Zion National Park, in Utah, is one of my favorite places in the world. There are reasons for this: it’s got a landscape of heart-stopping beauty, is an oasis in the middle of arid country, has a rich history (ask me about the man-made tunnel sometime), and is spectacularly well-managed and maintained. It’s also a very easy park to visit, whether you’re solo or traveling with company. The trails are well-marked and detailed descriptions are available in the Zion newspaper or from the helpful rangers. The little town of Springdale, at the base of the canyon, has shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and safe private campgrounds, and provides a free shuttle that runs up the main street and right into the park. The park itself does not allow private automobiles to drive up into the canyon, but rather runs a squeaky clean and frequent shuttle that stops at all the main trailheads.
All of these factors mean that visiting Zion can be very relaxing (you don’t have to worry about traffic, like at Yellowstone, and parking, and finding your way), and it’s also a great place to travel solo. There will be other solos, and the shuttle, trailheads, lodge, and museum (and Springdale) provide many opportunities to interact with other travelers.
However, it’s not just these very practical reasons that make Zion so amazing. There’s a certain extra something about the park and the area that gets the blood pumping and…just sort of wakes you up.
One hike at Zion that’s a great starter hike for a solo hiker is the Emerald Pools Trail. It’s populated (sometimes too populated, see below), it’s accessible, and it’s not a huge commitment. Hiking the entire loop and the branch to the Upper pool is approximately 3 miles round trip, a 2-or-so hour hike. Most of it is easy to moderate, with the exception of the moderately strenuous Upper pools branch. So grab your gear and your camera, have breakfast (or lunch) at the Zion Lodge, and go for it.
The Emerald Pools Trail has three sections: Lower, Middle, and Upper. The Lower and Middle section start from the same place, at the Zion Lodge, and meet up at the Lower Emerald Pools, while the Upper section branches off for a one-way short but steep climb to an upper pool. The trail is so named for the algae in the pools that, particularly when the sunlight is just right, give the pools their emerald brilliance.
The Lower trail is an low-intensity trail that meanders along the Virgin River and then one of the tributaries, protected by the shade of the lush Zion greenery. After just over half a mile, you’ll reach the Lower pool. In the spring, waterfalls from the Middle pools up above cascade into the Lower pool, but even in the drier months this section is quite beautiful.
The Middle trail climbs at the start from the trailhead at Zion Lodge and then levels out, and while not difficult, the hike offers incredible views of the canyon as the path winds along the side of the canyon wall parallel to the Lower trail below. After about a mile, you’ll reach the middle pools, which cascade into the Lower pool. Between the middle and lower pools is a series of switchbacks that take you between the falls — and the pools, so that the Middle and Lower trails can be done as a loop.
The Upper trail branches off from the Middle pools and heads up a steep, rugged path to the Upper pool. Many people choose to forgo this section because it is strenuous, but it’s worth the effort. There will be scrambling (particularly if you’re short like me) over dusty boulders, but after just a quarter mile (and another couple hundred feet of elevation gain), you’ll reach an oasis set in the side of the canyon. The sheer canyon walls stretch straight up over the pool, and in this spot, it’s easy to forget that you’re still, in fact, perched on the side of a canyon.
Make no mistake: this is a popular trail. Its location, just across from the Zion Lodge, makes it an easy hike for people to find. It’s also somewhat iconic, a classic Zion hike, and people (I was one) are anxious to see what the fuss is about.
I have hiked this trail twice, once on a Thursday in mid-September and the second time on a Saturday morning in August. The first time, I encountered others on the Middle and Upper trails, and the Lower was more crowded, but I did have moments to myself. The second time, it was a bit like hiking in a shopping mall — I had to pay more attention to not stepping on the heels of the people in front of me than I did to the scenery, which isn’t ideal. Even the Upper trail was crowded the second time, making finding a spot to sit and eat lunch difficult.
The lesson I learned: the Emerald Pools is a great hike for a solo hiker if you go mid-week while school is in session (I don’t hate kids…I actually like them; but in droves when their parents aren’t teaching them proper trail etiquette it can be a bit much). There will still be other people, which is what you want as a solo hike when you’re just getting into it, but you’ll also be able to find yourself alone every now and then.
Second lesson: Hike the Middle trail, and not the Lower. The Lower trail is an easy, paved, low-intensity stroll, and this route is therefore popular with families and those with less mobility. Many people will stroll the Lower trail and reach the first pool, take photos, and troop back, making this section of the trail the most dense, particularly during the summer.
Because many people start on the Lower and return on the Lower, and others start on the Lower, climb to the Middle pools and then return on the Middle, I prefer to do the reverse — going against the flow of traffic, it allows, even when the trail is crowded below, for some quiet time on the Middle trail.