Travel Recap: Zion National Park | On the Daily EXPRESS

4/16/18

Travel Recap: Zion National Park

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Last week, our family of four headed up to Zion National Park for three full days of adventure. Both my (then) ten year old son and I read "Take Me With You" by Catherine Ryan Hyde a couple of months ago and it was that book that gave me the idea for the trip and the itch to go there myself and create memorable experiences for my family. For as much reading as I do, this is actually the first trip I've ever taken inspired by a book. And you know how the book is always better than the movie? Well, now I can say that in this case, real life is better than the book!

Aside from choosing the destination itself based on the book, we did everything else our own way. So we didn't drive an RV from San Diego like they did in the book (coincidentally the main character in the book is also from San Diego), and we stayed in a hotel rather than at a campground. We flew from San Diego to Las Vegas, then rented a car to drive the remaining three hours to Zion National Park. I'm not a big fan of road trips and was dreading the three hour drive from Vegas, but it was pretty interesting landscape most of the time (especially through the Virgin River Gorge) and the time went by quickly. We did hit a big rainstorm on our drive through the gorge, so later in the trip when we learned about the impact flash floods had on the area, we fully understood!
-Driving through the Virgin River Gorge-

We stayed for three full days (at the SpringHill Suites in Springdale, more on that below), but it did take a full day on either side of the trip to travel to/from home so it was a five day trip ordeal altogether. You could easily fit in more hikes and activities than we did in a three day stay, but we wanted lots of rest and relaxation time in our schedule too. For cost reference, park admission is only $30 for an entire week.
-Evening views of Zion from our hotel in Springdale- 
DAY ONE:
Emerald Pools Hike. This hike has three different levels (Lower, Middle and Upper Pools) and the hike became a little more challenging after each level. We enjoyed the views and the terrain. The boys had a blast climbing all of the giant rocks on the trail. This was the most crowded trail we hiked, although the crowds tapered off with each level as families with smaller children or physically limited hikers would head back once they were maxed out.
 -Waterfall at the Upper Emerald Pool- 
-Moderate crowds at the Upper Emerald Pool in early April-

DAY TWO:
ATV Riding with Mild to Wild Rhino Tours. This was our most expensive activity (and is completely separate from the National Park) but it was so fun and totally worth it. You can choose to drive your own ATV and follow behind a tour guide in his separate ATV, or you can have the guide drive for you. My husband definitely wanted to drive so we had our own vehicle. It was a blast riding along the rocky terrain on trails we would never have found on our own...nor did we have a vehicle for them! They also provided sunglasses and bandanas for protection from the dust and dirt.
-Our ride for the "Wild" tour option-

The guide had us stop along the trail at the most spectacular view points for photo ops and some fun historical facts on the area. As an extra bonus, each of the kids got a turn to drive the ATV on some of the smoother areas of the trail with the guide! That was definitely one of the trip highlights for them.
-My 11 y/o enjoying the scenery and sun-

After the ATV ride, we drove over to Grafton, Utah since it was very close to where we ended up on our ATV tour and our guide recommended it. Grafton is an abandoned (but well maintained) Ghost Town with a cemetery, school house/church, and a few homes. I wouldn't say it's a must-see attraction in the area, but it was interesting and worth the small amount of time it took us to get there and see everything in the town. It made it easy to imagine life for early settlers in that area with absolutely nothing around except the mountains and a couple of neighbors.
-Grafton, UT abandoned church/schoolhouse-

DAY THREE:
We packed a few shorter activities into our last day. First we did the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and went through the Zion/Mt Carmel Tunnel. The views on the drive up were absolutely amazing (though I didn't like how my photos turned out through the car window), and the tunnel itself cuts straight through the mountain for 1.1 miles. It's hard to believe they were able to build this in 1930! It's a little freaky but cool all the same.
-Tunnel entrance ahead: only one lane of traffic can pass through at a time- 

-Looking down at the Zion/Mt Carmel Tunnel entrance from the Canyon Overlook Trail-

Immediately at the end of the tunnel is the parking lot and trailhead for the Canyon Overlook Trail. This was my personal favorite hike of the trip. It was a good balance of effort and enjoyment. The terrain was cool and the views at the top of the trail were breathtaking. My kids could have stayed at the top quite awhile climbing around on all the different rock formations and what not.
-My crew hiking up the rocky Canyon Overlook Trail-

-Canyon views along Canyon Overlook Trail-
-Rocky terrain at the top of the Canyon Overlook Trail-

Our last activity of the day was The Watchman Trail. This was probably my least favorite hike of the trip just because the trail itself was dusty, desert-y and blah compared with the other trails we hiked. I think it reminded me of trails we've hiked here in San Diego (aside from the final view!) so it didn't feel as unique to me. That said, it wasn't a long hike and the views at the end were beautiful as with all the trails we hiked, so it wasn't a waste of time. It's just not one I'd consider a must-do.
-My 12 y/o hiker taking in the views at the top of The Watchman Trail-

Transportation Notes:
While we did have a rental car, we used the free public transportation in Springdale and within the park itself to access everything in the park and the restaurants we chose were all walking distance from the hotel (.3 miles or less). The Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion/Mt. Carmel Tunnel and ATV required our own vehicle. Parking within the park is very limited. We tried to park there once with our rental car and it was impossible unless you're willing to drive around the lot for hours waiting for a spot to open up...and then beat out all the other cars who are driving around for the same purpose (sort of like Christmas Eve at a shopping mall). But the city of Springdale has a free bus service with convenient stops near most of the hotels in the area that takes you right to the park entrance. Once inside the park, the park has its own shuttle bus service to take you to the various main trail heads within the park since those are not an easy walking distance from the main entrance.

Accommodations:
We stayed at the SpringHill Suites in Springdale and it was great. It's fairly new, the rooms were clean and comfortable, a big breakfast buffet was included in the rate, and the service was great. The pool was heated and they have a hot tub so we got plenty of use out of those during our stay. Every night they had a big fire pit out back so we could sit outside and enjoy the sunset and scenery by the fire. The Springdale bus stop (offering free rides around town and to Zion National Park) was near the entrance of the hotel so park access was also very convenient.

Food and Dining:
We are not a family of "foodies" by any means, so we usually try to spend less on dining and more on activities. We stopped at a Wal-Mart in St. George, Utah (about an hour away from Springdale) and stocked up on some food items, snacks, and ingredients for PB&J sandwiches. Each day we ate the breakfast provided by the hotel and packed sandwiches and snacks that took us through our activities through dinner time, with the occasional snack purchase made along the way at a gift shop or the local market. We went out to dinner each of our three nights at local restaurants: Bit & Spur, Zion Pizza & Noodle Company, and Jack's Switchback Grille. We were reasonably happy with all of them (again, not a foodie family so check Yelp for more detailed reviews). My favorite was Jack's (I had the taco salad) and the kids liked the pizza place the best. Bit & Spur was a little pricey for what it was but we still liked the food.

Weather + Allergy Notes:
I don't know if it's the higher altitude, lack of proximity to the ocean breeze, or what exactly made the climate difference, but my whole family felt like 70° in Springdale/Zion felt like 80° in San Diego. And I'm not just talking about the times when we were exerting ourselves on a hike and our body temperatures heated up. It felt that way sitting still by the pool or anywhere else in the sun. We packed for 70° weather and really missed the mark on that, so we had to repeat a lot of clothes, which isn't ideal when you're getting them sweaty and dirty every day. I can't say how it will compare vs. other climates but if I go again I will be over-packing to be more prepared for weather variations.

My allergies also went completely berserk there. I burned through small packs of tissues on every hike, and thankfully the hotel had Advil Cold & Sinus packets for sale so I wasn't miserable 24/7. That helped, but if you suffer from seasonal allergies definitely bring along your own preferred medication and plenty of tissues for your activities.

Hiking Essentials:
While I saw plenty of people on each of the trails we chose wearing normal sneakers and carrying a simple water bottle, we picked up a few hiking essentials for everyone in our family pre-trip that really made my experience more comfortable and that I'd recommend for anyone planning a similar trip to Zion or elsewhere. Although if you don't happen to plan in advance, I noticed several shops in Springdale and even one right at the entrance to the park that sell similar supplies. They are probably more expensive than what I was able to get on Amazon, though!

Hydration Pack + Backpack: Each person in our family carried their own hydration pack + backpack (this exact version) and it was so nice. We didn't have to stop, open the backpack, get out a water bottle, put it back. close up the backpack, etc. every time someone wanted a drink of water. Also, since the water is in a "bladder" designed for the backpack, it's a lot more comfortable to carry on your back that way than any other type of thermos that would bang around against your back. The only drawback is that the water isn't cold, and I'm pretty picky about water temperature but it was worth the trade off for the comfort and convenience. We were also impressed with how much other "stuff" these held despite their compact size. We were each able to fit a sandwich or two plus other snacks, an extra layer (jacket or t-shirt), tissues, sanitizing wipes, lip balm and sunscreen in our packs...i.e. all of the other hiking essentials.

Hiking Boots: All of the trails we did were "Moderate" per the official Zion National Park Information Sheet. Most people were just wearing sneakers, but I was really glad for the extra tread on my hiking boots since I was a lot more sure-footed on all of the terrain and somewhat slippery rock surfaces. If you know you'll only be doing Easy Trails (there are six of those within Zion), you probably don't need hiking boots but again, they're nice to have. Finding a pair of boots that fit right was a challenge since sizes seemed to vary a lot from normal shoes. I ordered four pairs in various brands/sizes before finally ending up with these for myself. I took a full size up from my normal size. I think I could have gone with a half size up, but they didn't come in that size and this worked well but they had to be laced fairly tight and worn with my thick hiking socks. With those slight adjustments, they were really comfortable and the traction was great.

Hiking Socks: I wasn't too sure about getting these socks since they looked like they would be thick and make my feet sweaty, but that wasn't an issue at all. They kept my feet cool, comfortable and dry, and I appreciated the extra cushion. Plus since my shoes were just a tad large the thicker socks helped. If you are planning to get hiking boots, definitely try them with the exact socks you want to wear for proper fit.

One thing I also carried that I was so glad I had (not pictured in the collage but you can see it in the photo of me on the Canyon Overlook Trail) was a belt bag. Even though I had the hydration backpack, I knew I wanted easy access to my phone for pictures, and I ended up needing even more frequent and urgent access to my tissue packs thanks to my allergies. If I carried those things in my backpack, it would be a hassle to slow down and stop so I could access them throughout the hike. Having the belt bag was a huge convenience for myself and my traveling companions since they don't really like slowing down! I used this exact bag and it did easily hold my phone (an iPhone X so it's a pretty good size), tissues and lip balm just fine, but in retrospect I would have chosen something more sporty since that one didn't really go with my hiking attire. I don't why I didn't think that through, but from a functional standpoint it was great.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
In putting this all together, it felt like a very "dry" post of facts, which doesn't do the trip justice at all! Of course, I did the writing first and am adding the pictures last, so I hope the pictures do a better job of showing the incredible landscape and scenery of the area. It was breathtaking, majestic, and beautiful. We ran out of synonyms for our amazement at the beauty of the area and the size of the mountains. The trip and the park exceeded our expectations. It's a great destination for families with any age of children and adults with nearly any physical ability level. There are plenty of trails, walks, and view points that can be enjoyed by all. You can rent bikes or ride horses, and the park also has a Visitor Center, Nature Center, and History Museum. While three days felt like a good amount of time for us (especially with the two days of travel tacked on), we could easily and happily go back again and plan completely different activities for another three days. I think what I'm trying to say is that if the pictures of the park and surrounding area appeal to you at all, you will not be disappointed by what you see and do in person, and the trip will be well worth your time!

Linking up with: Rachelle | Carylee | Erika

CONVERSATION

26 comments:

  1. What a cool idea - finding inspiration from a book read by both you and your son makes this an extra special adventure. I've never actually done that - maybe I need to stop reading so many murder mysteries and psychological thrillers? LOL. The views are spectacular, especially since I live in very flat Florida. We have hiked a few times in Tennessee but that doesn't even begin to compare with this. The ATV would be my kids favorite too. We always try to stay at a place that offers a breakfast buffet. It saves time and money. You were smart to pack lunches too. Who wants to stop hiking to go to a restaurant? I love that idea.
    Sounds like you all had a really fun and interesting trip, the hot tub sounds like a great place to be at night and the campfire adds to the charm! Thanks for sharing!
    xo,
    Kellyann

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    1. LOL! I read plenty of thrillers too and would not recommend following those plots in real life! Ha! And thanks so much for reading and your nice comment as always!

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  2. this is so awesome and an epic vacation, I would love to do that one day. Thank you for this thoughtful post too, so much valuable information.

    xo
    Pinksole

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    1. Thanks Rachelle! I hope you get a chance to go someday - I know you'd love it!

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  3. What a great trip. Zion is one of our favorite vacation spots and we've gone several times since my husband and I were just dating (when he took me to the top of Angel's Landing for which I was completely unprepared). I hope you tried Oscar's for breakfast. But for all the times we've gone, we've never booked an ATV ride. We'll have to try that.

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    1. Oh wow, I am impressed that you did Angel's Landing! That was one of the hikes they talked about in the book, but we looked it up on YouTube and it was terrifying at the top! We weren't ready for that level of fear and risk. We heard good things about Oscar's from our ATV guide but didn't get a chance to try it. Maybe next time!

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  4. My husband and I wanted to go to Zion when we went to Las Vegas several years ago but had car trouble and never made it. We ended up going to Arches National Park the next day instead. Someday, I hope to get there. I'm pinning this for future reference.

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    1. We really want to go to Arches (and Bryce!) too, but it looked like it was going to be too cold this time of year. Plus Zion kept us busy for three days, so I think we'll have to plan a separate trip for those during a warmer time of year.

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  5. The pictures really do show the beauty of the place, and I think this post is really helpful for anyone who is planning a trip there! I like how the hiking trails are divided up by difficulty level, so less experienced hikers (like me!) wouldn't be so intimidated. It looks like you guys had a blast!

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    1. Thanks so much, Shea! Yes, the park was VERY well organized with an information desk, signs for every trail, etc. And it was very clean!

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  6. What a beautiful place! I look forward to when my kids are a little older and can enjoy trips to national parks like this. Our country has so many gorgeous sites to see!

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    1. This trip really made me want to go to *more* National Parks to see what else I'm missing! I went to quite a few as a child (including Zion!) but I don't remember much about them and we didn't take nearly as many photos then as we do now.

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  7. The emerald pools were my favorite! I also liked doing the one that leads to all the cool canyons, but I’m blanking on the name of it. It all looks just as gorgeous as I remember it though! I’m happy you guys enjoyed it!

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    1. There are soooo many trails so I'm not sure which one you mean, either! I think that's something I didn't entirely understand going into the trip - just how HUGE the park is. Park makes me think of a neighborhood park with a ball field and playground. This is more like a small Kingdom!

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  8. I've never taken a vacation based on a book, but it looks like you guys had a great time! What a fun way to spend spring break. The scenery looks beautiful!

    Nicole
    Nicole to the Nines

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    1. It really was such a fun, memorable adventure.

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  9. What an epic vacay! Zion is so gorgeous and that's so cool you guys got to dig in + experience it in person!

    -Ashley
    Le Stylo Rouge

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  10. My husband and I did a small national parks tour last year (Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion) and Zion was by far my favorite. We were only there for one day but we drove in through the tunnel and hiked the Emerald Pool trail as well as Angel's landing. I was super surprised at how many people were hiking Angel's Landing in sneakers and even Chacos. I would love to go back one day and explore more trails. It was absolutely breath taking.

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    1. I had to Google Chacos because I've never heard of those, but YES! Tons of people were wearing those, I just didn't know what they were called. Ha. I couldn't believe it either - I just wouldn't feel secure in those. I'm impressed that you did Angel's Landing and Emerald Pools in one day!! That would be exhausting. We definitely want to do Grand Canyon and Bryce (and a long list of others! LOL) someday too.

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  11. I'm in awe of the amazing scenery there! And the altitude is no joke! <3
    Green Fashionista

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    1. Surprisingly (and thankfully!) we didn't notice any other altitude issues other than the temps!

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  12. What an amazing trip. It's truly gorgeous, and your photos are amazing dear! Thank you for sharing this!

    Jessica | notjessfashion.com

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  13. Pinned! Trips to places like this are my favorite. Looks beautiful. I bet this is a great time of year to go too.

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  14. great post! i will admit, zion was not my favorite at the end of our two week national park utah/az roadtrip, but that was because it was so hot and i hated not being able to have our own vehicle in the park. for the others, it was great to get in the ac, to have water, to have our food cooler, etc. i think you were totally right to get those shoes with extra grippies, as i call them. i got pairs for the b/f and myself, b/c i figured two weeks of use is a lot of use. glad you had a nice vacation!
    b

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    1. I can totally understand how the heat would ruin the fun! When we planned our trip were thinking we'd go to more parks, but it was still going to be cold at Bryce and some others were too far for how much time we had. Which means by the time it's warm enough to go to Bryce it will be HOT at Zion! And that makes sense about the car situation too! If you aren't staying local the parking situation will be a bigger inconvenience. Love the "grippies" term- that's exactly what it is! Ha!

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