If you hike, fall is one of the best times to visit the southwest. Crowds have thinned, the days are cooler, and small spots of fall color can light up the canyons even more. Frequent summer thunderstorms can become less frequent. The days are shorter. You have to make good use of your limited daylight, but it makes it easier to catch sunrises and sunsets and to enjoy the stars.
To take advantage of this, we visited Zion National Park in November 2015, spending a day and a half in the Zion Canyon section, a day in Kolob Canyons, a day in the Subway, and a beautiful morning on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.
On Wednesday, 11 November, we flew to Las Vegas, arriving around 3pm. We rented a car and made the two and a half hour drive to Springdale, Utah. After checking into our hotel, we headed to dinner at the Spotted Dog Café. Dinner was fine, though nothing stood out as amazing one way or the other. After dinner, we made a quick stop at Sol Foods grocery store to pick up supplies for lunches and snacks.
Zion Canyon Thursday, November 12
Our hotel offered a filling breakfast with a good range of choices. We enjoyed sunrise from our room, ate, and set out for our first stop. At the visitor center, we picked up our permit for the next day’s Subway hike.
In November, the shuttles were not running on weekdays, but higher than expected weekend visitors meant they were being pressed back into service Friday though Sunday. We decided to take advantage of the less crowded day, and the only day of our visit that we’d be allowed to drive our rental through Zion Canyon Drive, to explore the main canyon.
This is a beautiful drive, and we took our time, making several short stops on our way to the Temple of Sinewava area at the end of the canyon. Without the shuttles running, there were lots of cars in the canyon even if the trails weren’t overwhelming crowded. This meant parking was at a premium at the Temple of Sinewava, so we started back out the canyon before long.
Our next stop was the Big Bend viewpoint. The fall colors were particularly spectacular here, and we took a while to wander by the Virgin River and take in the views.
A few miles further up the road, we stopped for our main hike of the day, to Angels Landing and a bit further along the West Rim Trail. Angels Landing is probably one of the most famous and popular Zion hikes. The West Rim trail starts out from The Grotto parking area as a wide thoroughfare, passing through some meadows, crossing the Virgin River, and then climbing the canyon wall on some broad switchbacks, offering many places to pause and enjoy the views back up the canyon.
At the top of these switchbacks, the trail passes through narrow Refrigerator Canyon, before emerging on another short, tight series of switchbacks. These switchbacks, “Walter’s Wiggles,” are named after the first superintendent of Zion National Park who started construction of the Angels Landing trail in 1926. From the wiggles, we emerged onto Scout Lookout, which offers great views of the canyon and of Angels Landing.
It was a bit crowded at the time we got there, so we decided to skip Angels Landing for the time being and continue along the West Rim Trail. The trail climbs a bit further, before reaching a bit of a plateau between the red rocks below and the white rocks above. From here, we enjoyed great views down to Angels Landing and to Big Bend.
We turned around where the trail turns toward Cabin Spring. Back at Scout Landing, we turned for the hike out to Angels Landing. This is a narrow trail, assisted by chains in various places. I would not say it’s more daunting or difficult than many of the hikes we have done in the northwest, but it’s not a place I’d want to be if the trail were wet. The additional traffic on the trail also makes it more challenging to find places to pull aside and let others pass — especially if the other hikers are not giving this much thought. If narrow spaces with big drop offs are not your cup of tea, I’d suggest skipping this and instead continuing up along the West Rim trail. As you can see from the photos, the views are equally good along the trail, even if not quite the same 360° experience.
Once out on Angels Landing, the views are spectacular — this hike deserves its reputation. We watched the shadows creep across the canyon and the golden late afternoon light illuminate the fall foliage below.
With the light fading, we returned to Scout Landing and then hiked down to our car, seeing some feeding elk in the meadows along the Virgin River.
We drove the rest of the way out of the canyon, stopping near the Canyon Junction shuttle stop to enjoy sunset near the Virgin River. We returned to Springdale to eat dinner on the patio at Oscar’s, which featured huge portions of decent Tex-Mex.
The Subway (Bottom-Up) Friday, November 12
In our research, the two classic, accessible canyon hikes were the Subway from the bottom up and Zion Narrows, at the end of Zion Canyon.
Zion Narrows has a good bit of water in it (thigh- or waist-high in places, depending on conditions). Even though plenty of people rent gear and do it well into November, we decided that the Narrows would be pushing our comfort a bit.
Besides, the Subway looked spectacular, and with a limited number of permits available each day, we’d be guaranteed a quiet hike. We secured our permit online about a week in advance. Traveling in shoulder season, we had our pick of days, but at busier times, you will need to enter a lottery.
We stopped at Zion Adventure Company around 8am, when they opened, to rent canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks. In hindsight, with fairly low water levels and not too cold of a day, we could have done this hike in our usual boots, wool socks, and liners. I’d still rent the gear, though, since it let us hike more comfortably and we could walk right up the creek. The total came to $40 for the two of us; I received a slight discount for trying and reviewing a new pair of shoes.
From Springdale, we drove west to Kolob Terrace Road and up to the trailhead for Left Fork of North Creek. From the parking area, the trail wonders briefly through a scrub forest before descending into the canyon. Once in the canyon, the route proceeds along the creek side, or directly up the creek at times, passing several small waterfalls and pools. At one point, the trail passes a large grey rock on the side with several dinosaur tracks. Ice covered some of the stiller pools and frost topped the rocks in more shaded spots.
As the trail nears the Subway, we rounded a bend to a series of specular, small cascades — the red waterfalls, also known as Archangel Falls. We stopped here for a while enjoying the view and the sounds. We finally climbed up and over to enter large chamber where the water had sculpted out almost a tunnel at the bottom of the canyon.
Just a few hundred yards more brought us to our destination, the Subway. We were greeted with a narrow, dark canyon dotted with green-blue pools interconnected by small waterfalls and cascades. Bright yellow leaves flowed in the pools and lined some of the small cascades, offering additional flecks of color.
This is where people taking the top-down route descend to join the bottom up route. We spent probably an hour in this spot, looking at it from every possible angle while trying not to slip on the slick rock.
We returned via the same route. The sun had reached the red waterfalls by the time we passed the on our way back. We again stopped for a snack and to enjoy this spot for probably 30 minutes. We watched and listened to the water, the bright rocks, and the light play together. As we returned to the car, the light was fading. Despite the limited (9-mile) distance, this hike deserves, if not requires, the full day.
After returning to our car, we drove back to Springdale, where we had dinner at MeMe’s Café and returned to the hotel for sleep.
Kolob Canyons Saturday, November 14
We woke up early on Saturday for the hour drive to the Kolob Canyons section of the park. Our hike for this day was the 14-mile hike to Kolob Arch, the sixth-longest natural arch in the world. This is just a bit behind Landscape Arch in Arches National Park.
We started our hike from the La Verkin Creek trailhead. The trail descends to join Timber Creek, which it then follows south. Along Timber Creek, higher peaks rise to the east, making for a shady morning. The trail passed through many shaded alcoves with frost dotting the plants.
At about the halfway point, the trail turns east and descends gradually, eventually reaching La Verkin Creek. On this November day, the La Verkin Creek area glowed with bright yellow fall colors offset against the red rocks. The trail continued another few miles along the creek before reaching the turnoff for Kolob Arch.
This spur trail never gets close to Kolob arch. Instead, it offers limited views of the arch in the distance, thought the trees. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive site at the end of a gorgeous hike. This trail offers a nice contrast to the narrower Zion Canyon section the park.
After we returned to the car, we drove to the end of the Kolob Canyons Road, the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint. From here, a short (1 mile round trip) and mostly level trail continues out to the Timber Creek Overlook. The views here are expansive, taking in Kolob Canyons, the Kolob Terrace, the Pine Valley Mountains and even Mt. Trumbull, 100-miles distant on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After watching the Kolob Canyons glow red with sunset, we returned to the car for the drive back to Springdale.
Along the way, we stopped for dinner at the Cactus Room / Buffalo Trails Trading post in Virgin. Half art store and half restaurant, we were one of only two parties. The proprietors prepared some of the best steaks we had ever eaten, followed by some delicious cheesecake. This was by far the most memorable meal of the trip. Stuffed and content, we returned to the hotel.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and a bit more of Zion Canyon Sunday, November 15
For our last day of the trip, we grabbed hotel coffee and set out early for sunrise. We drove to the Canyon Overlook trail on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. From the trailhead just after the tunnel on the highway, the trail is only about a half mile. We enjoyed what was left of our coffee on this chilly, windy morning. Eventually, the sun began to illuminate the rocks above and across the canyon. We stayed for about an hour, watching the light hit different rock formations and play with the shadows.
From here, we spent another hour or two driving and stopping at various points along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. The features of this part of the park were spectacular in the early morning light. We also saw two bighorn sheep.
We then returned to the visitor center, where we parked and boarded the shuttle to take in a few more sights in Zion Canyon. Our first stop was the Weeping Rock Trail. A short walk took us to a hanging garden of moss and other plants set in the canyon wall. From the trailhead, the shuttle brought us back to the Temple of Sinewava. Here, we walked along the river for about thirty minutes. Eventually we reached our turnaround time and reluctantly boarded a shuttle back to the visitor center.
With that, it was time to wrap up our trip. We bought a quick lunch at the Bit & Spur in Springdale and — deciding we could afford a little more time — drove up to Kolob Terrace Road to take in some views, each our lunch, and take a few more short walks. Finally, it really was time to leave, and we drove back to Las Vegas for our flight.
Where we stayed
For this trip, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Springdale, Utah (Booking.com | Hotels.com). This was a recently built hotel with comfortable, spacious rooms. We lucked out with a room that had good views, so could enjoy sunrise from the hotel room. It is on the edge of town, so we still found ourselves using the car to get around.
Helpful resources in planning this trip
- The Zion National Park website has maps, trail descriptions, and information on permits. It also features the latest on trail or road closures and shuttle conditions, so check for updates before your trip.
- Joe’s Guide to Zion helped us pick hikes and know how much time we should allocate to them. Joe’s photos are gorgeous, and his website offers some tips on photographing in Zion.