At first glance, you wouldn’t expect Zion National Park, located in the desert terrain of the Southwest, to be home to some of the world’s most spectacular water features. But as part of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-foot area that is centered near the Four Corners and dotted with the Uinta, La Sal, San Juan, Wasatch and Zach mountain ranges, the snowfall and rain have to go somewhere. As snowfall melts and rain falls, breathtaking and unexpected springs, rivers, seeps, creeks and, of course, dramatic waterfalls appear in a landscape where water is often scarce.
Some of our favorite waterfall hikes happen to be in Zion National Park, which appear like oases in Zion’s stunning red-rock country. Here are some of the top waterfalls you shouldn’t miss while you are there.
Waterfalls at the Emerald Pools
No one should travel to Zion without taking the time to hike to the Emerald Pools. The name comes from the bright, emerald green algae that color the water.
There are three sections: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Emerald Pools. While they seem accessible, stay away from edges at all the pools and keep your children close to you. More people have slipped to their death here than anywhere else in the park. The half-mile, one-way paved trail to the Lower Pools takes a little maneuvering but is easily manageable by all. A striking water formation, the 110-foot Emerald Pools waterfall varies from a thin misty sparkle to a heavy blanket pouring over the rock edge, depending on the season and the rainfall. Even when the rain has been somewhat scarce, the cascading sparkles catch the light in a rainbow of color and provide a stunning background for an “I-was-there!” photo.
Keep going behind the back of the waterfall, up a narrow ledge on the face of the cliff to view hanging gardens and tree frogs. Continue until you reach the Middle Pools. Look down on the top of the waterfall that feeds into the Lower Pools. Some of this can be a little difficult, as it requires crossing streams and slippery areas. But the view is worth the trouble.
If you want to continue a little further with another 200 feet of elevation gain, you’ll find the source of the Emerald Pool waters. An 800-foot waterfall fills the large pool at the base of the cliff. This is the Upper Emerald Pool. You can also reach the Emerald Pools through the Kayenta Trail that begins from the Grotto Picnic Area and rises a quick 150-feet in elevation. You can loop back down via the Emerald Pools trail.
Waterfalls at Zion Narrows
Zion Narrows has a number of waterfalls. The first you will reach, Mystery Falls, is accessible to almost everyone. Day hikers typically turn back once they reach this landmark. You can reach Mystery Falls less than a half mile from your starting spot at Temple of Sinawava.
Archangel Falls Near the Subway
In the Kolob Terrace section, the Left Fork of North Creek, also known as the Subway, offers a view of the Archangel Falls a few minutes before the mouth of the Subway. Nicknamed “The Subway” because flash floods have carved a subway-shaped tunnel into the rock, this area requires extensive route-finding abilities and canyoneering skills. Visitors also are required to get a permit, which you can get online.
You can start the hike from the bottom up or top down, but both directions are demanding hikes that require strong route-finding skills, bouldering, some rope work, scrambling and numerous water obstacles. But for those up for the challenge and who have advanced canyoneering skills, the area and its falls are a well-deserved treat.
From the bottom up, you will start at the Left Fork Trailhead on the Kolob Terrace Road. Be ready for a 9-mile, round-trip strenuous hike through the Left Fork of North Creek during which you will cross streams, utilize and rely on your route-finding skills and scramble over boulders. This hike ends where you began at the Left Fork Trailhead.
From the top down, you will start the trail at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and end at the Left Fork Trailhead. This 9.5-mile technical route requires rappelling skills, 60-feet of rope and extensive route-finding experience. If you find your rope length of 60 feet is too short for some of the rappels, you are probably in the wrong canyon. You also will find yourself swimming through several deep, very cold pools filled with debris. The trail ends at the Left Fork Trailhead. Both the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and the Left Fork trailheads are located on the Kolob Terrace Road.
Other Zion Waterfalls
Parunuweap Canyon is part of the east fork of the Virgin River. The beautiful canyon has thousand foot cliffs and waterfalls. Unfortunately, the canyon itself is closed, but you can look down from the rim over the falls.
Access the river from North Fork Road, about two and a half miles from the park entrance to find Cave Canyon. There you will find a waterfall that undergoes a series of drops before resting in the pool below.
Further down, the canyon narrows, forcing the water together and releasing it into a 25-foot waterfall into a lovely pool below.
Hike the beautiful narrows of Gifford Wash to find a dryfall, with some evidence of seasonal water. If you’re lucky enough to travel safely during a rain, you might see the dryfall turn wet.
Lower Pine Creek contains a series of small falls, the largest of which falls about ten feet. The canyon and hike is worth the effort, however, because it includes wildflowers, hanging gardens and abundant wildlife.
Need a map? Download an official Zion National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park? Buy the NatGeo Trails Illustrated Map for Zion National Park at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, lakes and much more. Or get the complete Utah National Parks Map Pack with five topographic maps. All of the NatGeo maps are printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.