Driving Day and Fourth Stop: through Utah to Zion National Park

Tip #8 on a Road Trip: Talk to the locals, they’ll give you good tips.

Local tips are the best. Places to eat, things to see, and oh yes—locals can tell you that the road you’re planning to take the rest of the way through Idaho to the interstate in Utah is under a mess of road construction starting that day. Thanks, KOA owners!

So we took a different road through Idaho to interstate to head south through Salt Lake City on the way to Zion National Park. All went smoothly, until we hit road construction all the freakin’ way through the city. Not only through Salt Lake City of course, but also the long chain of Utah cities around SLC, one after the other, through construction, continual traffic, no break in between. Not a lot of fun, and it felt like hours. With the roadside construction barriers up, we couldn’t even see the Tabernacle! Which wasn’t necessarily a thing we had set out to do (and certainly not to stop at, as we wouldn’t be allowed in the temple anyways), but since it was there and so were we I wouldn’t have minded catching a glimpse.

Finally after getting out of city construction driving, there was yet more driving. This was a long drive day, and the scenery was about what you would expect along an interstate—not interesting. The land gradually morphed into redder, more desert-like terrain with an occasional rocky outcropping in the distance. Once we turned off onto a side road to the park though, it got more interesting. It also got cloudier.

Clouds had been off to the west for a while of course, but now we were headed straight into the bank of increasingly dark and impressive clouds. From which increasingly impressive rain and lightning were emanating. Daisy the bison mascot, there to ward off the bad weather, did nothing. That’s a stuffed animal for you.

Living in the Midwest for a long while accustoms you to having abundant ground vegetation, lots of trees, low elevations, and porous ground. Here in the desert, a storm is a good way to let you know you are in a drastically different landscape with different treacheries. Little to no vegetation in rocky areas means rainwater flows right down hills without soaking in to anything, gathering red dirt as it flows, thereby creating water & mudslides across roads. And higher elevation with fewer obstacles means the lightning is closer and more dangerous. Inside the Civic no panicking was going on, but still, reminders of how powerful nature can be make you wary.

A sign that we were driving through a fairly powerful storm—locals had pulled over to the side of the road to wait it out. And another, there were a lot more cars heading away from the park than to it. Of course, some cars were pulled over because of indecision on how to react to a nice little mudslide across the road. A few were driving through it without incident, so not knowing how long the mud would flow, we forged ahead. My memory of the water/mud flow has it about as high as my car’s ground clearance, for about a 15 yards length of road. The Civic triumphed once again! Disaster averted, on to Zion we drive!

The town of Springdale is right outside of the park. One might think it caters to park visitors…. It’s a nice little town with lots of restaurants, quick shops and supply stores for continual stops for ice, lodging, and nearby campgrounds. Nice, since when we pulled up to the park entrance, the campground signs showing availability all said FULL. People, when taking a road trip to National Parks, make reservations ahead of time if your agenda permits.

We went into the visitor center anyways for information in preparation for the next day. Good thing, since the ranger at the Info desk told us there were a few walk-in camping sites still open. Hooray! Ominous clouds were also still around, and not being particularly excited to be in a thin nylon tent with metal poles in a violent desert lightning and rainstorm, we also asked about the forecast for the evening. Another difference from the Midwest: 50% chance of rain in the midwest means it may or may not rain, take a guess. This is why it’s fun to forecast midwestern weather! But in a desert, 50% chance of rain means that it WILL be raining somewhere nearby, they just don’t know where. Not exactly reassuring.

We debated the wisdom of camping, then decided to go ahead since already in the park. The chance of other lodging being full was just as likely as rainstorms. The last walk-in spot (which was about 10 yards from the car) was ours! We set up camp and hoped the storms would stay away. The campground was settled right at the base of a mountain called “Watchman”, so the mountain would watch out for us, right?

Another conversation we had with the ranger was about anything to beware of in the fauna of the park. Now remember, we had just come from GRIZZLY BEAR country where we were warned not to get out of the car because of two recent tragic events. The Zion ranger’s straight-faced answer, really truly honestly for real: “The squirrels here are pretty nasty.”

Ok then.

Zion has a great shuttle system in place. During busy months, which turns out to be most of them, shuttles run constantly up and back the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Other vehicles are not allowed, except for visitors staying at the lodge further into the park. I can only imagine the one long parking lot of a road this drive used to be. The shuttle will get you to all of the places you’d want in a standard visit to the park, while back country routes are further away from the shuttle routes and also at a different entrance. So do take the shuttle. Pack your day pack (with water!), get off at any of the shuttle stops that interest you, and hike from there.

If you manage to get on a sparsely populated shuttle (post-storm is a great time), depending on personability, the shuttle driver may just tell you interesting tidbits that aren’t on the shuttle’s informational loudspeaker recording thing. One tidbit: formations in this rock wall…see anything?

Anything helmet shaped? The unofficial nickname has changed throughout the past 100 years, from G-man to Darth Vader.  (Apparently, the shuttle driver could get in trouble for telling us that. So, don’t tell anyone else, ok?)

After riding the shuttle to the end of the route and back, jumping off and on multiple times for pictures, after many deer seen (they’re all over), we headed back to camp. And to a ranger talk at the amphitheater in an adjoining loop. This is the reason to stay at the park, not outside of it. You can walk to these events. You don’t have to rush. You honestly feel a part of the park, of its ecosystem, its sounds. Day changes to night and you can observe it all—colors change constantly, night-blooming flowers open, shadows make their slow move across the ground, squirrels gradually hide away for the night, and you are there for it all. When the sun is down, everything is dark, the ranger talks done and you feel like you know this place, you fall asleep under the open sky without any glowing screens disrupting the night. Just coyote howls and distant thunder. But it’ll all be ok, you know, because this campground is nestled between cliffs, at the base of a Watchman.

Would the squirrels let the travelers rest through the night and enjoy the next full day at Zion?

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