This time last year, I was fortunate enough to be in Zion National Park. I had been planning the trip for roughly 6 months, and it was a dream come true. Originally it was intended to be a trip by myself to tackle some challenging hikes and spend some quality time with nature. During the summer, while riding the train to NYC to visit friends, I got the idea to invite my dad to join me. He had never hiked before, but I knew he would love the landscape and natural beauty.
This was my first experience with navigating the National Park System to this extent. I needed permits, needed to plan routes, lodging, timelines, transportation, and a multitude of other things. In the beginning it was daunting, and the learning curve was steep, but fortunately I had started planning far enough ahead that I tackled it piece by piece. The old saying "How you you eat an elephant? One bite at a time", especially applies to planning these type of trips. My hope is to provide you with some tools and information that will make planning a trip to Zion much easier and less stressful.
Decide what "style" you want your trip to be
Are you super adventurous and hoping to push your limits? Or do you want to take a more stately pace and really soak in the natural beauty? Are you bringing your kids or family? Do you hope to improve your photography skills? If you plan on doing a lot of hiking, how far can you reasonably hike in one day?
Answering those type of questions will help you narrow down things like the best time of year to visit, how much time you will need to visit, what sort of skills and/or gear do you need to acquire prior to your trip, etc. All the National Parks I have visited thus far have a wide variety of things to offer to people of all ages and skill levels. Popular trailheads along the shuttle routes and areas near the visitor's center, for example, closely resembles the crowds and infrastructure you would expect at Disney World. It's a great place for families hoping to expose their kids to some natural beauty, but those of you who crave solitude might find it claustrophobic and annoying. Many parks are somewhat limited by weather and have areas that are closed during certain months. Zion is open year round, but your itinerary will still dictate what time of year is best to accomplish your goals. For example, I knew I wanted to visit when it wasn't too hot or too cold, and I wanted little risk of rain. I planned on hiking the Narrows which is prone to deadly flash flooding, so limiting the chance of rain was a priority for me. The website has a great guide to the different seasons and weather that will help you decide.
If children will be accompanying you, the National Parks do a great job of setting up activities geared toward them. Ranger talks are awesome, and there are usually lots of other Youth Programs designed to help little ones engage in nature and get the most out of their visit.
The NPS websites are usually very thorough and great with helping to plan. I recommend always starting there. Once you have some ideas of what you are planning, other sites like Trip Advisor have great forums where you can read other people's questions and answers and reviews, or post your own questions. Be sure to check the park website often during planning for alerts and updates like road or trail closures or other issues that might affect your trip.
Zion, like most National Parks, has an excellent shuttle system within the park. In fact, from March-October, the shuttle is the ONLY way to get around inside the park. The town of Springdale is right outside the park's gate, so if you are lodging there, you can literally walk to the shuttle and get to most of the destinations in the park. There are also shuttle services run by the Zion Adventure Company that cater to those who need to get to remote trailheads. You'll need to plan ahead for those and make a reservation. You will also need to show up on time because they WILL leave without you. I used them to get to the Lava Point trailhead and the Chamberlain's Ranch trailhead for long day hikes. While these trailheads aren't too far away as the crow flies, the shuttle to Lava Point took about 1 hour and 15 minutes and the shuttle to Chamberlain's Ranch took close to 2 hours.
As soon as you think about planning your trip to Zion, you'll want to get a good map. The NPS website has a pretty good hiking guide, but it doesn't really get into many longer routes or loops. There are some awesome websites out there with great hike reviews, namely the Citrus Milo site. Compare the trail map with the routes described for the best details on the routes on to decide which routes best meet your goals and abilities. Many hikes are accessible directly from the various shuttle stops throughout the park, and there are hikes of all distances and ability levels. Generally though, the easier the hike, the more crowded the trail will be. We opted to hike the West Rim Trail from Lava Point to the main canyon. This is usually done as an overnight backpack, but we did it as a day hike, and if you are up for it, I definitely recommend it. As I said, I also did the Narrows (top down) as a thru hike. I do think if I opted to do the Narrows again I would do it as an overnight. It was very mentally challenging to be in the water for 16 miles in one day.
Ahhh, my favorite subject, permits. My experience with getting permits for hiking in Zion was a good one, though I know certain trails are very competitive. I applied for several different permits and was successful in being granted all of them. I only needed a permit for my thru hike of the Narrows, so I was able to cancel the others. Permits are required for the following: ALL thru hikes of the Narrows and its tributaries, all canyons requiring the use of descending gear or ropes, and all trips into The Subway and Left Fork, and any overnight wilderness trips. Apply for your permits as soon as possible to hopefully get them well in advance of your trip. Walk up permits are available as well, but you'll be waiting in line and it's still a crapshoot. Once you have been notified that you have a permit, the fun is not over. You will still need to report to the visitor's center to pick up your permit the day before your hike.
Getting to Zion
The easiest and most inexpensive way I found to get to Zion was by flying into Las Vegas and renting a car. The drive from Vegas to Zion is one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen, so if you can plan do do your driving while it's light out, I highly recommend it! The town of Springdale is really easy to navigate, it's basically one road through town with lots of hotels, restaurants, etc. along the way. Most things are within walking distance and we found everyone to be friendly and helpful. Because Zion is so popular, you'll want to make hotel reservations as early as possible. There are hotels in literally every price point, from budget motels to luxurious hotels, so do some research and find the right hotel for your needs.
Zion is located relatively close to many other awesome attractions, so if you have the time, you might want to plan some excursions to these areas.Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon (North Rim), and Antelope Canyon are all within a couple hours of Zion. We opted to visit the Grand Canyon since my dad had never been there. Antelope Canyon is great for photographers, from what I've heard. Bryce Canyon could warrant a few days on it's own, and I hope to visit there in the future.
You really can't go wrong with a trip to Zion. The more you navigate and plan trips like this, the easier it gets. But the great thing about our National Park system is that no matter where you go, you will find incredible natural beauty, a well organized infrastructure, and helpful rangers and employees to help you make the most of your trip.
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