Instead of heading around to the Grand Canyon’s north rim (to which we said “next time”), we continued north past Lake Powell, stopping at the Glen Canyon Dam, where we were afforded some prime people watching. From there we made our way into Utah in order to check out at least one of the famous desert National Parks.
We opted for Zion National Park, conveniently in the southeastern corner of the state so not too much driving was required. We definitely plan to explore the other Utah parks once we're living in Colorado, with Arches and Canyonlands at the top of our list.
The drive through the east gate to the south gate, where the campgrounds are, is absolutely breathtaking. The eastern half of the park is lined with rocky hills that are home to big horn sheep (which we tried to coax out of hiding by calling “Here, biggie hornie!”, but no dice). Some of the rocky hills have patterns on them akin to paintings: it looks like someone dragged a gigantic brush along the stone while it was still malleable. One of the most interesting spots is a rock called “checkerboard mesa.”
The dividing point in the park is a mile-long tunnel, dug in the 1930s, which has three “windows” that slow down traffic a bit as car passengers strain to get a first glimpse of the fantastic views. The tunnel opens out to beautiful mountain vistas and switchback roads, bringing wide-eyed drivers down into the canyon.
We headed straight to the nearest campground to stake our claim, and while there were a good deal of campers in the 100+ sites, we didn’t have a problem (and we suspect the campground never filled). So, we set up camp and headed off to explore the park before nightfall.
Compared to the Grand Canyon, Zion is perfection. It is the kind of park that literally forces you out of your car in order to explore the grounds: the main road down the canyon is limited to the free park shuttles which pick up and drop off at about a dozen spots throughout the park and run well into the night. Also, the park is totally manageable: whereas it takes hours to drive to different spots along the Grand Canyon (5 hours from the south rim to the west glass overlook, which we couldn't do), it took us about 30 minutes to get from the visitors center to the riverwalk path at the end of the shuttle’s road. It’s a great place. On top of that, as with any park out west, the place is teeming with wildlife. We saw at least a dozen deer out eating before dark, including the mamas and their spotted fawns. “Little guys” -aka lizards- were parked near paths, keeping close watch on the visitors. We even saw a tarantula (thanks to the shuttle bus driver, who nearly ran the little thing over)!
Our daylight was pretty limited, so we ended up doing probably the most popular hike in the park, but it wasn’t overly crowded. The out-and-back hike was mostly paved, a little to our dismay at first, but it ended up being great because the flora and fauna held our focus. The squirrels, which looked more like a combination of prairie dog and squirrel, were hilarious and completely unafraid of people, holding down their ground in the middle of the path in a sort of man vs. beast game of "chicken". At the end of the hike is the start of The Narrows, another “trail” which literally uses the river instead of a pathway, and is so-called because the cliff walls close in on the river creating a more and more narrow river. We did a bit of The Narrows, enjoying tromping through the cold river water until it got a little too deep for us to risk damaging our expensive cameras. Plus we weren’t prepared...next time we will wear swimsuits!
It felt great to come "home" to our campsite, and we could definitely see ourselves returning to Zion, staying at the campground for multiple days, taking the shuttle to trailheads, and exploring more of the park by foot. Instead we moved on, to the call of flashy (and maybe a bit trashy?) Las Vegas.