The scale of natural grandeur seemed to only increase over the duration of our trip in a way we hadn't exactly planned. We had unintentionally created a crescendo of scenery peaking in Utah, which, let's face it, could be a state-sized national park.
In terms of park popularity, Zion is up there with the Grand Canyon, and as we rolled into town at 10:00 AM, the visitor center parking was already full. We came prepared and were well-read on the logistics of visiting Zion - which for most people (including us) means parking in the town of Springdale, then riding a free parking shuttle to the entrance to the park, then waiting in line for the park shuttle to get to your desired stop. From March through October, private vehicles aren't allowed on the main canyon road, which means the whole process of getting into the park to enjoy it can feel a little more Disney World than great outdoors. Plan accordingly. It took us probably close to two hours to get from parking spot to trailhead.
With a little less than 24 hours to enjoy the park, we selected the most iconic hike for our first afternoon: Angel's Landing. This was definitely the most challenging hike of our entire trip; about five miles out and back and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain with the last half mile along a steep ridge with sheer drop offs on either side. The trail itself is tricky, but what makes it scary are the crowds. You hear the recommendations to start early in the day. Heed them here. This hike is beautiful - the views are breathtaking, but it's hard to absorb when you are fighting swarms of ill-prepared tourists on sections clearly designed for one-way traffic only.
After soaking in the summit and completing the descent (maybe more difficult than the ascent), our nerves and quads were shot. We headed back out of the park to camp in the BLM land surrounding Smithsonian Butte for the night.
The views from the top of this mesa are pretty spectacular, but getting there involved one of the most rugged roads we had encountered, rutted and loaded with rocks large enough for us to bottom our and somehow knock the wiring loose in the dash. No more dash lights, no more tail lights and no more night driving for us. We found a campsite atop the plateau (you are required to camp a half mile from the main road) - a totally decent site, but not one that offered the kind of views that we had hoped for following the difficult climb. Note that when we drove back down from Smithsonian Butte, we saw several people camping in areas marked "No Camping" with stellar views of the valley...
That night we devoured our camp stove double cheeseburgers as we sat around the fire, sipped some Utah beers and gazed up at the beautiful stars.
We returned to the park briefly in the morning to drive the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway and the historic 1.1 mile tunnel that opened the park to the East and helped to make it one of the most popular parks in the system today. The curving switchbacks provide sweeping views of the canyon and once outside of the park the vistas continue with views of checkerboard mesa.
Zion definitely deserves more of our time in the future and we'd love tips from anyone on how to navigate its popularity.