I've stated multiple times in different posts that national parks in the United States are made to be toured in vehicles and that no matter how crowded the place seems to be at first glance, one can find solitude simply by walking a few dozen meters off the main paths. Recently we discovered a place that seemed to defy this basic rule, a thing of which we were most unhappy about. I get what the rangers in Zion National Park are trying to achieve, and they are doing it marvelously, but our experience ended up being a lot less satisfying than we had hoped.
Let me go back a little bit.
We had visited the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, which was superb, and were thinking that it was a bit too long of a drive to try and go directly to Las Vegas from there. Also, we had heard a lot about two national parks in southwestern Utah, called Bryce Canyon and Zion. Bryce Canyon was a little too far to the north for us and it was also a canyon, which we had already seen a bunch of. Zion fit into our travel plan better and we decided to check it out on the way to Vegas. We usually end up spending quite a bit of time in national parks, so we ended up dedicating a whole day for this one.
After doing one last hike in Grand Canyon National Park in the morning we followed highway 67 to Jacob Lake and then turned to the scenic 89A towards west. In the end it wasn't very scenic though, since it was raining for most of the way. In Fredonia we stopped at the local Chevron to pump ten gallons of gas into our tank for the price of $3.239/gallon, which we thought was ridiculously high since lately we'd been getting somewhere around or less than $3/gallon. It was the only station operating there though, all the rest of them had ran out of gas. Continuing west on highway 389 we encountered another Chevron inside an Indian reservation selling gas for $2.969/gallon just a few miles away… This is how it goes in the States, gas prices can vary considerably in stations within miles of each other. We've figured that trying to drive around to find the best price may still end up costing more than filling up with the more expensive stuff…
Highway 389 took us towards Utah in worsening weather, at points it was raining so heavily that our windshield wipers couldn't handle it anymore. And I'm talking about an RV with the sleeping compartment above the cabin to take off most of the rain when driving slowly. It was quite a weather, but completely called for since we hadn't had much rain on our trip yet. It also washed off most of the red dust that had accumulated on our car. Pretty much immediately as we entered Utah the rain stopped and the weather turned almost sunny, which was fitting since when we left Utah for Arizona the weather was worse on the southern side of the border as well. In Utah we followed the highway, now numbered 59, to Hurricane where we stopped to spend the night at Walmart's parking lot. There the weather changed again and we ended up spending most of our evening waiting out the rain and the thunder inside Walmart. I almost bought a six-pack of the local beer just because it was called Polygamy Porter ("Utah's second favorite vice"). Funny as it was it still didn't quite manage to get me to go all the way back to the car for my passport. They check your ID when buying alcohol here if you look under 40!
If you take out a map and look at our route from Grand Canyon to Zion you might end up wondering why we didn't take the 89A all the way to Kanab and then continue on scenic highway 9 straight to Zion. The reason why we didn't do this, even though we could have seen some or even most of the sights of the park on our way to Hurricane, was that it costs $15 for an RV to enter Zion from the east. Highway 9 goes through a narrow tunnel on its way to Zion from the east and all bigger vehicles have to pay extra to be escorted through. Also worth mentioning is the fact that if anyone at all wants to take a vehicle through Zion on highway 9 they have to pay a $30 fee even if they aren't planning on stopping in the park. So an RV passing through will end up paying $45 to use the highway. Our annual pass covered the $30 entrance fee but not the tunnel passing. Thus we saved some money by entering through the west from Hurricane.
Zion National Park differs from other national parks we've visited in the US in that it doesn't allow people to drive around in their own vehicles. Instead they have free shuttle busses running every ten to fifteen minutes on the main road of the park, stopping in nine places. We had read that parking is limited at the park's visitor center so we tried to get there early in order to avoid having to park in the town of Springdale and taking another free shuttle bus to the park. It turned out that the parking spaces usually fill up at around 10 a.m., so we wouldn't have had to hurry as much as we did. We got a spot and went to ask about good trails from the visitor center, where they suggested a couple of things in addition to the one that we had looked up ahead of time, the Angels Landing Trail. The trail, mentioned in both Lonely Planet and AAA's TourBook, was rated strenuous and supposedly offered great views at the end of a long climb on a steep and narrow path. It sounded like our kind of a thing, since usually when we do hikes like this we end up walking alone with the crowds staying on easier paths.
I blame Zions shuttle bus service for what followed. As I said, I get that they are trying to reduce the impact of private vehicles to the park by allowing only the shuttle buses to drive the roads. I also believe that they want people to actually get out of their vehicles and to walk the trails, which the shuttle service pretty much guarantees. However, we want them to stay in their cars. After taking the shuttle to The Grotto, where our trailhead lay, we were immediately surrounded by herds of people walking in the same direction we were. Even the beginning part of the trail was steep, they had built serpentine turns to the path called Walter's Wiggles to help ease the ascend. We passed old people, fat people, people pretty much carrying their small children, on our way towards the summit. Lonely Planet, AAA, the park newspaper and the prerecorded announcements in the shuttle bus all agreed that the trail is not suitable for young children or those with respiratory or cardiac problems. Or those with a fear of heights. In any normal national park these groups would be safely confined in their vehicles. In Zion they were sharing the path with us.
This was not really a problem on the first part of the trail where Walter's Wiggles brought us to a flatter area atop the first hill. From there the path became much steeper, narrower and downright dangerous. According to a sign at the beginning of the trail six people have died on the trail since 2004. It didn't specify whether the deaths had occurred due to fallings or medical conditions, but the message was still there: don't overdo it! Picture this: the path goes up a cliff of sheer rock, often slippery from the sand that accumulates on the polished surfaces of the trail. There are chains to hold on to in the steepest and narrowest parts, the steepest being so steep that we went on all fours in them and the narrowest being narrower than the span of my arms with a hundred meter drop on both sides. Then picture anyone past 60 in age or 30 in body mass index climbing up this trail! We saw both groups huffing and puffing away, in addition to those with white faces trying not to look down. None of them could say that they weren't warned, but still they were there. The trail was massively overcrowded, which should have made us hate it but the truth is that it was still one of the best short hikes we've ever done, if not the best. The mixed message comes from the fact that the views from the top truly are spectacular and that we really enjoyed the strain of the climb. We did the whole climb from the parking lot to the summit in about 70 minutes, which included the time we used to let those coming down pass us. We've never been on a trail that was as interesting, fun and scary at the same time. The path really is narrow and falling is deadly without a doubt, but we've shed all of our fear of heights along this trip so we were able to just enjoy the views. The climb is so steep that anything steeper would be considered rock climbing, which we found exhilarating. It was just pure fun!
The massive amount of people sharing the path with us was definitely a surprise and a shame, but we could live with it. The Angels Landing Trail was so awesome that we could easily forgive it for not tossing the fatties into the ravine to let us pass easier. However, the rest of the park was another thing entirely. We did a few other trails there, mainly walking the Kayenta Trail to the Lower Emerald Pool Trail via the Upper Emerald Pool Trail, in similarly crowded conditions. Here the views were not as great though and the masses of people around us were just annoying. Most of these trails were fairly level with a few stairs but still we heard people complaining about how strenuous they were. And some of these people were teenagers or other young people who should have been fit enough to run them through without stopping. Healthy looking people were congratulating each other for making it through trails that we hadn't used a drop of water on. We had apparently found the only national park in United States where people are forced to face the horror of stepping out of their cars and actually walking on unpaved surfaces.
We took the shuttle bus to the last stop on the route, the Temple of Sinawava, where we walked the easy riverside walk. The path was mostly wheelchair accessible and didn't offer much in the sense of views. At the end there was a possibility of going over a shallow river to The Narrows, where we could have seen some interesting caverns and such, but considering that a sign there predicted flash floods to be probable we decided not to get our feet wet. On the way back we proved once again that all animals are born with a built in fear of selfie sticks, as we had some snacks on a rock and spent more time scaring away obese squirrels than eating. Feeding the wildlife is a strict no-no in all national parks, but in Zion the squirrels were almost as well fed as the visitors themselves. At the summit in Angels Landing a chipmunk climbed on Sini's backpack in search of food and down on the Riverside Walk the rotund squirrels would practically climb on your lap if you let them. On the second page of the park newspaper was a picture of a hand that had been stitched up after being bitten by one of these overweight rodents. It appears that many visitors not only disregard all of the clearly visible warnings but also lack common sense…
We left the park soon after the last walk. The place left us with mixed feelings: it had the makings of either the worst or the best national park we'd visited in the United States. We've been to Yellowstone, Canyonlands, Arches and Grand Canyon, but this was the most crowded and obnoxiously so. Then again the walk to the Angels Landing was one of the best we've ever done. In the end I guess one trail doesn't save the place's overall score, so I'm going to rate this as the poorest national park so far… If one of the rangers of the park happens to read this, sorry, you do a wonderful job, but the visitors seem to lack the decency to follow the rules you set.
The day we spent in Zion National Park was not a complete loss however, because going back towards the visitor center the driver of the shuttle bus announced that the day was actually the national ice-cream day. Thus we just had to go buy 1.4 liters of sea salt caramel truffle ice-cream from the Walmart at Hurricane. We weren't able to check the accuracy of the announcement until the next day when we luckily found out that it was true. Otherwise we would have eaten all that ice-cream for nothing!