Zion National Park
Utah, USA
9 days - Oct, 2016


Approaching The Subway
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

In August 2015 I fist visited an American National Park. I went to Yosemite and came back home absolutely amazed by its natural beauty, and by the impeccable work done by National Park Service. At leaving that park, I was already thinking about which one would be the next to be visited. Browsing the web, it's easy to find out lots of good options. However, I had no doubts that Zion National Park would be the next destination. The wonderful pictures, and a biome completely different from what we had seen in Yosemite, made this park in the Utah desert a perfect choice.

Roughly one year before the trip, the first studies about Zion started. In this stage, the Park's official website and the Joe's Guide To Zion National Park were especially useful. The latter was particularly important to the planning of our biggest hike: The Zion Traverse. Besides these sites, the National Geographic's topographic maps always come in very handy, not only during planning, but also during the hike itself. We also used the book Zion: Canyoneering for the planning of The Subway. We were especially anxious for this this last hike as it's a canyoneering route, requiring climbing gear. Despite our party's previous rock climbing experience, that was going to be a strange environment for everyone.

Choosing dates

Cactus in the Great West Canyon ascent, at the end of The Subway

Among the first decisions we had to make, was the season for the visit. In summer, temperatures are extremely high during the day, storms can cause flash floods in the canyons and some of the few water sources available for the long hikes dry up. In winter, temperatures are pretty low at night, it rains a lot, the snow accumulation makes it harder to hike in the highest areas and routes that requires wading or swimming in the rivers becomes much more dangerous because of the extremely cold water.

Depending on the activities planned to the trip, one or another of these risk factors can be more or less relevant. As our itinerary would involve a variety of activities, we tried to choose a time frame able to minimize the risks. According to our studies, that would be either the months of April or October. We picked the second option because it would give us more time for planning.

Itinerary and gear

Mandatory swim section in The Subway
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

Seven months before the trip, we have already planned which routes we'd like to hike inside the park. Its main attractions were in our wishlist: the Angel's Landing (day hike), The Narrows (two-day hike), The Subway (day hike), and Zion Traverse (five-day hike). All the hikes, except Angel's Landing, required obtaining a backcountry permit from the Park. For The Subway, the permits are granted via a lottery system. The candidate is required to apply months ahead and wait for the winners announcement. For The Narrows and the Zion Traverse, the permits are drawn, also months ahead, directly via the reservations website. Either via lottery or via website, getting theses permits is anything but easy. They are very coveted and sell out in a matter of minutes.

The Narrows and The subway required us special planning. Both these hikes take place inside slot canyons. The Narrows consists basically in wading the north fork of Virgin River for two days. The Subway is a one-day canyoneering route with technical sections requiring climbing gear and mandatory swims. Wading and swimming in cold water, with diminished sunlight, increases the risk of hypothermia. That's why, depending on water and air temperature, it's advisable to wear special shoes and garment. We decided to evaluate the temperatures later in the park and make a decision on renting clothing short before the hikes. It's possible to rent such gear in Springdale, a small town close to the park. We counted on Zion Adventures for that. In regard to the climbing gear for The Subway, we decided to use our own. We took hardware, harnesses and one 20 meter rope, which was enough for the rappellings. For both hikes, we took our dry sacks so that we could protect our equipment, especially in the mandatory swim sections.

Base camp

Watchman Campground
Photo by: Clóvis Fitarelli

To optimize our time in the park, we planned to do all hikes in a row. In the nights between hikes, we would sleep at Watchman Campground, in the park's developed area. However, the Watchman Campground requires reservations too. As we were planning to stay there in a pretty popular month, getting a good spot, even in the frontcountry, wouldn't be easy. Reservations for campsites at Watchman Campground may be made six months prior to arrival.

In theory, we needed to stay there only a few nights. However, at that moment, we didn't know if we were going to score the required permits for the planned hikes. So, we decided booking Watchman for our whole stay in the park. We succeeded in the reservation, taking one more step toward turning this trip into reality. A tip in regard to this reservation is identifying the best campsites in advance using the booking website. This site provides detailed info about each campsite and, the shading info, is a particularly important one for Zion.

Flight tickets

Also six months in advance, and still without the backcountry permits confirmation, we thought the time has come to book flights. We've been tracking prices and deals for sometime and found what we thought could be a good deal. A flight to Las Vegas, operated by Copa Airlines, with one stop in Panama. If the backcountry permits reservations didn't work out, we would need to come up with another itinerary. In this same trip to the US, indeed, we were already considering visiting other parks. So, as a last resource, we would go for the day hikes (that usually don't require permits), either in Zion, or in another park.

Lottery application

Zion Traverse: Rattlesnake hides in a crack in the east wall of the Zion Canyon.
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

Three months before the trip, it was time to the application for The Subway lottery. The application is made through the Park website. In the application form, the visitor may choose up to three different dates. We picked three work days intentionally, to improve our odds. For each of these days, we've planned how to fit the other activities in the itinerary.

Our best case scenario was to hike The Subway in the last day in the park. We knew that it was going to be a long hike, with unpredictable end time. If we had to start another hike in the following day, we would be running the risk of not making it back to the frontcountry in time to get the permit for the next hike. That's because, despite the permit reservations are made online, the visitors are required to show up in person at a backcountry office to obtain their actual permit. With the applications done, we only had to wait the lottery result, to be announced in the following month.

Car and hotel

While we waited the result, we sorted the rental car and hotel reservations out. We rented a car from Dollar. We hadn't any problems with the service, but later we realized that, certainly, we could had got a best deal from sites such as Rent Car or Rental Cars. Indeed, we benefited from them in the visits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton in the following years. For our first nights in Las Vegas, we booked the Silverton, and, for the nights after the park, we chose the Super 8. The later would become our "first choice hotel" for our next Las Vegas-based trips. Unlike the cassino hotels in the city, this hotel doesn't charge the inconvenient "resort fee", and offers everything we need to a trip like this, for a inexpensive cost.

The Subway result and other permits

Fist day in The Narrows

Late morning of August 5th, two months before the trip, the Park emailed us with the result for The Subway. We had won the lottery for our preferred day! We were going, not only to hike one of the most popular routes in Zion, but also accordingly to our best-case itinerary. At 13 PM of the same day, the reservation window for the other permits was going to open. Shortly before that time, I was already settled in front of my computer. At 12:59 PM the NPS servers started to show some delay due to the high demand from don't-know-how-many users refreshing their browsers simultaneously. Even with the connection error messages, I insisted in the reservation page until get access. Once in the website, the first permit that I tried - with success - was the one for the coveted The Narrows. A few minutes later, there wasn't virtually any other dates left for this hike, for the whole month of October. As in The Subway, choosing work days for the hike certainly has helped us to succeed.

Camping at the East Rim of Zion Canyon, on the forth night of Zion Traverse.

Immediately after submitting the Narrows' application form, I started trying to get the permits for the Zion Traverse. This time, unfortunately, we managed to get only three out of the four nights that we needed to complete the traverse. The worst: If the missing permit was related to the last night, we could shorten the route, finishing the hike at The Grotto. But that was the third night, planned to the West Rim. This night fell on a Saturday. Despite our efforts to avoid the weekends, with a itinerary as long as ours, that was impossible to dodge all of them.

We were simultaneously glad for had scored two very popular hikes, and deeply frustrated with the longest hike in the park being compromised. In the following days we started thinking about alternative plans while, felling a little hopeless, we checked the Park website every now and then for some cancellation. After three days, short after midday, I received a call from my buddy telling me that he had make it. We were very excited! We've got the last pending permit and our itinerary was finally complete!


Zion's internal bus shuttle. In the high season, some areas in the park can only be accessed by shuttle bus.
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

With the permits problem solved, we promptly began arranging the shuttles for the hikes. We had already booked the rental car to help us moving around during the trip but it would not work for the multi-day hikes. We were going to need someone to bring us back to the car once we have finished the hike, miles away from the start point. At that moment, we had already searched for people and companies doing this job in the area. There aren't many options. Nonetheless, we did find the Zion Adventures (the same one which rents gear in Springdale), by the way, it's very recommended on the Internet. Indeed, they offered a very professional service, from the booking to the execution. We booked shuttles for all the three hikes with them. Additionally, we counted on the Park's internal bus service, available on the high season, to help with The Narrows' logistics. In the section impressions, I'll describe in more details our transportation logistics.

Insurance & luck

With one month left to the trip, I bought my travel insurance from World Nomades. After this last step, all the planning we could had done, was done. However, circumstances beyond our control could interfere with our plans yet. The slot canyons at The Narrows and The Subway are areas subject to dangerous flash floods. The USGS provides a website where water flow data and several other parameters from an impressive amount of streams, spread all over the US territory, can be consulted. Among these streams, are the ones located in Zion. Some of this data are published almost in real time. That's a very useful tool to monitor the conditions in the area. In addition to it, weather forecast are provided at the park daily, including air and water conditions, to support the final decision on whether to enter the canyons, or not.

The inconvenient water source at the Wildcat Canyon. One of the few available during the Zion Traverse.

While the major concern in regard to these two hikes is water in excess, in the Zion Traverse, the worry is the lack of water. The traverse offers rare opportunities to refill. Knowing before hand the conditions of these creeks and springs is paramount for the hiker. Surprisingly, the Park used to provide on its website a section where the visitor was able to obtain the most updated water source conditions. Unfortunately, I can't access it anymore, by the time I write this article. Anyway, in the park, at the ranger stations, it is also possible to get this updated information for last-minute decision making.

The preparation for the Zion trip involved plenty of reading and meticulous planning. We were luck to got all the permits required for the activities we chose. Moreover, we managed to optimize our time in the Park. The chosen season was very appropriate too. We had very cold mornings, but comfortable temperatures to hike during the day, in addition to the wonderful fall landscapes. The water levels were favorable for wading. The water sources were scarce, as expected, but were able to supply us when most needed. In the following section, I tell about our experience in each hike in more details.

By: Angelo Vimeney
Published: Apr 28, 2020

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