Zion: Utah’s First National ParkOctober 10, 2011 No Comments
The national parks of Utah were high on our list of must-sees when Dad and I visited the American Southwest this summer. Due to some unexpected delays, we did not actually make it to Utah until September. As it turns out, the weather was perfect for our visit to Zion National Park.
The Zion area has been visited by humans since at least 6000 B.C. Ancient nomadic tribes gathered wild plants and hunted game in the fertile region, carved by the Virgin River. Later, the Anasazi and Fremont peoples settled in the area, developing a system of agriculture customized to the environment. They built permanent dwellings and community buildings, but left the region by around 1300 A.D. due to changing weather patterns that alternately brought severe droughts and flooding. New nomadic tribes flourished until the European Americans arrived in the late 1700s.
In 1847, the Mormons came to Utah under the direction of Brigham Young. While they were mostly concentrated in what is now Salt Lake City, some church members were directed to spread out and settle the surrounding area. The fertile southern portion of the state proved excellent for agriculture, and the region became known as Utah’s “Dixie.” Zion means “sanctuary” or “place of God,” and those who settled near the Virgin River felt that they were living in such a place, so they quickly adopted the name.
In 1872, explorer John Wesley Powell mapped the Zion area, bringing new attention to the region. The canyon was declared a national monument in 1909 under the Native American name Mukuntuweap, but poor road conditions made it nearly impossible to access. By 1917, road and rail line improvements made it possible for tourists to reach the new Wylie Camp, a series of tents that comprised the first in-park lodging facilities.
Reverting to the Mormon name, “Zion,” the area became a national park in 1919, the first in Utah to receive that designation. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel was completed in 1930, linking Zion with Bryce Canyon. Extensive work was done to the park by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, much of which still remains. Today the park welcomes more than 2 million visitors per year.
Zion National Park comprises 229 square miles, but many visitors choose to focus on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. From April through October each year, the route is accessible only by free shuttle bus. Parking is available at the visitor center just inside the park gates, but it fills quite quickly. Free park and ride service is available in the gateway town of Springdale, just outside Zion National Park. However, the fee structure is a little odd.
If you have a national parks pass, it is valid for you and up to three guests, or for everyone in a vehicle. Simply show your pass when you leave the Springdale shuttle and enter Zion through the pedestrian entrance.
If you do not have a national parks pass, you will need to drive into the park once. As of 2011, the admission fee is $25 per carload, and is valid for seven consecutive days. You may use the car receipt for readmission through the pedestrian entrance for your entire group.
If you do not first enter the park by car, then each person in your group must separately pay the per-person admission fee at the pedestrian entrance. As of 2011, the admission fee is $12 per person, valid for seven consecutive days. If you have more than two in your group, it is easy to see how the fees can add up!
Dad and I stayed at an RV resort in nearby Hurricane, Utah, just 12 miles from Zion National Park. He has a national parks pass, so we did not need to pay for admission. We arrived before 10:30 and decided to take a chance on finding parking in Zion rather than Springdale. We did manage to find a spot at the very back of an outer parking lot. If we had been much later, Zion parking would have been completely full.
We had heard good things about the restaurant in the Zion Lodge, so we decided to get breakfast before heading out. We caught the free shuttle bus at the visitor center, which dropped us off just outside the Lodge. A breakfast buffet was available, but since we are not heavy eaters, we opted to split a meal from the menu instead. The food was terrific! We arrived just before the restaurant shut down to prepare for lunch, but still received quick, friendly and professional service.
With full bellies, we were ready to see Zion Canyon. The full shuttle ride is approximately 80 minutes if you stay on the bus, but where is the fun in that? We opted to get out at every stop. Each bus stop offers a mix of scenic overlooks and hiking opportunities, from short paved trails to strenuous overnight adventures. The weather was terrific, so we decided to explore some of the trails.
To us, the most interesting part of the adventure is the fact that the scenic drive travels along the canyon floor. At the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, only the Rim is easily accessible. Getting down into the canyon requires either a helicopter ride or a strenuous hike or mule ride. At Arizona’s Verde Canyon, the Verde Canyon Railroad visits the canyon floor, but there is nowhere to get out and walk around. This was our first experience with hiking along a canyon floor.
We thoroughly enjoyed every stop. Most had gorgeous views from just outside the bus stop, making them a great choice even for those who do not want to hike. We ended up taking two designated hiking trails and one very short but very steep climb to an overlook.
Weeping Rock Trail
According to the official park newspaper, this is a short but steep trail to a rocky alcove with dripping springs. While accurate, the description does not do justice to this amazing little spot. The climb was definitely steep, gaining 98 feet of elevation in just two-tenths of a mile. But the trail was paved and relatively easy. What was truly incredible, though, was the sheer volume of water at the top. We climbed through a surprisingly lush forest, ending in a massive rocky alcove that felt more like a rainforest! We expected a few drips, but actually got something of a shower. What a welcome relief on a hot, dry desert day! Use caution on the steps as you approach the alcove, as they are always wet and slippery.
Almost as soon as we entered the park, we began to hear talk of The Narrows. A strenuous and potentially dangerous eight-hour hike in the Virgin River, we knew that The Narrows was outside our physical capabilities. But we were intrigued to learn that The Narrows begins at the end of the Riverside Walk, a paved trail along the riverbank that is just 1.1 miles in each direction. So we decided to take the Riverside Walk and wade out into the river at the beginning of The Narrows.
What an amazing adventure! As we followed the path, the canyon walls began to narrow, forming a slot canyon. We had one eye on the sky, as rain was predicted, but the weather held out. What a treat to step out onto the rocks in the river, watching intrepid hikers trek down the river and out of sight! Note that while the Riverside Walk is fine for children, The Narrows is not recommended for kids or anyone who is not in top physical shape.
Court of the Patriarchs
Although not designated as an official hike, probably because it is so short, don’t miss the steep trail to the overlook. It’s right behind the bus stop, and offers a phenomenal overview of the rock formations. Signage at the overlook gives a great deal of information about the waterfalls and other natural features within the park.
Zion Human History Museum
The Zion Human History Museum is well worth a stop. A dramatic 22-minute free film tells the story of Zion, while a small but excellent set of displays showcases artifacts from throughout the region. We were fortunate enough to be there just before a storm rolled in, and Dad had great fun on the back patio photographing the storm clouds! Use caution if you try this, though, as lightning is a very real danger. If less than 30 seconds elapse between the time you see lightning and the time you hear thunder, take shelter immediately.
Tips for Parents
Zion National Park is packed with ranger programs and hiking opportunities. We did not have time in our one-day visit to explore Kolobob Canyons or Kolobob Terrace, both offering scenic drives on which you may take your personal vehicle. Plan to spend a full day exploring the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive by shuttle bus, and at least one more day seeing the rest of the park.
Keep a close eye on your kids, and never allow them to run ahead or go off the designated trails. Steep drop-offs and slippery footing present constant hazards. Pay especially close attention if you decide to enter the river at the beginning of The Narrows. The current is swift and the rocks are slippery. We saw several families having a good time together, but this is not like your local swimming hole. Make sure your kids are good swimmers and are willing to follow instructions before entering the river. Do not go more than a few feet into the water if your children are small.
Bottled water is not sold within the park. Instead, the gift shop at the visitor center sells reusable water bottles. Filling stations are located at most stops along the scenic drive. Keep your bottles full and make sure that everyone is drinking plenty of water. The weather is often hot and dry, easily leading to dehydration. Carry salty snacks with you. Hats, sunscreen and sturdy walking shoes are essential.