Zion National Park was one of those places that I never quite expected to fall in love with – a place that was somewhat off my radar, as it wasn’t the true apple of our eye for this road trip. Arches National Park, with its deep red, towering, otherworldly natural sandstorm formations was the catalyst that spurred our spontaneous jaunt into the United States. But, as any seasoned road tripper knows, sometimes the open road has other plans.
We settled into the vehicle for the long haul and headed south from Calgary, eventually passing through the Sweet Grass Canada/US border with ease. Early into Montana we realized that we were going to need a bit more entertainment on this ambitious, lengthy drive into Utah’s desert landscapes. We promptly had Sirius satellite radio set up in Glenn’s truck with just one swift phone call and continued on our way, happily flipping between stations and singing along, excited to begin our photography adventure.
After a brief scare that we might run out of gas (the distance between towns in Montana is incredibly easy to underestimate!) and a quick over-night in a seedy motel somewhere in Idaho, we finally made our descent into Utah the next day —starry-eyed, excited, ogling the ever-changing landscapes.
I began checking the weather forecast on my phone, and we noticed that the temperature in Arches National Park for the next two days was looking pretty chilly, with a high probability of rain and wind. After this two-day cold snap it appeared to warm up significantly. Knowing that our plan was to spend the entire duration of our 5-day trip outside camping, hiking and taking sunrise, sunset and night photography, we wondered if there was a way to avoid this inevitable cold front.
Eventually, we made the decision to head further south for the first two days of our trip, visiting sunny and warm Zion National Park, make a quick detour to check out Bryce Canyon, and then head back up north to our original destination after the cold front had passed.
We were content with this decision, as both the temperature and the size of the red rocky hills around us grew higher the closer we got to Zion.
Pulling into Zion National Park was nothing short of spectacular.
The steep red cliffs towered above us and seemed to appear out of nowhere. The roads were a longboarder’s dream, winding their way up and through the canyons and valleys. The landscape was sun-baked and full of a startling array of colors: tans and yellows, oranges and reds, browns and greens with bluebird skies.
The scenery was so stunning that we stopped randomly so many times on the side of the road to take photos. I recommend giving yourself a healthy amount of time just for driving into this park — the landscapes change quickly and there is so much exotic, unfamiliar beauty all around.
There is a reason that Zion is Utah’s most popular park. As soon as you approach the park gates, this popularity will become apparent.
Even though we were visiting in the off-season (March), there were cars and people everywhere. There was a small vehicle lineup to purchase your park ticket and pass through the park gates. Cars, tour buses and people lined the streets of “downtown” Zion; hotels boasted fully booked-up accommodations with bright “No Vacancy” signs.
Don’t expect Zion to be a hidden gem – it is popular for a reason, a true Disneyland of a park with beauty worthy of its admiration. (If you are familiar with the hustle and bustle and the crowds of Banff National Park, you can think of Zion as its desert counterpart.)
We were quite surprised with the difficulty of finding a camping spot in Zion in March. We naively expected to be able to roll on in and easily find a camp site to park our “camper” in. (This trip, that “camper” was Glenn’s oversize Dodge Ram; we had stuffed patio furniture pillows in its backseat, in an attempt at creating a makeshift “bed”).
Zion has two campgrounds within the park: South Campground and Watchman Campground. Both, of course, were completely full. We were hoping to be able to just park at a pullout and sleep in the truck, but this isn’t allowed in Zion National Park, nor is random camping in tents without a backcountry/wilderness permit.
After photographing the Virgin River running through Zion at sunset, and with nowhere at all to be able to legally sleep within the park, we ventured away from the lights of Zion and outside of the park where we had seen a handful of small campgrounds on the drive in.
Of course, none of them had any availability. (This can unfortunately be the name of the game when you’re a spontaneous traveler, and more often than not it leads to some sort of adventure!)
Eventually, we were pointed in the right direction by the owner of a small campground about 20 minutes outside of the park. We learned that dispersed/random camping was allowed on all BLM Land and BLM Wilderness. While these areas were difficult to find in the dark, with the use of flashlights and headlamps we located a small plot of desert land away from the side streets where we could tell people had camped at previously.
We boiled some water and settled onto the tailgate of Glenn’s truck, shared two dehydrated backpackers’ dinners and gaped at the moon, which appeared huge and bright and illuminated the rugged desert landscape around us.
We then settled in to the backseat of our makeshift “camper”, hoping to grab a few hours of sleep.
The plan for tomorrow was to wake up bright and early, gulp down a quick breakfast and coffee and then set out to conquer the Angels Landing hike – said to be one of the most popular and thrilling hikes in the national park system.
If you have seen photos of the steep narrow ridge climbed with the use of chains, and of the dizzying views in every direction, you would understand why our excitement was large and our camera gear and memory cards were waiting, willing and ready.
Keep an eye out for my next blog post where I’ll chat about the Angels Landing hike and show my photos of the jaw-dropping scenery! Better yet, sign up for my mailing list, to be notified by email when a new blog post goes live!