I had been itching to return to Zion National Park ever since running the Trans Zion route with friends a few years ago. The soaring, red rock walls of the canyon, the bright green cottonwoods in the Grotto, and the dramatic views of the mesa’s in the backcountry make Zion an experience like the Yosemite of the desert. I promised the family that the next trip out there would include them, and that when we went, we’d need to take advantage of being near so many other great parks. This year we made it back with a trip that included Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef (as well as a trip to the Wasatch Range). Our goal was to maximize time spent enjoying scenery and visit as many destinations as time would allow. This meant that instead of doing a longer backpacking trip in one location, we’d car camp and use hotels to cover a lot of ground, and get our hiking fix via a handful of day hikes. The kids had a blast and never complained, which meant of course the trip was an overwhelming success! So, this trip report will be done travel guide style; we hope it inspires you to visit Southern Utah!
We decided to mix up hotels and camping on our trip, so we had extra baggage to deal with (tent, camp stoves, sleeping bags, etc…). Since we backpack somewhat regularly, and we follow the ultralight philosophy, most of our gear is fairly light and compact. Because of that, we were able to cram just about all of it into a 90L Northface duffle. I was also planning to run a race at the end of the trip so I had running clothes, shoes, and vest as well. That duffel came in handy! All of our street clothes and hiking/camp clothes were in one of two medium sized suitcases. Additionally each of us carried a backpack, which of course would be handy later when we wanted to do some day hiking. For a family of 4, I think we did pretty good keeping luggage to a minimum. We arrived late morning in Vegas, grabbed a rental car, and hit the road. A few hours later we rolled into Zion!
Things to Know About Zion
Zion is one of the most popular national parks in the US (behind Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon). It could be compared to a Yosemite of the Desert, with big views and mind blowing geology. The weather ranges from hot in the summer, to snow in the winter.
The South entrance of the park sits adjacent to the town of Springdale, which offers everything a person could want in terms of lodging, dining, and supplies. This makes Zion a perfect destination for a family, whether or not you feel like “roughing it”. The Virgin river passes right through Springdale, as well as through the campgrounds at the South entrance of the park, making a good distraction for kids, and grown up kids, to play in.
Zion has 3 main areas: (1) The Canyon, (2) Carmel Highway, and (3) Outlying Areas. The Canyon is accessed only by shuttle. It’s where most visitors will be concentrated, but also offers many sights to see and short hikes to enjoy. The Carmel Highway (HWY 9) is a scenic drive that leads out the East side of the park. Along the way there are opportunities to pull over and explore including the Canyon Overlook trail, and East Rim trailhead, as well as many washes and buttresses to check out. The outlying areas include Kolob Terrace road, Kolob Canyons road, and Trans Zion route. These areas offer longer hikes and backpacking, and are seldom visited.
Where to Stay
- Watchman Camp: A nice campground that sits right inside the park entrance. Has tent-only loop. Walking distance to Virgin River. No showers. Book months ahead.
- South Camp: Not as nice as Watchman, and unintuitively to the North of Watchman. Walking distance to Virgin River. No showers. Book months ahead.
- Lodges/Hotels: There are a number of lodges and hotels in Springdale, just minutes from the park. Cable Mountain Lodge is a 5 minute walk to the park entrance, but it’s also pricey (expect inflated prices in Springdale in general). All of the hotels in Springdale enjoy the backdrop of Zion Canyon and easy access to dining and groceries.
- Outside Springdale: Hurricane is about 30 minutes from the park, and budget friendly accommodations can be found here, though fewer options for lodging and dining.
On Our Visit (Days 1, 2, & 3)…
We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge. Pricey? Yeah… but wow! The place is beautiful to look at, the rooms are amazing, the pool and hot tub are sexy as hell, the views from the rooms are fantastic, the location is a 5 minute walk to the park entrance, general store, and a couple of dining options. This adds up to a solid recommendation. Springdale is expensive as it is, so this splurge felt relatively justified, and it was well worth it to us! Not to mention, guests of the lodge receive 20% discount at the general store and several restaurants in town. That adds up fast when you have a family to feed!
The forecast called for thunderstorms all week, so we came prepared with light rain jackets and dry bags to protect our electronics while outside. When it rains in Zion, you’re in for something special. Not only did it keep the crowds down, but it cooled the temperatures, and we were treated swirling white clouds against red and orange rock, and waterfalls that vanished only a few hours after the rain let up! The desert is a mysterious place.
We visited most of the destinations in the Canyon. We hiked the Watchman Trail (~3 miles, 600 ft vert), the River Trail (~2 miles, mostly flat), and the Emerald Pools loop (~7 miles, 1000 ft vert). Our kids were able to hang with all of this pretty easily. It didn’t hurt that the scenery was freaking amazing… and there was soft serve ice cream available in the Grotto. They completed the Junior Ranger program and earned their first badge from Utah.
The road trip from Zion to Bryce was a collection of scenic desert views. Even though the landscape is mostly rock, you can see it change along the way. The colors shift, and the formations are different looking. As you approach Bryce, you enter Red Canyon, then you know you’re somewhere different! This is the first peak of the “hoodoos”, the iconic rock spires that make Bryce famous. The park entrance sits on a high plateau, among pine trees and manzanita… a little different than Zion to be sure!
Things to Know About Bryce
Bryce Canyon is another very popular park. The largest concentration of visitors will be in the areas adjacent to HWY 63, namely Sunset Point and Sunrise Point. This is the “rim” area with all the classic views of the hoodoos. The park is not all that expansive and most people will probably find a day or two is sufficient to see the sights. There is a shuttle system at Bryce to get up and down Highway 63, however a lot of what you’ll want to see is an easy drive or walk once within the park. Bryce is also a dark sky sanctuary, meaning the stargazing here is phenomenal, so don’t forget to look up at the night sky! There’s a small general store within the park where a coin-op laundry can also be found.
Where to Stay
- North Campground: A nice campground that sits right inside the park entrance. Has tent-only loop. Walking distance to Sunrise Point. No showers. Some sights are reservable, some are first come, first served.
- Sunset Campground: A nice campground that’s a short drive from the park entrance. Has tent-only loop. Walking distance to Sunset Point. No showers. Some sights are reservable, some are first come, first served.
- Lodges/Hotels: Bryce Lodge is situated between Sunrise and Sunset Point. It has it’s own restaurant, which is open to the public as well as lodge guests.
- Outside the Park: Just a few minutes outside the park entrance there are a handful of lodging options, including an RV park or two. There are also gas and groceries available outside the park, however don’t expect anything as extensive as Springdale (Zion).
On Our Visit (Days 3 & 4)…
We camped out at Sunset Campground. We arrived early afternoon and were lucky to find several open sites to choose from. By late afternoon the campground was full. We also noted that most of the inns and hotels just outside the park had no vacancy, so making reservations well in advance would be wise. The campground was a nice spot among the pine trees. The storms followed us, so unfortunately we had cloudy skies in the evening and stargazing was limited.
We hiked the Rim trail to the Visitor Center and back (~2 miles, mostly flat), and the Navajo Loop trail (2 miles, 600 ft vert). It was really neat to get down into the hoodoos and walk along the bottom of the canyon. This was the kids’ favorite hike on the trip, and maybe ours too. There are some longer trails that meander through the hoodoos for those who would like to make a full day out of it (bring plenty of water).
Departing Bryce, you say goodbye to the hoodoos and red rock for a while, and instead enjoy some views from higher elevation where pines and stands of aspen flank the highway. Of course, the red, orange, and white rock is ever present in the distant view, beyond afternoon storm clouds. The scenery is always spectacular while driving on this trip, and we took plenty of opportunities to pull over and enjoy it.
Things to Know About Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef does not have the star-popularity of Zion or Bryce, it does have a lot to offer though. The landscape and sights offer more variety than the other parks. In one day you can see petroglyphs, natural rock bridges (arches), fruit orchards that were once tended to by the Mormon settlers (and farmed by Native Americans before them), towering rock formations, geologic domes, slot canyons, and dry desert washes. You can even get a fresh baked pie between your hikes!
Where to Stay
- Fruita Campground: An RV and tent campground near the entrance of the park. No showers. First come, first served.
- Cedar Mesa Campground: A primitive campground inside the park, located 20-30 miles from the visitor center. First come, first served.
- Lodges/Hotels: There are no lodges inside the park.
- Outside the Park: Within 20 minutes of the park entrance there are a handful of lodging options, including inns, an RV park or two, and Singletree Campground. There are also gas and groceries available outside the park, however don’t expect anything as extensive as Springdale (Zion).
On Our Visit (Days 4 & 5)…
We camped at Singletree Campground. A nice campground, situated in the pines above 8,000 ft elevation. This was about a 20 minute drive to the park, but it was worth it to continue our outdoor experience, as opposed to staying at a motel or inn closer to the park. We enjoyed quiet evenings with excellent stargazing.
For hikes we decided to do the Petroglyph walk (this is very easy on a boardwalk with no elevation gain), which we considered a must-do. Seeing the art of people from long ago is such a special and rare experience, and it’s one you can easily just tack on to whatever else you have planned for your visit. We also hiked out to the Hickman Natural Bridge, which the kids loved. There are “hidey holes” everywhere in the sandstone… lots of places for kids to crawl into, under, and around to explore. We also hiked the Grand Wash (4 miles, mostly flat), which again was a hit with the kids due to lots of mud in all forms; dried, crunchy, sloppy, sticky, and always orange! We also spotted big horn sheep grazing while on this hike. We couldn’t pass up some fresh baked pies and cinnamon roles while we were there, so we stopped by the Gifford House to get our fix. Unfortunately this is all the time we had, Capitol Reef is a place I would have taken another day or two, to check out some more of the hiking and sight seeing opportunities.
Wrapping Up Our Trip
The end of the trip culminated with me running the Speedgoat 50k, while Sandra D and the kiddos explored the Snowbird area. We camped in Tanner Flat, which was a cool little campground nestled into the forest at the bottom of the Wasatch Range. The Speedgoat course is ridiculously tough as trail 50k courses go; If you’re a masochist, it’s highly recommended!
The many short hikes that can be found at all of the parks in Utah make it easy to get out and explore, and eliminate the need to have a hard itinerary to follow. Most of the hiking we did was relatively easy for our kids. To prepare them for all the walking, we simply hiked around local trails over the summer leading up to our trip. It’s not that kids should have a hard time hiking 5 miles, but to them if it isn’t familiar, it feels like a long time to be out walking around. Regular practice makes it feel like more of a norm for them, and of course it’s good exercise. Anyone who doesn’t have kiddos to keep occupied will find even more opportunity to delve into all the trails of the parks on a whim. Great adventures don’t have to be epic in size!
Sandra and I both agreed, that if we could have stretched this trip out for another week it would have been worth it to visit Arches and Escalante, as well as spend another day in Zion, and another day in Capitol Reef. We also passed through so many cool small towns in Utah and noted that it would be so easy to do this entire road trip without ever needed to camp out, but you know, we like to enjoy the fresh air, the stars, and watching the kids explore all the new areas to satisfy their curiosity. Good family time for sure.
So, Southern Utah for the win! It was fantastic and I’m sure we’ll be back! -JD