Zion National Park: Red Mountain Paradise

After spending over three weeks in the Lake Mead Recreational Area, the two Alejandros (aka the Camelia Comets, #ahuevo) made their way to Zion National Park. The three-hour drive North through Nevada’s beautiful deserts was quite stunning, as the light brown desert plans and mountains slowly turned into a dark red color acquired pine vegetation.

1. The Park and its History

Zion National Park is located in Southern Utah near the city of Springdale region and has abundant giant red rocks that started forming 240 million years ago through a process of sedimentation, then certain minerals cemented these very think layers of sediments into hard rocks with those distinct red colors, which finally underwent a slow uplift process from forces deep within the earth, turning those rocks into hills as high as 10,000 feet (3 km) above sea level. The stunning landscapes inside the Zion Canyon reminded me of Yosemite’s landscape but in a vivid brown-red color.

2. Trails and Sites

Zion was without a doubt one of the most beautiful parks we visited along our one-year RV journey across the country. The length of our stay there was about 3 weeks long, so we got to see a lot over the three weekends spent there, including a two-day trip to Bryce Canyon National Park. While we did not see and hike all the famous trails, we got to experience some of the best know ones.

Watchman Trail

This was the first trail we hiked right upon arriving. The trailhead is right off of the Watchman Campground and it is a beautiful 3.1 mile hike up to a very scenic viewpoint and back down. We truly enjoyed it despite the weather being rainy and cold. Below on the left is a photo I took of the summit, and on the right a TikTok we made of Alejandro R. testing out his mad maniacal primate karate skills.

Watchman trail view.

Zion Canyon Overlook Trail

This is a short 1-mile hike that is heavily trafficked but with spectacular views. It was fairly busy even when I was there in February, so might not be worth if super crowded just for that Instagram influencer pic. I parked 2 miles away from the trailhead and biked over there but it was well worth it for those sunset views over the canyon.

Angels Landing

Angels Landing is perhaps the most popular trail in the Park, hosting about 300,000 people every year. It hosts beautiful winding trails that go up 1,700 ft (about 0.5 km) on the 4.4 mile (7 km) trail, with a large portion being a very narrow steep hill to the top. The views of the Zion Canyon along the entire hike are absolutely stunning, especially as you are climbing or descending the steep narrow portion and all you can see is a steep 1,700 ft drop on each side. This part of the climb has 19% grade incline and requires that you hold on to a chain anchored throughout the trail as you go up. That being said, this hike is great for adrenaline junkies, but not for people who are afraid of heights. That’s precisely why Alejandro Ramirez (AKA “el Aless” or “insane destroyer” or “maniacal primate”) decided to stay back and avoid getting a heart attack halfway through the climb.

If you plan of hiking Angels Landing, I’d recommend going as early as you can in the day. While I did not have to wait in line to go up the steep portion of the hike (past the Scout lookout), I have heard of people waiting on a 2-hour line to hike that portion during the summer season.

View of the bottom portion of the Angels Landing trail.
Last portion when it starts to get scary.
Looking back, half way up.
Incredible view of the summit.
The Narrows

This is also one of Zion’s most popular hikes, hosting 8.9 miles (14 km) of trails that lay directly on the Virgin river, flowing about 1 to 5 feet deep depending on the season, and wedged in a narrow canyon. This wonder of nature was formed over millions of years during the uplift process of the rocks, which gave streams more cutting force to form deep and narrow canyons that look like deep red rock alleys.

Due to anticipated crowds and a pretty small parking lot at the trail head, we drove in at 8 am, shortly after park gates had opened and had no problem finding a parking spot at the trail head lot, which is at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic drive. The narrows hike portion that is on the stream (about 1 mile from the trail head) had almost no hikers, making our experience quiet in such a beautiful place very pleasant. The fact that it was snowing a little with temperatures between 35-40 F (2 and 10 C) probably helped making it less busy than usual. When temperatures are low at the narrows you’ll definitely need to wear a dry suit. We rented Dry Bib Package at Zion Outfitter for 55$ each at the and felt very comfortable throughout the hike. You should check the river conditions a day head of your hike to make sure they are safe.

Los Alejandros in the deep Narrows.
Cool narrowing portion.

2. Getting Around the Park

Despite it being quite chilly in early-to-mid February (ranging between 30-60 degrees Fahrenheit / 0 to 15 Celsius) the trails were pretty crowded and most parking lots were full. Furthermore, due to Covid Precautions, the car entrance to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive was closed during most of the week, and tickets for the shuttles that take you around the park to that road had to be reserved about one to two weeks in advance due to the high demand. However, upon my last visit to the NPS website, shuttle tickets are now not reservable and attainable on a first come first serve basis, so arrive early to avoid lines! I also saw that the scenic drive is currently only open to the shuttles, or by walking or cycling.

My best solution to getting to busy trails on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive when the gates were closed to only buses, was by cycling. We were lucky to have our bikes with us strapped to Emilio (the 4Runner) and either parked right outside the Park entrance in the Zion Outfitters parking lot, or in one of the overflow parking lots outside the Scenic drive gates. Bikes can also be rented at Zion Outfitters for $35 for regular or $95 for pedal assist e-bikes. By doing this, you will not only avoid long vehicle lines and full parking lots, but you will also enjoy an epic ride of a lifetime. The ride to the Angels Landing trail head from and back to Zion Outfitters (7 miles, 11 km each way) was probably the most beautiful bike ride I’ve ever done, wedged in this majestic valley and surrounded by the gigantic red hills.

Riding to Angels Landing.
Shots from my bike ride.

Unfortunately, cycling is not allowed through the Zion Mount Carmel tunnel, so if you want to go from the South entrance to the trails East of that tunnel including the Canyon Overlook trail head, you’ll have to drive through the tunnel and park on the other side to cycle from there. When I visited the Canyon Overlook trail, every parking lot near it was full, so I parked in a spot about 2 miles East of it and unstrapped my bike to cycle my way to the trail head. As I arrived and was looking for a rack or post to lock my bike to, an old park ranger lady started yelling at me saying that “there are no bike racks” and that I should not be biking there because I was “encouraging others to bike as well.” My first thought as a transportation nerd was that I was doing just the right thing! In fact it occurred to me that the National Park Service should be incorporating cycling infrastructure at their facilities as a solution to heavy car congestion crowding National Park roads and parking lots. The Park Service would not only reduce car congestion and local air pollution at the parks, but could even profit from operating or leasing space for a bikeshare service with stations distributed throughout the parks. In fact, NPS has already its own bikeshare system in a recreational area in St. Paul MN, so why not expand it to other parks?

3. Camping, RVing, Vanlifing at Zion National Park

There are several options for camping near the park whether you are staying in a tent, an RV, or Van. Nearest to the park’s South entrance are the Watchman Campground (just outside the entrance) nd the South Campground (just inside). The former is open all year long and offers many tent and RV sites (with electric hookups, dump station available), and flush toilets. The latter is only open between March and October and offers the same amenities, except electric hookups for RVs. Both are perfectly located, offer beautiful views, but require reservations far in advance. Nightly rates are the same for both; $20 for tent sites, $50 for group tent sites (from 9 to 40 campers), and $30 for RV-electric. We stayed at the Watchman Campground for our first couple of nights there, after we got kicked out of the South Campground parking lot, where we successfully boondocked for two nights until the Park Police caught us and gave us a ticket. We were lucky to find a spot last minute at Watchman because it was early February and cold as heck (low 30s F, 0 C).

For shower situation throughout our long stay in the area, we used the coin showers located in the Zion Outfitters Village near the south entrance to the park. They also have coin laundry there and the facilities are incredibly clean.

After our time at the Watchman Campground was up, I fount out about a BLM free dispersed camping site about 20 minutes from the Park’s south entrance on www.freecampsites.net called Smithsonian Butte (no longer there for some reason but at these coordinates: 37.1465845,-113.063339). The reviews were amazing but also warned about the difficult terrain to get there with few spots to turn around with an RV trailer and requiring 4×4 vehicles. That made me feel reluctant given Camelia’s low clearance and Emilio’s 2-wheel drive/ 6 cylinder limitations, but I read somewhere that you could access the high point of the area through a back road through Apple Valley on St. Route 50 (an extra 20 min drive).In the end it was well worth it because it turned out to be the most beautiful spot we camped at during out journey. We found ourselves living amidst the most beautiful views of the park’s mountains with excellent cell phone and hot spot signals (T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon). We made that place our home for almost 3 weeks and it was memorable. There are about 3 spots to camp on that safer side, but after you get to that highest point/overlook, Smithsonian Butte road turns into a nasty descend only accessible to high clearance vehicles. I crossed that part with Emilio (my 2 WD 4Runner without the RV) twice and scratched the bottom of it s few times.

Our back yard for 3 weeks.
Alejandros fire dance on a typical weekday evening.

Fun Stories

When we reached the last part upstream at around mile 5 of the Narrows hike, we stumbled upon two Asian ladies, who were one of the few other people we had seen along the hike. After speaking a few sentences about the trail and we asked each other where we were from, we were surprised to learn that they were sisters born and raced in Buenos Aires, Argentina but with Taiwanese roots. When we started speaking in Spanish, it felt quite odd listening to them speak with a heavy Argentinian accent, but it was very interesting to learn about their upbringing embracing their two different cultures while we were hiking downstream.

The other fun story was when Alejandro S. interviewed Alejandro R. about random philosophical perspectives on shapes and consciousness while contemplating the Narrows landscape.

Alejandros philosophize about the wonders of nature in front of them.

Hope you enjoyed this post and stay tuned for the next ones on other amazing Utah spots we visited.

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