On October 4, 2020, we packed up and moved to Zion Wright Family Ranch Campground about ten miles northeast of Virgin, Utah. The Wright Family has owned the ranch and eco-camp for six generations.
Don’t expect a staffed office for check-in or restrooms. Just drive through the fence opening, find a spot near a campfire ring that’s not already occupied, and set up. Oh, and pick a site away from the road and position your unit to avoid drifting sand from vehicles roaring down the dusty road.
Porta-Potties are the only other amenity available. We can’t vouch for their cleanliness since we preferred our onboard facilities. Be prepared like a Scout with plenty of water, food, and fuel. It’s a long way back to town.
Amenities were not what attracted us to the place. Our goal was to enjoy the clear star-gazing skies and find a hike or two. We were not disappointed on either account.
The sky our first night was amazing. It had been decades since I’d seen the Milky Way so full of stars. It looked as though I could reach out and touch it. The big dipper hung above the horizon while we munched s’mores, dripping chocolate and marshmallow all over our hands. I can still picture in my mind all the stars, constellations, and Milky Way when I think of that night.
The next day we found two hikes to keep us busy. The first was Lamb’s Knoll, a popular cayoneering site in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park.
We lacked the gear and knowledge to scale any of the boulders and cliffs, so we hiked around them and through slot canyons. On the backside of the knoll, we found a beautiful view of the valley below.
The second hike was the Left Fork Trailhead that leads to the Subway. The entire trail to the Subway and back is nine miles, which was too strenuous and long for us after our time at Lamb’s Knoll.
The Subway is rated a semi-technical slot canyon hike that requires hikers to wade and swim through the river, scramble over boulders, and climb down waterfalls. For hikers wanting to go all the way to The Subway, they must pick up permits at one of the Zion NP visitor centers.
We stayed on the well-maintained trail that passed through pine trees, shrubs, and prickly pear until we reached the technical part, which was a steep descent into the valley. We stopped to take in the views and watch a couple navigate up the cliff.
On our way back to the parking lot, a wrong turn led us on a half-mile or so detour down a dry riverbed between canyon walls, then back again until we found the correct turnoff.
No one was interested in cooking dinner after our hard work of hiking, so we drove into Hurricane for a Mexican dinner at Las Lupitas Mexican Grill. We’re always on the lookout for good Mexican food, and Lupitas fit the bill.
A layer of thin clouds foiled our expectation for a repeat of the celestial skies of the previous night. That was okay with us. We enjoyed another night around the campfire before it was time for bed.
The morning we left, I woke up early enough to capture this colorful sunrise.
Coming up, we pull into Hitch-N-Post Campground in Panguitch, Utah, our base camp for Bryce National Park and Red Canyon State Park.
Yikes! One step forward and two steps back. This week California sent our county back to start in the game of “Open Up the Economy.” The current virus surge triggered feelings of sadness, despair, and grief for the many people suffering under the weight of COVID-19.
Then, while preparing the photos and narrative for this post, sadness turned to thankfulness. How lucky are we that so far our family has escaped infection and illness? How lucky are we that we have a home to keep us safe? And how lucky were we for the opportunity to visit Utah before the virus worsened across the nation? Pretty dang lucky, I’d say, and for that, we’re very thankful.
While traveling we thought we had found a way to “live with the virus” that was safe for the people we encountered and for us. Unfortunately, it looks like we won’t be able to put our newly learned skills to the test anytime soon.
Instead, we will abide by the new restrictions the health department has placed on us and look back on our trip to Utah while reminding ourselves that someday we will again travel the roads and continue exploring the United States. We can wait a few more months. Hope it won’t be a year. If only we had a crystal ball to tell the future.
So, join us as we look back at our second day trip into Zion National Park.
Zion National Park adopted a reservation system for their shuttle into the canyon where many of the hikes and sites are located. The reservations are required for two reasons. The first is to reduce the number of people on the shuttles, and the second is to avoid the crowded long lines of people waiting to board them. Our attempt to snag four tickets the day before was unsuccessful, so we signed up for a private shuttle, costing $30.00 per person rather than the $1.00 the parked charged.
We parked in the South Entrance visitor center parking lot and took the short walk across the bridge to Springdale. The gear store and our shuttle stop were in the shopping center close to the park entrance. I wasn’t too happy about sitting behind, in front of, and next to strangers in the van. The concept of social distancing was not adhered to on this shuttle as it was on the one the park ran. Everyone did wear a mask, though. I hoped it would be enough protection.
Our first stop was the Temple of Sinawava, which leads to the Riverside Walk and the Narrows trails. We took the Riverside Walk to the Narrows (photos above), and waved goodbye as Kevin and Bailey, wearing their special boots and grasping their hiking staff, continued their trek in the Narrows.
Jon and I decided keeping the virus at bay was enough to deal with. No need to add the toxic cyanobacteria bloom in the Virgin River to our risk of possible illnesses. So we hopped back on the shuttle and got off at The Grotto. From there we took the Kayenta and Emerald Trails to Zion Lodge.
Zion National Park did not receive the normal amount of snow and rain this past year, so Lower Falls was more of a trickle than waterfall.
This is a photo from October 2017 when the park received more precipitation.
The trail under the waterfall’s overhang is slippery. Use the fencing to prevent falls.
When we reached the lodge, Jon’s attitude turned grumpy when he realized our shuttle didn’t stop there.
We had another mile to go on The Grotto trail. The trails we took made a loop, normally our favorite. This time, it subjected me to bouts of grumbling as Jon trailed behind me.
We went back to where we picked up the shuttle that morning. A mocha frappuccino and protein bar perked us up as we recovered and waited for Kevin and Bailey to return from the Narrows hike.
So how was it hiking under the threat of COVID-19? Mostly I felt safe. The majority of hikers on the Riverside Trail wore masks. There were a few groups with college-aged people who walked around like, “Virus? What virus?” And other groups where there was one, maybe two, holdouts in a family of seven or eight were like, “No mask for me. Don’t tread on my rights.”
That was okay because the trail was fairly wide, and it was easy to keep our distance. The Kayenta and Emerald Pools Trails was another story. The narrower path made it difficult to keep our distance from the “mask-less” folks.
Our hike took us much longer than it should have since we had to step off the trail and let people without masks pass before we continued. We thought for sure one of us would end up infected. We’re happy to report our fear did not materialize. After that experience, we only hiked in places where there weren’t a bunch of people.
So was it worth the $30.00 shuttle ride? We have to say yes. Hiking the narrows was an item on Kevin and Bailey’s bucket list, and we got to see a few sites in a different light than we did before. Besides, with our Lifetime Senior Pass, we entered the park for free.
The next day, we moved to Zion Wright Family Ranch for a couple of nights of dispersed camping to see a different side of Zion.
We counted the trip to the California coast a success, so it was time to map out our next adventure. Initially, we planned on a week or two in San Diego to visit our son, Kevin, and his better half, Bailey. They had other ideas in store for us. When they mentioned Zion and Bryce, we said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
With the trailer loaded with food and clothes, we made our first leg of the trip to Barstow, California, on October 3, 2020. Smoke from the California fires filled the skies until we reached the Tehachapi Summit. I switched the AC from recycle to fresh air and we took big deep breaths as we descended into the Mojave Desert.
The next morning we left Barstow at sunrise, which wasn’t all that early, only 6:50 a.m. It sure looked like smoke or dust or something had shaded the sky with orange and yellow hues. The iPhone 8 captured a surreal image.
In Las Vegas, Nevada, we caught our first glimpse of the new Raider’s Allegiant Stadium from the freeway. Bitterness that the team left Oakland, again, still exists in the Bay Area, although I’m sure fans in Las Vegas are happy about the move. The stadium should be a boom to the City of Las Vegas once we come out of the pandemic, and fans are let back into the sports arenas.
The quick breakfast we ate that morning had long worn off when we hit Las Vegas, which would have been a good place to stop and have a bite to eat. We try to avoid the big cities for our stops because it’s too difficult to maneuver through traffic and find a place to park with the rig. So, we sucked it up and drove the next two hours to St. George. That Cracker Barrel sign never looked so good by the time we arrived.
In the Bay Area, dining options were limited to takeout and outdoor seating. In Southwestern Utah, they offered inside dining or takeout. Since we hadn’t been inside a restaurant for seven months, we chose the takeout. Cracker Barrel isn’t usually my first choice for a restaurant. I much prefer to buy food from an independent store or a local chain. Jon, on the other hand, loves their pecan pancakes. We put on our masks, locked up the trailer, and set out to order our meals.
We were leery about all the people waiting outside, rocking in the chairs on the porch or standing next to the railing and ignoring the six feet of distance we had practiced since March. Only half of them wore masks. At the time, wearing face coverings was only a suggestion, not a state mandate. The state now requires masks in all state-owned buildings and individual counties may have their own requirements.
We kept our distance the best we could, stepped up to the podium, and ordered our meals. A few minutes later, we were inside the trailer, chowing down on the best Cracker Barrel breakfast and cup of coffee I had ever had. Either the cooks do a better job at the Cracker Barrel in St. George, or I was so hungry, a dog bone would have tasted good to me.
With our bellies filled, we drove the remaining thirty minutes to WillowWind RV Park in Hurricane, Utah, where we had booked three nights. Kevin and Bailey arrived a few hours later.
On our first day in Zion National Park, we checked out the situation for catching the shuttle (we couldn’t get tickets for the park shuttle, so paid for a private one) and renting equipment Kevin and Bailey would need for their river walk the next day. Then we drove to the east end to see other sections of the park and find a place to eat our lunch.
We passed the Canyon Overlook Trail on our way to the tunnel, and there were no parking spots. So we kept driving and found a place with a bit of fall color to eat our lunch and take a break.
Checkerboard Mesa is a good place to stop for views. There is plenty of parking, information signs, and plenty of sites to see. Unfortunately, the position of the sun made it difficult to capture the checkerboard feature on the mesa. Earlier in the day would have been better.
The sun was coming from a better angle, so the colors pop in the photo of East Temple.
And here are two more views along the road.
Outside of the park on the east side is The Get and across the street is an RV and tent campground and cabins to rent.
On our way back to the west side of the park, we scouted around for a parking space at the Canyon Overlook and ended up having to stop and wait for one-way traffic to clear. When the west-bound vehicles started flowing, a car just ahead of us pulled out, and we slipped right in as if it was all planned perfectly.
At first we thought the overlook was close by. It turned out further than we thought. I brought my water bottle with me, but no one else did. We hoofed it most of the way, at least to the section where the cave was and we could peek down into the canyon. So, word of caution: come prepared for a hike, not a short walk.
Heading west through the tunnel gives a person a good view out the windows. Luckily, no one was behind us, so Jon stopped the truck for a couple of seconds so we could capture the view with our cameras.
After the tunnel there are a few places to stop and take in the views and spot the windows in the rock walls.
Next up we have another day of more fun and games in Zion.
Day 13 of our fall tour, October 6, 2017, time to pack up, hook up, and move on down the road. Around lunchtime, we pulled into Hi-Road Campground, formerly Zion RV Campground,in Mt. Carmel, Utah, for a three-night stay. Trees dressed in yellow, gold, and orange, signaled fall’s arrival on the east side of Zion National Park, Utah’s First National Park.
Although Zion’s visitors’ center was only twenty miles from our site, it took at least an hour to make it to the canyon bottom by way of a twisty-turny road with slow speed limits, hairpin curves, and a delay to enter one of the tunnels.
The scenery along the way was the silver lining, however, consisting of sandstone slickrock, Checkerboard Mesa, and cliffs that towered 2,000 feet from the valley floor.
We stopped in at the visitors’ center, picked up pamphlets and information, and then drove out of the west entrance and into the town of Springdale, which looked nothing like we remembered from twenty years ago when we last visited.Construction of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and one-mile tunnel, which took two years and ten months to complete, was dedicated and opened on July 3, 1930. The highway was the last link in the Grand Circle Tour of Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks.
The construction crew blasted gallery windows into the cliff face above Pine Creek Canyon to gain access to the interior of the mountain so the crew could carve out space to create the tunnel. The windows were also used to remove the rock debris and supplied ventilation and lighting. In 1937, the entire tunnel was lined with concrete.
One-way traffic control is required for large vehicles traveling through the tunnel. The park charges $15.00 for a permit in addition to the park entrance fee for vehicles 7 feet 10 inches in width and/or 11 feet 4 inches in height, or larger.
We remembered driving our truck to all the sights along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in the 1990s. Now a shuttle is the only way to get around unless you’re staying at Zion Lodge. During peak hours the shuttles fill up with standing room only, so it is wise to arrive at the visitors’ center before 9:00 am, even in the offseason. There is also parking in Springdale, but when we drove through, everything looked pretty parked up.
The next day, we rode the shuttle to Zion Lodge in search of a cup of coffee only to find a long line. “How about the dining room?” We arrived about a half hour before the buffet ended and noted only a few people seated at tables. “This shouldn’t take too long.” We decided to go ahead and order breakfast with our coffee since we planned on taking a hike. We waited for our food as we sipped our steaming cups of coffee. Then we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Oh well, we had a nice view of a park-like grassy area with large trees. When our eggs benedict arrived my eggs were overcooked and Jon’s were undercooked. The long wait and the mix of cook on our eggs must have been a sign that the concessionaire reduced the employee headcount after the peak season.
With our bellies full, we walked across the road to the trailheads for the Lower and Upper Emerald Pools. Most of the trails were easy going except for the large boulders we had to navigate and the slippery rocks near the Upper Pools.
We connected with the Kayenta Trail, which took us along the river toward the Grotto where picnic tables huddled under large trees and restrooms were a welcome sight.
Then we continued on to the lodge where we picked up the shuttle for the ride to the Zion Human History Museum. We sat on the back patio eating our lunch of tuna sandwiches and apples and enjoyed the views while we waited to listen to the geological ranger talk.
Zion is part of the Colorado Plateau and the second step of the Grand Staircase with geological layers at the top of Zion consisting of the layers we saw at the bottom of Bryce: Carmel Formation, Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation, and Kaibab Formations. It was interesting to learn that rain flows through the porous Navajo sandstone until it reaches the Kaibab Formation of limestone and siltstone, which is not porous and blocks the water so that it seeps through the sides of the cliffs. This sounded similar to how water seeps through the basalt in Idaho to find its way to the Snake River.
On Sunday, we woke up early again and rode the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava to take the Riverside Walk. It didn’t look anything like what I remembered from when we were there before. Perhaps this was because of flash floods that had occurred during that time.
Ferns and other plant life clung to the red cliffs and trees grew near the river. We watched people prepare for the walk across the icy water. Some of them wore rented water tennis shoes and long pants that swished with each step. Other people only wore shorts, t-shirts, and normal walking shoes. I remembered years ago when we crossed the river in water socks on a sunny day with our children in tow. Bundled up in jackets, Jon and I weren’t about to venture into the rush of water this time.
Our next stop was Weeping Rock. This was a short steep hike with lots of trees, shrubs, ferns and a few remaining wildflowers. Water oozed from the overhang and gently dripped like rain on us.
These climbers came into view while we waited for the shuttle at Weeping Rock.
We thought we had been transported to Disneyland when we returned to the visitors’ center. Crammed under a shade structure, the line for the shuttle snaked back and forth through ropes and continued around the buildings toward the parking lot.
We were glad we were on our way out of the park rather than arriving.
If we make it back to Zion, we will plan ahead and find a spot for our trailer on the west side of the park to avoid driving the hour on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway each day. The prospect of catching the shuttle in Springdale would also be a benefit.
The next day we headed south with no reservations, taking our chances that somewhere an RV site with our name on it would appear. Stay tuned to see where we hung our hats.