to Peter’s fear of heights, I was again at the mercy of a stranger to take a photo of me at Observation Point. My random photographer was one of the best random photographers I’ve come across!
We spent 15 minutes at Observation Point which was more-than-enough time to take photos, have a quick snack and rest. The knowledge of increasing temperatures was always on our minds so we wanted to get back to the trailhead as early in the day as possible.
I noticed something on our descent that I had not noticed on our ascent (likely because I was cursing my burning lungs). I noticed the variety of trail compositions: Sand, concrete, smooth sandstone, boulders, gravel. I also observed significantly more people on the trail hiking up to Observation Point than there were during our ascent.
My new favorite thing is to run the last section of trail so I ran the last mile down the steep switchbacks to the trailhead.
My round trip time to Observation Point was two hours and 54 minutes (not including the time at Observation Point). This hike was one of the most strenuous hikes I have completed but it was not as hard as some have rated or described.
My advice for this hike is as follows:
- Avoid starting this hike after 7:30am in the summer months
- Bring two liters of water (the park’s recommendation of one gallon is too much and will weigh you down)
- Take breaks when you need them and do so in the shade
- Stop and look around frequently to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing