When my kids were little, the days dragged on forever. Long days of exhaustion and diaper changes were punctuated with sweet moments of chubby arms around my neck and little hands in mine. But then I blinked. My oldest could be leaving for college in only a few years and I wonder when that happened. No longer do I get to enjoy those chubby arms giving toddler hugs, so I decided that it was time to take advantage of having big kids and hit the road for a little adventure.
Time for a road trip! A few days of travel brought us to Zion National Park in southern Utah. Located at the juncture of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert regions, it’s a fabulous place for a family adventure. The park was established in 1919 and covers nearly 600 km². This canyon, slashed through the Navajo sandstone, compels you to utter all those well-worn adjectives: beautiful, amazing, spectacular. Canada is filled with its own exquisite landscapes, but even living near the Rocky Mountains doesn’t jade you for the grandeur of this magnificent canyon. Surrounded by desert on the plain above, the Virgin River flows along the bottom of the canyon and creates its own micro-environments. The park’s unique geography provides for a variety of life zones, allowing Zion Canyon to be filled with unusual animal and plant diversity. With a wide range of hiking options, families of every ability are able to enjoy this National Park.
What to Consider When You Go
A Zion National Park pass costs $30 (USD) per car and is valid for 7 days. Even if you’re simply passing through the area on your way somewhere else, consider stopping in for a couple hours. If you’re road-tripping through the States, an America the Beautiful pass may be the right option. For $80, you’ll get access to Zion and dozens of other sites on your trip, and it’s valid for one year.
With one full day to spend at Zion National Park, our family made the hour plus drive from Cedar City, Utah, where we were staying, to the south entrance of the park. Locals told us how busy it would be, but accustomed as we are to summer crowds in Banff, Zion in April was very manageable. That being said, don’t arrive too late in the morning, as parking may be limited. The spring climate is unpredictable, but we enjoyed wonderful weather, avoiding the summer desert heat. It was windy and cool at times, but warm enough to enjoy the day. We heard summer days can be stifling hot during the mid-day (cooler at night) and can be prone to afternoon thunderstorms that produce waterfalls and potentially, flash floods.
With three kids in tow, ages 9, 11, and 13, and various stages of enthusiasm ranging from, “Where’s the hardest hike?!” to “I’m not walking another step without a snack,” we decided to start slowly. The park has a brilliant shuttle service that begins at the Visitor Center where you park and takes you to 9 different points along the canyon, eliminating vehicle congestion along the narrow road and providing a recorded guided tour to the park. But before you leave the Visitor Center, kids over age 4 can grab booklets to take part in the free Junior Ranger program.
The Junior Ranger Program is a way for kids to get invested in the National Parks experience. Depending on their age, they complete a certain number of activities in their book, collecting information from all around the park. This gives the kids a focus as you move throughout the park and helps increase their level of engagement and interest. Our 13-year-old awarded the ranger who handed her a booklet with a disgusted scowl that said she was clearly too old for such nonsense, but it wasn’t long before even she was excitedly paging through the activities and trying to find the answers. At the end of the day, the kids took their booklets to a ranger, in return for a special Zion National Park badge. This ranger wasn’t kidding around, either. She took them through each activity they’d done, making them talk about what they had learned, correcting any mistakes, and leading them in the Junior Ranger Pledge.
With a variety of trails along the canyon, you can hike for half an hour along a paved path, or for hours over rocks, along cliffs, and even literally down a river. (Special preparation is, obviously, recommended for the latter.) The trailheads are all accessible via the shuttle you board at the Visitor Center. To start, we grabbed the shuttle to the Weeping Rock, an easy, but steep, hike where rain that fell 1200 years ago on the plateau is now finally seeping out the sandstone below, whetting the kids’ appetites for more hiking. (Pun, excuse me, not intended!)
We moved on to the Riverside Walk, an easy, but longer, hike that ends at the famed river Narrows hike. To hike the Narrows, you need hiking poles and footwear suitable for walking along and through the Virgin River. This hike may be closed due to high water and flash floods are always a possibility. (An absurdly exciting possibility to my invincible son.) We hiked right to the Narrows and saw more prepared hikers head off down the river, some of them with quite young children. Our son stood jealously watching them.
Looking for something more like a “real hike,” whatever that meant to our kids, we found a moderately-rated hike to the Emerald Pools and back the Kayenta Trail, which fit us perfectly. Perfectly means it was interesting and challenging enough for the kids and safe enough for the mom. We encountered some drop-offs and clambered up and down over rocks, through trees, and under a waterfall.
At the end of the day, we took the shuttle back to the entrance where we watched a short film on the Park at the Zion Human History Museum. The kids received their Junior Ranger badges and we all climbed, tired, hot, and dusty, into the van for the drive back to Cedar City. Despite the scowls and complaining we’d encountered along the way, everyone agreed that it had been a fun and memorable day. Before we drove out of the park, my son was planning his return trip to hike Zion’s more difficult Angel’s Landing trail and the Narrows.
“When we get to college,” he said to his sister, “Let’s come here and hike instead of going home for the holidays.”
Thanks a lot, kid. I guess this might be the unexpected downfall of instilling a sense of adventure in your kids.