Zion National Park is always busy

First, Zion National Park is stunning, and everyone who can should visit.  Second, everyone seems to know about point number one, and they are all coming to visit. That makes for one damn crowded park, even in the off season.

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It has been fun visiting Bryce Canyon, Capital Reefs, and Zion National Parks in Southern Utah.  And we’re clearly coming back, as we still have to see Arches, Moab, and Cayonlands. This trip has seemed not so much our first visit to this area, which is it, as it’s a “training” visit that teaches you how busy these stunning parks are, and make you realize that they will always be busy so you need to find strategies around the crowds.

So Zion, specifically, is interesting as you enter it via a long skinny town to the south, Springdale.  You have been in rural Utah a long time to get here, but the minute you’re in Springdale, you see the “Pay to Park” kiosk everyone, just like in a big city.

You need to be looking for parking immediately because I assure you, unless it’s 7am, the Zion parking lots will be full before you get to them.  The cool thing is there’s a free bus shuttle that runs up through town and lets you off right at the park entrance. 

Finding parking is a timing question really. The Zion lot will be full, but street parking will start filling from the park entrance back down through town, forcing you to take a longer shuttle ride up town.   We arrived at about 9:30am, and just as we were approaching the park I could see up ahead traffic bogging down. So I ducked to the open street parking right where I was, and we only had a short walk to the entrance.  By the time we left around 2pm, all street parking was jammed.  It was early October, on a Tuesday. I suspect times for the parking jam will vary by season.

Approaching the park entrance, you go through the gauntlet of tourist shops, coffee shops, and an outfitting service. Cross a bridge and you’re at the entrance pergola where you pay to get it (or in our case show our annual pass. I can’t wait for my birthday next year as I’ll finally be able to buy my lifetime pass). Then, of course,  you get into the line for the Park Shuttle bus.  Think airport security line.  There are a lot of people, and many have on the same rubber hiking boots and are carrying a staff. Hmm, more on that later.

Turns out Zion is so busy it has it’s own bus that goes all the way up the canyon, letting out out at various Park hot spots; the Museum, The Zion Lodge, The Grotto, and finally the last stop.  From there you walk the last mile up the entrance to “The Narrows.”    And when the shuttle is running, they don’t allow any private cars. 

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The Narrows is one of the most famous features of Zion, where the red canyon walls come together with only the North fork of the Virgin river that carved the canyon spilling out between them. This is where the rubber hiking boots come in.  It’s very possible to continue into The Narrows for many miles with the canyon’s towering walls arching over your head, blotting out the sky they are so close.  But for the most part, the trail is just the river itself. If you don’t have rubber hiking boots, and that staff the outfitters give you when they give you the boots, you can’t really go on.

We didn’t get into The Narrows this trip as we didn’t have the boots, and Karin’s hip issue started acting up when we were out on the hiking trail, making even normal walking painful. She had to make the call on the hike as to when we had to turn around just to make sure she could get back to the shuttle.  It’s frustrating for her.

One hike we didn’t do is Angels Landing That’s about 2/3 of the way up the canyon and is one of Zion’s featured walks.  It’s a hike that’s about _ miles from the road, and goes just about straight up…to where angels would land if they were visiting from heaven. There is a long slope up to the base of the zig zagging switchbacks that were designed by the Park’s first Superintendent. The zigzags are an amazing climb in their own right, but they are only there to get people up to the real challenge, the ridge that takes you up to Angels Landing itself.   This ridge has a 1300 foot sheer drop on one side, and 900 foot sheer drop on the other side.  Did I mention the ridge is about 3-4 feet wide? There are posts with a chain running down the middle, and they point out you “WILL” be holding on to the chain at all times.

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So one thing we learned that we will definitely do next time is to bring our bicycles into the park.  All the shuttle buses have bike racks.  The way to get some space in Zion is to let them carry your bicycle up all the way, lock it up and go on hikes, and then ride your bicycle back down the valley.

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