Eight days after I saw my first photo of Zion National Park, I found myself on the same overlook where it was taken. The photo had come as a text from friends, who had shared their trip plans with Jonah and me over some distanced beers the week before. It sounded incredible, but didn't really click until I opened the photo of a road winding through red rock cliffs and sawed-off plateaus. Chalk it up to the culmination of six months of cabin fever, but Jonah and I suddenly felt inspired to strike out on an adventure of our own. By the end of the day, we'd booked our campground and added a stop in the Grand Canyon, just two hours from Zion.
We weren't even sure we would go until the morning we left our apartment, leaving L.A. before dawn. Work and life has been particularly busy for both of us and we felt anxious about visiting two National Parks during COVID-19, but I didn't realize how necessary it was until we were there. Both Zion and the Grand Canyon were more beautiful, and restorative, than any photo could ever capture. I hope this post serves as a guide whether you're going next week or next year, or simply looking for some inspiration to head outside. Here's how I spent a long weekend in Zion and the Grand Canyon:
A note on coronavirus: The purpose of this post is not to praise or admonish anyone for their activity during this pandemic (though please #wearamask), but I've included my observations on things like the density of trails and relative safety of activities, so you can make informed decisions about your own travel. The coronavirus is not something I take lightly and this trip was a pretty big leap in my personal comfort level during this pandemic, so I wore a mask at all times, even on trails and outside, removing it only in the car, at camp, to eat, and for quick photos. The majority of people I saw wore masks indoors, on shuttles, and in cafés that allowed people to order inside, but maybe 20 percent of people wore masks on trails (though most kept them easily accessible).
We left L.A. early on Friday morning to stop in Las Vegas for fish tacos and donuts, and to drive down the strip (which I'd never seen!). The drive took about 6 1/2 hours to Zion from Los Angeles, and we arrived at the Zion Wright Family Ranch in the late afternoon to set up camp. The private land is about 45 minutes out of the park, and holds 50 camping spots, all of which were full but with plenty of space in between.
We were able to catch the sunset each night, which was truly beautiful, making the red rocks look hyper-saturated in the pink light.
If you aren't comfortable camping but are comfortable staying indoors, consider staying at the Zion National Park Lodge (you get early access to trails and it's the only lodging in the valley) or Under Canvas which is a glamping site just a few minutes down the road from where I stayed! There are also some cute-looking bed and breakfasts in Springdale closer to the park.
The most popular way to see Zion National Park—and the way we took—is through the valley that follows the Virgin River, accessible through the park entrance at the north end of the (very cute) town of Springdale. With a few exceptions, no cars are allowed to drive through the valley. Instead, it's primarily accessed through a park-operated shuttle, bikes if you can't score a shuttle ticket, and car, but only if you're staying at the Zion Lodge. Shuttles are the method most people take, and are allotted for hour-long stretches, beginning at 7 AM. The earlier tickets are the best because the park is stunning at sunrise and less crowded, and you'll be able to get a parking spot at the visitors' center rather than in town.
At the moment, tickets for the shuttle sell out months in advance (especially now that the shuttles are at 25% capacity due to COVID), but a few become available the day before at 9 AM Mountain Time—which is how Jonah and I got ours. Here's how to increase your chances of getting one, because they go quick: Create a recreation.gov account ahead of time, then begin refreshing the shuttle purchasing page at 9 AM MT. If you can't score a 7 AM shuttle on the first try, tickets can only be held in carts for 15 minutes so at 9:15 AM MT you get another chance. We got an 11 AM ticket on our first try, but at exactly 8:15 AM PST, I refreshed and suddenly a whole other crop became available and I was able to grab two tickets for 7 AM. If you can't get a shuttle ticket, you can wait until more tickets are released the afternoon-of, but I don't recommend this! Instead, if you're able, rent a bike in town and bike the five miles down the flat road along the valley from the visitors' center. There are bike racks at every trail, and it's a beautiful ride!
7:00 AM Hike to Angels Landing: Jonah and I left camp early and hopped on the shuttle as soon as we could, at 7 AM so that we could be on the trail to Angels Landing as early as possible. At 7:20, there were a few, but not many, people around us (maybe five that we could see). The hike is steep, but relatively short, and takes about 45 minutes to an hour, with beautiful views and a quick walk through a canyon, to reach the infamous "Chains" at the top. There are plenty of switchbacks, but enough flat breaks that I never felt too winded—but that doesn't mean you should go unprepared. I was happy to have hiking boots and a puffy jacket, since it can be cold before the sun reaches the canyon.
We arrived at the Chains by about 8:15 AM. This is where a rope of chainlink is bolted to the mountainside to help hikers maneuver around tricky landscapes and sheer drops for the final half-mile of the hike. They're known to be incredibly dangerous, and even fatal, so do not go if you feel uncomfortable. That being said, I personally never felt unsafe* on them and the view was so incredibly rewarding, offering a 360° vantage point of the canyon that was genuinely jaw-dropping. Though the Chains are only a half-mile long, they take about thirty minutes each way, even moving fairly quickly.
*While there were very few people on the Chains when Jonah and I started them, it turned into a traffic jam of people shortly after we got off, around 9:30 AM. Though I felt completely safe traversing them when there weren't crowds, I wouldn't have gone on after 9:30, from both a COVID and hiking safety perspective (I'd compare it to doing Half Dome, if you've ever hiked there). There are many points that require hugging a stranger to move around them, over sheer drops...
11:00 AM Hike The Narrows: By the time we made our way down Angels Landing and back onto the shuttle for our next stop, it was late morning. We took the shuttle to the final stop, The Temple of Sinawava, where the famous trail, The Narrows, starts.
The Narrows are aptly named for the part of the canyon where the valley narrows around the river, to the point where there isn't even a bank and the walls form parentheses high above the river. It's striking, fun, and highly Instagrammed (I couldn't resist either!). From the shuttle stop, you walk along a (wheelchair accessible) path down the river, to a point where the path ends and the only way onwards is by traipsing through the water, which reached my waist at the highest point. It was dramatic to see how much the canyon changed upstream. However, because we arrived at midday, it was packed with people—easily the most people we saw in one place during our trip—so we only made it a mile downstream before decided to turn around (though I've heard it only gets more beautiful!).
A note on gear: Outfitters in Springdale offer walking sticks, water-proof boots, and waders, which we saw a lot of people in. I simply changed into a pair of shorts and running shoes, packing my hiking boots in my backpack, and borrowed a hiking pole of Jonah's, which is necessary for finding your footing across the slick rocks. My feet were cold in the water, which waterproof boots would have guarded against, but nothing too bad! If you're not going too far, I didn't think waterproof shoes were necessary from a comfort standpoint, though please read the advisories about the cyanobacteria bloom if you plan to go.
2:00 PM Lunch and beers at Zion Brewery: By this time, the park was fairly packed and hot so we took a shuttle back to the entrance, dropped our wet things at the car, and headed to Zion Brewery which is about a hundred feet out of the park. The beer was delicious (doesn't it always taste better after a hike?) and outdoor dining was distanced, but I have to be honest that I didn't feel super safe there, as about half of the staff wore their masks around their chins. I can only speak to my own experience, but I'm pretty skittish still about dining, even outdoors, so it made me feel a little uncomfortable.
5:00 PM After touring around the area by car—including the discovery of Lamb's Knoll (which I'd love to go back to and climb soon!)—we arrived back at camp for a low-key, and extremely early, evening.
A note on hikes: If you only have one day in Zion, start with the hike you're most excited about! I recommend beginning with Angels Landing for a few reasons: The Narrows can be extremely cold in the morning and was refreshing during the heat of the day, and it's still doable with crowds—the farther you hike upstream, the fewer people there are. But if you're dying to see The Narrows solo, you may want to start there—or even get a permit for the Subway.
7:00 AM Grab breakfast at Oscar's in Springdale: We had few plans outside of heading to the Grand Canyon so once we reached Springdale, we stopped for breakfast at Oscar's which was easily our favorite meal of the trip—and a welcome respite to camp food!
From there, we took Highway 9, which goes right through the park and into a dramatic mountain tunnel. Right at the exit of the tunnel is the Canyon Overlook, which involves a bit of scrambling, and leads to the scenic view of the valley that first convinced me to take this trip! It was fairly busy, but not so packed that I felt uncomfortable.
The rest of the two-hour drive to the Grand Canyon North Rim goes through more of the park (with plenty of spots to stop and hike, or simply admire the scenery), then farmland and small towns. Once we headed south onto another highway, we passed through the most beautiful forest and fall-colored aspens.
1:00 PM Arrive at the Grand Canyon North Rim: The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is less accessible than the South Rim, so it only gets about 10% of the visitors which gives you the feeling of stumbling across a secret. We stayed at the Lodge, which is one of the only places outside of campgrounds available. It often books out months in advance, but when we called, we got lucky to learn there was a vacancy for two nights!
The cabins, built in the 1930s, feel very retro—like you're part of an American tradition of traveling to National Parks—and lend an air of camaraderie that feels like summer camp.
I was also impressed by the way in which the Lodge reacted to COVID, taking several precautions: While they normally have a café, saloon, and dining room, just the saloon was open, serving drinks and a small assortment of food (pizza, chili, burgers). Only four people were allowed in at once to order, and most took their food to the open veranda overlooking the canyon or to their small porches. There's also a general store that has some basic groceries.
On our first night there, Jonah and I hiked some of the trails around the lodge—the Transept Trail and short walk to Bright Angel Point—but mostly sat on the veranda, taking in the view. We grabbed a spot at one of the tables on the edge (which begin filling up around 4 PM), and sat there for four hours with beer and pizza, watching the sunset and chatting with other visitors.
7:00 AM Take a mule ride into the canyon: From the North Rim, there are two options for mule rides, which leave from the Lodge: a circular rim trail and an out-and-back down into the Canyon along Kaibab Trail, which is what we took. This was truly one of my favorite things we did! Though I expected it to be scary—the mules walk along the edge of the trail—I quickly felt completely comfortable on Cobra's back. It was an amazing way to see the Canyon, and even some of the backpackers who were finishing the twenty-one mile rim-to-rim hike. We went with a small group of about ten people, but I had the luck of riding directly behind our guide David, who I learned only recently began leading mule tours, after 32 years as a horse jockey! If you happen to ride with David, be sure to ask him questions about his life—the man has stories.
10:30 AM Head to viewpoints: After the ride, we grabbed to-go sandwiches from the saloon and headed to some of the more popular view points along the North Rim, about 45 minutes away, including the Cape Royal Overlook and Angels Window, where you can see the Colorado River. Every view of the Canyon left me literally breathless. There is so, so much to see and each perspective feels like an entirely different canyon! On our way back, we stopped at the Point Imperial Viewpoint (shoutout to the reader, Atara, I ran into there!).
3:30 PM Looked at the Canyon: As I was writing this, I asked Jonah a few times, "Wait, what did we do from the hours of 3:30 to sunset?" and his answer was always, "We looked at the Canyon." We spent a lot of time at the viewpoints around the Lodge just looking, and I never once got tired of it. We closed out our final evening of the trip with another sunset (and another pizza and beer!), before making the long drive back to L.A., restored and grateful to live so close to so much beauty.