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.
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.
Red Canyon hoodoos are unique from those of nearby Bryce Canyon. In Red Canyon, the hoodoos line the road instead of filling an amphitheater.
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 at 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 makes 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 breads daily and offer sandwiches.
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 their down-home cooking and “Ho-made Pie.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 trail heads. 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 22-minute video about the park.
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.
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 in the bottom of the canyon listening to the rush of the river and rustling of the spring green leaves.
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 up stairs (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.
When we arrived at Zion, we enjoyed lunch at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub close to the Visitors Center. It’s the only brew pub in town. The Reuben sandwich was delicious. In warm weather, you can enjoy your brew on their outdoor patio.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.