It seems like every year, I get email promotions from Xanterra offering discount prices for winter stays at their Zion Park Lodge property. This year was no exception. “Wanna take a getaway trip to Zion National Park?” I asked my wife of 40 years.
“Does that mean we wouldn’t get to stay huddled up in this cold, damp trailer for a week?” she responded.
“Does that mean I wouldn’t get to cook, clean or go shopping for a week?
“Does that mean that we’d have to look at towering cliffs out our windows instead of the neighbors’ trailers?
“Let me think about it.”
Not wanting her to blow a fuse in her thinking equipment, I went ahead and booked a five-night stay in one of the Zion Park cabins for a Monday-Friday stay in January.
Even though Zion is an easy day’s drive from our new hometown of Fruita, I reserved a night at a Super 8 for the drive down. That would give us time on our departure day to “winterize” the trailer.
Our first day’s drive was from Fruita, Colorado, to Richfield, Utah, on Interstate 70. It’s a route we’ve taken numerous times over the 38 years we’ve lived in Colorado. The day was sunny, the roads were dry and the speed limit once we reached the Utah border (19 miles from home) was 80 mph.
The stretch through the San Rafael Swell west of Green River is one of the prettiest stretches of interstate highway in the West.
We spent the night in Richfield at one of the nicer Super 8 motels around. After the typical Super 8 waffle breakfast the next morning, we hit the road.
There are two ways to get to Zion from here. One is to continue down I-70 to I-15 and enter the park from the west. The other is to take the more scenic U.S. Highway 89 route and enter the park from the east.
We opted for the scenic alternative, with a stop at Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home along the way. Lunch was going to be at the Thunderbird Lodge in Mt. Carmel Junction, famous for their Ho-made pies, but they were closed along with most other places in town.
We backtracked a few miles to Archies Food to Die For, an off-the-road food trailer that featured delicious but artery-clogging Utah Philly sandwiches.
Returning to Mt. Carmel Junction, we turned onto Utah Highway 9. Thirteen miles later, we reached the park boundary.
The drive through this part of the park was breathtaking. The sky was blue, the air clear and snow still garnished the sandstone.
With traffic light, we stopped for photos at virtually every turnout on the route, most of which we had entirely to ourselves.
A few hundred images later, we went through the mile-long Zion tunnel, twisted down the switchbacks to river level and turned up the Virgin River Canyon toward Zion Park Lodge.
Our cabin was part of a fourplex, one of the deluxe cabins back when they were built in the 1920s. It had two double beds, a writing desk, a couple of chairs and a gas-log insert in the formerly wood-burning fireplace. Flames were already blazing when we entered.
Our first night’s dinner was at the lodge’s Red Rocks Grill. Because of Covid, masks are required to enter all federal buildings, which includes the lodge. The menu was short, and all orders were taken and paid for downstairs. We were given a number card to display on our table in the upstairs dining room. The system was efficient, but we missed the personal interaction one gets when dealing with a conventional waitstaff.
Back in the room, we retired by the fire with glasses of wine, which we personally imported from Colorado. With no TV, no cell coverage and no internet, we would have time to rest, relax and just sit back and read. Scrolling through my Kindle, I decided this would be a perfect time to once again reread “Desert Solitaire” by Ed Abbey.
One of the things I wanted to do on this trip to Zion was to revisit the Kolob Section of the park. Many decades ago, a friend from Reno and I came down here for a Thanksgiving weekend backpacking trip to Kolob Arch. It was snowy and I don’t think we actually made it all the way there. This visit would be strictly a drive-through on pavement.
The Kolob section lies northwest of the main part of Zion National Park, and getting there requires a 40-mile drive from Zion Canyon. There are no restaurants, no gift shops and even in the summertime, far fewer visitors out here.
A five-mile, dead-end drive from the park entrance provides views of the canyon. Like the main part of Zion, the landscape here consists of towering cliffs, bluffs, canyons and mesas.
As we did coming into Zion, we stopped at virtually every pull-off on the road, shooting countless megapixels of images.
“We should come back and explore this country with backpacks!” Dianne enthusiastically suggested at one of our stops.
I’m game. Maybe on dry ground, we can actually make it all the way to Kolob Arch.
For those of us longing to ogle Mother Nature in the nude, there are few places better than Zion in the wintertime. Limbs of the cottonwood trees, which come fully clothed with leaves come summertime, now stand buck naked.
Beyond tower the canyon walls with sandstone cliffs bare as a pole dancer in a Texas strip club. Fortunately, a lap dance in this au naturel environment can be had by simply lacing up the hiking boots and setting off down a trail.
The premiere hike in Zion Canyon is up Angels’ Landing. It’s a steep, twisty climb up to a saddle followed by a walk up a death-defying narrow ridge to the top of a cliff overlooking the Virgin River Canyon.
Even though the Park Service has installed chains for folks to use as handholds, some still manage to fall to their deaths. “Scariest hike in America,” one YouTube video touts.
We did that hike ten years ago when we came to Zion to celebrate the New Year weekend. After 38 years living and climbing in Colorado, the hike for us was a piece of cake.
This year, the route up to Angels’ Landing was snow-covered and icy, we were told. While we did have traction cleats we could strap on, Dianne and I decided to skip the crowds and explore some of the other trails. One of them was to the Emerald Pools.
There are actually three Emerald Pools. Lower Emerald Pool has a nice waterfall feeding it.
That waterfall is fed from the Middle Emerald Pool, which has its own tiny waterfall.
Upper Emerald Pool is fed by a towering waterfall dropping from a notch in the box canyon cliffs. In summertime, this place would be swarming with people. We shared it with maybe a half-dozen fellow hikers and a Park Service volunteer.
Another hike took us up the Sand Bench Trail, which offered lofty views down the canyon toward the tourist trap of Springdale and up Pine Creek Canyon toward the switchbacks and tunnel. We only met one other hiker on the route.
Late on our final afternoon, we walked the paved Riverside Trail up through the lower end of the Zion Narrows where decades ago, we led a Sierra Club group down from the top.
On this walk, we watched an avalanche of ice break off from the cliffs and land on the trail below. A half mile beyond, the route begins to hug the near vertical cliffs. To prevent an ice fall from bonking hikers on the head out here, Park Service has wisely closed the trail beyond.
Maybe it’s a symptom of being a travel journalist for over half my adult life, but I have this psychological need to rank things – best this, favorite that. I repeatedly found myself doing that on this journey to Zion.
How does Zion National Park compare with the other members of Utah’s “Mighty Five?”
When it comes to just plain scenic grandeur, I put Zion right at the top. The cliffs and canyons here are absolutely awe inspiring. Only Capitol Reef comes close. At Bryce, non-hiking visitors look down on the scenery. One must drop below the rim to feel engulfed by the environment. It’s much the same for Arches and Canyonlands.
While Zion may offer the grandest grandeur, it’s in fourth out of the five when I rank my favorite Utah national park to visit. Only Arches, in my book, comes in lower. That’s because I hate crowds.
Zion gets around 4.5 million visitors each year, making it the third most popular national park in terms of visitation. Only the Great Smokeys and Yellowstone see more visitors.
Zion is way too small to handle that many people. Cars line up for blocks at the entrance stations waiting to get in. Campsites and lodge rooms are tough to find. Visitors cram into shuttle buses to get into the Virgin River Canyon. Trails and sites are crowded. We’ve been told that folks sometimes need to wait hours in line to complete the ascent of Angels’ Landing.
Arches has the same problem. As Ed Abbey warned in “Desert Solitaire,” it’s industrial tourism at its worst.
Fortunately, winter at Zion offers nature lovers like me a chance to get away from the madding crowds. When we checked in, there were still rooms available for drop-in guests at Zion Park Lodge, and there were many empty spots at the park’s Watchman Campground. We had no trouble finding parking spots at trailheads, roadside pullouts or in the neighboring tourist trap of Springdale.
The downside of winter visits, of course, is the weather. It’s cold and snow is always possible. Trails, especially those on higher or shaded ground can be covered with snow, ice or thick, gooey mud.
While the visitor center was open, most of the park’s museums were not open. In town, we found many restaurants and other businesses closed for the season, making it harder to find $30 souvenir t-shirts for sale.
Personally, I’ll give all that up for the opportunity to see a place this beautiful in the raw. Besides, I already own one of those $30 t-shirts.