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The Constant Traveler: Try Zion in off-season for quiet, uncrowded hiking vacation

Many of America’s great national parks are bunched across the Southwest, and, although they are open year-round, most visitors still arrive in the summer months when kids are off from school and vacations are in full swing.

Steve Bergsman

Many of America’s great national parks are bunched across the Southwest, and, although they are open year-round, most visitors still arrive in the summer months when kids are off from school and vacations are in full swing.

My wife and I have done Yellowstone in the dead of winter when the snow is as deep as your chin and the only vehicles rumbling through the park have treads. It was a lot of fun, so we thought we would try an off-season national park trip again. As fall was fading into winter, we visited Utah’s Zion National Park, which is a little closer to our home in Mesa.

Except for the holidays, winter means slow business for Zion, and that’s what makes the time of year so great. There are no crowds. You can get a room at the Zion National Park Lodge, which is not so easy to do in the summer. You can drive your own car in the park instead of taking the park’s public transport, which doesn’t run in the winter. You can eat any time you want because the dining room is not over-stuffed with tour-bus visitors, and you can do your own thing on the trails because there’s not a line of hikers impeding progress.

An off-season visit to Zion is a bit of a trade-off, as not all services are available and many independent outfitters go on vacation. Even the park’s natural history museum was closed when we went by to visit on a Thursday afternoon.

This past December, the biggest drawback or greatest attraction, depending on how you look at it, was the weather. To the positive, the temperature never sank below the 40-degree range at night, and the day temperature settled comfortably into the 50s — what I consider the best temperature for long hikes. On the other hand, a winter storm had hit California and was rapidly blowing in our direction. Much to our unhappiness, we decided to leave a day early, departing ahead of the snow and rain.

Still, we got our fill of what we wanted to do: hike.

The main part of the park, where 90 percent of the tourists visit, is basically a lengthy canyon that follows the rushing Zion River. The park road runs parallel to the river from the town of Springdale, outside the park, to the massive facades of rocks called the Temple of Sinawava. The road and the river are at the bottom of the canyon, sandwiched between towering red rock walls. The stark beauty of the locale is overwhelming.

We arrived at Zion Lodge mid-afternoon, and by 3 p.m. we were on the Emerald Pool trailheads across from the lodge. The park service rates Zion’s trails in three categories: easy, moderate and strenuous. The lower pool trail is considered easy, while the upper pool trail is moderate. There are really three pools on the walk, and most everyone, including my wife and I, hike them all together. Along the way, there are a few small waterfalls and a section underneath a rock ledge, where the water drips from above. Otherwise, it’s a good walk that continuously climbs until arriving at the Upper Emerald Pool, which can be found at the base of a cliff.

The defining hike of the park is Angels Landing, which mostly climbs through a series of switchbacks along the rock face of a jagged mountain wall. Between my wife and I, we have one too many height phobias, so we weren’t going to do this hike, but then someone told us we could walk the Grotto Trail right from the lodge and end up at the Angels Landing trailhead. So, one fine morning right after breakfast, we journeyed out, and when we reached the Angels Landing Trail, we kept going, making it more than halfway up the trail to an overlook. I would like to say we managed the rest of that hike with aplomb, but we could not screw up our courage to do the next section, which was to cross the top of a rock face. I pulled out the park’s description of the trail, which read “not for young children or anyone fearful of heights. Long drop-offs.” No kidding!

In the afternoon, my wife and I went out again for a third hike — this one the easy but lovely Riverside walk that follows the Zion River past the Temple of Sinawava deeper into the canyons. The night before we befriended a family from Australia, and we encountered them again on the Riverside trail. With much exclamation, they told us they hiked the Angels Landing trail to the top of the mountain.

“It was,” said the wife, “the scariest hike I have ever done.”

• Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer based in Mesa, and the author of “The Death of Johnny Ace” and “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.” Reach him at Redroom.com/Stevebergsman or smbcomm@hotmail.com.

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