Zion Update: Major roadwork will occur on the Zion Mt.-Carmel Highway in the spring of 2010. Expect delays and temporary closures.
I've been to Zion National Park 3 times. The first time was part of the same Roadtrip that brought me to Bryce Canyon for the first time, that being a Roadtrip who's original destination was Yellowstone, where on a whim it was decided to head south to the Grand Canyon.
Driving south toward Grand Canyon, on U.S. Route 89, you come to a juncture which leads to Bryce Canyon. That juncture was taken, leading to my first redrock experience, driving in Redrock Canyon. Not realizing I was about to see a lot of redrock I took way too many pictures of Redrock Canyon.
After a way too short visit to Bryce Canyon it was back to Highway 89 again. Heading south towards Grand Canyon, you come to a juncture with the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that leads into Zion National Park.
I knew nothing about Zion, just like I knew nothing about Bryce. Knowing nothing, I had no clue I was about to be quite surprised. As you enter Zion National Park, from the east, the scenery is quite impressive, with formations like Checkerboard Mesa. We stopped at several locations and explored, not realizing we had not reached the main show.
Eventually you come to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. As you drive through the tunnel you pass 6 portal window views that give you hints at where you are heading. Then you come out of the tunnel to an eye-popping view. You are looking at Zion Canyon. The road then does a series of switchbacks to the valley below.
That first visit to Zion was in a September. The park was not too busy. We stayed overnight in a campground in a tent. It was hot.
The next visit to Zion came several years later as part of a Roadtrip that went through Lava Beds National Monument, Reno, crossed America's Loneliest Road, then into Utah and Zion. That time it was just a quick 4 hour visit to Zion, before heading on to Grand Canyon for a short visit, before ending up in Las Vegas that night, to a very HOT Death Valley the next day.
On that second trip to Zion we came in from the west. Since I'd not come into the park from this side before I did not realize the town of Springdale was just outside the park, with a lot of lodging, food and entertainment possibilities, including Zion Canyon IMAX.
The second time in Zion we went through the tunnel the opposite way. At the exit there is a parking lot. From that parking lot you can hike a trail that leads to a spectacular view of Zion Canyon. On the first visit, Zion was not busy. In the years after that Zion became very popular, to the extent that now there was a person monitoring traffic through the tunnel. An RV or bus has to get a special permit to go through the tunnel, which turns one-way til the RV or bus gets through. This can make for a bit of a wait.
By the time of the third visit to Zion National Park it'd grown so popular that vehicle traffic is not allowed on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from April through October. Shuttle buses take tourists the 6 mile length of the road to its final parking lot at the Temple of Sinawava. The traffic congestion was horrible, so this is a real good thing, making the park experience way more pleasant.
The third visit took place during a Roadtrip who's first destination was Houseboating on Lake Powell, followed by Mexican Hat and the San Juan Inn, Monument Valley, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (where a blizzard overnight had us stuck til the snowplows arrived) then out of the snow and on to the Zion Lodge where we stayed one night before heading on to Las Vegas, Death Valley and Yosemite.
The rooms at Zion Lodge were very big. The Zion Lodge restaurant was very noisy. I had trouble hearing the waitress or my feeding companions. The grounds of the Zion Lodge are manicured grass, which doesn't seem right for a park like this. The Grand Canyon's North Rim Lodge seems to much more organically fit its surroundings.
We went on several hikes the next day before heading out for Vegas. At the end of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive we hiked into The Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava, along with a lot of other people. On other hikes, like Weeping Rock you also see a lot of people. But on the Emerald's Pool Trail I had more of that solitude type peace I like when communing with nature.
I'd like to spend several days at Zion and do some of the longer, more strenuous hikes, like Angels Landing. The sooner the better, I suppose, before these evermore elderly joints of mine get more creaky.
Zion Canyon is 15 miles long and up to a half mile deep. In 1909 President Taft made the Zion area a national monument to protect it, giving it the goofy name of Mukuntuweap. The locals did not like that name, so in 1918 it was changed to Zion with Congress turning it into Zion National Park on November 19, 1919.
Watch an excellent video of the hike to the top of Angel's Landing.