Exploring the magic of Zion National Park and tips for surviving the crush of the crowds

Exploring the magic of Zion National Park and tips for surviving the crush of the crowds

After nearly a year and half in my home because of COVID-19, I developed a serious travel itch that simply had to be scratched. With the first dose in my arm and with the second dose on the horizon, I realized there just might be a way to travel this year and set out to plan an adventure. 

What started as a three-day weekend to Sedona turned into a national park adventure hitting six of America’s scenic parks: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, and last but certainly not least, Yosemite National Park. And for the record, we never even made it to Sedona. We’ll be saving that for another day. The call to the parks just too strong and so off we went.

The Grand Canyon was our first stop and that was more of a Chevy Chase-styled Vacation visit, briefly enjoying the majestic vistas and car turnouts before driving into the Navajo Nation and north toward Utah. We didn’t hike at the Grand Canyon, so I won’t be dwelling on those details and will instead move onto Zion National Park, one of the most interesting and beautiful parks in the world. 

If you are one of the anticipated record-breaking 6 million visitors to hit Zion National Park in 2021 or beyond, here are insights and tips for your adventure. 

An introduction to Zion National Park

In 1858, Mormon settler Nephi Johnson arrived in the Southern Paiute territory in southern Utah now known as Zion National Park. It did not take long for the Mormon settlers to end the Paiute way of life, killing or chasing off 90% of the Paiute in just 25 years. Even worse, in 1954, the U.S. government, led by Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, stripped the Piaute Tribe of their tribal status, taking the tribe’s 15,000 acres of land. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed an order recognizing the tribe again and restored 4,800 acres of land to the tribe. A fraction of their original land. 

The Paiute history and influence on the area is slowly being restored through the Tribal Preservation Programs, while the Mormon influence abounds, especially in the name of the park, which was first coined by Mormon settler Isaac Behunin in 1863.

The influence of the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be felt inside and outside the park in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The most obvious influence is around alcohol service, which is forbidden in the Mormon church. In Utah, you are required to order food if you order an alcoholic drink. You cannot simply sidle up to bar after a day of adventuring to order a drink. You are going to get a side of chips and salsa or stick with water. And if you decide you’d rather get packaged alcohol and relax in and around your hotel or lodge, be prepared to go in search of those libations. The only places I’m aware of that sell packaged liquor are the Sol Foods Supermarket and the Switchback Liquor Store, which is oddly located in the back of a gift shop in a strip mall with scant signage. You must be prepared to pay heavily. For instance, if you want a six-pack of beer, that is available, but each overpriced beer is rung up individually and that adds up fast. If you want a wine opener, mixers or other alcohol-related items, you’ll have to find those elsewhere because they are not sold in liquor stores. 

Elsewhere in southern Utah, it is not unusual for the liquor store to be located directly next door to a police station. I mean, practically attached. Exhibit A in Kanab, one of the last stops before the Mt. Carmel Highway entrance to Zion. 

Liquor store on the left, police on the right. 

Should you stay inside the park at Zion Lodge or in nearby Springdale, Utah?

This is a difficult choice because both have pros and cons. On this particular trip, we stayed two nights at the Zion Lodge and two nights at a hotel in town, so let’s run down the differences.

The Zion Lodge’s primary feature is location, location, location. Like most or all of the lodges in national parks, the rooms are hard to come by, overpriced, and slightly outdated. Having said that, it’s still a fantastic experience. The lodge is located in a prime spot inside the park with 360-degree views of the rocks that make Zion famous. Even better, you can hop on an early morning shuttle and beat the masses to the most well-known sites in the park. This is by far the main benefit of staying inside the park. Conversely, on weekends or holidays, you can expect this kind of wait to enter the park via the main gate in Springdale, Utah.

It’s the busiest weekend of the year! Wait times as of this morning: Zion Canyon Shuttle – 2 hours wait to board. Angels Landing – 4 hours wait to begin hike. Parking in Zion Canyon is currently full. Parking may be available in the town of Springdale, just outside the park. pic.twitter.com/DGKqrcYOt2

— Zion National Park (@ZionNPS) May 30, 2021

Indeed, we rented e-bikes to explore the park one day (more on that below) and had to use the pedestrian entrance to the park. The line to walk or bike into the park was approximately 45 minutes.

Guests of the Zion Lodge get a pass that allows them to drive into the main park, which is closed to all other traffic with the exception of bicycles and park shuttle buses. But once you arrive at the lodge, it’s time to park the car and use the shuttles or bikes to get around. You cannot park at the trailheads anymore because of the volume of visitors. 

Another key benefit of staying in the park is the night sky. In early June 2021, Zion National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park. The lighting around the lodge and in nearby Springdale has been changed in recent years to eliminate as much light pollution as possible, making it possible on clear nights to see the vastness of the Milky Way. It is an extraordinary view and one that comes with a caution: If you venture out of the hotel at night to see the twinkling galaxy, you must bring a light source with you (a headlamp or flashlight, not a phone) because it is pitch black outside and people can easily get lost in the darkness. The animals in Zion tend to come out at night as well, so venture out with caution. As it says in the Zion brochure, your safety is your responsibility and that is no joke. 

The winner of our Zion Dark Sky photo contest is Joe Braun Photography’s photo of the Milky Way above the Kolob Terrace! Congrats on taking such an awesome shot that truly showcases the beauty our of Dark Skies. Remember to tag us in your night sky shots using #ZionNightSkies pic.twitter.com/IRWeLJA0Tk

— Zion National Park (@ZionNPS) June 12, 2021

Not to dissuade you from trying to stay at the Zion Lodge because it has positives, I will note you need to be aggressive in trying to get a reservation. We overheard one park ranger telling a visitor they were anticipating 6 million visitors in 2021, which would beat the previous record by nearly 1.5 million visitors. In our case, I created a tab and refreshed several times a day in search of a reservation. I eventually hit the jackpot, but ended up having to rearrange our travel schedule to grab the only days available. If you want to stay in the park, be determined and be flexible. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated the park experience with staffing shortages and closures of dining services and more. In the case of Zion, the lodge restaurant was open, but the quest to get food was a challenge. It started by waiting in a long, almost impossibly slow line to order your food at the front door of the restaurant. After ordering, you were allowed to enter the restaurant to find a table and the food was dropped at the table. If you were thinking of having a second glass of wine or a cocktail, forget it. That means going back to the entrance and getting back in the line.

And that leads us to Springdale, the quaint little town at the base of Zion National Park. Unlike many of the small towns on the edges of national parks, Springdale is unique in that you can walk or bike directly into the park. The town is nearly an extension of the park. 

After a long hike, it is nice to have a bigger array of food and drink options and when those afternoon temperatures spike up to 100 degrees and beyond in the afternoon, the promise of a pool with a view is hard to beat. The Springdale hotels don’t have the amazing views of the lodge, but they aren’t lacking in views either as the town is in the canyon, surrounded by canyon views and rock formations.

Springdale has more amenities all around, including bike and e-bike rentals, along with canyoneering equipment rentals for Zion’s famous Narrows hike, which runs through the canyons of Zion, largely trekking through the waters of the Zion River, sometimes waist- or even chest-deep. The city of Springdale also provides a free shuttle bus that runs the main drag, connecting all the hotels and restaurants to the main entrance of the park. For this reason, many recurring visitors prefer to stay in Springdale, even with the longer waits to enter the park. 

How can you beat the crowds and still see the best of Zion?

The famous rock formations throughout the park are created by sedimentary rock layers, which look different depending on where you are in the park. Entering the park from the east entrance is popular because the Mt. Carmel Highway sends visitors down twisting, winding switchback roads, eventually connecting to the park’s southern entrance and the town of Springdale, Utah. This highway also runs through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, which is an astonishing long tunnel at 1.1 miles. It is dark and small, but has several large windows carved into the side of the mountain for breathtaking glimpses, teasing what is to come at the end of the tunnel. Completed in 1930, it was not designed for today’s massive RVs and travel trailers. As such, there are now specific times these types of vehicles can enter, they require a permit and the road must be closed in one direction to allow them to make it through the tunnel. In other words, be prepared to wait because this system does cause traffic backups in and out of the park. Take this into consideration if you are leaving the park to catch a flight in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. 

The Narrows trail alongside the Virgin River.

Thinking of doing the hike to Angel’s Landing or trekking through The Narrows? The early bird gets the worm. The best way to beat the crowds in Zion, and all national parks, is simply to set your alarm and get up at the crack of dawn, or even beforehand. It might be painful to get up so early on vacation, but the payoff will be worth it. Speaking of rising early, if you are staying at the lodge and want a taste of coffee before you head out, I’d suggest bringing your own. The lodge rooms have a coffee maker, but good luck finding caffeinated coffee. While decaffeinated coffee was bountiful, we were told the regular coffee hadn’t yet been ordered for the year. 

Whether you are staying inside or outside the park, getting up early and getting on the shuttle will give you a leg up on the sleepier travelers and families that have a hard time getting out the door so early. It’s also a safety issue in the summertime as the temperatures in and around the park regularly exceed 100 degrees. It’s one thing to start a hike at 7 AM with temps in the 70s and entirely another thing to end the hike with 100 degree temps by early afternoon. Each day we made our way back to hotel room around 2 PM to escape the hottest parts of the day with the most intense sun. 

On a related note, you should never leave your hotel room without a notable supply of water. You should be drinking a lot of water throughout the day. Zion is a desert environment and you will feel it, especially if you are active. Fortunately, the lodge, hotels, and the park itself do a great job of providing water bottle refill stations. Best thing you can do for yourself, the environment, and park management is to bring your own refillable water bottle. In recent years, I’ve started bringing my own travel utensils and reusable straws to cut down on the need for plastic cutlery. It’s not easy for the average traveler to make their way to Zion and the same can be said of every piece of plastic that makes its way into the park and needs to be packed out. We all have to do our part and these are simple ways to contribute to park sustainability.

Back to getting around the park: Aside from the shuttles, there are a handful of private tour operators who are permitted to operate inside the park, including the scenic drive connecting the park’s most popular destinations. If you have the money to spend, these private tour operators can pick you up at your hotel and drive you directly to a trailhead, oftentimes returning in the afternoon to pick you back up at a time when the shuttle buses are typically standing room only. It’s a perk, but it has a price. 

For less than $20, you can get a ticket to a narrated open-air tram ride that is a little more than an hour long. 

For us, the best way to see the park turned out to be e-bikes. I’m already an e-bike user at home so I was enthusiastic about trying this out in the park. As much as I disliked the former occupant of the White House, one positive change made during that administration was allowing e-bikes in national parks. I explored Teton National Park via e-bike last fall and can definitively say this is my favorite way to see the parks now. As someone who isn’t physically able to ride a regular bike through high altitude or for long distances, e-bikes have truly opened up a whole new world for me and many others. 

The scenic road inside the park is 8 miles long, making it easily explored on bikes. While there is some uphill climbing on the way to the last stop of the scenic drive, the famous Temple of Sinawava where the trailhead to the Narrows begins, the ride back down to town is just plain fun, cruising almost the entire way. The one caveat about cycling this road is the park has one strict rule: Shuttles have the right-of-way and you must pull over. That means you must pull over to the side of the road and have at least one foot on the ground before a shuttle will pass you. This only happened to us a few times and was a minor inconvenience at best. 

What makes this best way to see the park is the fact the scenic drive is closed to all traffic except lodge guests (who are not permitted past the lodge), park shuttle buses, and bike traffic. Most of the time it felt like we were in the park by ourselves, a far cry from our experiences at the crowded shuttle stops and trails. We were able to stop at places formerly reserved for car parking and we were entirely alone with the beauty of the park. 

The magic happens through preparation and perspiration

As I said before, the Zion park guide contains one little sentence that is important to remember: Your personal safety is your responsibility. That starts with knowing the weather forecast. Zion is a canyon and while the popular months of June and July are not known for heavy rains, they can still happen. If a storm comes in, it is not advisable to do many of the popular hikes because of flash flooding in the canyon and lightning strikes on the trails. One study over a nine-year period indicated there were 20,000 lightning strikes in Zion park. The park does provide some weather indicators at trailheads, but at the end of the day, it is up to you to know what is happening and consider whether you should or should not head out on a trail. Rescue efforts inside the park are time-consuming, slow, and dangerous for the rescuers as well. 

Many of the guests who need to be rescued were ill-prepared, suffering from dehydration and/or overexertion. The best thing you can do before coming to a place like Zion is to get out and hike around your own neighborhood or city ahead of time. If you plan to wear water shoes, trail shoes, or hiking shoes, get out and wear those a lot before your trip to break them in before you hit the park trails. Even then, I highly recommend bringing a small travel first aid kit, with Band-Aids, Neosporin, ibuprofen, etc. If you are on a trail with miles to go and need to dress a blister, you’ll be so thankful to have that in your daypack. 

Along these lines, make sure you have reservations in advance. Given the popularity of the parks, hotels are often completely sold out and restaurants have long waits. Take the time to plan in advance and you’ll be glad you did when you take your exhausted self to dinner and don’t have to wait for one to two hours just to get seated. Plan B is stocking your hotel fridge with sandwich supplies, which will also come in handy and are highly recommended for trail hikes, where frequent stops are recommended for food and water to keep you going. 

What to see and wear for adventuring in Zion

Sunscreen. That’s the top thing to put on your body. As mentioned above, the sun can be brutal in the southwest. 

As far as clothing, make sure you are wearing breathable fabrics that can dry quickly. Whether you are hiking in the Virgin River through The Narrows or summiting the peak at Angel’s Landing, you’ll need lightweight clothes than can whisk away water and dry quickly. You do not want to find yourself in soaking wet pants or shorts after wading through the river; that would make the hike back miserable due to chafing and the extra weight. 

If you head out in the early morning, you might need an extra layer. While there are often excessive heat warnings during the day, the temps do drop down to around 50 degrees overnight and can be a chilly start to the day.

If you plan to do The Narrows hike, aside from the quick-drying clothes, you should have three things: proper shoes, trekking poles or a hiking stick, and a waterproof pouch or drybag for your phone or other items you don’t want to get wet. You can do the primary hike and not be fully submerged in water, but as my travel companion discovered the hard way, falls in the river are not uncommon. Here is a glimpse of what the “trail” looks like on the hike. 

Hiked the Narrows at Zion today and it was magical. Now I’m off for ibuprofen. It’s a rough one hiking through the Virgin rivers pic.twitter.com/JBF1YrP5UD

— Jennifer Hayden (@Scout_Finch) June 3, 2021

A far less crowded Narrows hike in 2014.

I’ve done The Narrows hike twice, both times in Keen water shoes, with mixed results. On the most recent trip I hiked in a newer pair of Keens and truly paid the price in the form of blisters. You are in the water for much of the route, cautiously stepping on and around rocks and boulders. Your toes are gripping and straining to keep balance, the perfect storm for blisters. Shoes with rubber toes are highly recommended, as are shoes with ankle support. 

The water of the Virgin River is quite cold and all the outfitters in Springdale rent and sell neoprene socks, as well as special canyoneering boots and wooden hiking sticks. I’ve navigated the river in June and July and while the water was cold, I had no problem adjusting without the neoprene socks.

The canyoneering boots are hiking boots that allow water to drain out. The problem with wearing traditional waterproof hiking boots is they don’t exactly keep water out and they will most certainly keep water in once it gets in the boot. I did see several people wearing regular boots for this adventure but I cannot recommend it, nor would I recommend regular trail shoes, although I did see people wearing them. If you are wearing flip-flops, please turn yourself right around and get back on the shuttle. 

The morning moon near the Temple of Sinawava on the trail to The Narrows.

The great thing about Narrows hike is you can go as far as you want, to a point. There is an approximately 1-mile walk to the entrance to the river. This is a lovely walk with views of the canyon, filled with hanging gardens clinging to the canyon walls. Once you enter the water, you can take it to the famous Wall Street portion of the narrows. Once you reach that point, you’ll need a permit to go further as the technical difficulty of the hike increases dramatically from that point forward (or backward as many people go “top-down,” getting dropped at the top and hiking their way to the main river entrance).  

A word of caution about The Narrows: This is a more difficult hike than it appears! Like all hikes in the parks, it depends on your fitness level. We saw folks scampering past us all day long. As someone who is turning 50 this year and has had some health challenges, this was a challenge for me. I wanted to make it to the Orderville Canyon turnaround and I did, but I paid the price later! This is the kind of hike where I recommend you have a side of ibuprofen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Orderville Canyon in The Narrows.

If you aren’t sure about making it all the way to Wall Street, just wade into the river and turn back before you start feeling it. In my experience, the real pain set in on the way back. You are hiking upstream on the way in, which adds to the fatigue factor and muscle soreness. And remember, that lovely 1-mile walk through the canyon is not nearly as fun on the way back, when the sun is more intense, the temps are climbing, the crowds increase, and it is uphill back to the shuttle stop, where you are most certainly going to have to wait in line for the bathrooms and the shuttle. On that note, make sure you hit the restrooms before you start down the trail because there are no restrooms anywhere on the river hike. 

If you plan to do the strenuous and white-knuckled Angels Landing hike, it’s best to get an early start to avoid the heat. This roughly 5-mile trail is not only strenuous uphill hike, with a portion of the trail containing 21 switchbacks that quickly and intensely climb in elevation, it culminates at Scouts Lookout, a heart-pumping narrow trail with a metal chain to help hikers ascend to the top. If, like me, you are afraid of heights, this trail is not recommended. At all. Falls are the No. 1 cause of death in Zion and indeed, three hikers have already fallen to their deaths in Zion in 2021 alone, including a 26-year-old woman who went missing in June. I’m certainly not trying to talk anyone of doing this very popular climb, but do understand what you are getting in before you go. Here is a preview:

In summary, Zion National Park is simply a magical place and well worth the visit. With preparation and planning, you’ll be making memories for a lifetime. 

Do you have Zion pics and advice? Drop them below!

Do you have any questions? Hit me below and I’ll do my best to answer. 

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