Hiking Zion National Park

Riverside Walk & Lower to Upper Emerald Pools Hikes

By Lynn Bremner

If you’re looking for a fun destination for hiking, but still want to stay cool this summer, check out Zion National Park. Just two and a half hours from Las Vegas, Zion offers trails and outdoor recreation for all levels. During my visit I had a great time hiking several trails along the Virgin River. Zion has a shuttle service that runs from mid-March through the end of October. It stops at nine locations within the park; visitors are able to pick it up from various stops in the nearby town of Springdale, UT. Avoid driving your car into Zion, the traffic in summer can be a real challenge.

I stayed at the Hampton Inn, which is conveniently located near one of the shuttle stops. Guests receive a complimentary breakfast in the dining area, which allowed me more time to get an early start. I only had one full day to explore Zion so I really wanted to get to the park as soon as possible.

After breakfast at the hotel, I picked up a lunch to pack along at the local grocery store and started out for one of the easiest hikes in Zion, the Riverside Walk. It starts at the South Campground and takes you to Canyon Junction. It’s a 2.2 mile, round trip, paved trail that leads to areas where you can swim in the Virgin River or picnic along the bank. At the end of the walk there’s an especially nice area to picnic or swim. I waded into the river up to my knees to cool off before my journey back.

Views along the Riverside Walk trail.

Also located near the end of the Riverside Walk is the starting point of the Narrows Trail, a strenuous hike that goes through a gorge where 60% of the trail is in the water. Special equipment is needed to navigate and hike the Narrows. I didn’t have time on my trip to do it, but a few hikers that I had met in Arches National Park just a couple of days earlier had just come from Zion. They said the Narrows was the highlight of their trip, so if you have the time, equipment and fitness level, go for it!

Trail to Lower Emerald Pools.


My next hike was to the lower and upper Emerald pools. I decided to take the shuttle to the Zion Lodge and find a quiet spot by the river to eat lunch and rest before the hike. After that, I headed to the trails. The first leg of the trail takes you to the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfalls; it’s marked as one of the easier hikes with a distance of 1.2 miles round trip. The trail is paved and also connects to the Upper Emerald Pool Trail, which is a moderate trail that’s not paved.

The Upper Pool Trail requires stepping over rocks along a sandy path that’s all uphill one way. It’s worth it though. When you arrive at the Upper Emerald Pool, you’re treated to a beautiful scene of shimmering water at the base of a majestic cliff. You can sit in the sand at the edge of the pool or nearby on large boulders and relax. There’s some shade at the top of the trail and it’s a peaceful location to rest and take in the spectacular views of the towering cliffs above. The return journey takes you back along the same trail, so it’s all downhill and much easier than the hike up.

Horses crossing the river near the Emerald Pools Trailhead.

After a long day of hiking, I stopped at the Castle Dome Café where the Soup of the Day was “Beer.” Ice-cold beer sure sounded good to me, so I enjoyed one of the local microbrews on the patio and reflected back on my trip through the southwest. What an amazing journey I’d had. My trip had started in Palm Springs and I’d driven to Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridge, to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend in Page, AZ and then on to Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and finally to Zion. It was the last day of my vacation. Tomorrow, I would pack my bags and head back towards Las Vegas and return to Palm Springs where my journey began.

Last day in Zion.


Other Hikes at Zion National Park

Two well-known hiking trails in Zion National Park that we did not hike, but are worth noting are Angels Landing and The Narrows.  The following descriptions of these trails are provided by NPS.

Angels Landing Hike 

Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion National Park. Many who go there want to experience untamed adventure and get a classic photograph. Its’ now famous name descends from Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher who, on his first visit to Zion Canyon in 1916 allegedly quipped only an angel could land there.

The hike is strenuous, and your safety is your responsibility. We have some tips to help reduce the risks you take and ensure you have an enjoyable hike.

In response to concerns about crowding and congestion on the trail, on and after April 1, 2022, everyone who hikes Angels Landing needs to have a permit. The pilot permit program reflects lessons learned when we metered the number of hikers on the trail in 2019 and 2021 and by distributing tickets to use the park shuttle system in response to COVID-19 in 2020. (Source NPS)

An intrepid hiker descends the Angels Landing route with near 1000 foot drops on both sides.
NPS Photo / Caitlin Ceci

The Narrows Hike – The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This gorge, with walls a thousand feet tall and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide, is one of the most popular areas in Zion National Park. You can see The Narrows by hiking along the paved, wheelchair accessible Riverside Walk for one mile from the Temple of Sinawava. If you wish to see more, you will be walking in the Virgin River. This can involve wading upstream for just a few minutes or it can be an all day hike. (Source: NPS)

Hikers navigate water and rocks in the Narrows.
NPS Photo / Marc Neidig

NOTE: Always check for alerts and conditions at the Park before you go.  Use this link to review news, conditions and alerts at Zion National Park. 

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