Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks (Part 1)

Leaving Bear Lake in northern Utah we were pretty excited. We had technically been in a desert area for quite a while although it was classified as “high” desert. This means high altitude with little rain, which basically just means that you’re going to see a lot of dead grass. Today though we would be going to southern Utah. When you think of a desert scene from a movie, weather it be a canyon, mesa or just nothing for miles this is probably the place that it was filmed. The route today would take us from Bear Lake, over to Salt Lake City, then south on I-15 to the start of the parks. While most of this post will be about the Utah parks the drive from Bear Lake through the Wasatch Mountains to Salt Lake City was incredible. From the lake it seemed like the road went almost vertical until it reached the top at a lookout point. From there the road curved and twisted down steep canyon passes until it reached the bottom where it curved along a tree-lined river hiding small camping spots. It was really an amazing drive and one of our favorites on this portion of the trip.

Once we emerged from the mountains it was onto the highway and through the urban sprawl of Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City and the surrounding towns seemed to go on forever as we traveled south. Town after town blended together sandwiched between the mountains, the actual Salt Lake and the desert to the west. Finally though, soon after passing Provo the landscape opened up and we were finally out of the city. The huge mountains that were once directly to the east of us faded away and the pine trees of the mountains and the city left as well. In their place, sagebrush, small cactus, dead grass and the rolling hills of the desert. Roughly ¾ the way south in the state we made our way off the highway and to our first national park in Utah, Zion. As it was getting later in the afternoon we decided to just check into our campsite and call it a night. We would be in the park for 2 full days so there was no need to rush seeing it after a full days drive.

We woke up the next morning ready to go. The birds were chirping, lizards running around and it was going to be the start of a few weeks of 100+ degrees for us. Temperature aside we were very excited to get into the park. As our campground was directly next to the eastern park entrance it didn’t take long before we passed the gates and we were in. Zion National Park is located deep in a few canyons with a landscape that is not of this earth. Entering from the east side you are greeted with rock walls in shades of red, a dry riverbed with sand trails crisscrossing the landscape. The park isn’t that big, only 14 miles long or so. As the day wore on and we drove closer to the main entrance and the visitor’s information area we realized that we might have come the wrong weekend. We just happened to arrive Labor Day weekend and the park by 11am was a madhouse. There were people and cars everywhere parking on every square inch of road that they could. We did get a bit lucky when we reached the visitors center we found that there was RV parking that was still available. So as people in cars were circling looking for available spots we were able to easily park and walk right on in. After walking in and obtaining a map the ease ended there for us. We found out that all the best hiking trails in the park were on a road that was off limits to cars. The only way to get there was by shuttle. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but since this was Labor Day weekend the line to get on the shuttle was over an hour long. As we had no other choice we got in line and waited it out. After finally getting on the shuttle our hike for the day was the Emerald Pools trail. We chose this as it was 100+ degrees and this one had waterfalls and pools that you were able to walk through. The hike itself turned out to be very neat. We were able to walk through a waterfall in the middle of the desert, wade through shallow cold pools and even saw a tarantula hanging out by the side of the path (Julie was a little freaked out by that “bug”). By the end of the hike we were exhausted from the heat. We cooled off for a bit in the Zion Lodge before hopping back on the shuttle to the visitor’s center, getting back in Bubbles and heading back to the campground for the night.

The next day we woke up early as we had a plan. Since we knew the line would be long for the shuttle we would try to get there early to avoid the crowds as much as possible. We woke up, ate breakfast and got on the road as fast as we could. We made it through the park, to the RV lot and walked over to the shuttle line to only find it longer than the day before. Oh well. We tried. We got back in line waited the hour + and finally we were off. The hike for today was the famous hike in Zion, The Temple of Sinawava and the river portion of the Narrows. It’s famous as the trail leads through the canyon at the very end of the shuttle stop to the Virgin River where it then continues in the river for as long as you want to walk. So after riding the shuttle and getting off we started our hike. Even before getting to the section where you hike in the river the actual trail was beautiful. The trail was in a microclimate inside the canyon as while you were in a desert, deep in the canyon it looked almost like the Garden of Eden. There were great big trees, flowers and hanging vines everywhere. It was really spectacular. We finally reached the river and it was one of the craziest park sites that I had ever seen. There were steps leading down to the river where kids were playing, parents were watching and everyone else was either preparing for the hike or people were finishing their hike. We waded into the river gingerly with everyone else. The water only comes up to mid shin so we weren’t swimming but the water was moving at a pretty fast rate. We walked about half a mile upstream over slick rocks and boulders before deciding to turn around and make the hike back. This hike was a really cool experience and one that we would recommend to anyone visiting Zion. After the hike we hopped back onto the shuttle and made our way to the small town of Springdale right outside the western edge of the park. We walked around town for a bit collecting a few souvenirs before finding our way back to Bubbles and heading back to the campground for the night.

We woke up the next morning ready to hit the road. The next campground for us was next to Bryce Canyon National Park but it was only 2 hours away. We didn’t want to arrive too early so we decided to take a detour down into Arizona and go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for the day. Usually when people go to the Grand Canyon they go to the South Rim. There are more places to stay and it is easily accessible from both Las Vegas and Phoenix. The North Rim is a much smaller area and much harder to get to from major population centers. Lucky for us we were in the right spot and it was only a few hours away. The drive from Zion to the North Rim was beautiful (as every scenic drive in this part of the country is). It took about 3 hours to reach but we made it there. Once entering the gate of the park the scenery takes on a dramatic change. Gone is the sagebrush and small cactus and in its place are tall ponderosa pines. Since this change in landscape does occur you get close to the rim while not even realizing that its right there. After parking Bubbles we made our way to the edge. Unlike Zion in which you drive into the canyon, walking to the edge of the Grand Canyon just hits you like a ton of rocks. You go from a thick pine forest, not being able to see that well through it to seeing for miles over gorgeous & huge red shaded canyons. I had not been to the Grand Canyon in years and never to the North Rim. It just blew us away. After gaining our composure we did a short hike to a lookout point before making our way to the lodge and had a buffet lunch. We had a short but amazing time there and definitely plan to go back again one day.

We were sad that we couldn’t stay longer at the Grand Canyon but we had to make it to our next park before dusk so we got back into Bubbles and headed back into Utah to Bryce Canyon. We were spending the next few days at a campground called Ruby’s, which was a company that owned pretty much the entire town of Bryce Canyon City. After a restful sleep and breakfast we awoke to another beautiful but hot day. We found out that Bryce, just like Zion also had a shuttle system. With Bryce we didn’t even have the option to drive Bubbles into the park, as RVs were not allowed. That was just fine with us however as the park shuttle had a stop right at the campground so all we had to bring was our park pass, walk to the shuttle stop and we were off. First stop for the day was to visit the visitor’s center and get a lay of the land so to speak. We also watched a short movie on the makeup of the park. Bryce is famous for its numerous hoodoo’s that are plentiful in its amphitheaters. A hoodoo is a rock spire that wind, rain & snow have eroded over the years. They are basically stone columns sticking up from the ground. As it was our first day there we wanted to take a hike to see as many hoodoo’s as we could. We chose the canyon rim trail, which went from vantage point to vantage point. When we emerged from the shuttle we expected to see a few hoodoo’s but to our surprise there were literally hundreds dotting the parks rock amphitheater. It was really spectacular to see. The trail that we were on went for about 5 miles so we were able to see the amphitheater from almost all viewpoints. As great as the views were after 5 miles in 100-degree heat we were beat. We hopped back onto the shuttle and headed back to the campground for the night.

The next day we woke up excited to go again. It was our last day at Bryce and we had booked something special for the morning. We were going to go on an ATV tour. It was part of the Ruby’s business (I’m pretty sure they did have and sell everything in town). We walked over and signed our waivers and we were off. We were riding a UTV. A UTV is similar to an ATV although instead of sitting on it like a motorcycle, which you do on an ATV, a UTV has seats side by side. Its pretty much like a small 4 wheel off road car. As it was a little late in the season for tourists we were the only ones that had signed up for the day and had the guide for ourselves. The first part of the tour took us through pastures where rodeo bulls were kept during the rodeos off season. Yes a rodeo bull is a big as you think it is….massive. Next we rode to the edge of the park where we learned a bit about the hoodoo’s, the animals that live in the park and the Mormon settlers that first populated the region. We then switched drivers and had a bit of fun. We drove through small rivers, over huge hills, down steep grades and over rocks. It was a ton of fun! Julie surprised me and was a pro! (also she wrote this sentence… he he)

After lunch we hopped back on a shuttle and headed back into the park. We had seen a trail called the Queen’s Garden Trail that had led about halfway down into the amphitheater which allowed you to get right up next to some of the hoodoo’s. The trail was only about a mile and a half but it went down a pretty steep grade. I think this scared away people from doing the hike but for us it was 100% worth it. Hiking next to the hoodoo’s (most were 100 feet tall) was just amazing. The trail tunneled through rock going past hoodoo after hoodoo and eventually ending at one that was supposed to look like Queen Victoria. We didn’t quite know what she looked like but strangely enough for us there just happened to be a group of British hikers at the end with us who said that she didn’t exactly look like this hoodoo did. Fair enough on that. From there we hiked back up to the top, checked out the Bryce Lodge then hopped back onto a shuttle and made it back to Bubbles.

Next up….Red Rocks Continue! We travel to Capital Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks!

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