The first stop on our 2015 road trip was Zion National Park. We took I-15 north towards Utah. Although temperatures were in the low 100s in the California desert, we hit a heavy downpour with lightning and hail at Mountain Pass, close to the CA/NV border. It was evident that our campsite could possibly be muddy with the intermittent rain during the drive through three states.
Driving on I-15 is mostly desert (and can be quite boring). Once you pass the NV/AZ border east of Littlefield, you start to follow the Virgin River which cuts through the majestic Virgin Ridge. The visible shift in the earth is absolutely breathtaking.
Zion Canyon Campground
Zion National Park is very popular in the summertime. All campgrounds were booked and from what I’ve read and heard, getting a first-come first-served site at South Campground would be near impossible — especially with the time we expected to get there (in the evening). There are a few campgrounds outside of Zion NP and we chose Zion Canyon Campground in Springdale, UT based on the proximity to the National Park shuttle service and the fact that they had showers.
The campground is also connected with the Quality Inn hotel, which is where you check in. You are able to use the Quality Inn’s amenities such as the laundry and (small) pool. The location was beautiful with the Watchman formation overlooking the campground. The Virgin River is accessible on the east side of the campground and you can rent tubes to go down the river. With the recent rains, the river looked more like chocolate milk since the silt was being stirred up from the mountains.
Zion Canyon Campground is an RV park but they also had a good amount of tent sites. The tent sites are small and pretty close together—you get to know your neighbors quickly! We were able to fit the van and our 6-person tent with just enough room to get around the picnic table and fire ring. The restrooms and showers were clean (perhaps newly remodeled) and well-maintained. The showers were operated by token and are given 6 minutes of shower time (which, to me, was more than enough time). They gave us 4 tokens per night for our whole family. Any additional tokens could be purchased for $4.
Once we set up camp, we checked out the river and on our return we met our new neighbors, a family of 6 from Chino Hills, CA. They had four boys which matched our two older girls’ age. They made the perfect playmates as the adults set up camp. We helped the family build a campfire and the boys helped us find kindling for our fire. We heard that it was their first camping trip as a family. How exciting it must be for them! I think our families were in the same boat with all the excitement. The kids didn’t wind down until really late at night.
Thom and I woke up in the middle of the night. He asked if I heard raindrops and I thought I was just hearing leaves falling off the trees and hitting our tent. The flash of lightning put any doubts of rain to an end. We quickly removed our shoes from outside of the tent and put away some non-waterproof items inside the van. Even with the loud booms of thunder and flashes of lightning, we were still able to sleep.
We fully expected our site to be soaked when we woke up but the arid climate dried everything out quickly. The only evidence of rain was the damp smell and a few drops of water on our cooler and waterproof table cover.
Zion National Park
We headed into the park as soon as we finished breakfast. We wanted to spend more time there while it was still overcast and cool. I packed a backpack carrier with our lunches, snacks, water, sunblock and baby gear… plus the baby. It must have weighed 30lbs! As I put it on, I felt like I was newly enlisted in the military and going through bootcamp (ok, well maybe not that extreme). The pack was heavy.
The free shuttle to Zion National Park was located within a very short walk from the campground entrance. The shuttle runs about every 15 minutes and loops around the town of Springdale. Across the street was Zion Adventure Company, where people view an instructional video and rent special boots and hiking sticks (plus other gear) to hike The Narrows. The shuttle really wasn’t necessary from our location — it would have only been an 8-minute (.5 mile) walk to the park entrance. But since we planned on being on our feet a lot, we figured we would save our energy.
Once in the park we bought a National Parks Annual Pass since we were planning on hitting up a lot of National Parks during the trip. The kids waited in line at the visitors center to get activity books for their Junior Ranger badges. It was quite crowded for 9am in the morning! Inside the visitors center you can find the weather forecast and flash flood info. The day we visited the flash flood warning was “probable.”
I inquired about the easiest hikes for kids to do and the park ranger pointed out a few on the map — all accessible by the park shuttle that goes out and back on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This road is only accessible by shuttle during peak months. Our first stop was the end of the line, the Temple of Sinawava where the Riverside Walk was located. This was also the gateway to The Narrows. The Narrows is one of the well-known hikes in Zion where you hike through the water and between narrow canyons in some spaces. It’s definitely on our to-do list when the kids are older. But for now, the 2.2-mile (round trip) Riverside Walk is a great alternative, with a paved trail and some trailside exhibits.
Pictures do not do this place justice. I was in awe with every turn. The combination of the colors and layering of the rocks along with the sheer size and angles of the mountains rising above the river was truly magnificent.
The squirrels were out in full-force and very bold. They were definitely not afraid of humans. As cute as they were, I was happy to see that people abided by the rules and did not feed them. We also saw a few deer hiding in the horsetail reed.
The kids enjoyed the walk with some complaints about the length. But that was coming from my daughter who wasn’t fond of hiking in the first place.
Our next stop was the Weeping Rock trail. It was very short (.5 mile round trip) and very steep but well worth it. The hike led to a naturally-carved alcove that dripped water which seeps out of the rock from above. Along the trail and inside the alcove were hanging gardens of columbine, ferns and moss. From the alcove, it truly looked as if it were raining as you looked out into the canyon.
Our last trail was the Lower Emerald Pools, accessible from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop. It was starting to warm up and the trail was 1.2 miles round-trip. The hike to the pools is paved and uphill. There are a few narrow areas with minor drop-offs so we kept the kids close. The trail led to a waterfall that drops into the Lower Emerald Pools. The pools get their name from the algae growth that colors it. To me, it looked more muddy than anything. But I enjoyed a quick splash from the small waterfall since it was so hot out. You can continue on this trail to go to the Upper Emerald Pools, but it didn’t look too kid-friendly (or lady-with-a-baby-on her-back-friendly).
Zion National Park is definitely a place you want to make a few visits to. One full day there was not enough. We hiked 3 out of 18 trails and didn’t even see the eastern portion with the checkerboard mountain. But I was glad to be able to see what were able to see while we were there and felt so blessed that most of our hikes were under cooler conditions. God is good!
We ended our day splashing in the silty Virgin River at the campground to cool off. I couldn’t tell if it was refreshing or gross. Either way, it was our shower night so we can wash that “river stuff” off of us. The winds started to shift and we could hear thunder from far away. We packed everything up again and braced for a good rain that night.
NEXT STOP: Sandy, UT to Grand Teton and Yellowstone