This climb is excerpted from An Outdoor Family Guide to the Southwest's Four Corners, by Tom and Gayen Wharton, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle. ©1995 by Tom and Gayen Wharton. All rights reserved.
The hike to Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald pools can begin either from Zion Lodge or from the Emerald Pools trailhead east of the lodge. The Sand Bench Trail, an easy flat walk on the east side of the Virgin River, also begins at this point.
Families with young children may want to attempt the easy 1.2-mile round-trip paved walk to Lower Pool. If energy remains, they can complete the 2-mile loop hike to Middle Pool. When Middle Pool is reached, older children or families with veteran hikers may want to walk another 0.33 mile up a rugged trail to the impressive Upper Pool located under massive vertical cliffs.
Begin the walk by using the sturdy steel and wood plank bridge to cross the Virgin River. Though it is a loop trail, signs at the beginning indicate that hikers heading for Upper and Middle pools head left and those interested in Lower Pool go right. For hikers planning to do the entire loop, the choice of directions does not matter.
The paved lower trail involves a gentle but steady uphill climb through a shady scrub oak forest. There are steep dropoffs on the one side of the trail at times as it climbs to the pools. Hikers enjoy first-class views of Zion Canyon along the way. The paved trail ends at Lower Pool, which has been fenced to protect the streamside vegetation. In fact, to protect the aquatic wildlife and preserve the area, swimming, wading, and bathing are prohibited in all three pools.
At this point, those who want to continue to Middle Pool must hike under an overhanging alcove behind Lower Pool. Except in the driest times of year, families will also thrill to walking under at least two and sometimes more after a recent storm waterfalls. In the hot late spring and summer months, getting drenched can be welcome experience. The trail then winds its way up through a narrow canyon. There are two points where hikers looking for a longer trip can head north toward the Grotto Picnic Area.
Upon reaching Middle Pool on a windy day, hikers marvel at the tricks the wind plays on the fine spray. This spot also gives hikers a chance to study the massive sandstone cliffs rising from the canyon floor and to trace the path water must take to make its way from top to bottom, sometimes spilling through large natural funnels gouged into the stone. The water sometimes seeps through cracks. At other times, it flows in sheets over the edge, leaving telltale streaks called desert varnish.
Once at Middle Pool, hikers can choose to take another 0.33-mile (one-way) trail spur to Upper Pool. The trail here is rocky and somewhat steep. It also branches off many times. The National Park Service has tried to discourage these mini-trails by putting logs or rocks across them. Hikers can protect the fragile desert environment by staying on the main trail. This spur should be fun for children over six years of age because it is short but challenging. Trees are close to the narrow trail, so children being carried on their parents' backs might not fare as well. Entering the Upper Pool area brings out the child in almost everyone. The tall sandstone cliffs that surround the large pool dwarf humans who can get cramped necks by bending back to see the top of the canyon. The sound of water, cultivating the hanging gardens on the surrounding walls, can be heard everywhere. Though the pools are tempting places to play or swim, ask children to resist the temptation in order to protect the fragile ecosystem. Hikers return to Middle Pool on the same narrow trail. At Middle Pool, hikers can either return to Lower Pool under the waterfalls or continue the loop, with different views of Zion Canyon, while ending at the same place.ABOUT THE AUTHORS
An award-winning writer, Tom Wharton is the outdoor editor at The Salt Lake City Tribune, the author of Utah: A Family Travel Guide, and co-author with his wife, Gayen, of Utah (Compass American Guides). Gayen Wharton is a nationally recognized sixth-grade teacher. The parents of four children, they live in Salt Lake City.