My family has never been particularly outdoorsy. Sure, we take the occasional spin on a bike or venture out on a (well-traversed) hiking path. Camping trips only happen with my 10-year-old son’s bi-annual Scout campouts.
In non-COVID times, our family vacations generally revolved around big cities, restaurants, shopping and sites. This year, obviously, things are different. COVID numbers are fluctuating, new variants emerging and travel is still unavailable in many places internationally. Even though my husband and I have been vaccinated, my son hasn’t, so we are not comfortable flying, dining inside restaurants or visiting crowded areas.
With these parameters in mind, we figured that the safest course of action was a destination accessible by car where we could spend most of our time outdoors. Bonus if we could try something new and different — not a tall order considering we’ve done a whole lot of nothing for the past year. Basically, we were ready to test the traveling waters, so we decided to do it at Zion National Park.
Zion National Park in Utah is a mere 6.5 hour drive from Phoenix. The massive, crazy and wondrous canyons and rock structures are awe-inspiring and filled with hiking trails, wildlife and a whole lot of natural beauty. The closest town, Springdale, lies at the south of the national park and has the feel of a smaller version of Sedona with restaurants, bars, art galleries and little shops.
In the past, I filed national park vacations away as aspirational — something I should want to do, but probably more meant for people excited to pitch a tent and squat in the forest who are able to exude calm in the presence of bears. In Zion, we definitely found provisions for those looking to rough it. But there’s also room for those who require a certain amount of luxury (like private toilets) on their vacations.
On our trip, we opted for a sliding scale of adventure. It started at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, a family-friendly enclave and a destination on its own. Located about 15 minutes east of the park proper, Ponderosa has vacation rentals and cabin suites (the only options with private bathrooms), cowboy cabins, glamping options that ranged from spacious tents to Conestoga wagons, RV hook-ups and tent camping. Many of the accommodations include a free buffet breakfast (which we opted out of due to COVID), and there’s a pretty good restaurant on property, or some basic groceries for sale for those wanting to do their own campfire cooking.
As for things to do, there’s an array of activities on the premises: mini golf, swimming/hot tubbing, rock-wall climbing, zip lines, paint ball, tennis, golf carting — as well as guided activities like canyoneering, horseback riding, hiking and Jeep tours. All the activities cost extra, but it makes planning adventures super simple.
My family opted to glamp in a Conestoga wagon for one night. The king bed and bunks were plush and cozy, if a bit chilly. There were a couple of space heaters in the wagon, though we were a little wary of sparking up a heater in close quarters, so we just cuddled and powered through the 25-degree chill. We spent our first evening tooling around the grounds in a golf cart and huddling by a fire in front of our wagon. It wasn’t exactly the Oregon Trail — but still novel for a family of city dwellers. Communal bathrooms and showers were about a half-block away, so it was a good thing that we weren’t under a threat of dysentery.
After a frigid night, we did some rock-wall climbing and zip-lining on the premises and then headed to our only pre-planned activity, a two-hour canyoneering trip by East Zion Experience I found on Airbnb. We took an ATV from the Orderville headquarters 10 minutes away to a nearby slot canyon where we met up with the rest of our group. After a 15-minute hike with people ages 5 to 50, we descended the canyon through rappelling, shimmying, sliding on our butts … whatever it took. The rappelling drops ranged from 10 to 42 feet. The descent was a little scary, but a controlled scary. Our particular tour had a lot of people, so our two-hour trip ended up being closer to four. Despite the large group, it wasn’t too difficult to keep our distance. Everyone wore masks (though not always correctly). The entire adventure was loads of fun and one of the highlights of our trip.
Exhausted and dirty, we drove to our next location in Springdale. To get to Springdale from Orderville, travelers must take the breathtaking drive through Zion. Entering the park costs a fee ($35 for seven days), unless you have a fourth-grader, and then it’s free as part of the national Every Kid Outdoors program that gives free entry to fourth-graders, siblings and up to three adults (register beforehand at nps.gov/kids/every-kid-outdoors.htm). We didn’t do a lot of planning for the trip, instead thinking we’d get a feel for the town before pulling the trigger on any activities.
Zion gets crowded. And since there are a finite number of ways to get into the park and to many of the trailheads, it’s good to at least know what your options are beforehand. We tried in vain to get any sort of shuttle pass. Everything was sold out. We checked on renting e-bikes, and they were also completely spoken for.
After one final check, we lucked out and snagged what was probably the last two-person e-bike in Springdale. With our son perched on the back of my husband’s bike, and me on a single, we headed through the pedestrian entrance of Zion and started our adventure.
Bikes are allowed along the shuttle route, which isn’t open to regular traffic, and unlike the shuttle, it allows visitors to go at their own pace, stop at their own pace and enjoy the fresh air while doing so. The only rule bikers need to follow is pulling over when a shuttle passes. We hopped on our bikes intent to check out the Emerald Pools, which came highly recommended as the go-to hike for families with youngish kids. We stopped at The Grotto shuttle stop and took the Kayenta hiking trail down to the Emerald Pool Trail, which we were told is much less crowded than the route at the actual Lower Emerald Pool shuttle stop.
For those who don’t get tickets for a shuttle or e-bikes, there are family-friendly trailheads along the main thoroughfare — The Overlook Trail being another recommended for families. We’d also heard about visiting The Shallows — an all-day hiking/rappelling trip into a slot canyon. That, however, will have to wait for another trip. And there will be another.
Need-to-knows about Zion National Park
This 229-square mile park in southwestern Utah is near the town of Springdale. A prominent feature is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to 2,640 feet deep. The park’s unique geography features unusual plant and animal diversity in its mountains, canyons, buttes, mesas, rivers and natural arches. Here are some tips for a family trip:
- You’ll need two to seven nights for a trip to Zion National Park. Get started at nps.gov/zion/index.htm
- Plan ahead to get $1 shuttle passes, lock in an e-bike, or schedule a guided tour.
- Fourth-graders and their families get into any national park for free courtesy of the Every Kid Outdoors program. Visit nps.gov/kids/every-kid-outdoors.htm
- Consider an audiobook for the 6.5-hour road trip from Phoenix.
Shuttle: At $1 per ticket, the park shuttle is the cheapest route through Zion, with periodic stops at or near most of the major hiking trails. A ticket (search “Zion” at recreation.gov) offers unlimited access to shuttles for the day. Tickets go on sale the day before travel, and they do sell out. If they do, there’s another shuttle company, St. George Shuttle that’s about $65 for a round-trip shuttle and will take you to one stop with a specific pickup time.
Renting bikes: E-bikes are a great way to travel the approximately six miles of roads off limits to local traffic while also taking in the scenery at your own pace. They can be pricey, starting at $75 per bike per half day. Visitors can also rent traditional bikes, though be warned, there are some elevation changes. Check Zion Cycles, Zion Guru or Zion Peddler for availability. Zion Cycles and Zion Guru have double e-bikes for families.
Cars: Regular traffic is not permitted on the shuttle route, but there are pullouts along the side of the main thoroughfare where the public can park and access some trails and climbing areas.
For a longer trip: Take a day trip to The Shallows — a slot canyon within Zion National Park. Other options to extend your vacation include driving to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon (1.5 hours east of Zion), Petrified Forest or Horseshoe Bend overlook near Page.