Zion National Park – October 19th to 22nd, 2020

Zion National Park is a popular and crowded park, especially within Zion Canyon. It is also home to one of the National Park Service's most deadliest hikes, Angels Landing. Camping both inside the park and just outside the park for three nights gave us plenty of time to explore Zion, and to contemplate whether we wanted to hike Angel’s Landing.

The drive from the Needles Outpost near Canyonlands National Park to Zion National Park was scenic. We took the southern route, passing through Monument Valley, dipping into Arizona and back up into Utah. In Arizona, we were inside the Navajo Nation most of the time. We tried to have a picnic lunch at the park in Kayenta, Arizona, but the park was closed. At a gas station in Kayenta, Left Buddy (LB) looked for beer since he was getting low, but they didn’t have any. We’re not sure what the restrictions are on alcohol sales in the Navajo Nation. LB seemed to remember that Utah only sells low-alcohol beer (Utah's regulations have changed since then) so he wanted to try purchasing the beer in Arizona. Since we couldn’t use the park, we thought we would try eating at the Burger King in town. We remember a Navajo Code Talkers Display inside the Burger King the last time we were there. However, all of the fast food restaurants in town were drive thru only, no dine in. Well, our van is too tall to go through a drive thru and the main reason for considering Burger King was to have a nice place to sit and eat. Behind the Burger King was a grocery store. We parked and ate in the van in the grocery store parking lot. LB went inside the grocery store to see if they sold beer. They asked him questions and took his temperature before entering the store. Sorry, they don’t sell beer. We continued on to Page Arizona to try our luck there.

The gas station we stopped at in Page had surprisingly nice bathrooms, and yes, they sold beer. LB was happy. Page is right on the border of the Navajo Nation, so we’re not sure which side of the border the gas station is on. Page is not far from Antelope Canyon where you can pay to tour the beautiful, colorful slot canyon. Antelope Canyon was closed due to COVID. From there, our route took us over the bridge over the Colorado River next to the Glen Canyon Dam on a finger of Lake Powell. Then we skirted the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before turning on Utah highway 9 which took us into the east entrance of Zion National Park. 

When coming from the east, you have to drive through the park to reach the town of Springdale, where our first campground reservation was. The canyon walls and mountain peaks rose up around us before we entered the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel has width and height restrictions, so check that before you go. Our van was within those restrictions, so we were free to go. However, we were stopped in a line of cars at the tunnel entrance as we waited for a large vehicle to come through. If you are in that in-between size where you can still make it through the tunnel, but only if they close down the other lane, then you pay a fee and wait for the park staff to stop traffic coming the other way. There are several “windows” along the tunnel, but they are small and you are not allowed to stop. So you really don’t have a chance to look out any of them. One is large enough to be able to focus your eyes in the bright light to see a canyon wall for a brief second.

The switch backs after the tunnel lead down to the southern entrance of the park and into the town of Springdale. Our campground reservation was in the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort for one night. We needed their laundry and shower services to get us through the next week. Our site backed up to the Virgin River. Right after we pulled in, we walked across the street to the Spotted Dog Cafe for dinner. It was a weekly dine out day and LB had a conference call in one hour. After a tasty meal of southwest chicken for Right Buddy (RB) and wild game meatloaf for LB, we made it back to our camp site just in time for LB’s call. 

RB got the laundry done while LB was on the call. While she was waiting for the clothes in the dryer, she walked across the street to Hoodoos General Store to check out the ice cream that they had advertised on their sign. To RB’s delight, they had hand-dipped ice cream. She tried to order a vanilla milkshake for LB and a double dip waffle cone for herself. Sorry, no vanilla shakes. They could only make shakes from the ice cream flavors they had and vanilla was not one of the flavors. OK, she’ll just have a waffle cone then. Sorry, they were out of waffle cones and only had small sugar cones left. OK, make it a dish then. She ate her tasty ice cream while the clothes finished drying. Later she told LB about her attempt to get him a vanilla shake. The store was still open, but LB didn’t feel like walking over there that late in the evening. The rest of the evening was spent trying to catch up since we had a good internet connection for the first time in three days.

We took our time leaving the RV park the following morning. Check in for Watchman Campground was not until noon. Listening to the flowing water, we ate our breakfast sitting next to the Virgin River. We took our showers with our shower tokens that gave us each a six minute hot shower. Each person gets one shower token per day that they stay at the campground. We walked over to the Hoodoo General Store to pick up a couple of items we were getting low on. After an early lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, we headed over to Watchman Campground to arrive at noon. 

We didn’t spend any time setting up the van in our camp site, we just got ready for our bike ride. The plan was to ride the scenic drive to the end, then take the one mile walk to the beginning of the Narrows. LB didn’t want to walk into the water to see the Narrows, but RB was not sure. She had heard there was a toxic cyanobacteria bloom in the Virgin River so there were warnings not to go into the water, but then she heard people hiking the Narrows. So she wasn’t sure if she would go into the Narrows or not.

Bikes are allowed on the Pa’rus Trail from the Visitor Center to Canyon Junction. It is a paved trail and bikes share the trail with pedestrians. From Canyon Junction, bikes switched to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive road which only has shuttle buses. Private cars of those who are staying at the Zion Lodge are allowed up to the lodge. There were signs warning the cyclists to stop and pull over for shuttle buses as the buses will not pass a cyclist unless they are stopped. This actually made the ride very pleasant since you didn’t not have to worry too much about being hit by vehicles. You just had to keep an eye on your rear view mirror to notice when a shuttle bus was approaching. There were also pedestrians walking along the scenic drive. We’re not sure if that was only allowed this year since shuttle bus capacity is limited due to COVID, or if that is always allowed. 

Cycling the scenic drive is a great way to enjoy the canyon. The ride is about eight miles from the Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinawava, the end of the road. That is a little far to walk, especially if you want to add in another hike. The view of the canyon walls is better from a bike than looking out a shuttle bus window and you can stop to take pictures wherever you want.

When we started down the road at Canyon Junction, another cyclist tagged along with us. Paula from North Carolina was cycling the road by herself and wanted some company, partly because she felt it was safer on the road with a group than by herself, being more noticeable to vehicle drivers. We really enjoyed the company and having someone new to share stories with. 

When we reached the Temple of Sinawava, we locked up our bikes along a wooden fence since the bike racks were pretty full of bikes. Then we walked the Riverside Walk to the Narrows. The walk was like Grand Central Station, with a constant stream of people. Amazingly, despite the throngs of people, there were a few deer relaxing in the shade not far from the trail. 

Warning signs were posted at the Narrows warning of the unsafe cyanobacteria levels in the water. However, that did not deter too many people from wading into the water. Many people had rented insulated and waterproof socks and boots to protect their feet from the icy cold water. The majority of people had the same-looking wooden walking sticks. We’re not sure if those were sold in town or they were rented as well. The toxin is absorbed through the eyes, nose, or mouth and people were only wading through the water, but there is a chance to be splashed in the face or accidentally fall into the water on the slick rocks. RB decided not to risk it. Besides, she had forgotten to bring her Teva sandals along. We’ll just have to come back again some time.

As we hopped on our bikes to head back down the scenic drive, Paula noticed her front bike tire was flat. On closer inspection, there was a goat’s head seed stuck in the tire. Paula’s rental bike came with no gear or repair kits. We first tried leaving the seed in the tire since it was somewhat on the side of the tire and pumped the tire back up with LB’s pump. We slowly started down the road, but the tire quickly became flat again. LB pulled out his repair kit and tried to patch the tire, but the glue and patch were old and did not stick. RB pulled out her repair kit, which was newer and never been used which seemed to work better. We let Paula lead all the rest of the way so she could set a pace consistent with her comfort level in case the tire went flat again. It held all the way back to Canyon Junction where we parted ways. Hopefully Paula made it back to the rental shop OK and met up with her traveling companions for a relaxing evening of sipping margaritas. We felt good being there to help out a person in need. There is no cell service along the scenic drive in the canyon and it would have been a long walk back to town with a flat tire.

After reaching the Visitor Center, we continued down the road into town to get ice cream at Hoodoo’s General Store. In Google Maps, it shows the building next to Hoodoo’s General Store as Hoodoo’s Ice Cream Parlor, but that building was being remodeled. We don’t know if the ice cream parlor has permanently moved inside the general store, or it will move back to the other building when the remodeling is done. LB got a chocolate milkshake, since he couldn’t get a vanilla one and RB had a repeat of the day before, mint chip and chocolate in a dish. The ice cream hit the spot. A short ride took us back to the campground where we leveled our Red Tail Lodge and cooked celery soup in our Instant Pot (paid link) for dinner.

The next day we needed to switch camp sites again, this time within Watchman Campground. The person working the campground check-in the day before said we could move sites as soon as the next site was cleared. However, they are not required to leave until 11 and our Zion Shuttle reservation was for noon. The Visitor Center parking lot is just outside the Watchman Campground. We knew that parking lot fills up pretty early in the day so we asked the person what time we would need to drive over there to get a spot. They said 9 am. So we got up at 8 am and waited until 9 am to see if the people left our next site. Nope. Then we drove over to the Visitor Center parking lot to get one of the last few spots left. The lot was full before 9:30 am. Then we just hung out in the parking lot until it was time to go catch our shuttle. We headed over to the shuttle stop at 11:30 am and they let us on the shuttle at 11:45 am. The reservation is good for an hour. So if you don’t show up by 1 pm for a noon reservation, you are out of luck.

We were anxious to get into the park because our plan was to hike the West Rim Trail to Angels Landing. We were not sure if we wanted to go out to Angels Landing. We knew the chain section was rather sketchy, so we wanted to see it first before committing to it. If we decided not to do the chain section, our plan was to continue on the West Rim Trail a little further. There is supposed to be some nice views from the West Rim Trail. The sign at the trailhead said there had been 10 deaths on Angels Landing since 2004. Unfortunately, the number of deaths has since climbed to 13 as of March 2021.

We made it to where the chains started in about an hour. It was a paved trail up to that point, but steep with lots of sharp switchbacks. As we ate our snack, enjoying the view, we contemplated whether or not to hike out the half mile chain section to Angels Landing. It didn’t look as scary as RB had imagined it to look in her head. The decision? Let’s go for it. RB put on her knee brace and we both put our trekking poles and water bottles inside our packs so our packs would be narrower and less items to get snagged on a rock. All of the climbing on rocks we had done in the Needles of the Canyonlands gave us more confidence climbing out to Angels Landing. 

It may have not seemed as scary, but it was much more physically demanding than we imagined. The full body workout took us about 45 minutes to go the half mile and another 45 minutes to get back out of the chain section. There were times we had to wait for a group of people coming the other way through a section of chain because you don’t want to try to go around someone while on the chains. There were signs warning people to wait their turn. Then there were times we stopped because we needed to catch our breath. Along one chain section a person in front of RB let go of the chain which released the tension and the chain smacked up against the rock, busting open a couple of RB’s knuckles. 

The view at the end was worth the effort to get there. It was a neat experience and left us with a great feeling of accomplishment. We’re glad we did it, but we don’t want to do it again. Once is enough. We didn't get as much footage of the chain section as we would have liked, because we were too busy trying to keep ourselves safe. If you want a good video that describes the Angels Landing Trail, check out Tristan's video on his SUV RVing channel: Is This the Most Dangerous Trail in the National Parks??.

When we returned back out of the chains, we sat down again to rest, drink water, have another snack, and bandage up RB’s knuckles. RB had eaten all of her food the first time we sat there, but LB had an extra granola bar that he gave her. We did not eat lunch before the hike and RB was starting to feel the lack of calories. RB does not like the kind of granola bar that LB had left, but she ate it anyway because she knew she needed the energy. It was another hour to get back down to the valley to the trailhead. We counted Angels Landing as hike #14 of our 52 Hike Challenge National Park Series: 4.8 miles, 1500 foot elevation gain in four hours and 45 minutes.

We waited for about 15 minutes to get on a shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center. The shuttle buses had very limited seating capacity since they removed half of the seats due to COVID and don’t allow anyone on without a seat, no standing allowed. It was about 5 pm when we got in line, so most of the people in the canyon were trying to catch a bus back out, since the last shuttle bus leaves at 7:15 pm. Since the Grotto stop, where we were is not at the end of the canyon, the buses that came by were already pretty full, so only a few people were allowed onto each bus. Eventually though, they sent an empty bus from the Visitor Center to our bus stop that went directly back to the Visitor Center with no other stops.

Tired and exhausted, we didn’t feel like cooking dinner, so we dropped our gear off at our van and walked out of the park and into town. The plan was to catch the free town shuttle to a restaurant. We were in the mood for a good burger and fries. Right after crossing the bridge as we exited the pedestrian entrance to the park, we could smell the meat cooking at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub. That sounded good. They said it was about a 20 minute wait for a table, so we put in our name. The wait was closer to an hour, but we had a comfortable place to sit and wait outside, so we didn’t mind. 

From where we sat and waited, we could see the Zion Outfitters store next door with the waterproof shoes and wooden walking sticks for rent. Zion Outfitters also had public restrooms, showers, and laundry available. It sounded like a great alternative to staying at Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort for those services. We enjoyed the Watchman Campground inside of Zion National Park much better than the RV Resort, even though you can somewhat see one campground from the other. They had a much different feel. The resort camp sites were packed in right on top of each other and catered much more to larger rigs. The atmosphere was louder and brighter. Everyone seemed to have a need to have lights on around their rigs all night long. When RB got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, she did not need a flashlight to find her way. She was almost blinded by one RV that had bright lights that lit up the whole area around their rig as bright as day. In contrast, the Watchman Campground was quiet, dark, and peaceful. The sites were spaced further apart among the trees. After dark, we could hear the crickets chirping. 

After the long wait, dinner at Zion Canyon Brew Pub was not that great. We ordered the elk burger. They were out of fries, so we got the onion rings at no extra charge. The waitress did not ask us how we wanted our meat cooked. The burger turned out to be overcooked and dry. The toppings were scarce and the sandwich did not have much flavor. The onion rings were pretty tasty, but fries would have rested better on the stomach. We should have gone back to the Spotted Dog Cafe where the food was so much better prepared and cooked. 

After our disappointing meal, we walked down to the Hoodoo General market for ice cream. It was less than a mile and for some reason we didn’t seem to mind the peaceful walk after dark. After enjoying our ice cream and shake, we skipped the town shuttle again and walked back to our van which was still parked at the Visitor Center. A short drive back into the campground brought us to our site. We didn’t waste much time washing up at our sink and heading to bed early. RB’s shins cramped up on her for about the first hour, but then we were able to drift off into a deep sleep.

Our destination the following day was Horsethief Campground near Moab. Along the way, we made an hour detour to drive the five mile scenic drive along E. Kolob Canyon Road and hike the short trail to Timber Creek Overlook at the end of the road. Kolob Canyons is a less visited northern section of Zion National Park. It is reached directly from exit 40 off of I-15. It is a great stop to see some nice scenery and get out to stretch your legs. The mountain peaks in Kolob Canyons have that classic Zion National Park look that is different from the surrounding mountains.

When visiting Zion, is Angels Landing worth the risk? If you are in relatively good shape and have a good sense of balance, then perhaps yes. Just pay attention to what you are doing, stay away from the rock edges, don’t pass people on the chain sections, and wear good, non-slip shoes. If the rocks are wet, icy or snow covered, don’t go. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t go. If you have young children with you, don’t go. If it’s windy, don’t go. There is a nice view from the Scout Lookout just before the start of the chain sections. The West Rim Trail also continues past Scout Lookout with some views of the canyon, but we have not hiked that section of the trail, yet. An alternative hike with great views of Zion Canyon and views of Angels Landing from the opposite canyon wall, with less risk and less people, is Observation Point. It can be reached either via East Mesa Trail, or via Stave Spring Trailhead. Observation Point and the Narrows are definitely on our list of trails for our next visit. We’ll pass on hiking Angels Landing again.

Check out our related video: Zion National Park

(RB)