We were headed for the last of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks on our tour and were in store for even more surprises as we made our way to Zion National Park. It was snowing when we awoke but we would be at a lower elevation that day and planned for rain and sun breaks.

On our guided van trip with Southwest Adventure Tours out of Salt Lake City, we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. But, as we found, it was some of the adventures on the way that created even more memories for us.

Getting to Zion National Park

We left the Bryce Canyon National Park area after a hearty breakfast at the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel. In different weather, we would have been up before dawn to experience the sunrise over the hoodoos.

There was snow on the ground and it continued to snow as we drove through tunnels carved out of the red rocks. On the map, it could be a short trip, but our experience with this tour was that with so much to see on the way, a typical 90-minute trip can turn into hours. And that was the fun of getting from park to park.

Dixie National Forest-Zion National Park

Tunnel into Red Canyon. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

We entered the Dixie National Forest, red rocks blanketed with snow. At Red Canyon Visitors Center, we noticed Smokey the Bear had snow on the rim of his hat. Since it was snowing we explored some trails around the Visitors Center and appreciated the beauty of the falling snow.

Smokey the Bear - Zion National Park

Playing tourist at the Red Canyon Visitors Center. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Red Canyon hoodoos are unique from those of nearby Bryce Canyon. In Red Canyon, the hoodoos line the road instead of filling an amphitheater.

Red Canyon - Zion National Park

It was snowing as we drove through Red Canyon. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Home Baked Goodies Enroute to Zion National Park

We retreated to the van to warm up and were off to our next stop—the Forscher German Bakery in Orderville. Orderville was established in the direction of LDS Church president Brigham Young in 1875 specifically to live United Order, a form of communalism. They continued for ten years until it was disbanded.

It remains a small community. The bakery and restaurant make for a great stop. In season, they offer meals including a traditional German breakfast. We were a bit early in the season to purchase a full meal, but there was a selection of tempting pastries. They bake bread daily and offer sandwiches.

German Bakery

The German bakery in the little town of Orderville. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

After trying pastries and cakes, we were well-fortified for our activities in Zion National Park. But another restaurant beckoned—of course, only because it was a perfect roadside attraction for photographs. The Thunderbird Restaurant in Mt. Carmel is known for its down-home cooking and “Ho-made Pie.”

Thunderbird Restaurant - near Zion National Park

A popular stop at the intersection of US-89 and W Highway 9 in Mt. Carmel. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Entering Zion National Park at the East Entrance

It was then time to enter one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Traveling in on Highway 9 provides the visitor with a most impressive way to enter the park. There is a 1.1-mile tunnel through the side of the mountains and the tunnel has picture windows carved into the rock. It was through those windows that we glimpsed the majesty of what we were about to see in Zion National Park.

Zion Tunnel - Zion National Park

The east entrance tunnel is 1.1 miles long and can only accommodate cars and smaller RV's. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As we exited the tunnel, it was easy to see why the area was set aside as public land. It had been long inhabited by indigenous people, who followed the river into the canyon when Mormon settlers arrived in 1858. In 1909, President Taft designated the area Mukuntuweap National Monument to protect the canyon. In 1918, however, the acting director of the newly created National Park Service changed the park's name to Zion, the name used by the Mormons.

Zion National Park

It had rained recently so the mist hung at the tops of the cliffs. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

We stopped at the Canyon Overlook to marvel at the cliffs with the mist from the recent rain hanging on the tops and into the dips of the red formations. Below, the Virgin River ran high with snowmelt.

Zion National Park

From the viewpoint, we looked down into the depths of the canyon. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

At each turn, there were new sights, new formations, and cliffs to see. We stopped again at the bottom of the canyon to look up at the massive cliffs and down at the flowing river lined with the spring green of budding cottonwood trees.

Zion National Park

The cliffs as seen from the river level. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The sights just whetted our appetites for more exploration and hiking. But first, it was off to lunch at the other end of the park and time to check in to our hotel.

Activities in Zion National Park

Zion National Park is one of those places that is being loved to death. It can get crowded with visitors from all over the world in the summers. To deal with the situation, the park has an excellent shuttle system that takes people around the park, and to trailheads. Spring through fall, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to shuttles only.

Springdale, where we stayed, is just outside the park and has an excellent free shuttle system that connects with the park shuttle. So, you really can leave your car at your hotel. The Visitors Center is large and provides educational displays as well as great souvenir shopping.

There is a full range of activities at Zion… biking, hiking, climbing, ranger-led walks. Since there was such good transportation our group was able to split up according to interests. Our two hiking men took off with our guide for some hiking adventures while the family with an older relative took the shuttle for sightseeing and enjoyed the Human History Museum and recommended a 22-minute video about the park.

Hiking Zion National Park

Two of the men on our trip opted for the more difficult hikes and always had fun along the way. Photo Courtesy Thomas Lynch

I was awestruck by the beauty of the canyon and wanted to spend time walking along the river and looking up at the immense cliff faces. I took the shuttle and got off to walk the Pa’rus Trail back to the Visitor Center. From a Paiute word meaning, “bubbling, tumbling water,” the Pa’rus Trail is an easy, paved trail that follows the Virgin River through lower Zion Canyon, on its way north from the park entrance. It’s also a bike trail.

Zion National Park

Spring cottonwoods along the Virgin River in Zion. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I was lucky that day… it sprinkled rain as I walked almost alone, sat on a rock at the sandy riverbank, and took in all the beauty. On an earlier trip, I hiked with friends via “Refrigerator Canyon” and “Walter’s Wiggles,” to the base of Angel’s Landing. I opted out of the part where a strong grip on chains takes you to the absolute top of the narrow fin but enjoyed the vista from on high several years ago. It was equally amazing to be at the bottom of the canyon listening to the rush of the river and rustling of the spring green leaves.

Virgin River in Zion National Park

One of my WOW moments that day was walking along the river in the canyon at Zion. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Places to Stay, Shop and Eat at Zion National Park

Our group stayed at the LaQuinta Inn and Suites in Springdale. This was not the usual LaQuinta. The property had multiple buildings, some with fairly new rooms. Our building had a ramp to the second floor which really helped. It’s no fun lugging a suitcase upstairs (especially when you are developing a collection of rocks as you travel!). The breakfast was also a cut above the normal motel breakfast. On this trip, we stayed in very nice motels and inns… not luxurious but all excellent choices.

La Quinta Springdale Utah near Zion National Park

Even the hotels have stunning views. This is taken from La Quinta. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When we arrived at Zion, we enjoyed lunch at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub close to the Visitors Center. It’s the only brewpub in town. The Reuben sandwich was delicious. In warm weather, you can enjoy your brew on their outdoor patio.

Zion Canyon Brew Pub - Zion National Park

The Zion Canyon Brew Pub makes a great Reuben sandwich. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

On our last evening of the trip, we had a fun meal together at Wildcat Willies, filled with kitschy western décor. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and, as they say, have a full-service saloon. We toasted the trip with a bumbleberry margarita but forgot to leave room for their famous bumbleberry pie!

Bumbleberry Margarita near Zion National Park

Bumbleberry Margarita. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Springdale’s main street is home to some wonderful galleries ranging from photographic art to an eclectic collection of locally made pottery, paintings, and jewelry. It’s worth leaving some time to explore the main street. I had become enamored with the different rocks and minerals of the area where we traveled, so I stopped in the Zion Rock and Gem Shop and left with a beautiful souvenir. My Orderville Septarian geode was found in the hills outside the little town where we had enjoyed the German pastries.

Utah Septarian - Zion National Park

Utah Septarian geode. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Bidding Utah's Mighty 5 Farewell at Kolob Canyons

After an early hike the next morning, it was time to leave and make our way back to Salt Lake City. It had been six days full of outdoor experiences and stunning scenery. But we had one more stop to make in our exploration of the geology of the Colorado Plateau.

Just off I-15 is the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park. A five-mile scenic drive along the Kolob Canyons Road brings you through an area of red rock canyons.

Here in the northwest corner of the Zion National Park, narrow parallel box canyons are cut into the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, forming majestic peaks and 2,000-foot cliff walls. We stopped at viewpoints to marvel at the craigs and layers of rock and then it was off to flatter lands and vistas of the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains.

Colob Canyons -Zion National Park

Our last glimpse of the cliffs and formations of the Colorado Plateau. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Southwest Adventure Tours’ Mighty 5 Tour from Salt Lake City was a wonderful way to explore the lands of the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. It was so nice to not have to plan the trip, make hotel reservations, check road conditions, or find points of interest along the way. It was relaxing to sightsee and not drive. This is clearly a “bucket list” trip.

About Southwest Adventure Tours

Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah-based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is focusing on small group experiences… usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi-day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks. Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure that everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.

Read about all of The Might 5® National Parks in Utah.

Zion National Park, one of Utah's Mighty Five, is among the most beautiful places in the United States. The canyons, cliffs and formations are awe-inspiring.

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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