National Parks: Five Days in Zion & Grand Canyon
National Parks have moved to the top of my travel bucket list this year and with some time off slotted for March, I began researching my options. Glacier and Denali were my first choices, as snow-peaked mountain tops and lush forests deeply contrast the Florida swampland I was raised in. Yet March is still winter in the northern parks and many lodging and transportation options were closed (and I don't fancy driving in mountains with snow chains on my tires). With weather ruling out the majority of the popular parks, I turned my focus to the American Southwest: the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. It looks like I was trading in my green forest for some red rocks...
Trips to a National Park, particularly the popular ones, requires lead time and preparation. Due to the limited peak-seasons, visitors all flock at once to see beauty at it's best. Lodging, most of the time very sparse, fills up quickly and parks are lined with swarms of people.
March was the perfect time to visit the Grand Canyon and Zion, as weather was warming up and the shuttles / tours were back in full swing. Unlike Glacier and some of the other parks, we were able to secure our hotel and tours only a month out. And while some of the trails appeared crowded to us, we were told this wasn't even close to the summer volumes of tourists! We googled lodging for Glacier National Park in September, just for kicks, and realized the majority of days were already fully booked! Take my word: plan ahead!
Zion National Park
Hiking through this southern Utah National Park exceeded all expectations, from the town we stayed in just outside of the park, Springdale, to the trails and hikes available once inside the gates. Zion is an adventurers paradise with ever-changing landscape and views that beckon you with each strenuous step uphill. But don't worry, the diverse landscape accomdates both adrenaline seekers and relaxers. Whether you want rock climbing or picnicing, Zion has it all.
Tip: Wake up EARLY and get on the trails no later than 9AM. Not only will you beat the deadly southwest heat, you will be thankful as you ascend down the canyon and pass all the long lines. The hotel staff told us if you come in summer, lines for a shuttle can be up to 1.5 hours. Take our advice: wake up early! Pack plenty of water and snacks (recommended two liters per person, per day). Don't forget the sunscreen either!
Cost: Zion National Park entrance fee is $30 per car / family; re-entry valid for 7 days.
Getting There: Las Vegas is the largest airport near to Zion and is a 2.5 hour drive. Rent a car and road trip through the great southwest. If you feel like adventuring, make a pit stop at Snow Canyon, near St. George, Utah.
Getting Around: A shuttle service runs seasonally (Mar-Oct) and will pick you up in Springdale or at the Visitor's Center. All of the main hikes are off the shuttle stops and are easily navigated with well-marked signs and directions.
Observation Point Hike (strenuous, 6 hours roundtrip, uncrowded, Weeping Rock shuttle stop): Ascending over 2,000 feet, the path to Observation Point winds through forests, desert, streams and canyons. The changing landscape and never-ending views are rewards enough for this challenging hike. Not as popular as Angel's Landing, you will find less crowds and views that surpass all other hikes in Zion (Observation Point overlooks the peak of Angel's Landing) .
Angel's Landing Hike (strenuous, 4 hours roundtrip, crowded, Grotto shuttle stop): This hike is for the adventurous and is not recommended for those with a fear of heights! Angel's Landing is essentially a hike up a mountain ridge, with unpaved pathways that include anything from climbing up rocks, to sand to narrow passages with 1,000 foot drops on either side. While thousands of people hike this trail on a monthly basis, there have been a few deaths in recent years. Be careful and make sure you take this hike nice and slow (NPS has recently added chains and additional steps to make this hike safer). The adrenaline rush and view are worth the heart palpitations!
Pa'rus Trail (easy, 1 hour, Canyon Junction shuttle stop): An easy, paved trail that runs next to the Virgin River, is a walk best at dawn or dusk. This is a great path for bikers, as well. On our walk, we spotted dozens of deer prancing through the grass, prickly-pear cactus and soaring butterflies. Most of the trails aren't covered, so bring a hat or sunscreen.
Riverside Walk (easy, 1.5 hours roundtrip, Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop): Another easy, mainly paved trail that takes you alongside the river, ending where many hikers take on the challenge of The Narrows.
Stay in Zion
Springdale, UT is within walking distance of the park and has surprisingly decent and affordable food. All lodging is pretty modest but the Hampton Inn & Suites was the nicest Hampton we've ever seen (and the staff was incredible). After a half day of hiking, we'd end up back at the hotel next to the pool, lounging in one of their many decks or snuggling up near the fire pit.
Eat in Zion
Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. was the perfect antidote to a long day of activity. The laid-back service, filling food and $13 craft pitchers complemented the heated patio mountain views.
The majority of the food in Springdale is southwest or laid-back American and everything we had was good. If you are looking for groceries, Sol Market is a great place to stop and pick up picnic items, last minute hiking gear or a six-pack.
As we only had five days to see two humungous parks, we decided to splurge and take a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. Leaving from Las Vegas, we booked with Papillion Grand Canyon Tours and had one of the best experiences of our lives.
Taking under four hours, we saw the Vegas Strip, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and the West Rim of the Grand Canyon - landing and picnicking next to the river inside of the Canyon. Obviously this only scratched the surface but we saw so much, in so little time and were able to fit the Grand Canyon into our short trip!
Have you been to any National Parks? Where should we go next?