2016  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT

 

   
 
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   INTRODUCTION TO UBER-POPULAR 
ZION NATIONAL PARK

SUNDAY, APRIL 10

 
"Follow the paths where ancient native people and pioneers walked. Gaze up at massive   
sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Experience
wilderness in a narrow slot canyon.** Zion's unique array of plants and animals
will enchant you as you absorb the rich history of the past and absorb
the excitement of present day adventures."
 
~ National Park Service home page for Zion National Park
 
 

** Although we were able to hike many of the trails in Zion this week, one we couldn't access was the iconic Narrows slot canyon where the Virgin River flows through a narrow canyon for 16 miles through the park.

Spring rains and snowmelt put the kabosh on that. It's just too dangerous when the water is deep, murky, and running fast in the spring. Last fall seven experienced hikers drowned at Zion in another canyon during a flash flood that caught them by surprise, so park officials aren't taking any chances this spring. The Narrows slot canyon is closed this week.

 


Entry to The Narrows; no one is allowed past here this week.

We did get to see the beginning of that famous canyon hike at the end of the Riverwalk Trail, however, and we experienced most of the second most popular hike at Zion, Angel's Landing.

In this entry I'll give some general information about the park -- a little history, things to see and do, peak seasons, parking, entry, where you can and can't drive, shuttle bus system, hiking and cycling opportunities, campgrounds, visitor center, museum, etc.

Subsequent entries will include photos and information about the trails we hiked, the roadways and paths where we drove and/or cycled, and a day trip up Kolob Terrace Road to Kolob Reservoir. I covered Kolob Canyon in the northwest part of the park last October.

WHY IS ZION NATIONAL PARK SO POPULAR?

There are lots of reasons! I'll talk first about the geological and ecological diversity within the park.

Established in 1919, Zion was the first of five national parks in Utah. It draws the most visitors of those five -- over four million a year -- probably because it has so much to offer and it is the easiest to access from a freeway running between two major cities, Salt Lake and Las Vegas.

This map shows the location of the five national parks in southern Utah, all south of I-80 and east of I-15 in what tourist guides call Canyon Country:

I marked each of the national parks with a purple dot. Since you probably can't read the map even on a large computer screen, they are (L-R) Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.

Jim and I revisited all of these parks this spring; we've been to most of them before but spent more time to explore them this time. I'll let you know in May which one was our very favorite and why.


My favorite trail in my favorite Utah national park (see 5-3-16 journal entry for location)

Zion is large -- 232 square miles -- and covers a range of elevations from 3,666 to 8,726 feet. Because the park is located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, and Great Basin regions, Zion has a wide variety of terrain and ecosystemsthat support significant plant and animal diversity.

According to the park's website and newsletter, Zion is home to about 78 different species of mammals (including mountain lions and bighorn sheep), 291 birds (peregrine falcons and California condors are two favorites), 30 reptiles, eight fish, and seven  amphibians.


Conifers high up on the West Rim Trail at Zion NP

There are about a thousand different kinds of plants in the park, too, with a mix of desert, riparian, pinyon-juniper, and conifer woodland communities. The terrain is diverse, ranging from high sage-covered plateaus and colorful 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs to deep canyons.

It's a pleasant surprise in this harsh desert environment to also see lush green valleys with streams and the unique hanging gardens that grow next to wet seeps, springs, and waterfalls.


Shooting Stars flourish in a wet niche in the rocks along the lower part of 
Observation Point Trail, not far from the even wetter Weeping Wall.

The amazing geological features in Zion National Park began forming over 250 million years ago when the area was covered by sea water. Later a vast desert covered the region. Today's tall, colorful cliffs were once sand dunes in that desert.

Zion is located near the "bottom" of what is called the Grand Staircase, layers of colorful rock on the Colorado Plateau that extend from Bryce Canyon National Park at the high end to the Grand Canyon at the low end. 


Busy little river, cutting through several thousand feet of rock layers over the eons . . .
(view of the Virgin River from the Pa'rus Trail)

With such a variety of geological features and habitats , Zion is a fabulous study in contrasts. It's perfect for folks like us who love to sight-see, hike, ride our bikes, and/or do landscape and wildlife photography.

VISITOR CENTER

We almost always go to a park's visitor center the first time we're there, even if we've already done some online research. There is always more information to gain from the rangers, exhibits, maps, and brochures on-site.

Zion has steep cliffs, narrow canyons, and unpredictable weather during every season so it's important to have current information about road and trail closures and weather predictions that are as accurate as possible if you plan to do any hiking.


Avoid Observation Point Trail (above, my favorite trail in Zion ) and West Rim Trail if the
weather is bad or you're seriously acrophobic; both have narrow paths above steep drop-offs.

The park brochure emphasizes, however, that each visitor's own good judgment, constant awareness, and adequate preparation are critical for his/her safety and enjoyment.

Since we weren't able last fall to find a parking spot at the visitor center when we came over here from Red Canyon, UT on a day trip, we went in today after getting set up in our campsite. The main visitor center is located just inside the west (south) gate of the park at Springdale, only half a mile from the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Park where we're staying. 

The visitor center and shady outdoor terrace area are spacious, nicely landscaped, and designed to accommodate a lot of people during peak hours and seasons:

 

After perusing the exhibits and bulletin boards I had two main questions for the rangers -- the current condition of Kolob Terrace Road, including possible snow (there was major construction on that road when we visited in October), and the likelihood that The Narrows will be open for hiking/wading later this week.

The good news is Kolob Terrace Road is open and clear so we were able to explore that part of the park on Monday:


Kolob Reservoir is at the end of Kolob Terrace Rd. It's at 8,000 feet elevation and still frozen.

The bad news was a next to zero chance of The Narrows opening up to hiking for several more weeks. However, all the other trails in the park are good to go, even those at higher elevations in the northwestern part of the park. The information was helpful in planning our week at Zion.

After we were done in the visitor center we caught a free shuttle bus to the human history museum so we could learn more about the shuttle system. We found that it works efficiently and comfortably to move people around the very narrow and busy Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which runs next to the Virgin River.

HUMAN HISTORY MUSEUM

Human history in the area has been traced back to native peoples who lived here about 12,000 years ago. Over the millennia, humans have adapted to all the variations in climate change and eco-zones in the region. In more recent centuries, the lush Virgin River Valley has been the easiest place for native hunter-gatherers and incoming settlers to find and grow foods and hunt animals for sustenance.

A good place to learn about human history in the park is the (ta-da!) Zion Human History Museum, located less than a mile north of the visitor center on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This is one of the shuttle stops. You can drive a personal vehicle here but not any farther north on this busy road.


Colorful cliffs across the road from the museum parking area

Above and below:  more cliffs to the north of the museum

Exhibits inside the museum focus on the people who have lived in this region and also the water that made it possible for them to survive. The effects of water not only determined where people lived in the area, it also helped form all the spectacular cliffs and canyons that draw tourists to the area now. As the park website says, "Water creates the scenery and sanctuary that makes Zion famous."

While we were at the museum we watched an informative 22-minute video with an overview of the park. It is shown every half hour.

From the back terrace is one of the best views of the park's famous scenery -- the West Temple formation:

To show some scale of size, these cliffs are about two miles from my viewing point on the terrace. They rise above the canyon floor about 3,800 feet.

I marked three named formations with red dots. Left to right they are the West Temple (elev. 7,810 feet), the Sundial (elev. 7,590 feet), and the Altar of Sacrifice (elev. 7,505 feet):

WHAT TO SEE & DO IN THE PARK

There are sights and activities at Zion that are suitable for a wide range of people, from those who are physically handicapped to those who are very athletic.

I highly recommend researching things to see and do in the park before arriving so you can maximize whatever time you have, whether it's just part of a day or several weeks. That's good advice for any national park or other bucket-list destination, especially one that draws as many visitors as Zion.

The best place to research things to see and do in the park is the official park website. It will have the most current information about road closures, etc. You can spend many hours clicking on lots of links!

There are numerous other types of websites that will give you information, too, from businesses like resorts, tour companies, and sports outfitters to people's personal blogs.


Photographing the falls at the Upper Emerald Pools

Sight-seeing is probably the most common activity, and even very sedentary people can enjoy looking at the colorful cliffs and rock formations in their own vehicle along all 12 miles of State Rt. 9 AKA Zion-Mt. Carmel Hwy. (the east-west route through the park), Kolob Terrace Road up to the reservoir (about 25 miles one way), and Kolob Canyon Road in the far northwest part of the park (five miles one way).

Free shuttle buses carry visitors the length of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive where most vehicles aren't allowed (only park personnel and folks with reservations at the lodge). You can get on and off at any of the stops or just stay on the bus to enjoy the scenery.


Visitors wait at the Grotto shuttle stop, where there are several trailheads.

More active people can add walking and running to places off the road to view scenic wonders in the park, including the wilderness area.

Photography and observing wildlife are probably the next most common activities at Zion. I took gobs of pictures of the landscape and nature, including flowers and a few critters.

I was thrilled to hike close to a curious young bighorn ram on the way down from Observation Point. He wasn't very fearful of the humans who passed within 30-40 feet of him on the trail:


Sure-footed and well-camouflaged ram

When I sat down on a bench along the Virgin River on the Riverside Trail one day, a hungry, fearless squirrel jumped into my lap unexpectedly and nearly grabbed my Clif Bar snack!

I laughed, but if he'd bitten me it wouldn't have been so funny. I shooed him away. He's definitely used to manipulating tourists. Most of the park's critters are more reclusive or nocturnal than that so you may have to look hard to see them.

Other activities that don't require a lot of energy include looking at exhibits at the visitor center, nature center, and human history museum; watching the free park videos; shopping in the book stores/gift shops; eating at the lodge; having a picnic; attending ranger talks and short walks; viewing sunsets and the night sky; and staying in the campground.

There are also a lot of special kids' activities during the summer months.

More active things to do include hiking on trails that range from easy to strenuous, cycling the Pa'rus Trail and paved roads in the park, horseback riding with or without a guide, back-packing overnight in the wilderness area, some types of rock climbing, river trips, and canyoneering. The last four activities require special permits.


Two climbers (left of red dots) scale a very high
vertical wall above the Virgin River.


Jim riding on the Pa'rus Trail

I'll have several entries about our hikes and bike rides in the park. The park website describes other trails we didn't do this week, if you'd like to read about those, too.

We both rode our bikes out and back along the river on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (about 10 miles one way) and enjoyed seeing things up closer than we could on the shuttle buses. Cyclists have to pull off the narrow road when a bus approaches, but otherwise there is minimal traffic since it's closed to almost every other vehicle.


View in Zion Canyon above the Virgin River; picture taken on a bike ride.

This road is slightly uphill outbound (upstream/north) but not strenuous if you're used to riding 20 miles. Shuttle buses can each transport a couple of bikes if you want to hop on for part of the ride.

Note that pets other than legitimate service animals aren't allowed in most buildings, the shuttle buses, or on any of the park trails except the paved Pa'rus Trail. Pets are also allowed in the campgrounds and at pull-offs along Hwy. 9.

AVOIDING THE CROWDS

It's ironic that the name "Zion" means "peace and refuge." That was a lot easier to find here many years ago than now.

While you can find peace and refuge far out on some of the trails, and in the wilderness area where few people venture, I can't warn potential visitors enough about the crowds that are possible in the more developed parts of this park.

Last October we drove over in our car from Red Canyon (close to Bryce Canyon NP) to scout out places where we could camp with our RV on this spring trip to Zion. We did make a decision about that but we were already too late to reserve a suitable spot in a park campground and we were unable to find a place to park at the visitor center so we could go in to get some information.


Solid line of cars on Rt. 9 in the eastern part of Zion last October

At least I got better pictures of that part of the park on that day trip last fall than I was able to get this week.

In recent years Zion has been the third most-visited of the sixty designated "national parks" in our country, per the National Park Service website. Only the Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon national parks have drawn more visitors each year. (Some other parks in the system like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Golden Gate National Recreation Area have higher numbers, but they aren't designated as national parks.)

That means you'd better plan any trip to Zion well in advance and perhaps try to avoid the busiest seasons so you can have a more pleasant experience.

This year is the National Park Service's 100th anniversary and it is advertising heavily to get more people involved in visiting the 400+ units under its umbrella. It's good to get more people outdoors and supporting the parks, but but more people also put more of a strain on already-strained resources. Park maintenance and staffing have both suffered in recent years from lack of funds.


I took this picture from Observation Point on the trail named after it. I can see
a couple miles of the Virgin River running through the canyon, and I'm
looking down on too-popular Angel's Landing (under the red dot). Cool, eh?


Steep and narrow trail (under the dots) up to Angel's Landing,
zooming in from higher up on Observation Point

Many of the visitors at Zion and nearby Bryce Canyon NP are from foreign countries. Both parks offer unique landscapes and experiences for domestic and foreign visitors. Both are also relatively easy to reach by tour buses and rental cars or RVs from either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

It's amazing how many different languages you can overhear at visitor centers, on the shuttle buses, and along the trails at both Zion and Bryce. I love the diversity and I'm proud to share my country with them. A few times I was able to answer questions and offer suggestions to other visitors (domestic as well as foreign) about things to do and see while they are here. I like being helpful!

This week is not the busiest week this spring -- that honor would go to the Easter and Memorial Day holidays, as well as several spring break weeks in Utah and neighboring states -- but spring is a busy season in general because the weather is temperate.

There's a page on the park website that shows how many visitors were here each month for the last ten years. That's useful for trip planning.


If The Narrows had been open this day, there would have been
even more people here at the end of Riverwalk.

We were impacted by crowds in several ways but mostly learned real fast how to avoid them as best we could:

  • We left our vehicles at the campground and walked, rode our bikes, or took the Springdale town shuttle buses into the park.
  • We got into the park at 7 or 8 AM, before the park shuttle buses got real busy (more about shuttles shortly).
  • We planned out our itinerary each day, with some leeway for flexibility when we found other things to add.
  • We hiked the most popular trails like Angel's Landing early in the day -- but even then, it was so crowded on the last (and most treacherous) ascent/descent that we didn't go all the way up. It was too frustrating to have to wait for so many people using the ropes in both directions at the same time:

  • We spent one day last fall driving out and back on Kolob Canyon Road in the far northwest part of the park. The entrance and visitor center are just off I-15 and only a few people were there. The scenery is great, although not as spectacular as along Zion Canyon Scenic Road.
  • We also did a day drive up to the reservoir at the end of Kolob Terrace Road this week. That was also interesting and hardly anyone else was on the road. (There was still snow up there and ice on the reservoir but the road was clear.)

We weren't usually near the park entrances during the day because we were out hiking, cycling, or sight-seeing but we've seen pictures and heard horror stories of the long lines of vehicles trying to get into the park after 9 or 10 AM.

And by then it's also nearly impossible to find a place to park inside Zion, too.


Jim and Casey go past one of the Springdale shuttle buses on its way to the park.

Because parking is so scarce in the park, visitors coming in from the west (south) on Rt. 9 are encouraged to park in Springdale and take the free town shuttle buses to the pedestrian entrance of the park that leads to the visitor center. This is the busier of the two entrances to the main part of the park because it's more accessible from I-15.


Pedestrian entrance to Zion NP

Be forewarned that parking spaces along the street in Springdale can stretch for several miles -- and by 2018, more spots had meters where you have to pay -- but the city's free shuttle buses go out fairly far to pick up passengers.

Fewer people come into the park from the east so the lines aren't as long to get in at that gate. That's the good news.

 
No room to park

The bad news is that the scenic pull-offs and trailhead parking areas along Rt. 9, such as the one in the photo above, are very small and fill up fast. I had to take most photos of that side of the park as we were driving on our day trip back in October and on another day trip out and back through that part of the park this week because Jim was unable to find a place to pull over for me to take pictures. 

In addition, when coming in from the east you may be delayed at a 1.1-mile long tunnel for a while if a large vehicle is being escorted through the center of it where the ceiling is highest. Tall and/or wide vehicles like RVs get to pay $15 for that privilege. Two lanes become one and the folks going the other direction have to wait till they're all the way through.

Also be forewarned that in 2018 the National Park Service is considering limiting the number of people allowed into Zion (and some other popular parks like Yosemite) by requiring reservations to even get into the park during the busiest times!!  We'll see how that flies with the public.

PARK SHUTTLE SERVICE

For now, the way Zion limits crowding on the most popular road in the park, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, is to require the use of shuttle buses beyond the human history museum for almost everyone except folks with reservations at the lodge, people riding bicycles, and park personnel.

The park shuttle system, operating since 2000, is great! In 2016 approximately six million people used the shuttles within the park (some like us, more than once; total visitation was about four million people and not everyone rides the buses).


Two of the buses at the end of the line, the Temple of Sinawava

The shuttle system is free and efficient. We used the buses several times this week.

They are clean and comfortable, they stop at nine different trailheads and scenic overlooks over the ten-mile length of the canyon road, and you can get on and off for any length of time at any of the stops -- during the times they run, of course. It's not 24/7, but hours are generous between March and November. The drivers are courteous and well-informed if you have questions.


Inside one of the park's shuttle buses


The buses are fueled by propane.

Shuttles run approximately every 7-10 minutes in the summer from the visitor center. We always got there well before 9 AM so we could get on the next available bus. Times and frequencies vary by season, depending on number of visitors.

The park website and visitor center have a video, bus schedule, maps, and lots of information about using the shuttle system.

CAMPING & LODGING IN THE PARK

Zion Lodge, located three miles north on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, offers the only in-park lodging unless you have an RV. It is managed by Xanterra and has a separate website.

We haven't stayed or eaten there so can't make a recommendation re: value or quality but it's definitely convenient! There are motel rooms, suites, and cabins. The lodge also houses a restaurant, gift shop, and post office. I went in one day to see it, and bought a shirt in the gift shop:


Zion Lodge

Zion has three campgrounds within park boundaries. We haven't stayed at any of those, either, but we drove through the two near the visitor center to see if any sites were large enough for our RV, if we come back again. (Yes, a few, but they are tough to get!)

Lava Point CG is located far up Kolob Terrace Road over an hour's drive from Springdale and the visitor center at almost 7,900 feet elevation. It is open only "as weather allows" from May to September. There are just six primitive sites at Lava Point, first come-first serve, pit toilets, no available water, and no vehicles or combinations over 19 feet in length can travel that road.

Much more convenient are the two campgrounds inside the park along the Virgin River near Springdale and the visitor center, South Campground and Watchman Campground. Since these are located at about 4,000 feet elevation, they are open year-round but have "reservation seasons" when reservations are required if you want any chance of getting a site.

You can make reservations at either of these two campgrounds for up to two weeks. Sites fill quickly during the times reservations are allowed. Visitors should reserve them as far in advance as allowed (six months before arrival date) because the sites are full every night during the busy seasons.


Tent and RV sites at South CG, as seen from the Pa'rus Trail

South CG has 117 no-hookup sites. Potable water is available at the restrooms. Generators are allowed for only two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. (That's typical for national parks.) There is a dump station.

Watchman CG, with 178 individual sites and some group sites, has some sites that are suitable for larger rigs. There are RV sites with electric hookups and some tent sites without. Potable water and a dump station are available. No generators are allowed in this campground since most sites have electricity.

Watchman CG is located across the river from the campground in Springdale where we are parked; we can see some of the RVs from our campground:

They are a little closer to the same Watchman cliff formation we get to enjoy.

Accommodations are limited at Zion so if you aren't able to get a reservation at one of the campgrounds or the lodge/cabins inside the park, there are other options in Springdale near the west (south) gate or farther east along Hwy. 9 over to Mt. Carmel Junction.

WILL WE COME BACK?

We've enjoyed everything this week at Zion National Park except the crowds, which we avoided to the best of our ability. We can see why this park is so popular but it's not our favorite of all the national parks we've ever visited -- partly because it's so crowded -- and there are other parks we want to explore that are new to us.


Very cool optical illusion in a beautiful slot canyon
about a mile up the Observation Point Trail.

However, there are more trails at Zion that I want to hike. I want Jim to go up to Observation Point, my favorite trail in the park, and we'd both like to hike up The Narrows a mile or two when the water levels are low enough for it to be allowed.

So yes, we want to return to Zion again in the future. We're considering it as early as this fall, although campsites within the park that will accommodate our 36-foot 5th-wheel are already reserved for the week we're thinking about. We'd prefer to stay at the Watchman CG rather than the private Zion Canyon RV Park we're in now. We'll see.

Next entrythe drive up to Kolob Reservoir on Kolob Terrace Road

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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