Zion National Park: Visiting for Training

Melonie and me

As I mentioned yesterday, most visitors to Pipe Spring National Monument are either going to or coming from Zion National Park.  Zion is only 20 miles away as the crow flies, but because there is a mountain and plateau between here and there, we have to drive northwest for 45 minutes and then another half hour east to get there.  In order to answer questions visitors ask about Zion when they visit Pipe Spring, we were “forced” to go there for training.

Tom and I spent several days in Zion National Park during our big trip out west in 2006.  We stayed in Watchman Campground, rode the shuttle buses and hiked most of the trails.  Although Zion is beautiful, it is also extremely crowded.

Our training assignment was to go “be tourists.”  We were supposed to spend the day there and get the tourist experience.  So Tom, I, and Melonie – another trainee – left Pipe Spring at 8 a.m. and drove to Zion in our government vehicle with our employee pass.

We were glad to have the employee pass because the parking lots in Zion and the gateway town of Springdale were packed.  It took us 45 minutes in line to get to the place where employees can just be waved through the gate as we entered.  The only parking spaces were in the employee lot, so the employee pass secured a parking spot.  Regular tourists were forking over $20 for a parking spot at a private lot in Springdale.

Once we parked, we headed in to the Visitors Center.  We stood in line at the Information Desk to get a brochure and a hiking trail guide.  Then we looked around the gift shop and I stamped my Passport book – definitely a tourist thing to do.  Although the Visitors Center is huge, services are limited.  It is so big because Zion gets so many visitors every year.   One of the questions I asked at the information desk was “What would you have us tell people who ask about visiting Zion?”  The ranger replied that we should tell them not to come on Memorial Day weekend, when the park got 40,000 visitors each day.  Wow!

Line for the shuttle

We got in line to ride the shuttle bus and felt like we were in line for a Disney ride.  A ranger told us which shuttle we could board and how many of us could get on.  Not what that ranger envisioned doing when he signed on with the National Park Service, I’m sure!  There are nine shuttle stops along the canyon at the most popular sights and hikes.  Most of the year you are not allowed to drive your car in Zion Canyon.

We rode the shuttle to the end of the line which is the Temple of Sinawava.  This is the trail that follows the Zion River for a mile to the Narrows, the most well-known hike in the park.  Everyone wants to walk up the Zion River through the narrows, a difficult hike in the flowing water through the gorgeous slot canyon.  We did that hike in 2006 and loved it, but didn’t have time on our training day to repeat it.

Zion Narrows hike in 2006

Walking the Riverside Trail leading to the Narrows is a frustrating experience.  There are so many people taking so many selfish selfies that you either have to wind your way around people or move at the same crawl as the slowest walkers.  Once you make it to the river, the crowd thins out a little as people find spots along the river to sit or start a hike.

We enjoyed lunch beside the river.  The squirrels are particularly aggressive, accustomed to being fed by the tourists.  One squirrel repeatedly tried to open Melonie’s bag to get her lunch.  We laughed at their antics, but it is too bad they have lost their shyness around people.

Shuttles were packed

After that first, frustrating hike I was ready to head out of Zion.  I get claustrophobic around that many people.  Shuttle buses packed with people are not my idea of a fun visit to a national park.  But Tom and Melonie outvoted me.  They said we needed to get the tourist experience and needed to spend a few more hours in the park.

We rode the shuttle to the Weeping Rock Trail and took the short but steep trail up to a rock alcove with dripping walls.  Then we got back on the shuttle and got off at Natural History Museum.  Because the Visitors Center didn’t have a museum, I was expecting this to be pretty interesting.  But the displays were sparse and disappointing.  We looked it over thoroughly and talked to a couple of rangers.

Instead of reboarding the overcrowded shuttle, we walked on the Pa’rus Trail back to the Visitors Center.  This was the least crowded trail we hiked all day!  It is the only trail that allows bicycles and it passes through the South Campground.  Tom and Melonie decided to hike one last trail – the Archaeology Trail (they spelled it archeology in the park brochure) – while I checked out the gift shop again.

So big and crowded you need signs
The Three Patriarchs
Zion River
Help me!
Squirrel bugging Melonie
Weeping Rock
Only uncrowded trail
Good view of the valley

We needed to return the government car to Pipe Spring and check in with our supervisor by 4, so we headed out of Zion after they got back from the short hike.  We entered Zion National Park through Springdale and headed out through the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.  This is a beautiful drive through a series of switchbacks and the mile-long tunnel.  There are height restrictions in the tunnel and RVs and buses have to wait until traffic can be stopped before proceeding.  We heard the tunnel was closed one day because an RV got stuck in it.  Fortunately we were driving the government car and didn’t have any problem getting through.

After passing through the tunnel, there are wonderful overlooks to enjoy a view of the canyons on the east side of Zion National Park.  Once you get out of Zion Canyon, the park is much less crowded.  We didn’t have time this day, but we hope to head back to the Kolob Canyon section of Zion for hiking.

Zion National Park is one example of how our national parks are being loved to death.  As we work at Pipe Spring, we hear story after story about the crowds at Zion.  People leave because they can’t find parking, or the wait was so long to get into the park.  They complain about the crowded shuttle buses but also remark about the beauty of the canyon.  One visitor told us about a two-hour wait to hike Angel’s Landing Trail.  Yuck!

I am generally willing to sacrifice some of the beauty in order to enjoy more solitude so Tom and I won’t return to Zion Canyon.  We will be exploring the BLM lands and other beautiful canyons in the area.  I will be highlighting at least one wonderful natural area a week in my posts this summer.