Utah Vacation: Zion National Park Edition

Previously on Adventures in Utah…Salt Lake City and Bryce Canyon.

It’s a quick 90 minute drive from Bryce Canyon to the East entrance of Zion National Park. Once you are in the park though it is still a 12 mile drive along the Mount Carmel highway to the Visitors’ Center. It is an amazingly beautiful drive though. The difference between Zion and places like Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon is that the park itself is actually down in the canyon so you are staring up at these amazing rocks instead of down into them. It’s a whole different experience. I found the scenery along the Mount Carmel highway to be the most breathtaking in the park. There’s a 1.1 mile tunnel along that highway. Most likely you will have to stop and wait to drive through it. The reason for that is because the tunnel was built back in the late 1920s before vehicles were so big. The tunnel can’t accommodate two-way traffic when buses or RVs are driving through it, which is quite frequently so they stop the traffic going the other direction when drives through.

Though Zion National Park is amazing and I would highly recommend a trip there, I liked it slightly less than Bryce Canyon essentially because it was more crowded and more touristy. Bryce Canyon felt a little bit more off the beaten path. Zion is definitely the place to go though if you aren’t big into hiking (but also if you are), have mobility problems, have small children, etc. I will say that I was impressed by the fathers I saw carrying their babies/toddlers in hiking packs on their backs and doing some of the trails that we did. I was trying to imagine my brother-in-law doing that with my niece and gave myself a good laugh. There are a lot more paved areas of the park and the rating scale for the trails is way different in Zion than in Bryce. I doubt almost any of the trails we did in Bryce would have been ranked on the Easy scale according to the rankings in Zion where the easy trails were almost all paved and had relatively little elevation change.

Unless you have a special pass (which as far as I can tell you can only get if you’re staying in the Lodge) you can’t drive on the main canyon road in the park. You have to take a free shuttle from the Visitors’ Center which will then stop at many places along the road where you can get on and off. There are also free shuttles into the park from Springdale, and I gather during the busy season that unless you head into the park bright and early you will have to take one because the parking lot in the park will be full.

Food and Lodging

The town of Springdale is right outside the South Entrance to the park and is where most people stay if they are not camping inside the park or staying at the Lodge there. There are also campgrounds and RV parks in Springdale in addition to some motels and a lot of little bed and breakfasts and inns. I tried to stay at one of the small little places, but couldn’t get a reservation anywhere so we wound up at the new La Quinta Inn. It was so new in fact that some of the buildings are still being built. The area, like in Bryce Canyon, is growing as evidenced by the new hotels being built. There was also a Hampton Inn that looked like it wasn’t too far from opening.

View of the mountains from our hotel room.
View of the mountains from our hotel room.

You have a lot more restaurant options in Springdale than you do at Bryce Canyon. We ate lunch after we got into town at a place called the Flying Monkey which had pizza, sandwiches and salads which was pretty good. Dinner that night was at the best place we ate while there. It’s a Mexican restaurant built into an old gas station called The Whiptail Grill. It was absolutely delicious. If you ever find yourself in Springdale, Utah do yourself a favor and eat there. We decided to pack our lunch into the park on Thursday so we grabbed some bread, cheese, and fruit from the little grocery in the town. That night we ate dinner at Oscar’s Cafe which has a wide variety of American and Mexican type foods. It was decent, but definitely not as good as the Whiptail Grill.

Hiking

After we got to the Visitors’ Center we decided to do one of the hikes that starts from there. We did the Watchman Trail which is 2.7 miles with an elevation change of 368 feet. The one nice thing about hiking in Zion is that since you’re starting at the bottom of the canyon generally you’re hiking up on the first half of your hike and then get to do the easier part of the hike on the way back. I wasn’t overly excited by the views from this trail. None of the trails that leave from the Visitors’ Center have super great scenery comparatively. I did get a couple of nice pictures of some flowers along the trail though. Also I apologize if not all the pictures are segregated to their appropriate trail. I had a lot harder time figuring out which pictures went with which trail compared to the ones I had for Bryce Canyon, where the trails were a bit more distinctive.

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The second hike we did in Zion turned out to be my favorite. It was the one hike that was off the Mount Carmel highway and not off the main canyon road. In addition to the many easy trails in the park, Zion also has a number of very harrowing trails including Angel’s Landing, which has a steep, narrow climb to the summit. Something like 6 people have died on it since 2003 or something like that. I’m pretty sure that all the trails that have the icon of a person falling next to them in the guide are trails that people have died on. So you know, that’s comforting. The Canyon Overlook Trail is not one of those trails, but it felt like the most dangerous trail we did. It’s probably safer than some others though because there are railings up. I really would not have wanted to go around some parts of that trail without the railings there. The trail is 1 mile with an elevation change of 163 feet. It had some great up close views of beautiful rock and over the Mount Carmel highway. As you can see I took a lot more pictures of from this trail than almost any other on the whole trip.

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On Thursday morning we started off with a loop trail that you can create by combining 3 different trails (the Kayenta Trail, the Lower Emerald Pool trail, and the Grotto Trail). You can also add the Upper Emerald Pool trail on as a spur, which we did. There used to be a Middle Emerald Pool Trail as well, but it must have washed out or something because it is closed and no longer shows on the trail guide though you do run into it if you’re doing this loop. Doing the trails as a loop with the spur is about 3.1 miles if I’m doing my math right. The elevation changes range from a small 35 feet on the Grotto trail to 200 feet on the Upper Emerald Pool Trail, but you also have to add that to the 150 elevation change for the Kayenta trail which is also pretty much straight up and leads into the Upper Emerald Pool Trail. The Lower Emerald Pool Trail is paved and was thus a lot more crowded than the other parts of this loop. There were some pretty views along this combination of trails as water always makes things more interesting. We also got to see some wildlife along this trail. Spot the frog and the wild turkey in the photos.

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Next we stopped off the shuttle to do the Weeping Rock Trail, which only has an elevation change of 98 feet, but it rises that much over only .2 miles (making the trail .4 miles round trip), which means it is pretty steep. It is also paved though. It takes you up under an overhanging rock where water seeps through and drips on you. The other trail that starts from that same location is the Hidden Canyon Trail, which is a 2.4 mile trail that rises over 850 feet in elevation. It is listed as strenuous on the trails guide and has the scary picture of the guy falling off the cliff next to it. We weren’t originally planning on hiking it because I had automatically ruled out any of the strenuous trails, but after zipping through the short Weeping Rock Trail I decided we should give it at least a partial go. We only made it about halfway before turning back for a couple of reasons. One the hike was steep and rather killer in that respect, especially on top of the hikes we had already done that morning. Second it was apparent a storm was blowing in and it was not a trail that I would have wanted to be hiking in the rain. Too steep and too slippery. We pretty much made it back down just in time because it started raining after we got onto the shuttle after making it back down. The temperature probably dropped 20 degrees from when we boarded the shuttle to when we got off.

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Our next stop was the trail at the end of the shuttle run. When we got off it was raining, but there was a shelter with benches for people waiting for the shuttle so we sat down there and took the opportunity to eat our lunch. We probably waited another half hour or so after that for the rain to let up before starting the Riverside Walk. That trail ends in the Narrows trail where you actually hike through the river. It’s recommended that you have appropriate gear for that (i.e. either a wet suit or dry suit–we saw people in both though the guy on our shuttle back said he wouldn’t have wanted to do it in a wet suit). Needless to say we did not do that hike. The Riverside Walk itself is normally a completely paved trail that runs for 2.2 miles round trip with an elevation change of 58 feet. I say normally because they were doing maintenance on part of the trail and thus forced you off the paved path onto a dirt path that ran right along the river for a portion of it. I actually preferred the way we wound up having to do it because it got us much closer to the river and felt like more of a hike than just walking on a side walk. It also got us close to some ducks in the river. I did feel bad for the number of people I saw in wheelchairs going up the trail on our way back though because there wasn’t much of a trail before they would have to turn around and go back thanks to the trail closure. This was the most crowded trail that we were on and thus my least favorite. Pardon my pictures from this trail as I smudged my camera lens without realizing it.

The final trail we did in the main part of the park was the Archeology Trail, which is a short .4 mile hike rising 80 feet in elevation. You start it off the parking lot from the Visitors’ Center. We had a bit of a problem finding the trail head, but we eventually got there. Supposedly you can see the outlines of some prehistoric buildings on the trail, but even with the sign I can’t say it looked like anything to me.

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We did our final trail of the trip on Friday on our way back to Salt Lake City. Kolob Canyon is about an hour away from the main portion of Zion National Park. It is still part of the park though. There are three trails there. One is a strenuous 14 miles trail with an elevation change of over 1000 feet that we never would have done. If we had more time we would have done the 5 mile trail. As it was we just did the Timber Creek Overlook Trail, which was 1.1 miles round trip with an elevation change of 100 feet. This was a fairly easy trail, but I was happy I put back on my hiking boots just because it was super muddy. There were some great views from this trail. We had a super clear day so supposedly we were supposed to be able to see all the way to some plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I must have seen it, but your guess is as good as mine to what far off thing in the distance it actually was. Even if you don’t want to do any hiking, if you happen to be driving this direction the scenic 5 mile drive through the canyon is really pretty. (Note this is still part of Zion National Park so you are expected to have paid the national park fee to enter though it’s kind of on the honor system since there’s nothing forcing you to go into the visitors’ center to pay or show that you have already paid the park fee though we did).

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That brings us to the conclusion of this trip to Utah. It was absolutely beautiful and a wonderful vacation. There are a number of other parks out there that we didn’t get a change to visit during our short time there, so maybe I’ll be back one day.

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