By Amy Suski
This summer we planned an epic road trip in a rented minivan that circled through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho. The inspiration for our trip was the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks-- well that and the free domestic flights we'd earned with credit card miles! I knew the 2-week 2,000+ miles itinerary was ambitious, but I struggled to cross anything off our list. With the kids getting older I wasn't sure we'd have another chance to travel to these places together.
Planning the trip was half the fun -- I poured over travel guides and mapped out our routes on Bing. (I like Bing because you can enter multiple destinations and switch-up the order of your itinerary.) For the parks we planned to visit the closest airports were Las Vegas or Salt Lake City (SLC) and we chose SLC in order to visit my college roommate and her beautiful family.
I'm an East Coast girl through and through, but honestly after visiting my roommate's stunning home nestled in the Wasatch Mountains I may have to reconsider my coastal loyalties. Utah is truly one of the most special places I've ever visited. On a short day trip just outside SLC you can shop the boutiques in the Park City, hike canyons full of wild flowers, cross a mountain range covered in white-barked aspen, and spot moose along a trailside lake. Half-way through our first day my husband began musing about retiring in Utah and I have to agree it seems like a pretty good idea to me too.
After spending our first day and night in SLC, we drove south along a desert highway to the spectacular Zion National Park.
Zion is unlike any other place in the world with an incredibly varied landscape that includes rocky canyons, lush riverside trails, and red jagged mountains rising up in all directions.
On our first afternoon we ventured out on the 2 mile Watchman Trail, but had to turn back half way because we grossly underestimated how much water we'd need. With temperatures nearing 100 degrees, we went through our supply much faster than expected!
The next day we set out with more provisions and an itinerary that included a shadier trail to the lush Emerald Pools. Along the way there were neat rock formations (I think this one looks like a footprint) that the kids enjoyed climbing on. This trail is mostly paved and among the easier trails for families with strollers.
Although the pools themselves were brown and muddy from an earlier rainfall, the walls of the canyons were dripping with green plants and misty waterfalls. After a hot day, exploring this area felt great!
Another wet and popular trail is the easy 2-mile roundtrip Riverside Walk, which you access by taking the park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava. Along the way kids can get their feet wet along the sandy shores of the Virgin River, climb rocks, and meet snack-seeking squirrels on the path. Those equipped with walking sticks and sturdy water shoes (which you can rent at the park) can continue on past the trail's end through The Narrows, but the difficulty of walking through the river and the danger of flash floods means that NPS doesn't recommend that stretch for children.
In fact, within a week after we left dozens of people were caught in a dangerous flash flood here, but luckily everyone managed to form a human chain and get out safely. What I didn't know about flash floods before this trip is that they can occur even on a cloudless day. If there is rain anywhere upriver, the waters can rush downstream with little warning. To avoid such dangers, always check the park's daily safety warnings (posted at the visitor center and online) and if the park has its own app you can sign-up to have the warnings sent directly to your phone.
I had high hopes of tackling some of the longer hikes at Zion (and trained for it all summer with 13 mile bike rides) but the high altitude and my asthma made it even more difficult than I expected. My husband and shirtless sons, however, made it to the top of some of the more impressive mesas. Way to go guys!
Even if you can't hike the highest peaks, the beauty of Zion is all around. And lucky for the vertically-challenged, two of the best ways to see the park are by riding the park shuttle along Zion Canyon Road and driving along Zion Mt. Carmel Highway (SR-9).
The highway journey through one-way tunnels and along cliff-hanging switchbacks is harrowing (especially for RVs), but not to be missed!
Along the way we saw famous formations like the Checkerboard Mesa, bighorn sheep, mule deer, hawks, and vultures. There are also plenty of places to pull off and take in the view.
At this pull off, we found a set of winding stone steps that led to a view of the canyon on the other side.
Pretty much wherever you look there is another curious rock formation to discover and the variety is endless.
Although packing a lunch is the biggest time saver (we liked Sol Foods market for provisions), on some hot days it just felt better to retreat into the air conditioned ease of the Zion Lodge's Red Rock Grill (within the park) or the Zion Brewery (more casual, just outside the entrance of the park).
Another favorite down the road was the Bit & Spur Saloon in Springdale. The southwest food was particularly good and, in spite of the heat, we enjoyed the patio seating overlooking a large yard with grazing deer and climbing rocks that were great for the kids to explore while the grown-ups lingered over dinner with margaritas.
For lodging, we chose the Cliff Rose Lodge for its location (walking distance from the park entrance), great riverside views, and family-friendly facilities (laundry, pool, and generous breakfast buffet). The Canyon View suites were especially convenient because of the kitchenette and everyone LOVED the pool.
The Virgin River ran behind the hotel and sitting on the banks...or better yet, getting in the river...was very relaxing. At dusk deer roamed the grounds and at night the starlit sky above the red peaks was amazing.
Later that night while soaking in the hot tub we saw dozens of shooting stars. Although we only stayed 3 nights, we will forever remember the awesome experiences of Zion.
Tips for Visiting Zion National Park:
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of the businesses or entities mentioned. We received no special discounts or offers during this trip. All rights reserved (c) 2017.
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