This may be the most beautiful place I’ve seen in the United States. I’m talking about Zion National Park in Utah, often referred to as “The Promised Land”. Once you go, you’ll see why.
I’d been chomping at the bit for about a year to travel far west and visit the national parks of Utah, dubbed by the tourism department as Utah’s Might Five. My plan was to photograph some of the iconic spots there, as well as in Arizona and Colorado. And I did. Taking along a photo buddy whom I mentored, we had a lot of late nights, way too early mornings and road trips with Red Bull and teriyaki beef jerky. Man was it fun.
There are several things to keep in mind when planning a visit to Zion National Park, or the Mighty Five for that matter. The most important is that these are only my opinions. You have to know what you want and why you want it as a photographer (or a tourist). You have the final say. Other things to keep in mind:
November may be the best time to visit. The park is packed with 10’s of thousands of visitors from May-September, and although the crowds thin by October it still can be a tourists nightmare. It isn’t until 1 November that the park doesn’t require you to ride the shuttle bus and you can enter at your leisure, coming and going anywhere you please. So much better than riding a crowded shuttle with a bunch of strangers and having to stop where the bus stops! Who needs that? And the weather is cool, the colors still vibrant… the freedom and independence of meandering through in your car on your terms is why I will never go during the late spring or summer months. Ever!
Flying into Las Vegas, Nevada is probably the most practical starting point. I flew into Vegas and then departed from Denver to return home, but I love road trips and didn’t mind it. In fact, I will never again be able to listen to “Life is a Highway” or Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” without feeling the warm, dry, sunsetty sensations of the open road in the deserts of Arizona and Utah. They are priceless.
But if you are interested in arriving and departing Las Vegas, which I recommend and will likely do the next time, you can hit a lot of extra hot spots only a couple hours apart. You can actually make a loop around from Vegas into Utah and Arizona back to Las Vegas while hitting the Valley of Fire, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Antelope Slot Canyon all in 13 ½ hours of road time. It sounds like a lot but if you pace yourself out over a week, or are deliberate about hitting only a few prime locations and bypassing others, you can really get a lot of bang for your buck. (I will discuss this looped road trip in an upcoming blog post)
Getting a rental car for a week from Vegas back to Vegas is usually less than $300 unless you’re trying to go luxury or huge.
Zion National Park is only 2 hours from Vegas and at the halfway point is the Valley of Fire, an hour into the trip. It’s worth visiting and will make the trip to Zion seem much shorter.
Springdale is the cute little town you pass through as you enter Zion National Park. Hotels are much easier to book in November and December (and of course January-March) and nearly impossible during peak months. In fact, unless you book months in advance if you are visiting in June-September, don’t count on getting a hotel any closer than 35 minutes away in the town of Hurricane. Because everything in Springdale will be booked solid.
We stayed in a cute little place called the Bumbleberry Inn. It was perfect; $75 a night for a very decent double room with great mountain views and a microwave, frig and free wi-fi with an on-the-premises restaurant, gift and coffee shop. The rustic Wildcat Willies Ranch Grill Saloon is a great place go authentic southwestern food… and you’ve gotta try the world famous Bumbleberry Pie for dessert!
Now the entrance fees to the park is $25 per private vehicle, $12 per motorcycle and $12 for individuals (say if you’re walking into the park to hike) and are valid for 7 full days. The national parks of Utah are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so if you enter after hours they put you on the honor system and hope that you’ll pay the next day. I love the fact that they let you in at all hours because, let’s face it, these are YOUR parks, America.
The first famously photographed site is probably 30 seconds down the road after entering through the Southern Gate. It is the bridge that extends over the Virgin River. Particularly at sunset, which in November is between 5:05 and 5:15 pm, you won’t be able to miss the bridge which will be packed with photographers marking their territory to capture the sunset over the famous river. The sun begins to dance off the mountains around 3:30 pm or so and that time is also great for getting beautiful shots.
From there you can take an immediate left and follow the Virgin River north (only in the off-season! No cars allowed during peak months, only shuttle buses) onto the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. You could spend weeks exploring just this small area of the Scenic Drive, which finishes in a dead end. You’ll find the Emerald Pool Trails, The Grotto, Angel Landing, Weeping Rock and the Temple of Sinawava, which is where “the Narrows” begins. The water was too cold when we were there and we didn’t bring a wet suit, but you can wade in the Virgin River through narrow canyons for an amazing experience.
You could also go straight after the bridge and Virgin River onto the curvy, steep Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. This will take you meandering through Zion’s heights through tunnels and amazing scenery. This takes you to the Checkboard Mesa and some weird rock formations, along with a good lot of wildlife. This is also the highway you want to take when going on to Bryce Canyon.
Literally weeks could be spent exploring Zion National Park. It truly is a national treasure and a photographer’s paradise. We did hike the Emerald Pools Trails to the upper falls, which was amazing, and my main regret was that we didn’t have wetsuits to wade into the Virgin River at the Narrows.
Make sure that whomever you bring loves adventure as much as you do! You do not want folks dragging their feet or making you feel like you’re testing their patience by taking your shots. And you don’t want someone who doesn’t want to get a little dirty paired with you if you love getting nitty-gritty. A bad partner can ruin the trip.
WOW factor for Zion: 9.8