After two nice days in Salt Lake City we hit the road (I-15) south for three days touring some of the National Parks of Southern Utah—Zion, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks along with a bunch of great little towns on the road to and from.
After our early morning breakfast at Pig & Jelly Jar we were off driving south on I-15. Some quick notes about driving in Utah...it is outstanding. The freeways are wide, the speed limit is high (70 mph in Salt Lake City area, 80 mph outside of there) and they are smooth and the car was pretty well insulated. So what Google Maps had told us would take more than 4.5 hours to drive (SLC to Springdale) actually took only about 3.5 hours. We were cruising.
One of the new things we have been trying to do on our non-cruise trips is take the time to go anyplace that looks cool. That means that if we see a sign that rings a bell as something we have heard of before or we see a town that looks interesting, we go there. On our New Mexico trip last fall, our Low Country trip last spring and now this trip, it has worked out great.
Just north of the turnoff to Springdale (the town outside of Zion National Park) we saw the signs for Kolob Canyons which is actually a part of Zion National Park but not accessible from the lower part of the park. We decided to stop and take a look and we were thrilled with what we found. Our first chance to be in awe of nature on this trip. If you are doing this route, this is definitely worth the time you will spend seeing it. You get off the freeway, stop at the Visitor's Center, pay or show your park pass and then head into the five mile Kolob Canyons Scenic drive. Now usually when something says it is "scenic" and yet only 5 miles we believe that we might be in for a "is that all there is?" moment. But not here. Kolob Canyons is the perfect lead into the rest of Zion. It's like a mini-Zion that since you haven't seen the real thing yet, blows you away. I am so glad we saw it in this order.
Speaking of which, if you are headed to Utah for just the National Parks (and they have a BUNCH of them) then you are probably better off flying into Las Vegas than SLC. It is actually closer. Or driving up from the Grand Canyon. But since our mission was to see Utah, this worked for us.
Special note: In planning this part of the trip (Zion National Park) no source was more help than the website, Joe's Guide to Zion. It is the ultimate source for your stay. Go there and do your research.
Kolob Canyons took us about an hour to drive through and for me to stop and shoot lots of pics. Was worth the detour. We kept going around curves in the road and going, "OMG!" Then I would have to pull over and take more pics. You can see the big part of the canyon above but to really get an idea, see my Kolob Canyons pics by clicking here.
After we finished with the Canyons we had an errand to run. Kathleen had forgotten one of her small bags...the ones with her prescriptions in it so we had to call Kaiser (our healthcare providers) back in WA and have them call in a week's worth of prescription to the local pharmacy in sleepy town of Hurricane. After that short detour we headed up to Springdale where we were spending the next two nights.
After another scenic drive and some pretty heavy construction we arrived at our hotel, the Springdale Quality Inn. We would have done the AirBnB thing again but the pickings were few and far between in the Zion area. Pretty much some trailers and shacks. We decided to do a hotel we had seen recommended on a great website on Zion we had visited pre-trip.
Best part of the Springdale Quality Inn is their location. They are literally the closest lodging to the park entrance. Only staying at the park's own lodge would get you closer. They were close enough that when I wanted to walk into the park for one of my pre-dawn hikes, I didn't have to drive. The room was serviceable, clean and pretty much what you would expect. Our only criticisms would be the water pressure in the shower, the amount of hot water available and the HORRID free breakfast that we did not partake of but did look at. If you decide to stay here, do NOT plan on saving money by eating their "free" breakfast. BTW: I didn't put that in quotes because they were charging for it, I put it in quotes because the price you would have paid might have been a day of your trip while you stayed in the bathroom. Suffice it to say that the sausages were swimming in a vat of grease and water, the eggs looked to be mostly water and most of the people who were actually eating looked like they were just having the cereal.
But the people in the front office were very nice and we did enjoy our stay. Another nice thing about Springdale is that they run a shuttle that picks up folks from their hotels all up and down Hwy 9 that runs into the park. Which is great because there is very limited parking at the park. The shuttle is free and runs continuously from 8:00 am until around 8:00 pm. The drivers we had were really nice and informative and there was a shuttle stop (the last one before the park) right in front of the restaurant next door to the hotel.
As soon as we had dropped our luggage in our room, we jumped on that shuttle and headed to the park. Inside the park there is another shuttle, run by the Park Service that is included in the cost of your admission to the park itself. It runs all the way up Zion Canyon and unless you are staying at the Lodge in the park, it is the only way to get there. We wanted to do an overview of the park by taking the shuttle all the way to the end and back. It has some nice narration on the way in but the ride back is quiet. It was a great way to get acclimated to the valley.
I should mention the weather. While it was late October and SLC had been in the 60s most of the time during the day, Zion is in the desert and the afternoon temp when we arrived was approaching 90. It was clear and gorgeous. Also keep in mind that in a desert, temps drop quickly at night so that by the time I went on my pre-dawn walk the next morning it was close to 40. Bryce was colder still.
On the way into the park we realized that we had not had anything to eat or drink since breakfast back in SLC (by this time it was almost 3:30) but we also knew we had 6:30 dinner reservations. Lo and behold, what do we see just before we go into the park but the Zion Brewery right next to the entrance to the park. We decided to stop and grab a beer and to skip any food since it was so close to dinner. Of course we were foiled again by Utah liquor laws. We found that when you go into an eating or drinking establishment there is usually a sign that says either, "This establishment is licensed as bar" or "This establishment is licensed as a restaurant." If the latter, it meant that they could not sell you a drink unless you bought food. So we bought food. Got the cheapest thing on the menu which were some really delicious pretzels that were about the size of a small loaf of bread. That and their beer (which was very good) got us through to dinner.
After our quick beer break we crossed a short foot bridge next to the Brewery where we stopped, showed our Lifetime passes and walked into the park. We caught the next shuttle (no lines—I have been told that there are lines in the summer that sometime take more than an hour) and headed up amazing Zion Canyon
There really isn't much to say about the bus ride. There are 9 stops and you can hop on or hop off at any of them. Since it was the end of the day the bus was fairly empty on the way up the canyon but really full on the way back as people who had been hiking all day were heading out.
After our ride we went back to the hotel (we were getting kind of tired at this point) and collapsed until it was time to go to dinner. We had made pre-trip reservations at the Spotted Dog Cafe which turned out to be directly across the street from the Quality Inn. Nice planning. The food was excellent, the drinks were good and the service was outstanding. We would both eat there again.
The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn to do one of my "golden light" photography walks. I was going to walk two miles up the Pa'rus trail. This trail goes from the Visitor Center at the bottom of the canyon to the bridge at Canyon Junction. It is relatively easy, paved trail that shoots up the middle of the canyon allowing you to be right along the Virgin River and no where near the cars on the road. I would guess that it is a pretty popular trail with bikers and runners but in the 2.5 hours I walked it I think I only passed three people.
The walk was one of those magical photography moments I love. I left the hotel in pitch-black darkness, walked within 6 feet of a deer (who just looked at me like I was some distraction) before I even crossed the foot bridge into the park and then as the sun came up I walked further and further up the canyon, arriving at the Canyon Junction bridge just in time to join about 20 other photographers taking photos of the surrounding rocks as the sun first hit them. Then I got to shoot the river and other flora and fauna on my way back down. A truly super experience. See the pics from that walk by clicking here.
After checking out the "free" breakfast and deciding it was NOT for us, we hit Wildcat Willies Ranch Grille and Saloon. A fun place where we got filled up and were off for our full day in Zion. We took the shuttle back to the park and then the in-park shuttle all the way to next to last stop, the Weeping Rock trail. It was advertised as a very easy family stroll. They neglected to mention that most of the easy stroll was almost straight up. We did enjoy it and then we were back on the bus to the park's Lodge for a little shopping and Kathleen waited for me while I did the Emerald Pools trail...also supposed to be another "easy, family stroll" which I know that Kathleen would have had a hard time with. My observations is this: If you are not a regular walker, stick to the easiest of easy, like the Pa'rus which is very flat and would be great almost any time of the year other than an afternoon in the middle of summer. I would like to go back when I can do some significant hiking...maybe someday. I would love to hike The Narrows which is a canyon where you walk the entire way in the river. It's probably the most famous hike in the park.
Believe it or not, that took up a great deal of the day and we finished it off with a drive back down the valley to get a few pics of things we had missed coming in because we were in too big a hurry to get there. Dinner that night was at The Bit and Spur which is a Mexican restaurant where I had a great chile verde and Kathleen some awesome pumpkin tamales. Then it was off to bed as we were driving to Bryce the next morning.
Kathleen snapped my pic over our two beers at Zion Brewery.
Kathleen's pumpkin tamales at Bit & Spur in Springdale.
Some of Zion's amazing rocks
Dawn photo of the Court of the Patriarchs.
Kathleen snapped this deer walking across the parking lot of the Zion Lodge.
Dueling photographers also captures some great fall foliage.
Not sure the name of this rock but Kathleen snapped it while climbing the Weeping Rock trail.
My dinner at the Spotted Dog Cafe, short ribs and frites.
My chili verde at Bit & Spur in Springdale.
Photographers lined up on the Canyon Junction Bridge for the golden hour shots of the rocks of Zion.
The Virgin River in the middle of Zion Canyon. Taken from a foot bridge on the Pa'rus Trail.
The Zion Park Lodge