Monday, November 11, 2013

Travel Tips for Visiting Zion National Park with Kids

Over fall break, the kids and I headed to Zion National Park. The weather is beautiful at the end of October, with highs in the days in the 70s and lows in the 40s. The fall colors are at their peak. With such a nice combination, I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised that we had a long wait just to enter the park on a Friday morning! Fortunately we got there in time to get one of the 300+ campsites in the main part of the park--but barely. They filled up by 11 am. 

This was the first time I camped in a park campground. I've stayed in motels in Springdale, the Zion Lodge, in the backcountry, at the Ponderosa Zion Ranch, and at a campground on the east side of the park. They have all been good. I was really excited to stay in the main canyon and to camp, as I like hearing the birds chirp early in the morning and peeking out of the tent at the stars during the night.

The park campgrounds have campsites located close together, but we lucked out and got a walk-in campsite that had a little more space. We did have to carry all our gear a little further, but the kids have become good campers and know what to do. Bonus: Desert Boy even set out to put up the tent by himself. That was a little over-ambitious, but a really nice thought!

Tip One: If you want to camp in the park but will be arriving late (meaning after about 10 am), one campground accepts reservations. The campgrounds are great for kids!

After we got all set up and had lunch, my big plan was to take the shuttle bus up Zion Canyon to the Temple of Siniwava, walk up the River Walk and then hike up the Virgin River a ways.

The shuttle buses ran about every 7-8 minutes, so we didn't have to wait long, and we enjoyed the narration about the park along the way. The River Walk was pleasant. Then we got to the end of the trail and prepared to walk in the river. We all had wool socks and shoes (although I had admittedly forgotten Desert Girl's sneakers), poly pro shirts, fleece, hats, and lots of snacks.

We were all set. Until we actually got in the water. And realized that in late October, the river is quite chilly. Like 47 degrees. Brrr. The warm day wasn't enough to counteract the coldness, so after two river crossings and two crying kids, we turned back. Epic failure.

I felt really bad. I wanted the kids to have fun and have good memories of this trip. So we threw rocks in the river for a little while. Then the kids found this great rock to scamper up and slide down.
Desert Girl got stuck for a bit, so she consoled herself after her mini-rescue by mom by playing in the sand. There's plenty of sand in Zion! Then she got brave again and conquered the rock. We spent at least half an hour just by this rock, and it put the kids back in good humor.

Tip Two: Playing (or hiking) in the Virgin River is best reserved for the summer months. But there's plenty to do near the river from spring through fall, and those who can't resist hiking can rent neoprene shoes/socks and wetsuits or drysuits to make it more comfortable.

Our leisurely walk back down the one-mile River Walk, shuttle ride, quick stop at the museum to pick up junior ranger booklets and watch the movie took up the rest of the afternoon. Then it was time for one of the kids' favorite activities: make a fire!

Now we've been working hard at eating real food and cutting processed food out of our diets this last year, but when we were in the grocery store, the kids talked me into marshmallows. I reached for the big marshmallows, but they said the preferred the small ones, because they didn't really like to roast them, they just wanted to eat them out of the bag. Nevertheless, the allure of a fire and roasting sticks meant that Desert Girl just had to try roasting mini marshmallows. 

Day Two
Our big plan for day two was to take our bikes on the shuttle bus to the Temple of Siniwava, then bike down the canyon back to the campground, stopping for occasional hikes and rest stops.
Tip Three: The shuttle bus system is awesome! You can get off and on as many times as you like for free (park entrance fee is $25 for one week and includes the shuttle bus). The buses even have bike racks, and with no cars allowed up Zion Canyon, it's a great place to bike ride!

I was so glad we brought our bikes. We could ride at a slower pace, letting the fall colors and imposing big walls of Zion Canyon soak in. It was also great to hear the quieter, more natural sounds of the canyon. We knew the shuttle buses came by every 7-8 minutes, so we knew approximately when we had to find a good place to get to the side of the road (the buses won't pass you unless you've stopped).

One of our first hikes was to Weeping Rock, a short but steep walk to a cool overhang and quite a bit of water.

We continued biking to the Grotto Stop, where we left our bikes at the rack, crossed over the river, and had lunch on the Kayenta Trail. I was surprised by all the people hiking it. We continued along the trail to the Emerald Pools, where we found really busy trails. We often had to wait at the side of the trail to let folks pass.

Tip Four: The Emerald Pools Trail may be the most popular in Zion. To avoid the crowds, go early in the morning (sunnier) or late in the afternoon (in the shade).

Desert Boy at the Upper Emerald Pool
We first came to the Middle Pool, which was not impressive at all. The Upper Pool was quite nice, but very crowded. The attraction at the Lower Pool isn't so much the pool, but the neat trail that goes under the little waterfall.
The crowd at the Upper Emerald Pool
 After the Emerald Pools, we were ready for a special snack, so we headed to the Zion Lodge and went to the cafe. The seats were all full, but we found a great place to snack under the big tree in the middle of the front lawn. Then we took the shuttle back up to the Grotto, got on our bikes, and headed down canyon. Desert Girl was so wiped out she fell asleep on the bike, so we didn't stop for any more hikes, just enjoyed the views.

Desert Boy on the P'arus Trail.
Tip Five: The P'arus Trail is paved and great for strollers, bikes, and even dogs. It starts at the Visitor Center and goes up to the Canyon Junction stop, just over 2 miles one way.

One thing about camping in the fall is that the days are a lot shorter, so after we ate an early dinner, we still had several hours to fill before bedtime. Desert Boy convinced me that riding the shuttle bus at night was a good thing to do. He sure was right!

We didn't see much scenery during our night bus ride, but we did get to ask the bus driver all sorts of questions. We also saw a huge buck mule deer, a couple gray foxes, and a raccoon at Temple of Siniwava stop. At the Big Bend stop, the bus driver turned off the bus and told us to get off. The stars were marvelous, and we could see the Milky Way. Then he told us to look high up the canyon wall. We saw two little dots of light--climbers using head lamps to make their way up the wall! Just imagining ourselves doing that made me realize that I was okay just observing and not doing.

The shuttle driver told us we could get off and catch the next shuttle in 15 minutes if we wanted some quiet time to enjoy the canyon and the stars. The kids were quite sure they didn't want to do that (even though we had flashlights), so we stayed put. We enjoyed talking to people who got on the bus on the way back down the canyon: hikers who had watched sunset from Angels Landing (a must-do hike for older kids and above), someone who had dined at the Zion Lodge, and rock climbers who had made it up a tough route.

Tip Six: Try riding the shuttle bus at night for a very different look at Zion Canyon. (It's free entertainment!)

Day Three
We had to go home on day three, so our first stop was to the visitor center where the kids could turn in their junior ranger booklets and get their badges.

Tip Seven: Kids love the junior ranger program! The park offers different junior ranger experiences in summer and off-season, so ask what the requirements are when you visit.

Then it was time for the scenic drive back: through the Mt. Carmel tunnel (a really neat tunnel!) for a roundabout way home. I was also hoping for a quick hike on the other side of the tunnel. As it turned out, the parking lot right after the tunnel was empty, so we pulled in and parked. I checked out a canyon I had canyoneered many years ago, looking wistfully at it. I also observed folks on the other side of the road hiking the Canyon Overlook trail. I tried to get the kids out of the van, but they didn't want to hike. I went back to looking at the canyon, memories of rappelling and swimming through cold pools coming back to me. The park ranger who was stationed at the tunnel entrance came over and mentioned that although going down canyon required a permit, we could go up canyon without one. I asked him if it was a neat hike, and he said yes.

So I coaxed the kids out and we hiked under the bridge into the canyon. It was sandy, which the kids liked. And then the canyon walls closed in and we were in our own slot canyon!
It was a great little hike! We had obstacles (flood debris) to climb over, a little water to avoid, and just the right amount of complexity for us. It made the whole trip so much better for me, as finding a bit of solitude energized me.

Tip Eight: Go off the beaten path. Park at a roadside pullout and explore what's nearby. 

Overall it was a really refreshing weekend, and I hope we all can go back next year--maybe in the summer when we can play in the river!

Have you been to Zion? What other tips do you have for making the most of it?


Tara said...

What an awesome trip! We will have to get there someday and I never would have thought to bike on the road or take the shuttle at night without having read this. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great post! My husband and I visited Zion without our kids several years ago so we are taking the entire family over fall break in a couple of weeks. When we made our plans I didn't think about the crowds on the trails or even to get into the park. We went in the off season and the park was practically empty. I will just have to be prepared to wait. I guess that's good to know before we get there. Thanks for the tips!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

blogger templates