An Afternoon in Kolob Canyons, the surprisingly accessible yet rarely visited corner of Zion National Park
Everyone knows Zion National Park. Even if you've never been there, you've probably seen photos of the towering red-granite cliffs and domes, standing like giant sentinels above the green valley floor, thousands of feet below. You've probably seen dramatic photos of people hiking The Narrows, an iconic slot canyon trail requiring miles of walking and wading through cold water. You might have heard of, or even tackled, the hair-raising heights and amazing views of the Angel's Landing Trail.
But, I bet you haven't seen Kolob Canyons.
And you wouldn't be the only one. When I visited Zion National Park a few years back, I skipped Kolob, too. Nearly everyone does. But this time, I was driving from central Utah to Southern California on I-15 and noticed on the map that there was a section of Zion National Park that butted right up next to the highway. In fact, you can easily see the visitor center as you drive past on the highway - it's that close!
The Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park was originally established as its own national monument in 1937, but was incorporated into Zion National Park in 1956. The two sections of the park are only connected by a backcountry backpacking trail, and the only road in the Kolob Canyons area is a short 5 miles long - all of which is just beautiful.
As an avid fan and supporter of America's national parks, I'm always looking for opportunities to visit them and experience the amazing variety of landscapes and natural wonders they protect. (Just ask my husband - I think my national parks obsession drives him a little bonkers sometimes.) If we're planning a trip and there's going to be a national park nearby (within a few hours usually qualifies as "nearby"), you bet I'll want to make a stop! Kolob Canyons is perfect for this because it's right off a major interstate and you can easily enjoy the region's stunning scenery without spending a lot of time there.
If you only have an hour or two, like I did on my trip, then Kolob Canyons is an ideal place to get a taste of the colorful and enchanting terrain of the Colorado Plateau and Zion National Park.
How to Spend an Afternoon in Kolob Canyons:
Going north or south on Interstate 15, get off at exit 40 for Kolob Canyons and stop at the visitor center. Make sure to pay your park entrance fee (or show your America the Beautiful pass and get in for free, like I did), stamp your National Parks Passport, and talk with the park rangers about trail conditions.
Continue down the road past the visitor center and drive the five miles to the Kolob Canyon Overlook. The view gets better and better as you drive deeper into the canyon to Lee Pass, then ascend up the western side. A parking lot at the end of the road holds a fantastic view out over the dramatic red cliffs and beautifully contrasting green forests creeping up the canyon sides.
Hike the moderately difficult, 1/2-mile Timber Creek Overlook Trail up to the lookout point at the end. The trailhead is in the parking lot for the Kolob Canyon Overlook, and the trail itself is short and well developed, but it does have some rather rocky parts. The bluff at the end affords spectacular views of the entire region: the red cliffs of the Finger Canyons and Timber Top Mountain (rising over 2,000 feet above the canyons below) to the east and the tops of Zion Canyon to the southeast. We happened to meet a local there who pointed out that on a clear day like that one, you can even see the plateau of the Grand Canyon's north rim way off on the southern horizon. I'll never get tired of views like this!
On your way back to the parking lot, duck into the picnic area for a break among the piñon pine trees. This shady retreat is the perfect spot to jot down a few thoughts in your adventure journal and pause for a snack. Then, once you've enjoyed the shade a bit, head to your car and drive back down the road toward the visitor center.
If you have more time, or you want a taste of the valley floor environment (compared to the higher elevation at which you just hiked), stop at one of the other two trailheads along the way: the Middle Fork Taylor Creek Trail is a 5.4-mile round-trip to an alcove with a double arch, and the La Verkin Creek Trail is a more ambitious, 7-mile one-way trip to Kolob Arch, the second largest natural arch in the world (most people do this as a two-or-more-day backpacking trip). We hiked a bit of the Taylor Creek trail, and though the canyon floor was markedly warmer than higher elevations, I found it refreshing to hike alongside the cool waters of the babbling creek for a little while.
When you're finished hiking and enjoying the incredible scenery, head back down to I-15 and continue on your way, refreshed and recharged, and hopefully with some fun memories and photos to hold you over until your next adventure!
Tips for your Trip to Kolob Canyons:
Bring your Adventure journal - this place is overflowing with amazing inspiration for writing, sketching, and painting!
The entry fee is $25 per vehicle (good for a week), or free if you have the National Park Pass
Get a NatGeo topographic map if you're planning on backpacking or tackling the backcountry
Bring lots of water - it's hot out there!
Wear a hat - more effective than sunscreen
Open year-round - check with the park's website for more info and trip planning advice before you go!
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