Zion National Park, UTAH

The lower and upper reaches of Zion National Park

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“A young figure sits still by a pool
He's been stamped 'human bacon' by some butchery tool
He is you”

Is it worth visiting a National Park if it’s choked with tourists? I mean, the point of this road trip is to see America’s best natural wonders and to get a glimpse into what the continent was like before people came and left their mark. And Zion National Park in southwestern Utah isn’t exactly an undiscovered jewel of the West.

I admit it: I was quite nervous about visiting Zion. Masayo and I had just come from the Grand Canyon, where we encountered crowds that weren’t terrible but were thicker than we’ve gotten used to. And then there is a fact that very, very nearly made me cross Zion off the list altogether.

Cars are banned from most of the Park and visitors must use shuttle buses.

When I found this out a day or two ago, I started having big doubts about Zion. Get carted along in a packed bus full of grumpy, sweaty tourists, see only the points that the Park planners want me to see and losing my sense of freedom and adventure? Forget it!

I talked it over with Masayo and she agreed that skipping Zion would be ok. And that was that.

But it seemed a rash decision. And so I kept digging into the realities of the situation, trying to talk myself back into visiting Zion. And I did it by reasoning that I’d not seen a Park in such a touristy manner before so I should try it at least once. If it sucked I could skip such Parks in the future – but maybe it would be all right.

I also got excited by the possibility of hiking part of The Narrows, a trail that goes up a river through a narrow channel with giant rocks on either side. The water can be chilly and waist-deep or more in places, but I thought Masayo and I could handle at least a little of it. And most visitors are, of course, sitting on buses or shuffling along the short mile-long approach trail to The Narrows so it’s not like the river itself would be crowded.

Zion was back on!

We woke up early in our room in St. George, UT and drove to get a parking space at the visitor center before it filled up. And things got off to an excellent start: not only were there plenty of spaces but we got one right under the shade of a large tree.

A ranger in the visitor center said that the river in The Narrows was quite cold and especially deep and fast today, and she didn’t recommend doing it. So that plan was out, but I had a backup plan: hiking into the canyon walls and to the Emerald Pools.

After buying our postcards and tokens as usual we got in the long, snake-like line for the shuttle outside. Sigh – here we go. A National Park in the style of Disneyland.

The line was slow and the shuttle buses were slow to arrive but it wasn’t too bad. The early morning light and air were pleasant and everyone seemed chipper and eager. So far so good.

We rode the bus to stop #8 to look around at the scenery (and we were the only ones that got off here – we had the place all to ourselves). Then we took another bus back a few stops to begin the hike up to the Emerald Pools.

There are three pools of water created by springs in the rock walls. Our hike to the Lower Pool was nice but taxing. The morning was young but the weather was getting hot already, and the trail was dusty. Masayo used her hiking poles, for the first time – we each bought a pair for this trip but have never been able to remember them when leaving the car for a hike. They seemed to help her.

At the Lower Pool.

After reaching the Lower Pool, where a group of tourists sat and rested under a dramatic spray of water droplets off of a cliff wall that juts out, we decided to hike all the way up to the Middle and Upper Pools.

My blood sugar was a little high, and had been all morning. And for this kind of exercise, that’s the way I liked it. Hovering around 200 suited me fine since I knew that this exercise was doing nothing but pulling it down.

The Middle Pool.

At the Upper Pool, a smaller but more proud group sat in the shade of some trees, admiring the small pool and its clear reflection of the rocks around it. A frog wandered around a rock beside the water as squirrels, demonstrating a pronounced lack of shyness, approached us and asked if they could have some of our protein bars. (Nope, not even a crumb.)

The Upper Pool.

Masayo seemed very worn out but we had to go down. I gave her small pep talks and led her down the path, back past the other two pools and finally down to the roadside. It was the lodge area, and we sat on a giant lawn under a humongous tree with several others and ate our lunch, which I’d carried in my backpack with my insulin and BG stuff.

BG 166 after hiking to the Upper Pool. More hiking to come – I had a protein bar (20g of carbs).

Two women were doing yoga behind us in the cool, vivid green grass and to our left a group of seniors had gathered and were singing songs. I don’t know if they just came together spontaneously but it seemed like it. Every tune was Americana: “God Bless America”, “Grand Old Flag”, “This Land Is Your Land”, and even “Symptom of the Universe”.

All right, I made that last one up. At any rate, it was nice to have this chorus of Park-inspired music wafting through the air while we ate.

We took the shuttle back to the visitor center and our car was still parked under the shade, as cool as you please. We drove out of the Park by another road – a famous highway that passed through a mile-long tunnel and then through some completely different landscape. The terrain on the other side of the tunnel is distinguished by its striated rocky hills. We kept stopping and taking photos of this view and that: I’d never seen anything like this and didn’t even know that intricately layered rocks such as these existed.

And that was Zion. I’d had a ball; we might be a bit worn out but it was in a good way. The shuttle buses were in fact a nice way to get around. The other tourists were fine (and there weren’t endless hordes of them anyway). We got to hike around, further than most people go, and we saw everything we could in our car. I’m glad I penciled Zion back in after deciding not to go – we would have missed all that and the trip would have been poorer for it.

Have you ever been hiking in hot weather?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Day 61: Among the mystical orange pillars of Bryce Canyon

“Bryce Canyon and its insane orange rock hoodoos are nothing like anything you've ever seen. This is truly a trip into the mystic.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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The lower and upper reaches of Zion National Park

  1. Love that you still did Zion! It is surprisingly beautiful and the shuttles are so convenient and efficient.

    I hike and snowshoe so I’m used to temperature extremes both ways. In hot weather I try to start over 130, drink plenty of water, and gradually eat some carbs as I hike. I test wherever my turnaround is and decide from there if I need to adjust for the trek back.

    Really enjoying all your posts!

    • Thanks Gabrielle! Your routine sounds pretty smart.

      One thing I’ve learned on this trip: don’t skip any park if at all possible!

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