My first visit to Zion National Park was with my parents on a cross country automobile trip from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. I was about 9 years old. We drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and spent the night at the Tropicana on the strip.
The next day we drove to Zion National Park, Utah’s first National Park, I remember my mother, being the teacher she was, giving my sister and I a thorough explanation of what we were seeing in this Park. The visitor center had some great exhibits and my mother made sure we read them and looked at all the photographs.
The rangers answered all her questions as well. We toured up Zion Canyon to the Narrows and stopped at the viewpoints and read the placards about what we were seeing. I was amazed by the unique sandstone cliffs ranging in color from cream, to pink, to red. I remember being mystified by the water seeping out of the rocks in many places. I was in the bottom of a narrow Canyon surrounded by massive rock formations. The canyon was and still is being eroded by the Virgin River flowing serenely through the bottom of the Canyon. I had never seen anything like this before. My first visit at this young age, was rather short, however, it made an impression on me and that drew me back when I was much older to visit, hike, study, and photograph.
Zion National Park is located in far Southwestern Utah, 40 miles from St. George, UT and 160 miles from Las Vegas and only 30 miles off Interstate 15. This spectacular National Park is open all year round and with its diverse elevation and climate, is a great place to visit any time of year.
It can be done as a day trip from Las Vegas, however, I recommend spending at least two days in Zion, or at least an overnight as there is so much to see and do you will not do it justice by spending only a few hours.
As you travel either north or south on I-15 you will be traveling through high desert vegetation. If you are traveling from Las Vegas, you will travel thru St. George, UT, one of the fastest growing metro areas in America. The temperate climate, the beautiful red rock scenery, the moderate cost of living and the close proximity to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City with the city type amenities and the small town feel contributes to this fact.
Traveling from I-15 to Zion you will travel through the small communities of Hurricane, Virgin, Grafton, Rockville and Springdale. Located right at the Western entrance to Zion National Park, Springdale has 14 hotels/motels, 21 restaurants, numerous markets, gift shops, boutiques and galleries and other services. At the entrance to Zion National Park there is an admission charge of $25.00 per car. Tip: park you car in Springdale and take the Park Service free tram to the entrance station, walk through, it is quicker and less expensive if you are a group of two or less. Families are never charged more than the per car charge of $25.00.
Another reason to park in Springdale and ride the free shuttle, parking inside the Park is at a premium and between 10 am and 3 pm you probably will not find a parking spot.
Automobiles are not allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in Zion Canyon, only the Park Service free shuttle buses. The shuttles pickup in Springdale at 8 different locations, so you are never far from one of the pickup points. Look for the shuttle parking signs designating free parking and a shuttle pickup point. The shuttle buses operate from before dawn to after dark and operate as often as every 7 minutes. The Zion Canyon Shuttle loop stops at eight locations in the park. The transfer between loops is made at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. You may get on and off as often as you like. Riding the shuttle is free.
The shuttle system for this year will begin operations April 4, 2009 and runs through October 2009. In November 2009, the shuttle will be offered on a voluntary basis on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. January thru April 4th no shuttle service is offered, however, you may drive you personal vehicle into Zion Canyon.
If you are entering Zion National Park from the east – U. S. Hwy 89, you will turn West onto Utah State Hwy #9 at Mt. Carmel Junction and drive about 12 miles where you will enter the Park through the East entrance. This entrance was opened to vehicular traffic in July 4, 1930 and was created to allow direct access to both Bryce and Grand Canyon North Rim National Parks. To build this road, it was necessary to blast out of a mountain of solid rock a tunnel 1.1 miles long. The tunnel was begun in late 1920s and completed in 1930. When it was dedicated on July 4th 1930 it was the longest tunnel in the United States and was considered an engineering marvel. The east entrance has some great geologic formations and scenery one of which is Checkerboard Mesa. This sandstone mesa has grooves worn from wind, rain, freezing and thawing water to look like a checkerboard. From the east entrance you will drop in elevation almost 2,000 feet from the tunnel to the canyon floor. Just east of the east entrance to the tunnel there is a 1 mile roundtrip hiking trail that takes you to an overlook of Zion Canyon. My first visit was a drive through from the Las Vegas side to the Mt. Carmel Junction short drive up Zion Canyon. I remember the long tunnel and the winding drive to reach it from the bottom of the Canyon. We drove from Zion to Kanab, UT where we had lunch, then drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Back in those days, there was less cars on the road and to me it seemed like we were the only ones in this big wide wonderful land. Kanab, UT I fell in love with as it is beautifully located at the base of a huge red rock mountain and seemed to be a small farming community with green fields, cows and horses in many of the fields. The people were very friendly and helpful to us travelers.
The elevation in Zion Canyon is 3,900 feet above sea level and the temperatures are moderate, cool to cold in the winter and warm to hot in the summer. Roads and trails can be icy in the winter, so caution is advised.
The best way to experience Zion is to get off the shuttle and take a hike. There are 9 different hikes in Zion Canyon and many other hikes outside the Canyon itself. During subsequent visits to Zion I have hiked almost all the trails in Zion Canyon as well as some on the rim as well. Hiking in the backcountry makes me feel wonderful, peaceful, and the quiet beauty is good for my soul.
Depending on you physical level of fitness, time and inclination, you may take a short hike to Zion Narrows alongside the Virgin River a distance of 2 miles roundtrip. This trail is one of the more popular and is handicap accessible. Along the way you will see dripping springs, hanging gardens of wildflowers decorate the walls, and usually deer and many birds. Once you get to the Narrows and if you want to continue up the canyon, you will need to hike in the shallow Virgin River as the canyon narrows to a slot and most of the year there is little or no place to hike that is out of the water. Before you attempt this portion of the hike, check with the Rangers at the Visitor Center for any warnings about flooding or rainfall. Hiking in the Narrows when rainstorms are predicted is never permitted.
Weeping Rock is another short ½ mile roundtrip trail where you will see dripping springs, hanging gardens and many wildflowers. A bit more challenging hike is the 2 mile roundtrip Emerald Pools trail. This trail takes you to small pools and a waterfall.
My favorite hike in all of Zion is for those in good physical condition and more time, is to Scouts Landing and Angels Landing. This 5 mile round trip trail gains almost 1500 feet in elevation and is strenuous with steep drop offs and narrow trail. Not for anyone fearful of heights. The half-way mark ends at a summit high above Zion Canyon with spectacular views in all directions. I remember my first hike on this trail I did not k now about the scrambling up a rock face ledge with drop-offs on both sides with only a cable to hold onto. I decided to stay on Scouts Landing and let my hiking partners have all the fun. One of the interesting parts of this trail is Walters Wiggles, a series of switchbacks that take you almost straight up a wall on the way to Scouts Landing.
The visitor center has trail guides for these and other hikes in Zion. Those wishing to take a horseback ride in Zion, Canyon Trail Rides offers one hour and half day horseback rides in Zion Canyon. The trail ride is alongside the Virgin River in the bottom of the Canyon and through a lush forest vegetation.
A stop everyone should make is the Zion Canyon Lodge, the only lodge inside the Park. I remember this lodge from my first visit and was quite taken with its location at the base of these huge rock cliffs and tall cottonwood trees. This rustic lodge was built in the 1920s destroyed by a fire in 1966, rebuilt that year and in 1990 restored to its original classic appearance. The surrounding landscape makes for a peaceful and relaxing setting from the front porch or the lobby. The second floor of the lodge is the location of the Red Rock Grill, Zion Lodge’s recently renovated dining room. I have enjoyed many dinners in the Lodge dining room gazing out as the sun sets on the Canyon walls and the shadows lengthen in the Canyon. It boasts spectacular views of the magnificent surroundings and wonderful food.
A short distance up the Canyon from the lodge is a wonderful picnic area called the Grotto. I have also enjoyed picnicking in this beautiful serene spot. This is also the parking spot for the Angels Landing trailhead, so the parking area usually is very busy.
Zion National Park celebrates 100 years on July 31, 2009. Events and programs will commemorate this milestone for Utah’s most visited national park. The centennial recognizes the park’s initial establishment as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 and Congressional designation as Zion National Park in 1919. There will be many events to commemorate this event through out the year, so please check the Zion National Park Web site for events during you visit. http://www.nps.gov/zion
If you are planning your Zion National Park Visit on a multi-day trip, I would recommend you combined Zion with a visit to Bryce National Park and if in the summer time, Grand Canyon North Rim. These other two parks are equally as spectacular and very different than Zion, so you will not be duplicating anything you have seen in Zion. Please check my other articles on getting the most out of your visit to Bryce National Park and the Grand Canyon North Rim.
I hope you enjoy your visit and are able to use my recommendations to maximize the pleasure of your stay. Please let me know how you enjoyed your visit and any recommendations you may have for me to include in my next article or blog.