Last autumn I had the opportunity to visit Zion National Park. I’d seen the park for years in pictures and film and had been itching to get out there for forever.
I flew into Las Vegas and made the three-hour drive. (There is an airport in St. George, UT, about two hours closer, but there weren’t any open seats getting in. Fall is a busy time for Zion.) Thanks to the late flight, the drive, and the time zone difference, I crawled into bed at 2:30am. Fortunately I was staying at the very cute and very close Bumbleberry Inn, which meant I could sleep late and still get to the park at a decent hour.
My hotel was close enough that I could have used the shuttle to get into the park, but it turns out it’s cheaper to drive your car in. I’m not sure why, though: there are like nine parking spots in the whole park. I ended up parking along the road and hoofing it to a shuttle stop inside the park. In Zion, only the park tram can use the roads most of the year.
Fall is the best time to go. The weather was a perfect 70 degrees, the leaves were changing color, and flash floods weren’t an issue. Unfortunately, that means everyone else in the world goes to Zion in the fall. The place was packed! Parking was packed. Trams were packed. Hikes were packed. But I’d picked a hike that was less popular and still fun: Hidden Canyon, a 3-mile winding hike that promised a moderate number of switchbacks and then a big slot canyon to explore. And then on my way there, the tram driver said that Hidden Canyon was closed.
This is when I got cranky.
This stupid park was too stupid crowded with stupid other people and I didn’t want to do another stupid hike. I wanted my Hidden Canyon. Pout. But obviously I was getting off the tram somewhere and hiking so I had to pick an alternate adventure.
The first choice was Angel’s Landing, a tough 5-miler that involves using chains to get to the top, but it’s also the most popular hike in the park, and there was no way this cranky bear was choosing to be around more people. So I went with Observation Point.
Zion’s Observation Point
Zion’s Observation Point is an 8-mile roundtrip hike featuring a 2,300 foot gain. I’m not in the habit of doing hikes that long—in general, I like 3 or 4 milers, because I am adventurous but out of shape. Still, 8 miles didn’t seem that long, and I have no concept of what elevation changes mean (2,300 ft is like 300 feet per mile, right? That can’t be bad!). The park info said it was a 5 – 6 hour hike. I had all day, and wasn’t planning on winning any races, so I began the trudge uphill.
Thankfully, every turn on that hike was gorgeous. I mean, breathtaking—and not just for the elevation gains. I got over being cranky real quick and focused on the incredible rock stratification, the autumn colors, the walls that went straight up. After about ¾ of a mile you finish the boring switchbacks and move into a fun area of slot canyons. I played around in these for a while, taking pictures and catching my breath.
Then it was a long, long climb up. Everybody passed me—the overweight, the underage, the elderly—but I put my head down and kept going. After a final series of steep, boring switchbacks I finally reached the top of the mountain, but wasn’t quite done yet. Spoiler alert: there was still another mile of walking to get to the point proper. Fortunately, it was pretty flat. Victory was just around the corner.
I eventually crawled my way to Observation Point. It was beyond beautiful. I was also beyond tired. So I snuck to the side, found some shade and celebrated with wine and cheese.
Then there was nothing to do but go back down. I’m not very good at going down (my knees!), but there weren’t any escalators that I could see, so down I went. I was rewarded handsomely for my efforts: being slow meant everyone else was already off Zion’s paths. The rocks were drenched in late afternoon light and I had the place to myself. I took a million-ety pictures, none of which captured how beautiful the hike was, and made it out on one of the last trams of the day.
It was my hardest hike to date, but I’d done it. I ended the day in the hot tub, ate a huge steak dinner in the hotel bed, and slept for eleven hours. My calves may never forgive me, but at least I got gorgeous pictures of Zion.
About Katie: Katie Franco is a travel lover whose greatest feat has been visiting all seven continents in one year. Read about her hikes, her journeys, and learn what “booming” is on her blog. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram!