Monday, April 8, 2013

Fantastic sights await on Emerald Pools hike

Emerald Pools Trail, an oasis in the Utah desert.
Topo map for Emerald Pools Trail.

Paths meander
through oasis
at Zion N.P.

Waterfalls, dazzling pools and rock monoliths await hikers on the Emerald Pools Trails in Utah’s Zion National Park.

To reach the set of trails, enter the national park on Utah Hwy. 9. Park at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, where you’ll pick up a shuttle to the Emerald Pools parking lot at Zion Lodge. The shuttle typically runs April 1-Oct. 20.

Summer offers the best weather for visiting, but be forewarned that the trail is among the most popular in the park and so will be busy. The higher elevation will mean potentially cold and wet days in spring and autumn.

The route actually is collection of short, meandering trails through this desert oasis. Walking west, cross the road your shuttle took to reach the lodge. A footbridge heads over the North Fork Virgin River that runs along the canyon floor.

Emerald Pools
After the footbridge, the trail splits. Going left puts you on the Middle Emerald Pools Trail. Going right places you on the Lower Emerald Pool Trail. Which trail you takes depends a lot on your energy level, your children’s capabilities, and what you’d like to ultimately see.

The Middle Emerald Pools runs a mile and allows you to see more pools; it also connects to the Upper Emerald Pools Trail. The Lower Emerald Pool runs 0.6 miles but places you closer to a stream flowing into the North Fork Virgin River. If you have a baby stroller or wheelchair, the Lower Emerald Pool out-and-back is the best route.

If opting for the Middle Emerald Pools Trail, you’ll climb a little over 100 feet to reach the middle pools. Shallow streams from side canyons feed the pools and cross the trail at a few points. You’ll spot waterfalls here as well; make sure children stay within the chained areas as algae and wet rocks make footing difficult.

Looming over the pools to the west is Red Arch Mountain at the center and Lady Mountain about 3,000 feet directly above the canyon floor. Cathedral Mountain can be seen to the north.

Lush hanging gardens
Between the two pools, you can go left along the Upper Emerald Pool Trail. The steep and sandy trail runs 0.4 miles along a ridge to the base of a 300-foot cliff where the Upper Emerald Pool sits. The secluded, boulder-rimmed pool is popular among canyoneers.

Upon returning to the Middle Emerald Pools Trail, you’ll pass the second of the two pools and then have a choice of either returning on the Lower Emerald Pool Trail or the Kayenta Trail that heads 0.9-miles to the Grotto Picnic Area and then the 0.6-mile Grotto Trail back to Zion Lodge.

If opting to take the Lower Emerald Pool trail, you’ll find the path paved and shaded with cottonwoods and box elders. Twin waterfalls form lush hanging gardens over the Lower Emerald Pool, and the trail goes behind them for a unique sight. Ferns, moss, monkey flower, shooting star and columbine line the mountainside.

Recommended route: Start on Middle Emerald Pools Trail (1 mile). Turn on Upper Emerald Pools Trail (0.8 miles out and back), and return to the parking lot on Lower Emerald Pool Trail (0.6 miles) for a 2.4-mile hike.

Tips: As tempting as it may be, make sure children keep their hands out of the pools and stay off the ledges. The first helps preserve the pools’ emerald green color and the latter ensures your child’s safety. Water, food and gift shop are available at Zion Lodge.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.