Zion National Park had never seemed so sleepy, at least in the morning — the morning we visited as part of Ron’s birthday adventure that packed all kinds of hope into wishing the park would awake from its COVID slumber in time for us to explore.
It opened, just in time. And it opened just enough.
Some trails remained closed, some parking areas off limits, the campgrounds empty — but I wouldn’t want to imagine Zion any more open than it was at the staffing level and access it could provide.
With no shuttle service available, parking was an illustration of the illiterate, the careless and the ill-equipped. Without that shuttle, it also meant that most trailheads required a measurable hike (uphill) into the canyon just to begin.
There’s no way they could do more, right now. Rangers are busy counting cars to meter capacity, while also regulating traffic on skinny, busy roads — where it is clear some people have never actually walked or biked on a road before.
Pro tip: Walk against traffic, ride with it.
We were lucky and scored the best parking spot that I think existed, short of driving right up to the trailhead (which some cars got to do at random times throughout the day as capacity ebbed and flowed) on the first day we went in. We got there early, just before or right around 7 a.m. and began the long hike into the canyon to reach the Angel’s Landing trailhead.
And, that forced trek into the canyon gave us both a new view of the park we both love so much. We’re normally on a shuttle bus, cramped in and waiting to hear our stop with dozens of other people. This day? We were alone, except for a couple hikers a few hundred feet in front of us and the deer we saw along the way, nibbling on grasses just off the road.
It was us, the river, the road and the canyon — which pretty much never happens in a park that sees millions of visitors every year. It was a long hike up, but it was part of what the adventure called for that day. And that added haul thinned the crowds, giving us some rare solitude for moments on regularly busy trails.
We were childless this trip, the first time for both of us, and we wanted to see that view near Angel’s Landing without worrying about kids along the way. While the final section of the trail, where climbers have to use chains to reach the awe-inspiring outcropping, was closed — we were totally satiated topping out at that point.
Condors soared overhead — so close we could see the colors under their wings. I remember thinking “How low they’re flying…” but really it was more like, “How high WE are…”
And that was just day one. We discovered a slot canyon near the treehouse-style loft we were staying in that reminded us in parts of The Wave (which wasn’t far from where we were) and Antelope Canyon (also not far). We counted the rock shops in the tiny town we were in, and didn’t even try to count the stars at night — so many millions, it had to be.
We had lunch at the edge of the Virgin River, we climbed to a perch and soaked in some absolute solitude and we filled a growler with our favorite brew from Zion’s pub.
It was magical to see Zion wake up. Even if it meant sore quads and tight ankles from those extra long hikes to the trails. It was all part of the moment.