March 2016: Southern Utah is an absolutely stunning place: red sandstone as far as the eye can see in vast mesas, towering cliffs, and hoodoos. Your beauty will be with us forever! And I mean that literally, since your red sandstone weathers down to the finest red sand I have ever seen. It blows through the tiniest cracks in our windows and covers our car. Until we sell this RV and the Jeep and get rid of every pair of (formerly white) socks we own, you will be with us.
In all seriousness, we did indeed love every minute that we spent in Utah, and will never forget our time there. If you have any doubts, there are 5 National Parks in southern Utah (Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches), a National Recreation Area (Glen Canyon) and too many National Monuments to list here. Although we spent nearly 2 months here, we feel that we’ve barely scratched the surface and will definitely return.
We entered Utah through St. George and headed toward Zion National Park. We knew we’d never get a campsite inside the Park, so looked for boondocking nearby on Campendium.com, our go-to campsite finder. Although there were several options available, I chose Flying Monkey Mesa because, well, Flying Monkeys! We found a great spot, tucked behind a small mesa that shielded us from the highway and made us feel like the only people for miles around. We could see some mysterious towers and structures on the mesa behind us, and a little Googling revealed some interesting history: we were camped right below the second-longest rocket sled test track in the U.S.!
Turns out that with the advent of the jet engine, pilots needed a safe way to eject from their machines. Enter the Hurricane Mesa test facility. The rocket track would hurtle jet cockpits off the end of the mesa to see if the ejection apparatus would work as intended. When designs had been tested and were deemed workable, chimpanzees were strapped into the cockpit to determine if the device could move on to the human testing phase. The locals began cheekily referring to it as “Flying Monkey” mesa and the name stuck. The facility is now privately owned and is all locked up, which is too bad. However, if you drive up to the mesa top, there’s a fun drive along Smith Mesa with some great views.
It seems appropriate that we started our exploration with Utah’s first National Park: Zion. To be honest, it was not our favorite park. It may have been our timing, as we visited during late March/early April when schools were out on Spring Break and the park was very crowded. The southern portion of Zion is by far the most visited area but has a single road for access with a spur heading into Zion Canyon (where all of the iconic formations and views are). The spur road is only accessible by shuttle bus during the summer months and, while the shuttle system is very nice, we found it crowded and noisy which detracted somewhat from our enjoyment and made it difficult to hear the bus driver as they talked about points of interest. And you’d better be in good shape – most of the hiking trails are very strenuous, as you’re hiking from the canyon floor up steep cliff faces. We hiked to Emerald Pools, the Grotto, and at the Temple of Sinawava before tiring of the crowds. We debated going back to hike the iconic Narrows, but the crowds and the cold water convinced us to explore outside the Park instead.
We had hoped to drive up Kolob Terrace Road and drive into the Park from the north via the West Rim Trail, but spring in Utah is a funny thing, and snow is not precluded! We reached the trail, only to find that it might be a bit more than we bargained for. In the photo below, that’s it heading off to the left.
We had a great time exploring anyway.
Finally, we headed up to Cedar Breaks National Monument because we’d heard how gorgeous it was. It was indeed beautiful (you can watch a short video on our YouTube Channel), but the road to the Visitor’s Center hadn’t even been plowed at this time of year. I’m glad we visited though: as a geology nerd, Cedar Breaks is the first step in what is called “the grand staircase,” a series of cliffs that drop through Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase/Escalante, and finally down to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The oldest exposed rock in Zion NP is the youngest exposed at the Grand Canyon, so as we moved from Cedar Breaks down through Utah, we were literally moving through geological time. How cool is that?
Next time – Bryce National Park, Grand Staircase/Escalante NM, and the Kaibab Plateau!
TIPS FOR YOUR ZION NATIONAL PARK TRIP
- You might want to avoid the Park during Utah school systems’ Spring Break week (late March/early April)
- To avoid overcrowding on the Canyon road, a shuttle bus system runs between mid-March and October (exact dates vary each year – check the Park’s website prior to your visit) each year. A bike path parallels the Canyon road if you prefer biking.
- Most of the hiking is very strenuous due to the vertical nature of the Park. Prepare accordingly and take plenty of water!
- A trip into The Narrows will involve some hiking in the Virgin River, so prepare for wet feet! Also, hypothermia is a possibility if you’re visiting during cooler months.
- The Tunnel can save you quite a few driving miles if you’re heading east toward Bryce NP; however, if your vehicle is taller than 11’4″ or wider than 7’10” (including mirrors!) you must purchase a tunnel permit. When you reach the tunnel, Park staff will stop all traffic so that you can proceed down the center of the tunnel. For more info and the complete list of restrictions, click here.