We had no camping reservations in Zion National Park, one of the busiest parks in the United States. It has two campgrounds, one of them, South Campground, has 117 sites on a first-come-first-served basis. That was our destination, with fingers crossed.
After the line up to enter the park, we were stopped just before accessing the 1.25-mile tunnel. Campers must drive in the middle of the road through the narrow tunnel, so it’s alternating one-way traffic. After the tunnel, there are several switchbacks down into the canyon. There, we were stopped by major roadwork. Time was slipping away, by now it was about 11:30. The traffic moved very slowly. The scenery is stunning and cars are constantly pulling off to enjoy the views.
We arrived at the South Campground just before noon. The sign at the entrance read “Campground full,” the second one a bit further read “Campground full” and a third read “No, the campground is really full.” Disregarding all three, we went to speak to the campground hosts, a volunteer couple who manage the chaos of departing campers and new arrivals self-registering for sites. We wanted to know what our options were.
Dan and his wife are tremendously patient. I asked about overflow camping – full, too. I said, in a very nice and friendly way, that we had just a little tent, was there anything he could do? He said go ask at the Watchman Campground, the campground that is reservations only. I suspected it would be a waste of time, but we had nothing to lose since the next closest recommended campground was 13 miles away, outside the park.
We arrived at Watchman Campground and told the Ranger at the gate that Dan had sent us. She checked her computer and said she only had D39 available and only for one night. We’ll take it! We had a campsite! By 2 p.m. we were set up on a nice site, popular with resident mule deer.
Being on site allowed us to go for a hike that very day and to fully enjoy the park. It is magnificent. The cliffs and buttes are different from other parks we’ve seen, somehow steeper and more majestic. Zion is a small park created around the Virgin River. It’s a narrow canyon which accentuates the height of the surrounding landscape. It seems more dramatic than other parks we’ve visited.
We decided to hike the Hidden Canyon trail, 2.4 miles distance with an 800-foot elevation gain. The trail climbs a steep cliff face. At the end of the trail is the Hidden Canyon, a small canyon where you have to scramble over and under rocks and fallen trees to reach an arch far up the canyon.
In the canyon, we met Jessie and Hannah, two Australians we’d run into twice before. They came to the U.S. for Burning Man, the big art festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and are traveling a bit before heading home. They visited many of the same parks as we did: Kodachrome Basin, Bryce Canyon and Zion.
We asked them about their camping arrangements. They had lucked out and had a site in the South Campground for two nights. They said join us tomorrow and share our site. We were happy to accept.
We planned to have supper together the next evening. Jessie and Hannah are delightful, bright and full of energy. They have traveled extensively. They had lots to say about Burning Man but seemed to lack words to express their feelings about it. They said it was unique, that it was something that just had to be experienced. Ken has been thinking of going to Burning Man for years. A future destination for us?
We chatted late into the night sitting around the picnic table. We only went to bed when the cold started crawling into our bones. It was a great evening.