Zion is the oldest National Park in Utah, one of Utah’s “mighty five.” The canyon was originally inhabited by Native Americans who gathered around the winding Virgin River. The high walls of the narrow canyon provide a mild climate. Originally founded as Mukuntuweap National Monument, the area was renamed Zion National Park, a more marketable name which was used by Mormon explorers and settlers around the turn of the 20th century.
As we all know by now, the global COVID-19 pandemic has affected travel in every way. Please refer to local ordinances in the country, state, or city, and look up the website of the museum, tour, restaurant, or hotel you are considering visiting.
It was May, but it seems like so long ago, that we visited Zion National Park in southern Utah. The original plan was to stay for about a week instead of taking a
expensive long trip out of the country like we did in 2016, but for a variety of reasons we ended up camping for just two nights in the early summer. In some ways, it was not nearly long enough (so many hikes we didn’t fit in) but in other ways it was long enough (I was unprepared for the allergens in the air, mostly).
Zion National park is centrally located in the American Southwest. It is an easy drive from Southern California. If you don’t want to drive or are visiting from another country, you can fly into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car from there.
There are fees associated with entering the park which help with upkeep and conservation efforts. The fee is $30/week for a car or $15/week for a person on foot. (More options and details here). We had a 2017 America the Beautiful pass which covered our fee to enter Zion NP and nearby Bryce Canyon where we went while in the area.
The park is popular for rock climbing, which I know almost nothing about, so I’ll focus on hiking which is a much more accessible hobby. The first afternoon, after setting up camp, we did the Watchman hike, which was moderate and a great warmup for Angel’s Landing, which we were conquering the next morning.
Angels Landing is one of Zion’s most famous places, since to reach the end the hiker must cross a very narrow land bridge thousands of feet in the air (pic). It is a very strenuous hike and I made it as far as Scout’s Lookout (some call it Widow’s Rest) before calling it a day. I am OK with my decision since I didn’t put myself in danger just for a social media post. I’ll be writing more about that in coming days. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so we made sure we were in the first shuttle-full of people to get dropped off at the trail head.
This park is popular with families since there are hikes ranging from easy to advanced. Some trails are handicap accessible like the Riverside Walk and Pa’rus Trail. Other hikes like Obervation Point and Angels Landing (more on my Angels Landing experience) are strenuous and can take the better part of a day. The National Park Service has a PDF version of their brochure to help you plan your trip before arrival.
Zion is one of the most popular US National Parks. Due to this, reservations for the Watchman Campground book up very fast. You can reserve up to six months in advance. If you want to camp at there next spring/summer, begin thinking about available weekends this winter! If you miss the window you can always check hipcamp.com for private property camping in the region and drive into the park for hiking.
Our campsite: Watchman campground is very popular and crowded, so you will never feel alone in the wilderness. We stayed at Watchman C17 which was right next to the bathroom. Let me say the bathrooms at this National Park were nicer than any state or national park I have ever visited, which was nice, but the close proximity resulted in disproportionately high noise and light levels into the night.
When to go
There is no bad time to experience what nature has to offer. However, pay close attention to weather predictions and make sure you are well prepared, especially if camping. Zion in particular is very popular from March to October. Winter can either be “quite cold” or “a mild respite from snow and ice” depending on your perspective.
In the summer, car access to the park is restricted to certain parking areas and visitors are required to hike along the river or take the shuttle to trail heads and visitors’ centers. This controls the flow of visitors and reduces vehicle air and noise pollution. I found the recording that plays on the shuttle very informative and as a result, after two days, I felt that I knew the park very well.
Realize that due to weather conditions certain parts of the park may be restricted and closed for safety. For example, The Narrows can be closed due to an unusually high snow melt creating hazardous levels of freezing cold water.
When we visited in May, there were lots of allergens in the air that I was not prepared for. I spent a large percentage of my visit with a runny nose and red eyes. Make sure to check the pollen/allergen reports online before you go, and include allergy medicine in your normal first-aid kit.
Camping in Zion was an excellent experience, one I would quickly agree to do again, with allergy medicine in tow this time. I’m compiling a camping gear list that will go live later this month, but in the meantime I highly recommend Camp Academy for learning more about camping preparedness, especially for newbies.
Bonus: After visiting Zion National Park, we also drove and explored the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, on our final day.
Photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.