TL;DR | Scrambling along 1000 foot drops and wading through chest-deep water made for the most remarkable hikes to date. The deep red, massive rock formations alongside lush swamps produce a rare combination that thoroughly we enjoyed. Also, it was Stephen's birthday!
Zion is a special place. It reminded us of some epic combination of Arches and Canyonlands, with more greenery and water. Also, monstrously fat squirrels which eat birds (more on that later).
We arrived late at night, with no campsite since every reservable one was reserved, and the first-come, first-served sites long taken. So we camped in a Bureau of Land Management spot, which is a great option if you want to avoid paying (basically the side of a permitted road, with no access to water or bathrooms, or really any amenities). We pitched the tent in the dark among the cacti, and woke up the next morning to both Stephen's birthday and a beautiful view we had missed entirely when we had arrived during the night.
In our quest to secure a campsite in the park, we drove to the South Campground, one of only two large sites with toilets, etc in Zion. Somehow we had not made the connection between Labor Day weekend and the popularity of the park; it was a zoo. Luckily we got to the campground early enough and after waiting for a little less than an hour we secured our site. It was well worth the wait; with views of the Watchman and a river running nearby, it was perfect.
We had three days to spend in Zion and we made the most of them. Our first morning we visited Cafe Soleil for Stephen's birthday breakfast, a spot we would proceed to eat at every day for the rest of our stay there. It had shockingly good (and reasonable!) food for such a small town as Springdale, and was walking distance from our campsite. While we were a bit overwhelmed at the lines in Zion Valley (this is the most popular part of the park, with free shuttle buses taking visitors to the trailheads, as they are largely inaccessible by car), we were fortunate in that we could park at our campsite and catch the shuttle from there. Competition for parking spots was fierce; people were parking in ravines, on stop signs, literally anywhere they could wedge a car.
That day we hiked to Hidden Canyon and saw Weeping Rock, a section of the steep rock face that seeps water, which in turn feeds hanging gardens of ferns and flowers. It's amazing to see such an dry-looking place with so much greenery, and makes for a very unique environment. We then proceeded to hike up one of these steep stone slopes to a canyon, winding back into the rock until we reached an arch, which we both promptly climbed. For dinner that night, we went to the local brewery, which was pretty lackluster; we ended up at much nicer spot a couple days later, for a birthday dinner re-do.
Over the next two days we climbed Angel's Landing and explored The Narrows, two hikes that are possibly our favourites from the trip. Angel's Landing is one of the most iconic climbs in Zion; it is a sheer rock face, requiring scrambling (with the welcomed help of pre-laid chains), fearlessness to navigate a steep path with 1,000 foot drops on either side, and a lot of sunscreen. The views from the top are spectacular, but the journey there is equally fun.
Our other big hike through the Narrows was very different. This hike has no trail; you must instead follow an increasingly narrow canyon while wading through water almost the entire time. This is a trek up the Virgin River with a very different view of the park than we had experienced on either of the other two hikes. You look up the whole time, observing the curving canyon walls, hanging gardens, and rainbow of colours produced from years of shaping and erosion. While some sections of the river are only mid-calf or knee-high, others are chest-high, which makes for an unpredictable hike, especially since you cannot see the bottom of the river due to all the sediment it carries. We both have sturdy hiking boots which are meant to get wet, so aside from renting a waterproof bag for our camera, we just dove right in (in Emily's case literally, when she hit an unexpectedly deep section. See pictures). The whole hike was an adventure, and we cannot recommend it enough. The one downer was seeing a freakishly fat squirrel eating a bird on our way out. It was quite disturbing, especially considering how comfortable these squirrels are with people...
While driving out of Zion toward Bryce Canyon we randomly stumbled upon a restaurant called Sego. It was rated incredibly well, and upon further research we learned the chef had cooked for Leonardo DiCaprio (Stephen didn't care about that, but did appreciate the 5.0 / 5.0 star review average). So we obviously went, for the aforementioned Stephen birthday dinner part II (thanks Emily!). It was truly excellent, and such a find in the middle of a whole lot of nothing. We finally got Stephen his birthday cake with a candle, capping off a really beautiful visit to this park.