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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Zion National Park

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For the third morning in a row we were up at the crack of dawn. The reason this time was that we had to reach the parking lots at Zion National Park by eight in the morning or we might not be able to find a spot. I wasn't sure what would happen then and it I didn't want to find out. The other factor was that temperatures in the park were projected to reach 108 and we needed to be done with anything involving physical exertion before noon. We had an easy half hour journey along an empty highway from Kanab and then a beautiful drive to the Visitor Center once we had entered the park. We were surrounded by massive cliffs of striated sandstone in every direction. Towards the end we drove right into a mountain via a tunnel and emerged into a set of tight switchbacks surrounded by breathtaking landscape.
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We arrived at the parking lots right about eight and had to drive to the farthest one before we found some open spots. We made our way to the shuttle bus station and realized that we wouldn't be allowed on the bus without masks, which I had forgotten in the car. I had to jog all the way back to the parking lot which by now was completely full just twenty minutes after we'd arrived. We had cut it a lot closer than I had realized. Fortunately there wasn't much of a line for the buses, despite the horror stories I had read. In fact there had been a reservation system in place to cut down on crowding up until a month before we arrived. I had been prepared to get up at midnight to be among the first to reserve our place once the July schedule opened, but they ended up canceling that system before it became an issue. The shuttle is the only way to travel along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, as private cars are forbidden. The most famous Zion hikes, Angel's Landing and The Narrows, originate from the last two stops on the route. We had no intention of attempting either of these so we got off the bus at the Zion Lodge stop, about halfway to the end, to tackle the Emerald Pools Trail. I'd done a good amount of research and the hike to the lower of the three pools seemed fairly easy and straightforward, with the option to continue onward to the other two pools if the heat wasn't overwhelming. We passed by the lodge and crossed a wooden bridge over the Virgin River to reach the trailhead.
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The walk to the lower pools was an easy, shady stroll without much change in elevation. At one point the path went underneath a gentle waterfall that emanated from the edge of the cliff above us and fed the lower pools. The spray of cool water was even more welcome when we returned at the end of the hike.
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We hadn't expended too much energy getting to the lower pools so we decided to continue on as far as we could. As I expected, the route to the middle and upper pools was steeper and less protected but we still managed to complete it, although the kids were clearly getting tired and uncomfortable towards the end. The shallow pools of water didn't really live up to their romantic name, but the massive sandstone cliffs and the views of the unspoiled wilderness around us more than made up for that. The satisfaction of completing the hike made the hard work totally worth it.
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It was only ten thirty by the time we got back to the shuttle but the temperature had increased dramatically. My other goal at Zion was to see the beginning of the famed Narrows but I wasn't sure if we would be able to withstand the heat on the one mile trek to the trailhead. Fortunately the one mile Riverside Walk was an easy, paved path sheltered from the sun by the towering cliffs on either side of us. It was a long walk but eventually we got there and we got the iconic view of the beginning of The Narrows and all the hikers with their water shoes and walking sticks starting to disappear up the river. We hung out for a while soaking up the energy and the excitement of all the people around us getting ready to set off on the journey or just enjoying the view like we were.
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The last thing I wanted to do before leaving Zion was see people walking along the ridge that is the final section of the Angel's Landing hike. This is a hike I would never consider doing myself, let alone with the kids. I don't think of myself as tremendously afraid of heights but I'm not exactly comfortable around them, and being on a narrow walkway with thousand foot drops on either side is absolutely out of the question for me. Nevertheless an enormous number of people complete this hike every day and since 1908 there have been only seventeen deadly falls, far fewer than at the Grand Canyon. We took the shuttle back one stop to Weeping Rock and got out to peer at the top of the cliff on the opposite side of the river. Of course we couldn't make out the ridge from ground level so I just stared at the top of the cliff as hard as I could. Just as I was about to conclude that there was nothing to be seen I realized that a couple of the tiny dots I had assumed were bushes were unmistakably moving. I tracked them for a while as they made their way along the top but the sight of the colossal, impassive cliff reinforced my conviction that I would never find myself up there personally.
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Zion is one of the most iconic and beloved of America's national parks but we aren't at a level where we could take full advantage of it. I can't say we felt the same euphoria at Zion that we had experienced at Bryce Canyon or Arches or Canyon de Chelly but it was still a beautiful and rewarding morning. By noon we were already in the town of Springdale, just outside the west entrance of the park. Despite being even tinier than the other National Park towns we had visited there was a sizable collection of restaurants and galleries to feed the bellies and minds of the throngs of park visitors. Virtually all of these were strung along the main road that provided access to the park. The prodigious and colorful cliffs of Zion were still in view and provided an inspiring backdrop to the modest businesses on the road. We'd barely eaten anything that morning so our first stop was a Mexican-inspired grill where we had a pretty satisfying lunch.
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The art galleries in the southwest are always amazing so we visited a couple of those and enjoyed some landscape paintings and an endless variety of beautiful and creative ceramics. Afterwards we browsed through an awesome outdoor rock shop for as long as we could withstand the heat before getting back on the main road that followed the Virgin River west.
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We still had the whole afternoon ahead of us and we didn't want to arrive in St. George too early , since it was going to be far too hot to do anything outdoors. Instead we hooked a right at the barely noticeable town of Virgin and embarked on the Kolob Terrace Road, another well-known scenic drive. We had a very enjoyable and solitary forty minute drive through spectacular landscape to the Kolob Reservoir, where many people were spending the weekend camping and kayaking. From here I had hoped to continue north all the way to Cedar City but there was no cellular signal to be had and I could not find a route on Google Maps without the GPS. Instead we had to return to Virgin the way we came and then continue westward to St. George.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:47 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip hiking utah family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog springdale kolob_terrace_road Comments (2)

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