Most people coming from Moab do Bryce Canyon National Park before doing Zion, but since we couldn’t get a reservation for a campsite that we wanted, we decided to head to Zion first. (Note: we stayed at Zion River Resort, which was very nice with spacious sites and paved roads – great for biking and walking. And they had recycling!)
After doing some reading on Utah’s Adventure Family, we realized that Zion Canyon – including the Narrows and the Lodge – is only accessible via shuttle unless you are a guest at the Lodge, which we were obviously not. So after a little more digging, we realized that due to COVID, the park was doing timed entries for the shuttle to limit capacity etc., so you have to either book your shuttle tickets 2 weeks in advance, or the day before. So, if you want to visit Zion Canyon, take note:
Book your Zion Canyon Shuttle tickets the day before you wish to visit the park by logging in to Recreation.gov at 9:00am sharp.
Speaking from experience – I logged on at 9:05am and all that was left was the 1pm-2pm window, or the 2pm-3pm window. Tickets are $1 each, and you get a 1-hour window to board the bus. Tickets are emailed to you, so be sure to have it on your phone so park staff can scan it. You board the bus from the Visitor’s Center. The last window is 2pm-3pm, and once you return to the Visitor’s Center, your ticket is void. Also, if you are getting to the park later than first thing in the morning, note that parking can be a challenge. We saw a lot of people walking in from town. Pro tip: if you don’t have a login for Recreation.gov, make sure you have it because these tickets go faster than a Spice Girl’s reunion tour.
Without the shuttle, you can drive up the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Tunnel, which is pretty sweet. It’s really dark except for shafts that were cut out to let light and air in! From the outside, those shafts look like tunnels from nowhere, as Stewart pointed out. Taller vehicles that want to pass through the tunnel need to be escorted ($15 fee) and traffic stopped on the other side because they need to drive down the middle to make the clearance height. This causes some delays in case you are in a rush anywhere!
On the highway, there are a ton of little pull-outs for quick jaunts or snack stops. The kiddos were so happy to again, rock scramble. We stopped for a picnic before heading back to the Visitor’s Center for our shuttle. Of course, masks are required; unfortunately, not well-enforced.
While the shuttle was convenient, I think next time, we will plan for cooler weather, AND we will rent some e-bikes to cycle that path rather than have to plan around the shuttle.
We were not prepared to hike the Narrows, but it was super crowded anyway. I think it would also be more enjoyable when the kids can hike it themselves. We took a quick look and filled up our water bottles with the mineral-heavy water. We hung out and saw some wildlife, but did not play in the stream due to the toxic cyanobacteria! We hopped back on the shuttle, got off at the Grotto, and did the mile walk back to Zion Lodge, where we promised ourselves a treat: iced coffee! There is a giant cottonwood tree in the middle of the grassy area in front of the lodge that provided a lot of shade. It was a lovely place to relax for a while.
I should also add: we grabbed a couple of Junior Ranger books – this was our first time doing it, and I can’t believe we didn’t do it sooner! The program is designed for 4 year olds + (adults can do it too!) but Mae – being a follower of all things her big brother does – got a book too and played along as much as she could. It’s basically a park activity book and you learn about what’s unique about the park and how to be a steward for the natural environment. In general, you do as many pages as you are old (4 years old = 4 pages) (different parks may have different requirements). To get the book, go to the visitor’s center, and ask a ranger for a book, and they will give you instructions. Then when you’re done, they’ll review the book and then you take the Jr. Ranger pledge and get a badge. It’s quite fun to collect badges as you visit national parks.
At this park, the Ranger just gave us 2 books and the badges, which was really great so we didn’t have to rush through it. We ended up finishing ours that night after we left the park; Stewart was SO proud!