Utah loop road trip: Zion National Park

It only takes about 1 1/4 hours to drive from Cedar Breaks National Monument to Zion National Park. But driving the 12 miles from the beginning of the park to the visitor center takes at least that again as it is impossible not to stop and gawk at so many incredible viewpoints along the way.

Checkerboard Mesa

Mount Carmel Tunnel, the longer of the two tunnels you travel through, runs through the mountains for 1 ½ miles. If you are over 11’4” (3.4m) tall or 7’10” (2.4 m) wide (including mirrors, awnings, and jacks) you will need a tunnel permit and you will have to wait to be escorted with traffic stopped coming the other way so you can travel down the middle of the road. Cost: $15. Artie is small enough to drive through normally. Yay!

We stayed for two nights at South Campground, which is made for people like us who don’t plan very far ahead. The other campsite can be booked six months ahead, but South Campground only allows bookings two weeks out, providing late planners with opportunities for really great spots. From our site it was only a short walk to the visitor center (a great place to get your bearings, learn about and sign up for programs, fill water bottles, and catch the shuttle) and to Springdale, a village just outside the South Gate (showers, outfitters if you want to rent equipment like waterproof footwear for hiking in the river, a brew pub, and store).

Once we had set up at camp, we walked over to the visitor center to scope things out. We loaded our backpack with the basics, but we weren’t expecting to take on any major hikes since it was so hot (a heat wave struck the area the day before and the afternoon temperatures were in the mid-to-high 30s). We talked to one of the rangers about signing up for programs and registered for Ride with Ranger, a park-ranger-escorted trip on the shuttle, for the following morning. Our ranger also suggested we hop on the shuttle right away and take at least one hike. When I suggested that it might be too hot, he pointed out a couple of hikes that were easy and quite shaded. We hopped on the shuttle, which is also a recommended way to see the park and is the only way to get to some of the hikes (other than cycling) as no vehicles are allowed past a certain point along the canyon road.

Angel’s Landing is one of two iconic hikes in Zion, the hike that the most intrepid plan to do. It climbs up the side of a mountain using a set of switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles, flattens out on a saddle ridge, and then, using chains to assist, continues up to a table top landing. Sadly, the trail was closed for chain maintenance the two days we were there or we would surely have set out to conquer this challenging trail. Absolutely we would have. Right?

The other iconic hike is through a narrow section of Zion Canyon, hiking in the river. Everyone starts out on the Riverside Walk and, those wanting to go farther when that trail ends, hop into the river and continue on. The Riverside Walk was one of the hikes that was recommended to us on the first day and we didn’t realize that it connected to the Narrows hike.

We didn’t come prepared with riverable footwear, so stopped at the end of the trail. We did, however, climb down onto the beach and look up the canyon, only to see mobs of people up that way. I hope it was worth it for those who rented shoes and hiking sticks. (The next day we overheard a family who had headed out in the morning to do the Narrows hike thinking they would avoid the heat of the day. Instead, the morning was incredibly windy, clouds kept the sun at bay, and the water was so cold they had to turn around.)

Though we had taken the shuttle the day before, we found Ranger Dana’s tour fun and informative. The escorted tour stops at fewer but different spots than the regular shuttle.

The tour ends at the farthest stop, but you can ride the express route back to the visitor center with the ranger, take in the hikes from this stop, or grab a regular shuttle back to any of the other stops. We found the signage and information provided in the park’s newspaper to be excellent.

After our Ride with Ranger tour, we caught the regular shuttle back to two other stops so we could take in a couple of easy hikes. One, to Weeping Rocks, was steep, but short and ended up in a cave viewpoint with water dripping down all around us.

Our other hike, Emerald Pools, was not as steep, but longer, and ended up at little pools and a huge carved out overhang with water dripping in some places or pouring down in others.

Both hikes were beautiful. Actually, everything in Zion is beautiful. You don’t have to go far or even take any hikes to see incredible scenery as, once you are in the canyon, you are surrounded by it.

Our last hike started from the Zion Park Lodge shuttle stop. Though we could have returned to our campsite, we instead took lunch at the Red Rock Grill, enjoying a cool window view with our meal (and a wonderful local beer for Ken).

You can rent bikes in Springdale and bring your own, of course. Though some people were cycling up the canyon parkway we didn’t see the advantage over the shuttle. It was so hot out and the road is in full sun. It is also narrow and, if one of the very frequent shuttles comes up behind you, you need to stop your bike before they are allowed to pass. There are two bike racks per shuttle, though, so you can ride part way and then catch the shuttle back with your bikes. If we were there longer and wanted to explore areas that were not near shuttle stops, we likely would have taken our bikes out (in the morning or evening when it was cooler!). There is also a paved several-mile trail that runs right behind the campground. We were planning to ride that on our last evening, but plans changed (more on that later).

Back at our campsite we discovered that Artie’s fridge was not cooling properly. Lots of troubleshooting and communing by phone with a very generous-with-his-time RV service technician, and by Facebook with an equally generous electrical engineer on a RoadTrek Owner’s group, and even removing the fridge, and Ken was able to resolve the problem and get the fridge back on track.

It was getting dark but we grabbed our things and walked into Springdale for showers. The little village is really convenient to the South Campground—just a 10-minute walk and we had access to clean, hot showers ($4 for 5 minutes) and laundry, outfitters if you had a need, and a small store.


  • Camping at South Campground: $20 per night. Bathrooms but no hookups. Reserve up to two weeks in advance.
  • Entry to Zion National Park: $35 per vehicle or free with Interagency Pass ($80).

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