WANTED: Vacation destination within the U.S. with spectacular scenery and a recreational source of water; activity-oriented and informative; suitable for singles, couples, groups, families; driver friendly; meet new people; low cost.
Only qualified locations need apply.
As much as we look forward to vacations, finding one that satisfies the constraints of time, individual differences and interests, and cost can be quite a challenge. Add to that the current economic and political climate, and the choices become more limited. Is there anything out there that qualifies? I think our national parks are the best deal around. In the past, my family has visited Lassen, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Teton. This year, with children grown, a friend and I spent five days at Zion National Park. The environment and services here reminded me that our national parks have something for everyone; they definitely qualify. I’ll use Zion to illustrate how.
If you are appreciative of the type of beauty only nature can create, be prepared to be impressed. Impressed by the size, the colors, and the results of geologic change occurring slowly over millions of years. The multicolored cliffs and deep canyons of Zion became a national park in 1909. For over 13 million years the Virgin River has carved out this canyon through layers of Navajo sandstone cemented by calcium carbonate and the iron oxide that provides the reddish hues that contrast with the whites, yellows, and tans. Among the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world, monoliths with names like the West Temple (4,100 feet), the Watchman (2,600 feet), the Great White Throne (2,400 feet), among others, explain why at the end of each day my neck was stiff from constantly looking up at these spectacular sculptures of nature.
Water provides the power that shaped Zion and contributes to its beauty and pleasure. The riparian ecosystem along the banks of the Virgin River provides a home to the flora and fauna enjoyed by visitors to the park: cottonwood trees, meadow grasses and wildflowers; many species of birds, wild turkeys, mule deer, beaver and cottontail rabbits. Water run-off and seepage through the rock has also created Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock, where golden columbine and shooting stars form hanging gardens as they grow attached to the canyon walls. The cool waters of the Virgin River are the perfect respite for water-loving kids and those young at heart with trail weary feet. One hot afternoon, after hiking the Three Emerald Pools loop trail, I cooled off in the river while I watched a family of children and adults trying to cross it. They started off carefully stepping from stone to stone, and ended up being submerged horizontally and having a great time.
Ranger-led activities abound at this visitor-friendly park. You can learn about the geology, plants and animals of Zion by joining a ranger for a morning and/or late afternoon hike, an interpretive shuttle ride, a museum talk, and one of two evening lectures and slide presentations: one in the auditorium at Zion Lodge, the other under the stars at Watchman Campground. The topics, themes, and locations for the hikes change daily.
During my stay I joined three multigenerational morning hikes and signed up for the shuttle ride. On each activity I was able to explore a different area of the park through the eyes and knowledge of an enthusiastic, friendly ranger. Holly led her group along dry creek beds and a narrow slot canyon in the less visited eastern part of the park. Her theme was geologic time and how it is evident in the rock formations and materials deposited in the creek beds. She used laminated diagrams and pictures to illustrate her talks on the layers of rocks, the animals common to the area, and the dangers inherent in exploring slot canyons. Another morning I joined the ranger on the Riverwalk trail where Lonnie’s theme was the power of water and the unique environment along the riverbanks: maidenhair fern, horsetails, willows and columbine—all water-loving plants. A third hike drew my eyes down to the small, often unnoticed details of life at Zion. We studied the marks left by elm leaf beetle larvae as they burrowed beneath the bark; we used magnifiers to observe the composition of river sand; we looked for insects and the trails left by lizards moving from rock to rock. Each hike was fun, a nice balance between physical activity, new information and new acquaintances.
If only to be young again, at least long enough to join the Junior Ranger Program! Children between 6 and 12 years old learn about Zion and have fun by participating in hands-on activities, games and hikes, ranger-led or self- guided. After completing a requisite number of activities, junior rangers earn pins, certificates and patches. I wished for my own junior ranger hat to display the pins I could earn at the national parks across the U.S.
On your own, you can go to the Zion Visitors’ Center, the Human History Museum, and Zion Lodge, as well as take numerous hikes of varying difficulty. The visitors’ center can answer questions and help you plan your activities. Artistic and informative exhibits highlight the park’s features and hikes. At the museum, I first watched the Zion Park orientation film, one of breathtaking photography, and then learned about man’s interaction with Zion through the museum’s exhibits. One of my favorite locations was Zion Lodge, set among cottonwood trees, in a large expanse of meadow, surrounded by the monumental canyon walls. Outside, large rustic rockers and benches, set in the shade, made for a perfect destination after any physical exertion, especially when accompanied by a delicious, cooling strawberry peach frozen yogurt from the Zion Park Deli. With my friend, I hiked to Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, Pa’rus, and the Narrows. All the hikes were clearly marked and easy to follow. My favorite was the Narrows, where with hiking boots and wading staff, I walked in the Virgin River, along the canyon floor with the walls rising above my head as the distance between them decreased. It was great!
Zion Park has solved the problem of the designated driver missing out on all the spectacular scenery, as well as traffic congestion in the park, by instituting the shuttle system. From May through October, cars are not permitted on Canyon Scenic Drive, the main road through the park. The shuttle runs daily from 5:45 a.m. to 11 p.m., during peak hours as often as every six minutes. It stops at all the trailheads and points of interest, and even goes into the town of Springdale with several stops. I found this system completely relaxing and liberating. I spent my time enjoying the car free scenery and striking up conversations with fellow visitors, comparing notes on where to go and what to do. I didn’t need to concern myself with directions or where to park. I only hope that more of our national parks follow Zion’s lead.
I’ve amazed you with the beautiful scenery, the wealth of activities, the care-free shuttle system—all geared to increase your enjoyment and relaxation—but I’ve saved the best for last: the cost. For the price of $20 per car, everything I’ve described in this article is free. Not $20 per day, but $20 for a seven-day day pass good for a specific park. The ranger-led activities, talks, slide shows, the Junior Ranger Program ($2 one time sign up fee per child), the shuttle—all are free.
Zion—a place of refuge. It may be hard to imagine that towering sandstone cliffs could convey a feeling of sanctuary, but for me they did. My memories are long lasting and they could also be yours. Look up at the towering walls and learn their names: the Three Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa; marvel at the layers of colors and the cool texture of stone; stand under the dripping water at Weeping Rock, wade in the perfect coolness of the Virgin River; follow the fluffy cottonwood down in the breeze; make a friend at the Lodge or on the shuttle. I won’t soon forget the two young men I met from New Jersey who had “visited” six national parks and traveled 2,000 miles in six days. Even though some “visits” lasted only 30 minutes, they loved all they had seen.
America is home to 385 national parks. While this article has focused on my recent visit to Zion, each park has services that are geared to making each visit a memorable one. Spectacular scenery, activities that engage our minds, bodies, and souls, the chance to interact with service oriented staff and visitors from near and far. Affordable. Memorable. What are you waiting for?