Look a few feet to the left or right while you’re hiking in Utah’s Zion National Park, and you’ll soon spot patches of bubbly, blackened crust, like the ground was a piece of toast that had burned unevenly. The crust is cryptobiotic soil, and though it is bland and unassuming in appearance, it is teeming with lichen, cyanobacteria, and algae — as much a community of living organisms as the brightest coral reef in the sea. This dirt is alive.
Cryptobiotic soil lives in the desert. It absorbs rain like a sponge, giving all the plants around it something to drink from. Step on it once — one single footfall — and it’ll take five to seven years to regrow; maybe 100 years to be fully healthy again. If all of Zion’s cryptobiotic soil was compacted by foot traffic the way it is on the trails, everything here would be dust. Park Rangers will pass on a saying in a bid to get you to stick to the trails: “Don’t bust the crust.”
Zion just turned 100. They’re not making a big deal out of it. It’s odd to have a national park shun publicity, but Zion is simply at capacity. It already sees 4.5 million people a year; in the summers, that’s 20,000 a day. There’s currently no cap on visitors, and the park can’t physically handle its popularity. There’s even been talk of making Zion the first park to require reservations. The Grand Canyon sees nearly 6.5 million, but can spread that out along 30 or 40 miles on just the South Rim alone. Zion’s crush is almost entirely found in the eight-mile Zion Scenic Area, which is completely overwhelmed. Zion is being loved to death. Thus, the lower profile.
“Which is sad, because of course you want to tell people, ‘come visit! Look at all this.’ But that’s just not what’s best anymore,’” said park ranger Erin Whittaker, Zion’s acting chief of interpretation for the National Park Service. “It’s a hard balance.”
Zion first broke 2 million annual visitors in 1990 and didn’t hit 3 million til 2014, which was about when visitorship began mushrooming. As social media has grown alongside it, changing what we come to expect of our national parks, people have increasingly been interested in only the highlight reel. In the era of Instagram geotags, people come to Zion (it’s ‘ZIE-on’ like ‘lion,’ by the way; not ‘ZIE-ON’) for exactly three reasons: Angel’s Landing, the Narrows, and the Subway.
Probably unaware of the deal with the cryptobiotic soil, social media influencers are making going off beaten path look like a good idea. People are climbing delicate rocks that can’t stand the erosion. Yodeling into canyons just to hear the echo. It’s easier to go after the instant gratification in a place like this than it is to be humble.
Earlier this year, the Washington County Convention and Tourism Office rebranded itself as the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office in an effort to encourage tourists to consider not just Zion National Park — Angel’s landing et al — but the surrounding area, which objectively has much more to offer but had so far failed to generate the same kind of momentum on social media.
More than 85% of Zion is protected wilderness area, which among other things means it has less infrastructure. “The Scenic Area is really the only non-wilderness area, and so in some ways it’s being sacrificed, taking motorized vehicles and things, because it can take the hit,” Whittaker said. “And then we haven’t really been wanting to shove people into a lot of these other areas [that] can’t handle it.”
Yet there are some places that can. Places that are not Angel’s Landing, or the Narrows, or the Subway. No one would tell you not to see those three things — they are incredible. The thing is, you need to go to Zion for more than just a day, so that you can take one day to see the things everyone else told you to see, and the rest of the time discovering Zion for yourself.
“It really is Greater Zion. There’s so much to do in the whole area,” said Nate Wells, manager of the nearby ZIon Canyon Village. “Go into the park, go see Angel’s — just take your turn.”
If you haven’t noticed, there are no photos of Angel’s, or the Narrows, or the Subway in this piece. Did you even miss them? Look at everything else Greater Zion has to offer — places that you’ll discover for yourself, not because someone Instagrammed them from the middle of a crowd after waiting two hours for a shuttle.
“Often people are going to these trails because of some payout, like Angel’s Landing — we want to capture a picture, because we can’t just share one that someone else has shared, it’s this badge-y kind of, ‘Oh, I was there,’” Whittaker said as we broke for lunch about a mile into Coalpits. “It’d be healthy for us all to get back to the idea of ‘it’s the journey, not just the destination,’ rather than going about things backwards.”
You might not find Coalpits Wash on your map. Out of the park, in the Zion Wilderness Area near Springdale, you can pull over and take this trail a few miles out and back — however long you feel like. Go in the fall, and you probably won’t see another human until you drive back into town once you’re done. You’ll walk past hills darkened by volcanic rock, set off by golden rabbitbrush and cottonwoods that quake almost like aspens. It’s so quiet you can hear when a bird lands on a tree.
“You could argue there’s nothing here that’s like the ‘check off,’ the payout, but whether it’s the quietness, or…” Whittaker trailed off, gesturing to the magnificence of our surroundings. “It doesn’t have to be about getting to an endpoint. You’re seeing the part that’s less sexy, but more wild. More raw.”
Snow Canyon State Park
“Snow Canyon, up until the last couple years people didn’t seem to know it existed,” said Greg Federman, owner of Xetava Cafe in St. George. “I’m happy with the way this has trickled toward us because we can manage it now, but if it had been like this right away, when we first opened [the cafe], we wouldn’t have lasted two weeks.”
The nearby Snow Canyon is another site that could very easily merit National Park status if all the cred hadn’t been already used up by Zion (and the many, many other state and national parks in Utah). Take this one via horse-back riding tour. And carve out a few minutes to wander the nearby Petrified Sand Dunes, which are exactly what they sound like and very cool.
Johnson Canyon Arch Trail
Outside the park, about an eight-minute drive from the nearby town of St. George, Johnson Canyon is one of many sites gorgeous and wild enough to be a national park in its own right. People who live in St. George don’t really go into Zion — why would they, with the traffic-induced headache that entails these days and with all the untouched splendor they have at their front door? Take a leisurely out and back through a few miles of Johnson Canyon, where you’ll walk past natural arches in the process of carving themselves free of the cliffs. Once again, you’re not likely to see another soul until you’re back at your car.
West Rim Trail
Rarely do people consider any alternatives to Angel’s Landing. But head up the West Rim Trail and instead of completing the final push up to Angel’s, head West past Scout’s lookout — the view is arresting, maybe even better than Angel’s. You can see the Narrows. You can look across to see Angel’s itself, and all the people climbing dutifully up for the same view they’ve already seen all over the internet. You’ll be the only one who knows what Angel’s itself actually looks like.
Stay in the Zion border town of Springdale, and you can walk right from the Visitor’s Center over the Virgin River into the Park and up to Watchman. The trail is a modest climb of three miles and change, and can be done in an hour and a half if you’re motivated. If you’ve just arrived and want to get your bearings, this is your first hike. Watchman Campground is right around the corner, too. Try this hike at sunrise, from whence you can look down upon the river in the perfect stillness.
Sand Bench Trail
Very little attention is paid to the Sand Bench Trail. It’s not even on a lot of the maps, which is a travesty because not only can it physically handle a higher volume of traffic than its getting, it’s quite possibly your favorite new hike you didn’t even know you were missing.
Nestled in the six-mile Scenic Drive Area, Sand Bench is a 7.6-mile trail where horseback tours are common March through October. It can get hot and dusty during those months, but go in the winter and you’ll have a gorgeous, serene stretch of Zion real estate all to yourself. You can also make it shorter — leave from Bus stop 4 and you can take a shortcut route that’ll shave off three miles.
“My mom, she’s 70 from Florida she’s no athlete, but she’s visited a bunch of these places and she’s just a solid casual walker and one of her favorite little stretches is from [bus stop] 4 to 5,” Whittaker said, “You can get off at one bus stop and walk to a different bus stop, just on part of the Sand Bench Trail, and so it’s thinking of it creatively as ways to make loops. Because we don’t have a lot of loops here, we’ve got a lot out out-and-backs… we saw turkey, we saw deer, it was just quiet because there weren’t that many people out, that little junction [around] bus stop 4 is really pretty.”
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Along Kolob Canyons Road you can take your pick of three hikes: Timber Creek Overlook Trail, which is a quick 1 mile to a scenic overlook of the canyon and the Pine Valley Mountains; Taylor Creek Trail, a 5-mile route that’ll take you past a couple of homestead cabins; and Kolob Arch, which runs 14 miles out to the breathtaking namesake arch and for which you should definitely consider setting aside a day of your trip.
At the time this piece was published, Observation Point remains closed in the wake of rockslides, but the Park Service hopes to reopen it as soon as 2020. Climbing up through Echo Canyon to views of Zion Canyon, you’ll get to look down on Angel’s Landing from 800 feet above. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Whittaker said. The view from Observation Point gives Angel’s a run for its money — many even consider it to be better.
And don’t forget — when you go matters almost as much as where
There is absolutely a high tide at Zion, when entre to the park’s main attractions forms a bottleneck and the wait times for a shuttle can exceed an hour and a half. It’s like Disneyland in there these days. About 87% of Zion’s visitors come between March and October — so if you, a discerning traveler, come instead between October and March you’re already ahead of the game. If you can, avoid Spring Break. Check the helpful, and very candid, Zion social media accounts for updates on busy areas. “It’s hard for the staff,” Whittaker laments. “It feels like we’re just doing a lot of don’ts — don’t do this, don’t do that, please don’t go there — but that’s just the point we’re at now. But we can still have our cake and eat it too.”