After a full eight months of build-up, today officially kicks off the National Park Service’s 100th year birthday celebration (Aug.25-28).
And while I’m technically enjoying the national parks of Eastern Europe at the moment—currently pounding out this post from the bow of a river ship as I sail down the Danube with Romania to my left and Serbia to my right—I thought I’d take this opportunity to regale you with tips from my recent trip to southern Utah visiting Zion National Park, one of my favorite spots in all of America.
My first brush with Zion was at the end of my freshman year of college when I led 60-something kids ranging from ages 8 to 18 through the wilds of the Arizona and Utah parks through a program we called Caravan while I was working at Orme. I loved every moment of that multi-week road trip.
I won’t claim to remember much beyond the panting (and OK, mild anxiety) that ensued as we climbed to the top of Angel’s Landing and the way that first glance at the soaring rocks that marked Zion’s entrance robbed me of words and took my breath away.
Are you planning a similar trip hoping to leave feeling inspired, with memory cards brimming with Ansel Adams-esque images? While I won’t claim to be a Southwest expert, here are a few things I learned on my subsequent visit more than a decade later.
Springdale. There are several motels and modest lodges around the base of Zion, the entrance of which can be accessed directly from Springdale. You could stay there, or you could venture into a nearby town like Hurricane that’s likely cheaper. The pros: Springdale has a lot of great restaurants that you can walk to and you’re right by the shuttle stops that take you into the park.
Know Before You Go
Parking is a bitch. There is limited parking inside Zion’s own boundaries, but with the help of the regular shuttle service, traversing the park doesn’t have to be difficult. Learn from our mistakes and don’t try to drive in the park and hop on the shuttle from one of the first stops—you’ll likely be passed over time and time again by drivers because the bus will already be full, and maybe even wind up walking (not that I speak from experience or anything…).
Instead, you’re best off leaving your car at the entrance to Zion and catching a ride from one of the stops in Springdale. Note: From mid-March through October, and weekends following that, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only accessible by shuttle.
MeMe’s Café. Coffee, crepes, coffee, crepes. Need I say more?
Park You Shouldn’t Pass Up
Snow Canyon. This otherworldly state park was every bit as striking as Zion, only much smaller and with only a fraction of the tourists. My advice? Spend a couple days in Zion, but save a day or two to explore the St. George surrounds, as well.
Best Hike We Didn’t Go On
Red Mountain Trail. Again, I only had a very quick 48 hours in St. George this time around, so we really only hit the highlights, but I heard from a very credible local source that the Red Mountain Trail is not to be missed. (And no, that credible source is not Kid Augustine, but can we pause for a moment and talk about how freakin’ adorable she is?!)
Easiest Spot for a Quickie
Emerald Pools. Let’s be honest: You need multiple days to really get a feel for the breadth of Zion—she’s simply too large and too magnificent to experience in 24 hours—but if you just have a mere afternoon in the park as I did, make for Zion Lodge then mosey on out to the Emerald Pools, which is a sloping three miles round-trip to the furthest point on a paved trail and takes less than an hour by foot. Be sure and visit the Lower, Middle and Upper Pools for different vantage points of the falls, and do so during the afternoon when you’ve still got daylight trickling in; we didn’t arrive until just before dusk, and the colors were very drab and muted.
Spot You Positively CAN’T Miss
Angel’s Landing. Again, we didn’t have time to do it on this trip, but I have in the past, and if you’re in good physical condition (and not scared of heights)—you’re on a very narrow path marked with a flimsy chain—it offers incomparable views and a pretty darn good workout, too.
Escape the Crowds
The Kolob Canyons aren’t quick to reach if you’re already inside the main area of Zion, but that’s precisely why this section of the park is a great option if you want to get out of the thick of the tourists that hover around the lodge. Lingering on the northwestern side of Zion, these 2,000-foot cliff walls are only accessible via the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center entrance—and it took us nearly an hour to reach them from Springdale, too.
There are scenic drives as well as unpaved trails that lead to natural rock arches, abandoned cabins and other panoramic lookout points—and the best part of all is that you’ll likely have them all to yourself.
For a Drivable Sunset Vista
Tourists love crowing around the Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion for hours before the sun sets to catch its reflection off the face of the Watchman rock. Personally, I think there are better views with far less people.
If you’re staying down in St. George and not near the park entrance, head up Dixie Rock to see the rocks come alive at sunset rather than go into Zion when the surrounding buttes will block all semblance of a sunset.
For the Adrenaline Junkie
The Narrows. Sadly, it was still closed when we were there in May, which devastated me to no end, but I’ve seen the iconic shots of people wading in water through a slot canyon enough to know this is a MUST—not to mention, canyoneering is one of Zion’s biggest draws among the adventure set. Check out this cool video my pals Fresh Off the Grid made of their experience going deep into the canyon:
When is a post-hike beer not called for?!
Lay Your Head
As I mentioned up top, there are a number of hotels at the base of Zion in Springdale, but personally I loved staying in Hurricane, midway between St. George and the park entrance itself. Coral Springs Resort not only offered well-appointed suites at a very reasonable price, but it was located very close to a number of the state parks. Another friend also stayed at Red Mountain Resort while there, and I’ve heard many fellow travelers sing its praises, as well. Zion Lodge right smack in the middle of the park is meant to be spectacular, but you need to plan your trip a good six months in advance (or sometimes, more) in order to nab a room there.
I’ve only been to Zion twice, in 2002 and 2016, and plan to get back there a third time with SVV very soon. So tell me, what can we not miss in the St. George area next time?