As a veteran climber and outdoorsperson, one of the things I now realize is that not everything can be Mount Everest; and more importantly, everything shouldn’t be Everest in scale. It’s something I’ve talked about a couple times on this blog: since the outdoors and the outdoor industry has become hip and trendy over the last twenty years, everything has to be “bigger”, “better”, and “more extreme”. Without getting into a diatribe about this culture and this mindset, I’ll again say what I always say: everything is an adventure in its own way, and everything should be an adventure in its own way. This is one of the main reasons I like National Parks: this system, although flawed, provides adventure. It provides education; and most importantly, it allows access to the natural features of the backcountry for all. Now, I’m biased: I’m a former Park Ranger, and I know the park system has flaws. But, for educating the public, getting people onto the trail safely, and getting people to appreciate nature, the National Park system does a great job.
The best example of this is that at every National Park, there is at least one trail that is accessible to all, and provides a great experience and introduction to nature and that specific park. These trails are gateways to nature – literally – as they allow all parties the ability to experience something that they would not otherwise experience. For Zion National Park, that trail, or trail system is the Emerald Pools Trail network.
Directions: there are multiple ways to get to the three pools, but in order to get to the pools, you’ll have to be in the park first. As I’ve mentioned before, Zion, like many of the National Parks has gone to a shuttle system in the summertime to reduce congestion. Do note that if you are in Zion during this time, you will not be able to drive your car into the valley, and you will have to take a shuttle. If you are riding the shuttle, you will want to exit at either the Zion Lodge (Stop 5) or the Grotto (Stop 6). For purposes of this blog, I’ll be discussing the trail from the Lodge stop, which in winter, has a parking lot that is accessible for parking next to the trailhead.
From the Lodge Bus Stop, or parking area, the trail starts at a footbridge that crosses the Virgin River. Downriver, you can see Angel’s Landing, a more challenging hike, and various other features of the park. Once across the bridge, you will continue along the trail, which is paved, as it winds next to the river. Even though the trail is paved, and quite popular in the summer, do not be deceived – you are on the boundary zone of the wild. When I last hiked this trail in winter, my group and I came across four mule deer as they foraged along the trail near the river. After .6 miles, you will find yourself at the base of an overhanging rock wall; and if the season is right, a waterfall that is cascading down into the first pool. This is the Lower Emerald Pool. This is a great opportunity to observe some of the forces that have shaped the formations of Zion – in this case, water, and its ability to erode portions of the Navajo Sandstone cliffs.
At this point, depending on your skill level, you can either turn around after watching the waterfall, for an easy 1.2 mile roundtrip hike, or you can continue on along the base of the waterfall toward the Middle Emerald Pool. Again, depending on the season, you may get slightly wet as you pass along underneath the waterfall. Once past the waterfall, the trail becomes, well, an actual trail, in that it is not paved, and you will begin to experience a slight challenge as you ascend the sloping canyon walls. The Middle Emerald Pool is .2 miles from the Lower Emerald Pool, and from it, you will have great views of the surrounding canyon. At the Middle Emerald Pool, you will be standing atop the waterfall that feeds the Lower Emerald Pool. Again, depending on your skill level, you can turn around at this point for a moderate 1.6 mile roundtrip hike, or you can continue on up toward the Upper Emerald Pool.
I mentioned above that down at the Lower Emerald Pool, one can observe the effect of water on the Navajo Sandstone; and the other interesting thing about this hike is that if you hike the entirety of the trail – from Virgin River to the Upper Emerald Pool, you will see some of the variations in plants and animals that exist at the different elevations. From the Middle Emerald Pool to the Upper Emerald Pool, the last .3 miles is more exposed, and somewhat sandy on a hot summer day. Once you have arrived at the top, you will have great views of some of the seasonal waterfalls of the park, and the canyon itself. If you elect to head all the way to the Upper Pool, you will have hiked 1.1 miles one way, and by the time you return, you will have experienced a moderate 2.2 mile hike.
Tips: As this is the gateway, or one of the gateway hikes to Zion, it is popular. Fret not: if you go during the winter, fall, or early summer, you will not see that many people. Also, do note the further you head up trail, the less people you will see. Finally, if you have kids, this is a great place to take them for them to work on their Junior Ranger badges.