Zion National Park in Utah is one of my favorite places on the planet. Recently, as the coronavirus spread to pandemic levels, all national parks were shut down. When they announced the closure, I immediately thought of Zion and my heart ached for those who wanted to hike The Narrows or Angels Landing. I then thought of all the wonderful and friendly park rangers who I had interacted with during my previous trips there and the small towns of Springdale and Hurricane, Utah, which would be decimated by the lack of tourist traffic.
But then I saw it: the announcement that Zion National Park (as well as Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands) would reopen on a partial basis on May 13.
Fresh from driving 4200 miles in my Tesla for my They Will Fly Again project, I figured “how hard could it be for another 2000?” I hopped in the car and set off to Southern Utah to visit my beloved Zion National Park.
I won’t tell you any great or amazing stories from the drive because there aren’t any. It took me 25 hours including charging stops (I’m also working on my big official Tesla Model 3 Review, of which this trip will play an important part) and good grief I was beat as I pulled into Zion National Park near 8pm.
I drove through the entire park on my way over to my hotel and stopped for a few brief moments to try and get a good sunset shot, which ultimately didn’t materialize but it didn’t matter because I was at my beloved Zion National Park again!
The Cliffrose Lodge in Springdale is basically next to the southern entrance to Zion, they have Tesla chargers, and are now part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, so I booked a room for two nights there during one of my charging stops. The hotel was nice, laid back, and nobody really seemed to make a big deal of any big virus-related restrictions.
Just how open is Zion National Park?
Surprisingly open! There are a few main things to consider, and here’s the link to the official Zion information page for you to get the most up-to-date information:
- Neither the shuttle bus from the towns of Springdale and Hurricane into Zion nor the shuttles inside Zion are operating right now. This means parking is at an extreme premium until the shuttles begin running again. All parking spaces are open along the Scenic Road starting at 6am, with last entry into the Scenic Road at 6pm.
- No entry fees are being collected at this time. Before you say “yay, free national park!” please consider making a donation to the Zion National Park Forever Project, they’ll need the revenue to continue improving the park.
- No camping or overnighting at the park is allowed yet.
- Here’s the big one: in addition to the lower Emerald Pools being closed from a rockfall and the Narrows closed due to water levels, the chain section of Angels Landing is closed due to social distancing.
Wait, Angels Landing is completely closed?
No, just the top portion of it, where all the chains are (a pic from a previous visit).
Why? Simple, not only does everyone grab the exact same chain, since the trail is so narrow and exposed at parts, which is icky in our new pandemic world, but also there’s no real possibility for social distancing on the chain portion of Angels Landing, with how many people are there.
Ok so what was it like hiking in Zion National Park?
It was great! Full confession: I wanted to do as much of Angels Landing as I could purely because it’s my favorite hike in the world but also because I wanted to see how a virus could close down a nature.
I arrived on a Monday morning at the entrance to the Scenic Road just before 6am and was the first person through the gate. I drove immediately to The Grotto parking lot and made my way to the trailhead. I was greeted with the below.
I proceeded across the river and was met with more signs.
So at least nobody can say they weren’t informed.
Here’s the thing: Hiking Angels Landing to the summit is probably a top 10 hike in the world. But taking the trail only up to Scout’s Observatory, where the chain section begins, is still probably in the top 50, it’s well worth the visit! I trudged on, hoping my recent weight loss, as well as my Peloton workouts, would make the strenuous hike a bit easier. Needless to say, I had my camera on me and looked forward to taking some more epic pictures for all of you.
As the path diverged from the Virgin River and started hugging the edge of Zion Canyon, I realized my calves were on fire but I was barely breathing heavily! Mark one point down for the Peloton, I was feeling great.
The path steepened up the side of Zion Canyon.
I was feeling the hike a little bit at this point but quickly made my way up and turned left into Refrigerator Canyon, a nice echoey bit that’s about 10-15 degrees cooler than the first part of the hike, just because it’s always in the shade.
Refrigerator Canyon is always a nice respite for the weary hiker, and you need every bit of that respite because of what comes next.
21 switchbacks that will take all the excitement out of your calves on the way up and your knees on the way down. I got to the Wiggles, took a few breathes along with the following pictures, and got to work.
I take the widest path on these things (to make them somewhat less steep) and, before I knew it, was done, but not before turning around and getting a look back down.
At the top of Walter’s Wiggles lies Scout’s Observatory. I morosely made my way over to Angels Landing, where I saw the sad sight.
I relaxed for a bit there as some other folks came by. In chatting with them, I heard all sorts of commentary, from “I can’t believe they closed it, the heat is supposed to kill the virus anyway” to “we had already planned the trip anyway so we figured why not”. I shared with them my alternate plan…
The West Rim Trail
When you’re facing the chain section of Angels Landing, look behind you, you’ll see an even taller landing. You’ll also see a trail up to that landing.
This is the West Rim trail. It’s not anywhere close to Angels Landing’s difficulty rating and is an easy walk (up to 3 miles if you take the trail all the way!). The interesting bit is you actually end up higher than Angels Landing’s summit, making for some really cool photo ops.
I started up the trail and, as soon as I could, turned back for a picture of my beloved Angels Landing.
As I climbed the West Rim trail I wanted to get a better picture of Walters Wiggles. There’s a semi-well-known viewpoint along the West Rim trail but it’s really close to a cliff and not well-marked, so I just had to get as close as I could without getting too nervous and I ended up with this great shot showing just how nuts the Wiggles are to climb.
Happy with the photo, I lazily walked around the West Rim landing and ambled back down to Scout’s Observatory, looking for great pictures, specifically of the variety of textures you see in the canyon walls.
The sun kept rising and eventually Sunrise became Morning, and more people started showing up. We made small talk and inevitably the virus came up.
I asked people if they had masks with them, few did. One guy, and I’m not sure if he was offended by the question or not, replied, “nope, don’t have a mask with me and if I did I wouldn’t wear it. If I can’t breathe freely in a place called Zion then I’m not sure where I could.”
I decided to start heading down, as I figured I could use a vicious nap after driving for 26 hours and hiking for another 4 hours. Just before I started back down I wanted one final picture from my weird partially-reopened morning “attempting” to climb Angels Landing.
The landscapes at Zion are just incredible aren’t they?
So…what was it like?
Honestly it felt pretty normal to me. Fellow climbers were friendly as usual, those who wanted to wore masks and those who didn’t want to didn’t (I only saw 4 people wearing masks), and everyone was enjoying the landscape.
The only time it felt more on the weird side was when I got back to the parking lot and saw all the various park rangers with masks on telling people where they could park or if they were all full.
Do you recommend going now?
Honestly yes. It got really busy over the weekend but it wasn’t too busy when I was there. The big issue is parking, but there wasn’t a line of cars waiting to get in when I did at 6am, so get an early start and you should be fine. The park is absolutely gorgeous right now.
When will more stuff reopen?
I don’t know but I would imagine soon, albeit with limited capacity at campsites. I could also see Angels Landing reopening with capacity controls over how many can be on the chains at a given time. Ultimately I hope it happens soon so more people can have their breath taken away like I have so many times there. The crowds were still there but not nearly as bad as in years past.
All in all, I’m glad I went to Zion National Park and got to see what the beginnings of the recovery looked like. Just don’t ask me how I feel when I’m driving 25 hours back home…
and hey, how about an old summit picture from Angels Landing to wrap up this post?