Ask Me: The Best Backpacking Trip in Zion National Park
Say you have one last trip to Zion: a 3- to 4-night backpacking trip with a group of men in average condition anywhere in the park.
What trails do you have to see one more time? (Insert any insider details here.)
What month do you go?
You’ve sparked something in myself and a friend to see that place. I know permits are crucial, we’re already planning. I’ve read your articles that mostly include all members of the family (which I respect). Does the itinerary change when it’s just guys?
Thanks so much,
You may have already read my story about a backpacking traverse of Zion from north to south, and my story about dayhiking that same route (both have pictures and a video). It’s about 50 miles, and while it’s not totally casual, it’s not as hard as many mountain backpacking trips; there are relatively flat stretches, though you also drop into and climb out of Zion Canyon, and there are rocky and sandy stretches of trail, too. As the first story describes, there are also ways to shorten it. It does involve a long shuttle, but there are shuttle services available in Springdale, and it’s worth the money for the driving time saved.
Doing that full traverse in four to five days would give you a great tour of the Kolob Canyons area and the Hop Valley, take you down the West Rim Trail (shown in the lead photo above, widely considered the nicest in the park) and the East Rim Trail, plus give you the option of taking outstanding side hikes to the Northgate Peaks Overlook, Angels Landing, and Hidden Canyon.
That’s a very scenic trip, great for a family or a group of friends. Check out the photos, I think you’ll agree.
The plateaus are fairly high, so you have to wait until the snow melts out. I think the best times for moderate temperatures are the first half of May (possibly the second half, too, though it can get hot then in Zion Canyon), or between mid-September and early October. But good weather can last into the second half of October, and the cottonwood tree leaves in Zion Canyon turn golden then. You’ll find more water sources in May than in autumn, which is part of the challenge of planning this trip. But you can camp night one on La Verkin Creek, night two or three on the West Rim Trail (depending on how you split up the miles in between), and a night on the East Rim. You could stash water at the Hop Valley Trailhead to pick up as you hike through there.
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But I have to offer a big caveat: You asked about the best backpacking trip in Zion of four to five days. But if you’re looking for one of the best backpacking trips in the entire country and certainly one of the 10 best backpacking trips in the Southwest, in Zion, that would be The Narrows. I hiked the Narrows in early November—during a spell of unseasonably mild weather (see my story about that trip). You can read descriptions of it and see more photos online, but in short, you’ll hike right in the generally shallow river for two leisurely days, between brilliantly colored canyon walls that soar up to 2,000 feet overhead and close in to a deeply shaded corridor in spots.
It’s popular and tough to get a permit for (see my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”), but that’s because the park regulates the number of overnight hikers to preserve a sense of a wilderness experience: A friend and I saw only two other backpackers early on our first day, and no one else until we were a couple hours downstream on our second day.
Definitely hike it top to bottom rather than dayhiking from the bottom—which a few thousand people do on every warm day from late spring into fall. If you bring or rent a dry suit (available from local outfitters, including Zion Guru and Zion Adventure Co.), and are prepared for hiking in cold water and cool air temps and camping on cold nights, you can do it in early spring and late fall and see far fewer dayhikers in the lower Narrows. Just watch the weather forecast and don’t go if there’s any chance of rain, which can cause deadly flash floods. Check on water levels and the forecast with the park’s backcountry desk the day before you start the hike.
And see my Gear Reviews page for my picks in the best backpacking gear.
Thanks for writing and for following The Big Outside.
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Excellent planning information! This is sure to get us lined up.
Your help is invaluable to me and many others. Thanks so much!
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