Utah: Zion National Park – Brian, Lena & Anna

Photo by Anna Blandford

Driving through the canyons of the Virgin River Gorge on Interstate 15 from Nevada to Utah gives a small taste of what is to come. We finally arrived in St. George and crashed at the house of a generous family friend. After a leisurely morning, we stopped at an amazing playground named Thunder Junction All Abilities Park. It was just what Bug and Noodle needed – imaginative play structures, various types of swings, and plenty of things to climb. They especially loved the splash park because the temperature was above 100F (38C).

Zion National Park was a long anticipated stop for both Lena and Brian. However, we were not sure what to expect. First, recent news stories featured National Parks – especially in Utah – with cars lined up for hours to enter. Completely understandable that people were so fed up with pandemic lockdowns that they just wanted to get out into nature, and how awesome for the parks to get money and recognition that they deserve. But the impact on the environment and on our own trip were potentially unfortunate. Second, we had gotten reports of a flash flood in Zion the day before that had closed the the main highway and many parts of the park. And finally, the famous Narrows hike was not currently recommended for young children and came with warnings of harmful bacterial blooms in the water. So we were going into this leg of the trip with an open mind and an understanding that it may not go as planned.

On a positive note, the increased elevation from St. George to Springdale, where our next accommodation was located, lowered the temperature significantly. The Wandering Thomspers generally prefer to stay in unique spots or boutique hotels, and the Zion Wildflower Resort fit the bill perfectly. Nestled at the base of a striking ridge sat a cluster of luxury canvas tents and…covered wagons! Naturally we chose the covered wagons because how often do you get that opportunity? Bug and Noodle insisted on maneuvering the small wagon piled with our luggage from the car park all the way up the hill, and Brian had to be very discreet with his extra help. 

The four of us stayed in one wagon and Anna got her own. It fit the four of us perfectly with Bug and Noodle getting bunk beds. In addition to the much appreciated air conditioning, the wagon featured wood floors, supple linens, a mini frig and bedside lanterns. Although shared, the bathrooms were spotless and darn near fancy. There were so many thoughtful details, like the filtered water dispenser, coffee in the camp store, and garden games to play in the communal area. We especially enjoyed sipping cold beverages and stargazing in the evenings after hot days of dusty hikes.

On our first afternoon, we headed toward Zion to assess and make a plan. As we got close to the park, immense red rocks towered around us on both sides. At eye level, the roads and parking lots along the river were covered in mud that was quickly drying into fine dust. Cleanup was in full swing with bulldozers and other heavy equipment hard at work. Our first stop was the Visitors Center to pick up Junior Ranger Books, meet with a Ranger to choose our hikes, and figure out the shuttle system. To alleviate the environmental impact of over 4 million visitors annually, cars are only allowed on certain roads, and most trailheads require visitors to use the park’s shuttle system. Furthermore, due to COVID, masks were required on all shuttles.

Zion is unique because the park and trails are located at the bottom of the 2640ft (800m) canyon. From the Visitors Center, we decided to take an easy afternoon stroll along the Pa’rus Trail which is paved and is open to cyclists and people with leashed dogs. We were keen to stretch our legs and allow Bug and Noodle to complete some pages in their Junior Ranger Books. Noodle spotted a young mule deer. He was very excited and laid on the ground to stealthily observe the buck. The kids also identified several tracks in the mud, let Darkling beetles crawl across their hands, and chased Western Whiptails and Plateau lizards

Back at the resort, we found s’mores kits waiting for us to use at the communal campfire. This was a first for Anna. Since it was nearly American Independence Day, the chocolate provided was white chocolate with red and blue sprinkles. We are traditionalist when it comes to s’mores, so this was funny but not the best first impression. Nonetheless, everyone around the fire had advice about the perfect way to roast a marshmallow. It turns out that Anna agrees with Lena and Bug about slowly caramelizing it over coals, while Brian likes lighting it on fire for the charred effect. Noodle just barely warms his marshmallow, loses patience, and eats it as fast as he can so he can have another one.

We woke the next morning ready to conquer Zion’s iconic trails. Anna opted for the once in a lifetime Angels Landing Trail, while the Thomspers decided to meander along the Virgin River and assess the wet portion of the Narrows hike on arrival. We didn’t have any special gear and knew the kids couldn’t manage the whole 9.4 miles (15 km) anyways, so we were just excited to check out the slot canyon.

Crowds were already evident as we approached the park at 7:00am. Anna ran ahead to catch a shuttle because she had been warned that there might be a long wait. Rangers were controlling the number of hikers on the Angels Landing Trail and releasing groups at intervals. On the other hand, the Thomsper clan stopped for coffee, spotted lizards, and finally made our way to the shuttle. After a short wait, we finally squeezed on. Just riding a bus can be exciting for our little people, and the Riverside Trailhead (which leads to the Narrows) was at the end of the line. After disembarking and following the crowd to the trailhead, we took a quiet side trail that allowed Bug and Noodle to take their time spotting butterflies and birds. But the closer we got to the river the louder the voices of excited waders/hikers squishing and dripping their way out of the Narrows. 

We were nervous about crowds and wore our masks, but the real danger was actually the toxic Cyanobacteria algae blooms which had popped up in all the waterways in and around Zion. Just to get a sense of the adventure and experience the massive canyon walls, we decided to careful wade for a short distance. We didn’t allow Bug and Noodle to play in the water, and we were all careful not to fall. Don’t be fooled by our photos; the river was actually packed with people. Once the kids began complaining about being cold and got sufficiently frustrated that they couldn’t splash each other, we decided to turn back and joined the queue of wet walkers back to the shuttle.

Here is Anna’s account of the most challenging and most exhilarating hike in the park:

Coming from New Zealand, I am well accustomed to the outdoors. Having seen photos and listened to Brian and Lena’s hype, I was so excited to learn more about Zion National Park. Despite the short time we had there, I was super keen to get out and explore. Although the Narrows looked beautiful, I decided that Angels Landing was my once in a lifetime experience. 

The process of getting to the trailhead, receiving my number, and knowing how long I would wait was very well organised considering the amount of people. Rangers were also very knowledgable about the details of the hike. I set out full of enthusiasm and very quickly climbed the switchbacks that wound up the side of the mountain. As a reprieve from the heat, I stopped in the Refrigerator Canyon to watch squirrels and bird life before tackling more fun switchbacks to Scouts Landing. This was a great place to rest and refuel before navigating the chains scaling the cliff face all the way to the top. 

Photo by Anna Blandford

Due to traffic on the face, I had to wait about ten minutes before the climb. This section was an incredible experience. Every view could be on a post card. The only thing I can relate it to is the La Folly to Champex Lac chains section of the Tour Du Mt Blanc. However, this time I thankfully not carrying my world on my back.

Photo by Anna Blandford

At the highest point, the name Angels Landing was abundantly clear. Everywhere I looked was breathtaking. I felt so small in such an immense landscape. It truly was something I will never forget.

Meanwhile down below…

We had trouble reuniting with Anna because none of our mobile phones had service in the park. It was like meeting up with friends when we were teenagers. You make a tentative plan, show up, and entertain yourself until it works out. Terrifying but liberating in this age. Our entertainment was blissful. We hung out under  the huge cottonwood tree in front of Zion Lodge while the kids ran barefoot in the grass. When Anna eventually found us, we got some ice cream to celebrate our successful adventures and headed back to our wagons to rest before dinner.

We sadly checked out of our dreamy glamping wagons and packing up the minivan the following morning before setting out to get one last glimpse of the park. First, we retraced our route on Highway 9 back down into La Verkin. Since it was the day before our Independence Day, the quaint town was covered in American flags and definitely gave Anna a taste of 4th of July celebrations. After a short jog on I-15, we took the back entrance into a much lesser known separate section of Zion, known as Kolob Canyons. The self-drive winds through sandstone box canyons to a ridge with sweeping views. We took a short 1.0 mile (1.6 km) Timber Creek Overlook Trail through Pinyon pines that ended at the edge of a cliff looking out to red rock canyons, mountain peaks, and even the North Rim of the Grand Canyon 100 miles (161 km) away. The boulders at the end of the out-and-back trail offered perfect perches for sipping our morning coffee and taking in the views while Bug and Noodle safely and contentedly scrambled across the rocks and scaled as many trees as possible. We had friendly chats with the few hikers who ventured to this side of the park, but overall it was magical to have this little corner of the world to ourselves. 

Keeping an eye on the time, we backtracked again to the main entrance of Zion and drove east on  to the 1.1 mile (1.77 km) Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, which was built in the late 1920s. Windows are carved into the north side of the tunnel and offer glimpses of the spectacular scenery. Just past the exit, we parked and hopped onto the short but exhilarating Canyon Overlook Trail. It begins with a short ascent, winds around shaded alcoves, and ends in a field of psychedelic rock formations beyond which the most famous rock faces of Zion Canyon are visible (Tower of the Virgins, East. Temple, the Great Arch, etc.) Although not strenuous, we had tight security on our curious kids, as many parts of the trail were sheer drops with minimal or no railings. Sufficiently hot and dusty, we settled back into our well-loved vehicle and made the two hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. 

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