Jul 242012
 
Balancing Rock at Bryce Canyon

Balancing Rock at Bryce Canyon

Our recent visit to southern Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks lasted just a few days, but we managed to cover a lot of ground, including side trips to Las Vegas and Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park.  For families that enjoy the outdoors, southern Utah and the surrounding area offer lots of opportunities for exploration at whatever pace works for your family.

So, whether your group involves teens, tweens, grandparents or younger kids, visits to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks will be remembered for a long time.  Using the Zion-Springdale area as a base camp here is our list of the Top 10 things for families with kids, teens and tween to do.  Visit the links to see our more detailed articles about most of these activities:

  • Start your visit to Zion riding the shuttle buses from Springdale or the Zion Lodge to the end of the Zion Canyon Road.  The quiet propane-powered buses will take you to all the major landmarks while providing a sense of the peaceful setting discovered by the Canyon’s original settlers.
  • Explore the Riverside Walk trail at the end of the bus ride.   The lightly paved Riverside Walk begins at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle bus stop.  The trail follows the Virgin River until it disappears into the river itself.  It is a this point that the sides of Zion Canyon quickly close in and the Narrows Trail begins, allowing adventurous hikers to walk through the water for miles deep into the narrowest parts of the canyon in the summer when water levels are low.  The Narrows requires solid preparation and appropriate gear and pay attention to weather reports as flash floods are common.
  • Explore the Emerald Pools.  The trailhead is located just across the road from the Zion Lodge.  It connects to a series of pools and waterfalls.  The first .6 mile length of the trail takes you to the Lower Emerald Pool where a waterfall provides a cooling break.  Those that want more of an adventure can continue onwards and upwards to the Middle and Upper pools before winding their way back to the Zion Lodge.
The Emerald Pools Lower Trail is accessed via a footbridge over the Virgin River located opposite the Zion Lodge

The Emerald Pools Lower Trail is accessed via a footbridge over the Virgin River located opposite the Zion Lodge

  • Walk or bike on the Pa’rus Trail.  A fairly recent addition to the Zion National Park trail system, the Pa’rus  connects the Campgrounds near the Visitor Center, the Human History Museum and the Canyon Junction shuttle bus stop.  Bikes can be rented in Springdale.  This is the only trail in the park that also allows dogs.
  • Enjoy the local ambiance in Springdale.  We loved the small restaurants and the walkable village feel.  Although we stayed in the Zion Lodge, families that want more amenities might do better in Springdale.
  • Don’t miss the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway  and Tunnel and the amazing formations such as Checkerboard Mesa that lie on the other side of the Tunnel.  The switchbacks require a steady driver and those with RVs need to check out the tunnel height restrictions and escort regulations.
  • Budget enough time to see all that Bryce Canyon has to offer.  We fell short here since we only had one day to spend at Bryce Canyon.  We were able to enjoy the major ampitheaters and overlooks and did travel all the way to Rainbow Point at the end of the road, but wish we had the time to hike some of the under the rim trails.
  • Make a side trip to Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park if you are approaching the Parks via Las Vegas.  The park’s 42,000 acres include about 10 miles of paved roads that provide access to a number of highly eroded and unusual features formed from shifting sand dunes millions of years ago.  We particularly enjoyed the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock.
Elephant Rock in Nevada's Valley of Fire

Elephant Rock in Nevada’s Valley of Fire

  • Make another side trip to visit the Capital Reef National Park, also in southern Utah.  We missed this one and later heard from friends that we should have made the time.  The Park’s defining feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a  nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust that exposes layers of rock that have been pushed upward along fault lines.   It has one very steep side in an area of otherwise nearly horizontal layers of rock. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold have been lifted more than 7000 feet  higher than the layers on the east.
  • Las Vegas McCarren International airport is a great jumping off point for visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks but, beyond getting the rental car and a quick meal, our advice is to minimize your family time in Las Vegas.  Although there are many fancy hotels, shows and shopping, we still are not convinced it is a great place for kids.  After seeing all of nature’s wonders in the National Parks, the manmade wonders of Las Vegas look like cheap thrills.

It is no secret that we are fans of the National Parks.  Southern Utah offers an amazing collection of great family destinations within a relatively short drive from one another, so, get out the maps, program the GPS,  lace up those hiking boots, and go explore Zion and Bryce Canyon National parks and the surrounding areas soon!


May 292012
 

Unlike many National Parks that provide lots of room to roam, most of Zion’s  well known landmarks and hiking trails are only accessible off the 6 mile long Zion Canyon Road, from where it intersects with the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway to its end at the Temple of Sinawava, which provides access to the Riverside Walk and the Narrows.  From April to October the only private cars allowed on the Zion Canyon Road are those belonging to guests of the Park’s Zion Lodge.  However, even guests of the Lodge must use the ultra-quiet propane-powerd Shuttles when  visiting the trails and landmarks along the road.  No private cars are allowed on the road past the Lodge in order to maintain a peaceful Canyon experience for all visitors.

Zion Lodge

Zion Lodge

The Zion Lodge is the only lodging option inside the Park, other than camping.  The scenery is great, but, the the Lodge is trather basic and somewhat expensive, with limited dining choices.  We opted to stay in one of the Western Cabins at the Zion Lodge.  It certainly was a treat to walk out to the views of the cliffs across the road, but rooms are pretty sparten with small bathrooms that have not been updated in some time.  Most cabins come with two double beds (not queens) and very little elbow room.  We’d recommend that a family of four with teens rent two connecting cabins if they really want to stay right in the Park.

Cabins at Zion Lodge

Cabins at Zion Lodge

For our next trip to Zion we will probably stay in the very nearby town of Springdale, which offers a wider range of options that are more affordable and roomier and benefit from having multiple restaurant choices nearby.  If you want a pool you definitely need to stay outside the Park.  The town of Springdale shuttle buses pick up at a number of stops near most of the family friendly motels and provide frequent, easy connections to the Park’s Visitor Center.  From there you can transfer to the Park shuttles or walk to the beginning of the Zion Canyon Road via the Pa’rus Trail.  If you want to park your car at the Visitor Center arrive early as it frequently reaches capacity.

Zion Canyon Shuttle

Zion Canyon Shuttle

Springdale is a pretty little town with a number of dining choices.  We ate one dinner at the restaurant at the Zion Lodge but went to Springdale for breakfast and dinner the rest of the time.  Oscar’s Cafe with outdoor seating is consistently voted a family favorite.  We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Wildcat Willie’s, another family friendly casual restaurant.

Outdoor seating at Oscar's Cafe in Springdale, Utah

Outdoor seating at Oscar's Cafe in Springdale, Utah

Whether you stay in the Park or in Springdale, be sure to build time into your schedule to explore beyond the Zion Canyon Road.  We drove the 20+ miles, switchback laden Zion-Mount Carmel Highway from the Zion Lodge, through the 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, and past the park boundary on the way to Bryce Canyon National Park.  While the outbound drive was beautiful, the return trip was breathtaking.  Checkboard Mesa and its towering companions, the remains of ancient sand dunes, lined our approach to the tunnel from the East via Utah Route 9.

Checkerboard Mesa on the east side of Zion National Park

Checkerboard Mesa on the east side of Zion National Park

The tunnel itself was carved through the solid sandstone between 1927 and 1930.  It is so narrow that today’s larger trunks and campers need both lanes to get through.  There is a $15 fee for the park staff to stop traffic for these larger vehicles.  Once you exit the tunnel heading back into the park, you will feel like you are driving a roller coaster as the road drops over 1,000 feet in just a few miles.

The road drops over 1,000 feet in just a few miles on the downhill side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway

The road drops over 1,000 feet in just a few miles on the downhill side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway

The bottom line, our three tips to consider when planning your family vacation to visit Zion National Park are: (1) expect to rely on Shuttles rather than your own car for much of your visit to the main canyon.  (2) Be aware that the lodging and restaurant options in Springdale are most likely less expensive and more family friendly than those in the Park.  And (3), be sure to find time to explore the East side of the Park.  Our eastbound drive on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway  and through the Tunnel was a highlight of our springtime visit to Zion National Park.

Bryce Canyon in a Day

 Posted by on May 21, 2012  1 Response »
May 212012
 

Known for its weirdly beautiful rock formations, Bryce Canyon is one of the smallest National Parks, covering about 56 square miles in south-central Utah, a 4.5  hour drive from either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and two hours from Zion National Park.   Bryce Canyon City, on the park’s border provides serviceable overnight lodging options and the Bryce Canyon Lodge and campgrounds are available inside the Park.   We opted to take a daytrip to Bryce from our base camp at Zion.   The spectacular, but white-knuckle, drive in and out of Zion via steep switchback roads and  the Zion- Mt. Carmel Tunnel was an added bonus to a day that featured some of nature’s most unusual sculptures.

Bryce Canyon Overlook

Bryce Canyon Overlook

The famous Bryce formations  occupy vast amphitheaters carved from the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.  Millions of years of rain water and frost cycles are constantly dissolving the area’s colorful limestone rock and creating an unparalleled array of slot canyons, windows, fins, and spires, also known as  “hoodoos.” Although trails are available to hardy hikers to walk along the floor of the amphitheaters, many visitors adopt our strategy and stick to the overlooks and rim trails.  Inspiration Point, Bryce Point and Rainbow Points are all favorites.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

We spent about 5 hours in the park, which allowed plenty of time to visit the main amphitheaters, drive the full length of the access road, enjoy a picnic lunch at Rainbow Point and make as many stops as we wanted along the way.  Our hiking was limited to 1/4 mile or shorter walks to various observation points.

Balancing Rock at Bryce Canyon

Balancing Rock at Bryce Canyon

On a clear day there are views of three states and as much as 200 miles of visibility. Most of the major vantage points are located at 8,000 to 9,000 ft altitudes, which means that even in mid-April snow was still in evidence and we were happy to have fleece jackets and hats and gloves.

Bryce Canyon Rainbow Point Overlook

Bryce Canyon Rainbow Point Overlook

Bryce was a great day trip for a couple of adults, who didn’t mind spending 4 hours in a car roundtrip, plus the drive time in the park.  We noticed a few families where the tweens and younger siblings seem to lose interest in the views well before their parents did.  They were anxious for a little more activity than the overlooks offered.

Bryce Canyon Wall of Windows

Bryce Canyon Wall of Windows

Given that it was a cool somewhat overcast day in April, the crowds were thin and most of us adults lingered wordlessly for as long as we wanted just drinking in some of the world’s most amazing scenery.  Our only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer and do some hiking.  We’ll just have to go back again another day.


May 092012
 

The Pa’rus Trail at Zion National Park is a recent addition (1995) to the park’s trail system. It connects the Campgrounds near the Visitor Center, the Human History Museum and the Canyon Junction shuttle bus stop.  Since private cars are not allowed to stop along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from April through October, families staying in Springdale generally grab the town shuttle to the Visitor Center than hop on a Park Shuttle for the ride deeper into the Park.  The Pa’rus Trail offers an accessible, dog and baby stroller friendly option to begin or end your visit with an hour long  1.7 mile one way stroll criss-crossing Oak Creek, Pine Creek and the Virgin River.   Bikes can be rented from Zion Outfitter located near the Visitor Center, sharing a parking lot with the Giant Screen Theater.

Zion National Park's Pa'rus Trail criss-crosses the Virgin River and nearby creeks

Zion National Park's Pa'rus Trail criss-crosses the Virgin River and nearby creeks

The word Pa’rus means “bubbling, tumbling water” and this walk definitely lives up to its name.   This lower section of the river is more controlled than the upper reaches seen on the Riverside Walk.   A trailside exhibit points out the remains of an old dam and explains how water from the river still supplies nearby Springdale.    The design of the trail keeps the water in view as you navigate several footbridges along the way.

Strolling the Pa'rus Trail

Strolling the Pa'rus Trail

Due to the fact that there is little shade, this is a trail best done on cooler days or in the morning or evening on hot days.   We visited in the late afternoon on a warm spring day and found the trail almost empty except for a few very polite bike riders.  We are told it can be pretty busy on a summer morning however.  As with all the trails in Zion National Park, the Pa’rus offers one stunning view after another.  The cliffs at this end of the canyon are not as steep or as sharp as those closer the Narrows but are beautiful in their own way.

Along the Pa'rus Trail

Along the Pa'rus Trail

Depending on your plans and energy levels, you can opt to walk a short section of the trail as far as the Museum, keep going to the end of the trail or turn around and stroll back to where you started.   For one way walkers, the shuttle bus stop at the end of the trail offers access to the rest of the sights and trailheads along the Scenic Drive, as well as the option of a quick return to the Park entrance when you are done for the day.

If you have walked on the Pa’rus Trail let us know your thoughts.


May 032012
 

During our recent visit to Zion National Park we explored some of the easier hiking and walking trails including the Emerald Pools Lower Trail, the Pa’rus Trail and the Riverside Walk.  The level, lightly paved Riverside Walk begins at the  Temple of Sinawava shuttle bus stop, the last one along the Canyon road.  The trail travels a mile along the banks of the Virgin River until it disappears into the river itself.  It is a this point that the sides of the Canyon quickly close in and the famous Narrows Trail begins, allowing adventurous hikers to walk through the water for miles deep into the narrowest parts of the canyon in the summer when water levels are low.  In the Spring, the Narrows are off limits but the Riverside Walk is a pleasant jaunt.

The easy Riverside Walk trail provides access to Zion's famous Narrows Hike

The easy Riverside Walk trail provides access to Zion's famous Narrows Hike

Unlike the strenuous Narrows Trail, the Riverside Walk is welcoming to hikers of all ages and abilities.  We enjoyed it in the early evening and had it almost to ourselves.   Lush riparian vegetation such as cottonwoods and elder flourish along this trail due to the reliable water supply and the abundant shade provided by the towering vertical cliffs that can rise 1,000 feet or more overhead.  There is even a small area that qualifies as a swamp.  The impact of a recent spring storm was evident as waterfalls and springs still flowed at some points along the almost sheer Navajo sandstone cliff faces.

Towering Riverside Walk waterfall at Zion National Park

Towering Riverside Walk waterfall at Zion National Park

In areas where the water flows frequently the cliff faces sport multi-color bands of color, the result of moisture leaching different minerals from the red rocks.  Hanging gardens of plants growing right out of the sandstone are common along parts of the trail.

Hanging Gardens on the Riverside Walk

Hanging Gardens on the Riverside Walk

Along there way there are several river access points where you can take off your shoes and dip your toes in the frigid waters if you want to be able to say you walked in the river.

Whatever time of year, the Riverside Walk at Zion National Park offers a pleasant opportunity for families with kids of all ages to explore the Canyon.


Apr 292012
 

Zion National Park is known for challenging hiking trails such as the trip to Angel’s Landing that rises almost 1500 feet in 2.5 miles and requires the hiker to cross near vertical rock faces using small footholds and chains bolted into the rock.  Another classic, the Narrows, involves miles of strenuous walking in the Virgin River – it is only open in the summer and fall when spring water levels drop to safe levels.

For those visitors with smaller kids, older adults, and others that don’t see themselves tackling those more challenging trails, Zion still offers some lovely options including our three favorites for all ages:  The Emerald Pools Lower Trail, The  Pa’rus Trail, and The Riverside Walk.  Each of these trails is suitable for all ages yet allows access to some of Zion’s most beautiful scenery and wildlife.  In this article we feature photos from our stroll along the Emerald Pools Lower Trail.

The Emerald Pools Lower Trail is accessed via a footbridge over the Virgin River located opposite the Zion Lodge

The Emerald Pools Lower Trail is accessed via a footbridge over the Virgin River located opposite the Zion Lodge

The Emerald Pools Lower Trail travels a rolling .6 miles of paved trail through cottonwoods and river bottom vegetation.  We saw a number of mule deer filling up on the spring greens.

Mule Deer seen along the Emerald Pools Lower Trail at Zion National Park

Mule Deer seen along the Emerald Pools Lower Trail at Zion National Park

The short walk soon brings you to a stunning canyon alcove that houses the Lower Emerald Pool, which is fed by waterfalls from the Middle and Upper Pools located higher up the cliffs.

Waterfalls feed Zion's Lower Emerald Pool

Waterfalls feed Zion's Lower Emerald Pool

The trail can be slippery when the waterfalls are running as the trail actually runs through the mist behind the falls.  At this point, you can continue via a rougher, steeper trail to the Middle and Upper pools and eventually make a loop back to the Grotto picnic area and then back to the Lodge or a shuttle bus stop.

The trail continues behind the waterfall then heads higher up the cliffs towards the Midde and Upper pools

The trail continues behind the waterfall then heads higher up the cliffs towards the Midde and Upper pools

If your group is not that ambitious you can return the way you came for an easy 1.2 mile round trip.  Either way the views of the surrounding cliffs are stunning.

Cliffs seen from the Emerald Pool Lower Trail

Cliffs seen from the Emerald Pool Lower Trail

Later this week we’ll share some photos from some of our other favorite Zion National Park trails for all ages.


Apr 262012
 

With or without teens, April has our vote as the best time of the year to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.   Both parks are relatively small and prone to crowding during peak summer months, due to the fact that a single road provides access to each Park’s iconic sites.  In April, you have an opportunity to quietly experience each Park’s unique and beautiful transition from winter to spring.   This timing also aligns well with Easter and spring break holidays from many schools.

April in Zion Canyon

April in Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon is located at approximately 4,000 feet elevation with popular trails like the hike to Angel’s Landing rising much higher.  Bryce’s high point is over 9,000 feet, meaning that snow is still possible even in early April.  On our recent visit, sans teens, we found both parks in the midst of early spring blooms.  A major storm had brought rain to Zion and snow to Bryce just days before so the Virgin River in Zion Canyon was racing, the waterfalls were still running and Bryce had patches of snow at higher elevations.

What we enjoyed most about our mid-April visit was the lack of crowds and the mild temperatures.   At Zion, the park had just started running it’s mandatory shuttle, which is the only way to access the main canyon road from April through October.  We suspect they fill fast in the summer, but we never had a problem finding seats and sometimes had them all to ourselves. The wait times were short.  The Lodge was full, but you could walk into the restaurant and most eateries in nearby Springdale had no wait as well.  With daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s, the trails were comfortable to stroll almost any time of day.  In summer, Zion typically hits the mid to high 80s and the facilities in the park and in Springdale are used to capacity.  We think the intense sense of serenity that we found in the park might be harder to come by then.

April Snow Among the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

April Snow Among the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

Like Zion, Bryce also has one main road.  It offers an optional shuttle in the summer as crowds build and temperatures reach into the 80s.  In April, it was easy to stop at any viewpoint and to stand for as long as you wanted in silence overlooking Inspiration Point and the other amazing views around the Park.  We needed sweaters, jackets, hats and optional gloves, but were comfortable enough that we opted for a picnic lunch at Rainbow Point’s 9,000 foot+ elevation.

April in Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park

April in Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park

Heading out of the Parks we stopped by the Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas, there, the temperatures were close to 90 and with minimal shade hiking and exploring were still bearable — but we would not have wanted it to be much warmer. Because of the recent rain we were able to enjoy views of wildflowers along the road and green spring growth of many desert plants.  Nonetheless, by the time we got to Vegas, the pool at the Mirage looked pretty inviting!

The Pool at the Mirage in Las Vegas

The Pool at the Mirage in Las Vegas

We’ll be sharing more about our recent southwestern trip, but if you are planning to see these wonderful National and State parks consider April vacation week, when the crowds and temperatures are moderate.  The only real downside to a Spring visit is that the famous Zion Narrows trail, which calls for miles of walking in the River through the narrowest part of the Canyon, is off limits until June temperatures warm the waters and the water level drops with the end of spring storms and winter melt-off.