Nobody ever says, “Hey, let’s go to St. George on vacation this year!” While not exactly a destination in its own right, St. George is the perfect starting place for some of my favorite day trips. This is the first of three days, a trip to Zion National Park.
People don’t come to St. George, but they do go to Vegas. St. George is about 120 miles straight up I-15 from Vegas. So go to Vegas for your bachelor party, your conference, or to donate money to the casinos, then leave time to come up here and see things you’ve never even imagined.
I’ve been here several times, but the last time, two years ago, I had an engineering conference at one of the big downtown hotels. Denise and Max were going to fly out at the end of the conference, and we were going to spend a week or so in southwest Utah. She found a listing on Tripadvisor for a two bedroom condo in St. George. Tripadvisor is a must for us when we travel. Having a place with a kitchen and private rooms is so much better than two double beds in a hotel. The ratings and descriptions that other travelers write are invaluable when picking a place. Kind of like you reading these blog posts to find out the best places to go.
So we’ll assume that you are installed in your St. George condo, you have a good night sleep and you set off for a day of adventure at Zion.
1. St. George to Springdale, 40 miles
Leave St. George on I-15 going north. After 7 miles, exit onto UT-9 east. From here to the town of Hurricane (I can’t believe there was ever a hurricane here), things are pretty built up. So you can stop for lunch before you get to the park. Past Hurricane, it thins out pretty quickly. The road follows the north fork of the Virgin River straight into the park.
Just outside the park are a number of outfitters in the small town of Springdale. We’re planning to go hiking in The Narrows which means hiking right through the river. We stop at Zion Outfitters to rent gear consisting of special insulated boots, neoprene socks and a walking stick. The proprietors are extremely helpful, assuring us that this will be just fine for (then) eight-year old Max. About the only thing to keep an eye on is the weather. The Virgin is a shallow and slow-moving river (back east we’d call it a stream), but as the valley narrows, the river is forced into a tight channel that remarkably, is still shallow and fairly slow-moving. For more than 10 miles, there are either very narrow banks or the river stretches completely across the valley floor. Rain anywhere up-river, especially a spring thunder storm could result in a flash flood which could be life-threatening. So you pay close attention to the weather forecasts. Luckily, the day we went was dry.
2. Along the Canyon
Like many of the big national parks, Zion has gone to limited access. You’re required to park near the entrance, then board shuttle buses which stop at several places along the canyon. The floor of the canyon is essentially flat with the river winding through it. The canyon walls are actually red rock cliffs that tower nearly a thousand feet pretty much straight up. For the fearless (read: not Rick), there are hikes that start on the canyon floor to the top of these cliffs. The most celebrated of these is Angel’s Landing. It’s only 2.5 miles, but it goes up about 1500 ft. Portions are along narrow strips of rock with shear plummets on either side. These pictures were not taken by me. After I die and I (hopefully) gain my wings, I plan to land here. I’ll get my own pictures then.
As you travel north, the canyon floor gets progressively narrower from about a mile wide at the start to maybe 50 feet wide so that there is no longer any room for the road. You get out at the last stop, then hike a paved trail along the river. About a mile north of the shuttle stop, there’s no room for the trail. Here is where you get you gear on for The Narrows.
The crazy thing is that the cliffs are just as high here, so the feeling is just surreal. You are acutely aware of how small a person is when you stand next to a vertical rock wall towering thousands of feet above you, then look 50 ft across the river and see another massive cliff rising from that side.
3. The Narrows
If you’ve read many of my posts, you might feel that I overuse phrases like “Nowhere else on earth” and “Most spectacular”. Maybe I do. I’ve never been accused of understatement. The trouble is, when a place really deserves this kind of description, it’s hard to do it justice. Maybe I only go to spectacular places. That’s this place. Many things I do because I’ve done them before and I want to show Denise and Max. While I had been to Zion before, I’d never hiked The Narrows. I will do this again. We probably hiked about three miles up and three miles back. There are places where there are banks to the river, but there are long stretches where you have to pick your way through the stream. And all the while these thousand-foot high cliffs are towering above you.
So there were plenty of hikers, especially in the first mile or two from the end of the river trail. About two miles in, we came to a place where the bank was maybe 20 ft wide and we could walk on dry land. We came across this woman sitting on a rock who was not wearing special hiking shoes. She was wearing high heels. In fact, she was dressed to the nines in a smart pants suit with tinted glasses and her hair done just so. That woman in that place is in my top five weirdest things I’ve seen list. She looked like she was ready to hail a cab and go to dinner in New York. I can’t figure out how the hell she got all the way out there in those shoes.
The hike we did was amazing, but in hindsight, a better trip might be to do the hike one way from north to south. It requires special permits and you’ll have to arrange with an outfitter to get to the northern end of the 15-mile hike. Maybe next time.
I can honestly say that, with good weather, this is a very easy and enjoyable hike suitable for all ages.
4. The “Rest” of Zion
Like most of the big national parks out west, Zion is huge. You could spend a month here. Like most of the tourists, we spent a day. There is still plenty to see. Taking the shuttle back to the south end of the canyon, you drive east on UT-9 through the park. There are plenty of colorful rock formations as the road snakes it’s way east.
Checkerboard Mesa is one of these. There are vertical and horizontal ridges in the rock that were caused over millions of years by wind and water erosion.
Another really sweet place to stop is Weeping Rock. This is actually a stop in the canyon. The water seeps from the cliff and “rains” down in a sheet.
5. Back to St. George
If you got to the east entrance to the park, the drive back to St. George is about twice long. Stop in Springfield to return you soaking wet hiking gear. Back in St. George, you can head out to eat. We went to a good Mexican place in town, Alberto’s on Bluff Road. Then go back to the condo and rest up. Tomorrow we’re going to Bryce Canyon.
An interesting note on Vegas. I’m not a gambler. Gambling implies a chance to win. For me it’s donating. But as an engineer, I decided to conduct an experiment. How quickly can somebody who doesn’t have a clue lose $5 on a slot machine. I was between meetings and the lobby of all the hotels are wall-to-wall casinos. I had about 20 minutes and fully expected to be $5 lighter in my wallet before the time was up. What I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to find a machine I could understand. They all had like six columns and five rows. And you could bet up to your monthly mortgage on each spin. And “spin” is a stretch as all of the machines were digital. What I wanted was physical wheels, three of them, with pictures of fruit on them. I spent about half my time searching far and wide for such a machine. I found one hidden under a stairway, a 25-cent machine with fruit and bars and stuff. It even had a handle on the side, but I decided to use the button. I fed my five into the slot and started to play. I quickly went up to about $20. Not bad. I just as quickly went down to $2. Not good. I then fought my way back to even. The counter showed 20 credits or $5. I hit the button. Three of these symbols showed up on the center line. Each one lighted up when it clicked into place. After the third one lit up, the machine started to go ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. The counter started going up-up-up. A little red light on top started to spin. Some dude came up to me and said, “Son, you just hit for a thousand dollars.” So I looked down at the instructions for the first time and saw that indeed, three of these lighted symbols on the center line were good for $1000. The most I’d ever won before was about $10.
A casino guy came over and said, “You know, you can just hit this button and it will stop making noise.” So I hit the button. The counter said 4020. I asked the guy how I could get the money out. He said, “No, you don’t want to cash out.” I said, “Look, this ancient 25-cent machine just hit for $1000. Do you honestly believe it will ever hit again in our lifetimes?” “Good point”, he says. So he shows me how to hit another button and the machine gives me a slip of paper. He then takes me over to an ATM machine and I feed the paper to it, and it spits out ten $100 bills AND my original $5.00!
So then I do maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I call my wife who is packing to come out the next day. Not that you should keep things like this from your wife, but I could’ve told her, “Honey, guess what, I hit for two-hundred bucks!” or even “five-hundred bucks!”. Which would of course have allowed me to HAVE the rest of the money, but nooooooo, I have to tell her, “I hit for a thousand buck!” She said what any wife would say, “No you didn’t.” So I went back to my room and lined the money up on the bed and took a picture of it.
No money for me, but we did pay for a lot of this trip with the loot. AND, I didn’t gamble again so it was all mine
So we’re off to Utah with a little cash in our pockets.
Daytripping with Rick