My first impression of Zion National Park in Utah was made in January, 2011 (described in an early posting here), and I concluded the place was an icicle. It was beautiful, but the trees were bare and ice was everywhere. I didn’t stay long, but I knew I wanted to come back.
After I sold my house in Walla Walla (after three years on the market) and moved into my camper for the duration, I made my way to Zion after a slow trip down the Oregon coast in April. I arrived on April 12, 2013, about a week or so after most of the trees had leafed out — very good timing on my part.
Zion has two campgrounds, one that usually requires reservations (Watchman Campground) and another (South Campground) that is first-come. Here’s a tip for getting a campsite at South Campground without having to wait for the current occupants to actually leave: Very early in the morning, the campground hosts pull the paper stub from the clip posted at each campsite. If the post clip has no paper stub, it means those people are leaving sometime before 11:00. Anyone wanting a campsite could fill out the small envelope available at the campground entrance, tear off the stub and place it in the empty clip on their desired site (if the current occupant are up and around, it would be best to talk with them first), and then simply wait in a nearby place (picnic area, overflow parking area) for the site to become vacant. That beats driving around hoping to be in the right place when someone leaves, especially when other would-be campers are doing the same thing.
For those not wanting to camp, there are a variety of places to stay in the adjacent town of Springdale, within walking or biking distance from the campgrounds.
Between the end of March and the first part of November, travel on the scenic drive that goes to the heart of the park is restricted to shuttle busses — private vehicles are not allowed. However, private vehicles can drive as far as the bridge over the North Fork of the Virgin River (this section includes the Human History Museum and a wonderful morning view of the Towers of the Virgin sandstone cliffs), and private vehicles can continue on Highway 9 through the tunnel to the east side of the park. Large vehicles, including my camper, must pay a $15 fee to go through the tunnel, because the tunnel has to be closed to traffic from the other direction to allow a large vehicle to drive down the middle of this relatively small tunnel. Those who are staying at the Zion Lodge get a special pass that allows them to continue on the scenic drive only as far as the lodge. Accommodations can be made for people with handicaps to travel the entire length of the scenic drive in their own vehicle, but from my experience at Zion such permits are very limited. [Side note: I'm handicapped and have a handicap parking decal, but I'm able to get about on my own most of the time, and that's true of a vast majority of holders of handicap parking decals, in my opinion. The use of such decals greatly exceeds the true need, again in my opinion and experience.]
Good news: the shuttle system works marvelously, and it’s a wonderful alternative to a roadway jammed with cars and RVs. The hub of the shuttle system is a very short walk from both campgrounds, and the system also connects with downtown Springdale so those staying there can just leave their vehicles parked during their entire stay at Zion if they wish.
The busses leave every 10-15 minutes, and they are never crowded (based on my April experience) as they are in the Grand Canyon (based on my subsequent April experience). The busses stop at a number of established locations and trailheads on their way to the north end of the scenic drive. Passengers can embark or disembark at any of these stops, and the ride is free. I think the shuttle system has greatly enhanced the experience at Zion.
The sandstone peaks and cliffs are some of the tallest in the world. The beauty of sandstone is simply incredible: such a diversity of colors, textures, angles, and shapes! Some of my favorite photos are these:
Bad weather often makes for good photography. On a warm spring day that started out with blue skies, Zion had a small snow squall followed by shifting fog in the afternoon. It was a wonderful time to have a camera, and the rest of the day was a lot of fun.
I got up early on several mornings to photograph stars. At the end of the campground, I found a clear area that allowed a view of The Watchman towering above. Light from the town of Springdale made the mountain more visible. I also found that the dense portion of the Milky Way galaxy came up from the horizon about 5:00 a.m. at this time of year, just before the first light of the sun started to dim the stars. I don’t do many shots like this, and it was much fun despite the early hour (or maybe even because of being active while everyone else slept).
Another diversion in Zion National Park is rock climbing, and rock climbers could be seen on walls all around the park. Shuttle drivers would often slow down to point them out to passengers. I am content to stay on the ground looking up through a viewfinder.
The most memorable and unique hike I’ve ever taken was done on this trip to Zion when I climbed to the top of Angels Landing, one of the best-known hikes in the park. Because of my inability to walk long distances or carry heavy loads, I left my big cameras in the camper and took only a cell phone camera. The iPhone 5 camera did remarkably well, and I’ll save that for another post. Below is a photograph of Angels Landing (tall peak in the center) with the Virgin River in the foreground.
This description centers on the main scenic drive in Zion National Park; it’s where the majority of park visitors experience Zion. The northwest portion of the park, reached by traveling I-15 north to Exit 40, is called the Kolob Canyons. I visited there one afternoon but didn’t do any hiking. When I return to Zion, I will spend more time here, as I’ve read of some relatively easy and beautiful hikes (especially the Taylor Creek trail).
Another long road through the park leaves from the town of Virgin and is called the Kolob Terrace Road. It’s an unpaved road that is impassible when wet, and I didn’t want to travel a road like that while carrying a heavy camper. Next time I’ll unload the camper and take a look at that part of the park. There is a primitive campground toward the end of the road.
Finally, many people enjoy walking up the North Fork of the Virgin River, beginning about a mile (on a paved path) past the last shuttle stop on the scenic drive. I don’t do well on uneven, slippery surfaces, especially with camera equipment that doesn’t like to get wet, so I’ve never had this experience at Zion. Still, I’ve seen some families with youngsters returning from a hike in the river, and they were in great spirits from the outing.
The east side of Zion, past the tunnel on Highway 9, offers a very different feel and look from the scenic drive. There is less vegetation, and the sandstone formations are beautifully different than those in Zion Canyon. I want to get more photos of that area before I try to describe it in pictures — yet another visit and another blog post.
Let me know if you have any questions about Zion, and I’ll do my best to answer them.