October 23, 2020

Zion National Park – The 1st of “The Mighty 5” (National Parks Trip #2)

This post represents another installment in the series detailing the second of our three cross-country National Parks camping trips with travel trailer in tow.  At the time of this trip in 2010, our son, Ryan, was 16 and our daughter, Kyra, was 11.

I was amazed, astonished, shocked and mortified to discover that the last post from this National Parks Trip #2 series was ten months ago.  I know I have a habit of going off on tangents, but even I can’t understand how I got so distracted this time around.

Our three cross-country National Parks camping trips were all planned based on what I call “the sampler” itinerary.  Although we would have loved to spend months on the road exploring the Parks, the first two of the three trips were taken while Alan was still working a full time job.  His extra weeks of vacation, a benefit of his many years of employment, allowed us the luxury of taking a four week journey.  However, we’d be making a round trip from one side of the country to the other and back, and that travel time lopped off about ten days of vacation right from the get go.  The sampler itinerary precluded visiting any one National Park for more than a day or two, but it gave us the opportunity to visit ten of them on this one trip.  That, in turn, provided us with a huge variety of experiences and enabled us to identify the National Parks to which we’d like to return for further and extended exploration.

During this National Parks Trip #2, we had already explored Mammoth Cave, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.  Next up, we crossed the border into Utah from Arizona on a quest to visit “The Mighty 5.” I don’t know when or where that moniker originated, but The Mighty 5 refers to Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, all of which are located in the absolutely gorgeous state of Utah.  Zion was the first of The Mighty 5 on our list but, along the way, we stopped at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

It was hard to leave the North Rim Campground at Grand Canyon National Park.  It was quiet, forested, and we had been able to reserve one of the few campsites that overlook Transept Canyon.  Camping at the edge of the Canyon was one of the highlights of my entire camping “career.”  But, as Geoffrey Chaucer said, “Time and tide wait for no man” (no matter how wonderful a time you’re having, I might add), and our calendar insisted that we move on to our next adventure.

Our memorable campsite at the North Rim Campground

The state of Utah opened Coral Pink Sand Dunes to the public as a State Park in 1963.  Our family was familiar with the beaches of the east coast with their miles and miles of light colored sand.  But none of us had ever seen pink sand, and it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.  Never mind that Ryan and I are both colorblind; we knew whatever color sand we saw would be different than any we had seen before.  After all, that was why we traveled – to explore the wonders of nature, to see places that were completely different from the little corner of the world we called home, to learn something new, to do something novel and fun . . . to play in pink sand.  (For those of you who may be wondering – yes, we would have stopped here even if we didn’t have Ryan and Kyra with us.  Why should kids have all the fun?)

Hey!  That's us in the parking lot at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park!

According to Utah’s State Parks website, the sand at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park “comes from Navajo sandstone from the geologic period called Middle Jurassic.  The same iron oxides and minerals that give us spectacular red rock country are responsible for this landscape of coral pink sand . . . These dunes are estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 years old.”

The dunes were impressive and lovely to look at.  (In case you want to know but are too polite to ask, they looked more like a peach than a pink to me - maybe peach is the same as coral? - but they were sensational just the same.)  This State Park is popular with ATV riders since 90% of the dunes are open for riding.  We watched a number of them zipping around through the sand, and I imagine that it’s tons of fun to cruise up, down and all around the dunes.  We didn’t venture far afield at Coral Pink Sand Dunes; truth be told, we were more comfortable with the kids playing in the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park where there was no need to keep an eye out for ATV’s roaming around the dunes.  But our visit to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park added yet another notch on our belts of new travel experiences.  Now our sights were set on the 1st of The Mighty 5.

Nature's artistry - colorful sand and colorful flowers at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Approaching Zion National Park from the west is easy-peasy and no extra planning is required.  But, if you access the Park from the east, the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel may add a layer of complexity to your journey.  The tunnel was built in the late 1920’s to provide travelers with direct access between Zion and Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Back in the day, most people were traveling in cars and smaller RVs and, as the size of our rigs began to increase, so did the number of traffic accidents as travelers attempted to navigate the long, narrow tunnel.  Finally, in the spring of 1989, the National Park Service began traffic control at the tunnel.

If your vehicle or travel trailer is 7’, 10” in width and/or 11’, 4” in height or larger, you must have a Tunnel Permit in order to travel through the tunnel.  (Vehicles over 13’, 1” tall, single vehicles over 40’ long and combined vehicles over 50’ long are prohibited from entering the tunnel, as are pedestrians, bicyclists, semi-trucks, vehicles carrying hazardous materials and vehicles weighing more than 50,000 pounds.)  Of course, there’s a fee associated with said Tunnel Permit, and you’ll have to fork over $15.00 or adjust your travel plans to come in from the west.  Did we mind paying $15.00 to wait for the Park Rangers to collect a line of oversized vehicles at the entrance to the tunnel and stop traffic coming from the other direction so that we could drive right through the middle of the tunnel to reach the Park entrance?  Not one bit.  This family considers an annual National Parks Pass an exceptional value and we never fail to get much more than our money’s worth when we visit the Parks.  In the grand scheme of things, an extra $15.00 for the privilege of driving through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was a drop in the proverbial bucket.  It was well worth it to avoid the extra driving time required to navigate around the tunnel.  In 2019, the owners of over 32,800 oversized vehicles paid for that same privilege, putting the tidy little sum of more than $492,000.00 in the pocket of the National Park Service.  Keep in mind, that the permit fees probably pay the salaries of the Park Rangers who staff the tunnel and the entrance station.  Still, that’s a lotta moola – I’m just hoping that it all stays within the National Park’s budget.  While, understandably, some travelers may chafe at the fee, I’m not sorry to see a little extra money drop into the National Park Service coffers on occasion.  Interestingly, the Tunnel Permit fee has not gone up a penny since our visit ten years ago; this year it’s still $15.00.  If you’d like additional information on the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, just hop on over to the National Park Service website (link HERE).

Taken through the windshield as we approached the tunnel

Up until this point in our trip, we had been experiencing normal summer temperatures for the regions in which we were traveling.  Naturally, we were expecting it to be hot in the southwest, but we had enjoyed delightful weather at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where the elevation and proliferation of pines meant cooler temps than we would have experienced at the South Rim.  Zion, however, proved to be a different story for us, and I’m thinking that the five National Parks we visited in Utah should have been called “The Mighty Hot 5.”  Although the National Park Service Weather Chart for Zion indicated a normal high temperature of 93 degrees for the month of July, we apparently happened to visit Utah during a heat wave.  The temperature in Zion hit 110 degrees while we were there.  Dry heat or not, 110 is HOT, and we chose our activities – and the timing of them – carefully to keep everyone safe, well-rested and thoroughly hydrated.

Because Alan and I tend to be loners who enjoy exploring and simply watching what occurs in the natural world, our preference is to drive our own vehicle so that we can stop and poke around whenever and wherever we’d like.  That wasn’t possible in Zion since only the Park’s shuttle buses were allowed in the canyon.  Despite the fact that riding the shuttle wasn’t our style, I’ll be the first one to admit that it was an absolutely perfect way to see Zion.  The shuttle buses (all comfortable and well-ventilated – YAY!) ran frequently, so we never had a long wait.  They made stops all through the canyon, allowing us to get on and off at the scheduled stops whenever and wherever we wanted.  We could stay as long as we wished at any one stop, then just pick up where we left off without having to worry about finding a parking place or getting into a scorching hot vehicle after a hike.  Stepping into the refreshing comfort of a shuttle bus instantly began to cool down our family of hot and sweaty explorers, and riding to the next stop allowed us a chance to rest our weary legs.  Even though the buses lacked air-conditioning, they really provided a delightful ride.  Plus, the shuttle buses ran into the nearby town of Springdale, allowing visitors who didn’t wish to drive to simply hop on a shuttle and head into town for meals or sightseeing.  Nicely done!  In the past, had I been offered the opportunity to ride a shuttle through a National Park, I would have turned it down.  Because Zion’s shuttle bus system ran so smoothly (and comfortably!), I’d have no qualms about using it again.  Plus, I’d definitely consider taking advantage of a shuttle in another Park even if it wasn’t required, as long as it appeared to be similarly well-run and efficient.  You can find additional information on the Zion Canyon Shuttle System, including restrictions related to COVID-19, on the National Park Service website (link HERE).

When Alan and I first bought a travel trailer, we stayed mainly at private RV parks and campgrounds due to the amenities they offer, especially for the kids.  It was during our first National Parks Trip in 2007 that we decided to try camping without hookups in Yellowstone National Park.  The days we spent in Yellowstone’s Madison Campground proved to be a turning point for us – a sharp turning point.  Our stay in Madison jump-started a love affair with State and National Park campgrounds that has only grown stronger over the years.  So, during this second National Parks trip in 2010, we stayed in the Parks whenever possible, choosing privately run campgrounds only when we couldn’t find electric in the Parks that would allow us to run the air-conditioner.  (I’m pretty sure that the idea for an Instant Pot came from someone who camped in a travel trailer in the southwest in July without air-conditioning.)  In Zion, we had chosen to stay at the Watchman Campground, and reserved a site just steps away from the Virgin River.  When I was looking through my photo files to find pics for this post, I watched videos of the kids floating and playing in the river, and the joy on their faces literally brought tears to my eyes.  These experiences – and the memories that accompany them – are priceless.

The Virgin River flowing through Zion National Park

The Watchman is an imposing and impressive mountain of sandstone of over 6,000’, and I immediately fell in love with its grandeur and power.  The mountain exuded a certain dignity and strength; somehow I felt safe and well-protected tucked into a campsite between it and the river.  Whether that was due to its name, its quietly powerful presence or a combination of both, I couldn’t say.  I can only tell you that I found camping beneath the Watchman with the beauty of Zion Canyon all around us to be an utterly profound and memorable experience.

That's us - camping under the protective eye of the Watchman.

All too quickly, our visit to Zion was over.  While I’m not sure I’d repeat stops at Mammoth Cave, Great Sand Dunes or Mesa Verde National Parks, I’d return to Zion National Park in a heartbeat for an extended visit.  Not in July, though.  No, definitely not in July.

The Narrows in Zion Canyon - one of my favorite Zion pics!

Next up in this series is a brief stop at Cedar Breaks National Monument, followed by our visit to Bryce Canyon National Park.  I spent my birthday hiking among the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon – how memorable is THAT?!  I hope you’ll come along with us – I promise it won’t be another ten months before the next installment!



  1. There are several reasons I enjoyed this. First, it reminded me of our (only) visit to Zion and our incredibly similar impression of it, even with our same vow never to return in the summertime. Secondly, I was able to see the tunnel through which Phannie would have been summarily banned. Lastly, I was a bit jealous that you have visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon --one of my favorite places on earth--and I haven't. I pouted a little, but Sandy said it was a trifle immature, so I'm just going to hold my breath for a while. On second thought, that's probably not a good idea at my age. I'll just tell you I enjoyed the post, but take no pleasure in the knowledge that my jealousy probably made your day.

    1. There's no need to be jealous, Mike, because you have the advantage of proximity. Yes, there are degrees of proximity but, admit it, you are much closer to the North Rim than I am. Leave that one on your bucket list because it's definitely worth the trip. Alan and I have visited both the North and South Rims, and the absence of crowds combined with the temps and the trees at the North Rim sealed the deal. I don't think we'd return to the South Rim again. I'd love to visit Zion again, and will look forward to accomplishing that goal when I can be outdoors without leaving behind a puddle of perspiration at every viewpoint.

  2. I love Zion... and all the amazing national parks in that area. The last time we visited Zion and Bryce - on the same day since we were just passing through on a road trip - we were in t-shirts and shorts in Zion and found ourselves in the snow in Bryce. Both were gorgeous in their own way.

    1. I would LOVE to see Bryce in the snow! I've seen photos - and they're gorgeous, of course - but I'd be thrilled to witness the beauty in person. The fact that each National Park has it's own distinct personality has always intrigued me. Every single one of them is magnificent in its own special way, and Utah is definitely blessed with an incredible assortment!

  3. Mary,
    Our time in Zion was phenomenal and I hope we can do it again. Your pictures brought ba a lot of memories. I was not all that excited by our visit to the Grand Canyon, but I'm willing to give it another chance. Are there any hookups in North Rim Campground? Have a great week! Joe

    1. Sorry, Joe, no hookups in the North Rim Campground, but it does have a dump station and a fresh water fill. There's at least one National Forest campground nearby but, if I had to guess, I'd say that one probably doesn't have hookups either. However, about 45 minutes north, there's an RV park called Kaibab Camper Village in the town Jacob Lake, and my understanding is that it has full hookups. I don't know anything else about it, but maybe that will help? I think both the North and South Rims are gorgeous areas, but the North Rim with its forests and few people (it gets only 10% of the Park's visitors) will always be close to my heart. Good to hear from you, Joe. Please say hi to Helen for me!


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