Summer Road Trip – Zion National Park
2016 was the first year for the awesome Every Kid In a Park program, which worked out well for us because Lachlan was in the 4th grade. This program provides 4th graders and their families a free pass for federally managed lands and waters. This includes national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries. We decided to take advantage of this great initiative by planning an epic summer road trip to see the national parks in Utah. First stop – Zion National Park.
The plan was fairly simple – fly in to Las Vegas, rent a car and then head into Utah. We would hit the major parks in Utah – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands. A couple of days in each park would be enough time to do some hiking and see the highlights. We had to finish our trip in the Pacific Northwest for Heide’s family reunion, so we would fly back to Houston from Seattle. As a bonus, we managed to coordinate our time in Seattle with my parents. They would be in Seattle for a couple of days before joining an Alaska cruise. After their cruise they were planning to come and visit us in Texas, but the day together in Seattle was a nice bonus.
Getting to Zion National Park
After a fairly short flight from Houston, we arrived in Las Vegas around noon. At the rental car counter we were told that they didn’t have any vehicles from our reserved category (boo). However, they had a brand new mid-sized SUV that they could give us (yay!) We were careful not to remind them that this was a one way rental to Seattle, in case they changed their minds at the thought of all the miles we were planning to cover. After a quick stop at a Fry’s store shaped like a slot machine (Vegas, baby!) to pick up a memory card for my camera, it was time for lunch.
Because we weren’t too sure what the standard of food was going to be on our road trip (spoiler alert – it was mixed) we decided to indulge in a “nice” lunch. The Tommy Bahama restaurant hit the spot, complete with a tropical cocktail for Heide and me to get us in the vacation mood. We figured we had plenty of time to get to Zion, it was only a two and a half hour drive according to the all-knowing Google Maps. It was Lachlan’s first time in Las Vegas, we decided to take a drive down the famous Las Vegas Strip on our way out of town. Some of the effect is lost in the daytime, but it gave him a taste of the Vegas craziness.
With our slow paced departure from Las Vegas, a couple of stops, and a timezone change we had forgotten about, suddenly our arrival into Zion was looking like it was going to be later than we planned. We did manage to make it to our accommodation inside the park in a historical cabin at Zion Lodge with some daylight left to get our first views of the canyon walls.
A unique feature of Zion is that the lodge is on the canyon floor. This is different to places like Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon where the accommodation is on the canyon rim. This makes for a spectacular drive up the canyon to get to the lodge, especially in the late afternoon sunlight. We didn’t have too long to enjoy the views because we had to get to the restaurant at the lodge while they were still serving dinner. If we missed it, we’d have to drive out of the park to (hopefully) find somewhere open. We did make it, for a reasonable if not great dinner. On the way back to our cabin we met some of the deer that gather each evening to graze on the lawn outside the main lodge building.
Hiking in Zion National Park
First a disclaimer – we are definitely not hardcore hikers. You’ll find reports here (and in subsequent posts) of easy, family-friendly hikes. Even though we weren’t planning on seriously strenuous hikes, we were still prepared, with hiking shoes, daypacks with water bladders as well as water bottles. The sun in summer in Utah is not to be messed with, so hats, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must.
This was the first hike we did in Zion National Park. It’s a pleasant, paved walk along the river (hence the name), which was mostly in the shade in the morning when we hiked it.
The Riverside Walk finishes up at the beginning of the Narrows hike, where more intrepid and well-equipped hikers walk into the river to head further up the canyon.
On the way back to the shuttle stop, I almost walked into an example of the local wildlife. He was grazing right next to the trail, and calmly let me grab a photo.
Weeping Rock Trail
Our next stop was the Weeping Rock Trail. This is a short but steep trail. It was worth the effort to see the views from the trail of the nearby rock formations and to stand under the refreshing water drips from Weeping Rock itself.
Zion National Park Shuttle Service
In summer, Zion National Park gets very busy. Because of this, the park runs a free shuttle service through the summer months. Private vehicles are not allowed on the park roads. The shuttle service extends all the way to the town of Springdale which is right outside the park entrance.
After our morning hikes we rode the shuttle to Springdale to get some lunch, looking for an alternative to the OK but not great food at the lodge. We settled on the Zion Canyon Brewpub, which appealed because it was pretty much the closest option to the park entrance. The idea of a cold beer also sounded good after our hiking efforts. It didn’t disappoint – the beer was good and the hearty pub food (burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips etc.) was good, refueling us for some more hiking.
Lower Emerald Pools Trail
After lunch and a quick stop at the visitor center, we hiked the Lower Emerald Pools Trail. This hike starts right next the lodge, so was convenient for the last activity of the day. We took the trail to climb above Weeping Rock to see some reflecting pools and a nice view across the valley.
With our first day of Utah hiking behind us, we retired to our cabin where we slept very well. The next day we were up early for our drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Where to Stay in and around Zion National Park
If the budget allows and you can get a reservation it’s always best to stay inside any national park. This lets you experience the relative peacefulness park after the day-trip crowds are gone. We stayed at Zion Lodge, in one of the historic cabins, a short walk from the main lodge building. There are also more modern hotel rooms and suites available in the main building. We enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the cabin, but the main reason we booked it was that it was the only type of accommodation at the lodge available when we booked.
The other way to stay in the park is to camp. The campgrounds are first-come, first-served and tend to fill up quickly. The website advises that “campers begin lining up for a campsite as early as 5:30 am” in summer. You do need to be prepared for some pretty high temperatures if you’re camping in summer, a lot of the sites are unshaded.
If you can’t get a reservation at the lodge, there are plenty of accommodation options in Springdale. Springdale is right outside the park entrance, with shuttle service into the park. The independent operators are less expensive than the chains, but they are all pretty expensive in the high summer season. It’s a good idea to make a booking that can be cancelled. Then you can check the Zion Lodge website every now and then in case a cancellation makes a room become available.
If you can travel during the spring or fall, hotels will be less expensive. You’ll also experience less crowding in the park and milder weather for hiking. If the budget is very tight, check out much cheaper options in Hurricane, about 23 miles from the park.
Where to Eat in Zion National Park
In the park you have two choices, both at Zion Lodge. The Red Rock Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving adequate food. The other option is the Castle Dome Cafe, serving coffee and cinnamon buns for breakfast. There are burgers, hot dogs, ice cream and other snack bar fare available throughout the day. More exciting is the Beer Garden Cart which serves local microbrews on the cafe patio.
If you can pack a picnic lunch, there is a pleasant lawn next to the main lodge building. In the center of the lawn is a huge cottonwood tree which provides much-needed shade.
If you are staying outside the park or want a change from the lodge restaurant, there are lots of options in Springdale. We can only vouch for the Zion Canyon Brewpub (recommended) but there are lots of other options. You can find Mexican, diner food, pizza and even Thai food, plus other cuisines.
Things to Do in Zion National Park
If you’re more serious about hiking than us, there are a number of more strenuous hiking options. A very popular activity is to hike The Narrows, which involves wading through the Virgin River. The water can be deep, but the rewards are seeing thousand foot canyon walls, with only thirty feet between them in places. If you’re going to do this hike, you should rent the appropriate waterproof gear from one of the outfitters in Springdale, and check weather conditions at the visitor center. Because flash floods are a serious risk, check at the visitor center before you set out. Don’t hike the Narrows if the park rangers close the trail because of potential flash flood conditions.
Another option for serious hikers is the hike to Angel’s Landing via the West Rim Trail. This provides great views for those who can handle the steep climb and steep drop-offs.
Along with hiking, bicycle riding is a popular family activity. You can rent bikes in Springdale. Horse riding is also possible, as well as climbing and back-country canyoneering for the serious adventurers.
We hope this post inspires you to add Zion National Park to a future travel itinerary. It was a great introduction to the Utah parks for us. The scenery is stunning and there is a range of activities from leisurely strolls to extreme outdoor activities, so it has something for everyone who enjoys the outdoors.