glamping at

zion national park
    written by Anne Sablich

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Until Yosemite last year, neither of us had ever been to a National Park (other than Acadia, where I’ve been a few times, but which is much smaller in scale than the Western biggies), so we only have Yosemite & Zion as reference points. We have discussed which one we liked better many times – read through to see how the parks compare and which we preferred.

Day 1

The road to Zion
All Photographs by Elan Sablich Canon 5d MKIV
A car picked us up at 3:30 AM on Tuesday, May 1st to take us to the airport for our 6:45 flight. Although we had gone to bed early, it had not been a restful evening of sleep – the germs that accompany the open-cubicle life that is my day-to-day had finally caught up with me, and naturally I was up coughing much of the night, and Elan was up listening to my coughing.
“To our New England born-and-bred eyes, it looked like an entirely different planet.”
Kolob terrace rd – 5 miles till Under Canvas
View from our tent

We landed at St. George Airport in (surprise) St. George, Utah in the rain. This airport might as well have been from 1968. It had exactly one gate, it’s only restaurant was a vending machine, and the walls were wood-paneled and featured an advertisements for local community theatre and opioid prevention. We picked up our rental car and began the 45 minute drive to our “glamping” site in Virgin ( Under Canvas Zion), making a pit stop at a local grocery store to stock up on PB&J-making supplies and buy perhaps the worst bagels in the world for breakfast. The landscape began to look more and more prehistoric (I kept getting the theme song to “Land of the Lost” stuck in my head). To our New England born-and-bred eyes, it looked like an entirely different planet.

Not long later, we made the turn onto the windy road that leads to the Under Canvas property. In classic Elan fashion, we stopped twice for him to take photos, and in classic Anne fashion, I just wanted to get there and get settled and had zero interest in stopping. A few moments later, we drove down a dirt (well, due to the uncharacteristic rains, it was more like a mud) road to Under Canvas, and after a quick overview of the property, were taken in a souped-up golf cart to our home for the next four nights – a canvas tent with a wood-burning stove and a king-sized bed that was practically screaming our names (it was at this point about 4:30 PM UTC/6:30 PM EST and we had been awake for 15 hours already).

We began to unpack and unwind a bit, then made our way to the main lodge area for a quick dinner, some Polygamy Porter (their brands really lean into it out there), and some moments of relaxation. We went to bed before the sun set – it didn’t matter. The bed was so comfortable, our day had been so long, and we had many miles of trekking ahead of us.

Day 2

Observation Point & Hidden Canyon

E verybody who has been to Zion National Park or who has heard anything about the park knows that Angel’s Landing is the single most popular hike in the park. It’s not particularly long, but it is steep, and features a section of trail with steep drop-offs on both sides, and a chain in the middle for hikers to use for support and they make their way through that section. Elan wanted to do it. Months before we even began to plan the trip, he was sending me YouTube clips of people who use a GoPro to record their ascent, and for months, I told him absolutely not. If my hands start sweating watching footage of a hike, then I know I cannot trust myself to complete it without having a nervous breakdown. Angel’s Landing was out.

We did some research and learned that Observation Point, a much longer and less-traveled hike, featured the Angel’s Landing summit as one of its views. Better view, higher elevation, less people? We struck gold. We grabbed some free coffee from the lodge, hopped into the rental car, and drove the 25 minutes to the visitor’s center to catch the 7:30 AM shuttle bus to the trailhead. I popped a Sinex, started my Garmin GPS, and we set off.

Filled with coffee and stale bagels, we left before the sun rose
The complete trail is about 8 miles long, which we figured was the perfect length for our first day of hiking after a very long travel day. It starts with switchbacks. Lots of switchbacks. Fortunately, having hiked Yosemite Point the year before, we were familiar with this sort of trail, and gave ourselves time to stop and appreciate the view without getting too winded as we ascended. The views were, of course, remarkable. Starker than Yosemite, but grander, too. Had a ptrerodactyl swooped down from any given nearby peak, I would have thought “of course.” Eventually, the trail sort of flattens out for a bit and surprises you with a trip through some more canyon-y scenery- a little preview of what was to come the following day with our trip to The Subway, and a very welcome respite from the switchback ascent. Since we are fortunate enough to be early risers who want to tackle hikes first thing in the morning, we were basically alone on the trail, and the canyon break gave Elan plentiful opportunity for photos in a truly impressive place.
Getting an early start – rain in the forecast.

Clouds occasionally lift and reveal the canyons around us

“Even on the days when you feel the most powerful and important, you are still basically a speck compared to the rest of creation.”
Welcomed flats after painful switchbacks
Almost to the top of Observation Point

After the canyon, the switchback ascent continues, this time with a different view. The drop-offs feel a little more jarring and the landscape becomes a lot more desolate. It’s a nice reminder that even on the days when you feel the most powerful and important, you are still basically a speck compared to the rest of creation. Just when our legs started to get exhausted from the climb, the trail flattened out, and the final 1/2 mile to the summit was (blessedly) flat. The trail became muddier (and with Zion’s red dirt, this meant that basically all of our hiking clothes are now slightly more crimson than they were before). The vegetation was shrubby and reminded me of the bushes that one usually sees near a beach. We reached the Observation Point, and took some time to really let the other-worldy vista sink in.

The weather forecast called for cold rain, a drastic departure from the more seasonal 80-degree-and-sunny weather that Zion normally features in early May. We had been bracing ourselves for downpours the entire ascent, but it wasn’t until we reached the point that the skies began to spit out some precipitation. Instead of rain, however, it was snow! We felt incredibly fortunate that despite the weather, the clouds were low and didn’t obscure the view as much as it could have – in fact, we could see the tiny people on Angel’s Landing. Elan was happy he got his vista, and I was happy that I didn’t have to hold onto chains for dear life in order to get there. We ate a couple of snacks we brought along (shout out to Lara bars and EPIC chicken bars), and, still a little nervous that the light snow would turn into hard rain, began our descent.

As we started our return, we passed dozens of people climbing up, and were once again relieved that we like to take on the day early, since we were able to enjoy so much more solitude than we would have had we waited an hour or two! We made the descent fairly quickly, and since our legs were feeling pretty good, we decided that we had some more energy is us and could do a quick detour. Instead of climbing back down the last 3/4 miles of switchbacks, we took an alternate path back UP the other side to check out Hidden Canyon.

The Observation Point Switchbacks
I will admit I did not do my Hidden Canyon research. As we were making our way up the switchbacks, a man we had seen earlier on the trail was hiking down. I asked him “Hey, is this worth it?” and he answered “Yes, it’s pretty neat. There’s some chains, which is great.” Cue internal (and external) panic. I had picked Observation Point specifically to avoid chains, and now, when our legs already had 8 miles of wear, we were about to use chains anyway? “Great.” I responded. “Just great.” I told Elan we could get to the chains and see what they were like. It was my suggestion to detour to Hidden Canyon anyway, so I couldn’t really back down until I saw what I was up against.
“The drop off was still pants-wettingly high, but there was a wall to lean in on.”
The first chain section on Hidden Canyon
It turns out, the chains appeared horrifying. We rounded one corner and could see people on the side using them, and my heart just about exited my body. There was another man with a camera snapping some photos, so I couldn’t completely wimp out, and I went ahead. Elan asked me to stop to take a photo. I may or may not have bit his head off. Once I was comfortable on the chains I realized that they really appeared far more perilous than they were. The drop off was still pants-wettingly high, but there was a wall to lean in on, a chain to grasp, and bit more ledge between myself and the vast space below than it appeared from afar.

The chains were, dare I say, even a little bit fun! When we reached the “Hidden Canyon” (which is really just about 1/2 a mile of trail-finding that ends in a little archway), we were pretty much beat. On our return, we saw a couple of women panicking on the chain section, and it felt pretty good to be able to tell them “Hey, I made it, and I’m terrified of heights.” I hope that they powered through.

Hidden Canyon was cool and lush, with rock walls up either side
Anne overcoming her fear of chains
We made our way back down, joined the trail where Observation Point & Hidden Canyon overlap, and waited for the shuttle bus back. Total trek was somewhere between 10.5-11 miles all together (my GPS lost signal for a bit in the middle). We returned to the visitor center to pick up our permit for the hike we were to tackle the next day – the Subway (bottom up), which limits hikers to 80 permits per day, and for which we had to sign waivers and leave emergency contact information at the visitor center. You know, no big deal. The Subway is a canyon hike, and they don’t allow you to pick up the permit if there is a high chance of flash floods – it had been raining on and off for two days, so we weren’t confident they’d let us pick it up, but sure enough,  (even though the chart on the wall had Flash Flood Level at “Possible” level for the next day) we pocketed the permit with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and headed back from the park. We found our way to a little BBQ restaurant in Springdale to eat a late lunch (it was around 2:30 PM). The nearby diners did NOT enjoy the bumbleberry pie they ordered for desert. Our tacos were fine.
When we returned to Under Canvas, we took advantage of the (shared) showers, which were such a treat to have while “camping,” and after some relaxing in the tent, returned to the lodge for some supper and a beer. While we were in the lodge, the skies finally broke and torrential downpours came down. We were so grateful that we were no longer on a mountain, and instead sitting next to a space-heater drinking beers.
Under Canvas.

Rainbow!

The rain was unseasonable, but had we missed out on that weather, we also would have missed out on the spectacular rainbow that followed. Stretching across the sky over the mountain formations in the distance, it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. We were seated near a middle-aged couple, and when she spotted the rainbow, she sent him outside with her camera to take a picture (because she was just starting to warm up, she said). He grumbled “How many pictures of rainbows do you need?” I think even he was impressed once he saw it. We finished our dinners and went to bed before sunset, again. I wonder if Utah had stars? I imagine so.
He grumbled “How many pictures of rainbows do you need?”

Day 3

The Subway - Bottoms up!
The Subway was the experience we were most excited about ahead of our trip. We had to apply for a permit via lottery system three months before we left, and were thrilled when we were selected. We read up a lot about the hike – it was described as “grueling” and “advanced” without being technical, which was right up our collective alley. Since there isn’t really a trail for much of the route (it’s essentially just a hike straight up and back a river that takes takes you to an indescribable collection of pools and canyon walls that appear like a subway tunnel), you rely on your trail-finding abilities to navigate over and under rocks and back and forth across the river and up and down fallen trees. It’s total body workout, but it was so, so fun. Since the Subway trailhead is located in the Zion Wilderness, the entrance was only a mile up the road from Under Canvas. Once we ate breakfast at the Under Canvas lodge, we set off. We hit the trail not long after two women did, and in our tired/excited state, we followed them in turning the wrong way right at the very first possible moment. The path went left or right, and we went right, which turned out to be wrong. This path was rocky and when we got to the end, the two women said “Oh, I think we went the wrong way. They said it starts out with steep descent, but this is a bit much-” cut to a drop off of a giant canyon below. We had gone about half a mile to reach this wrong canyon, but turned around and found our way back to the right trail, fortunately still in good spirits (after all, what’s one more mile in a journey that’s anywhere between 9-11 miles, depending on which trail guide you read)?
“We could see finger marks in the mud where clearly people trying to climb back up needed to claw their way.”
When we reached the aforementioned “steep descent” we could see finger marks in the mud where clearly people trying to climb back up needed to claw their way. We were grateful the weather was predicting sun for the day, and hoped the mud would dry up by the time we had to do the same portion (this time, climbing up) on our return. It was definitely steep. We basically slid down into the canyon. I’m honestly not sure what to write about our hike down to the Subway. We stumbled over boulders and climbed through bushes and walked through the river on slippery stones. We saw millions of toads and some ducks, and we didn’t need to use the “poop bags” that we brought with us (thank God). Leave it better than you found it is a concept we whole-heartedly support, but we were not eager to have to carry our poop out with us. Every corner we rounded made us gasp or smile or burst out into laughter over how absurdly beautiful it was. Each time we stepped in the water (which was 40 degrees according to the ranger’s chart the previous day), we would make some sort of weird noise that we had no control over. We felt like we were alone in this breathtaking wilderness, and it felt like a miracle.
A staircase of waterfalls.

Posing in the river – still miles to go.

A few miles into the hike, we reached a point where we really had no choice but to walk the remainder of the journey directly in the river, which ranged from ankle to calf-deep. Honestly, the water didn’t feel as cold or uncomfortable as I had anticipated once we reached this point, but the stones below were as slippery as ice, and it made for some pretty hilarious wobbles and near-falls. At one point, we had to walk up a series of mini-waterfalls, on these slippery, algae-covered stones, and I sincerely wish it was on video because we must have looked like toddlers who just learned how to walk. Eventually, we reached the Subway! In this section, the canyon walls sort of curve around and create this cylinder-shaped entry way with green, clear water and deep pools that look otherworldly. Some hikers do this trek the opposite way that we did, which requires ropes to rappel directly into the deep pools from the canyon walls above – and we ran into a group of people just changing out of their wet suits from their descent as we made it to the destination. They were shivering, and I was relieved that we hadn’t had to go swimming.
Waterfalls everywhere!

Impossible to capture the sheer size of these walls.

The entrance to the Subway

As beautiful as the Subway was, after a few minutes I began to feel a bit claustrophobic. Unlike other sections of the trail, here, there was nowhere to climb up to in the event of the ever-looming threat- the flash flood. We stuck around in a patch of sunshine to eat our PB&Js, and then I was happy to return to less-closed-in spaces on the return journey.
The return was certainly more tedious than the journey in. Although it was easier in the sense that we had already figured out the best paths to take to get where we’re going, at this point our feet were soaked, our legs were tired, and the sun had come up and was beginning to bake us. We were very grateful that we had both brought more water than we thought we’d need, because we used it up during the trek back. When we reached the point where we had to return back up and out of the canyon via the incredible ascent, we took our time. We had met up with another group at that part (it’s by far the most exhausting portion of that hike), and we kept alternating who was in front due to the breaks we kept taking to catch out breath. It would have been scary had I been able to watch myself from afar and see how steep it was, but as we were doing the climb, we had to focus on keeping our footing and grabbing in the right spot, so there wasn’t much time for fear. When we reached our car, my GPS said we had gone 11.1 miles, although it had lost signal for a bit, so not exactly sure what the final total should really have been. We had survived our two big days of hiking, and were overjoyed – and a little sad, because we knew that our favorite moments in the park were now in the past.

#nofilter

After showering, we headed up to the lodge for drinks and dinner – with no worries about having an intense hike the next day, we were able to enjoy two drinks each (don’t worry, the drinks in Utah are legally required to be weak), and Elan got the burger he had been fantasizing about all day (I can’t even remember what I ordered, but I’m sure it was delicious). It was finally warm enough for us to sit outside while we ate, and we witnessed a helicopter land, dropping off two passengers who had gone on a sightseeing ride and who were also guests at Under Canvas. We went to bed just after sunset (woohoo, we did it), falling asleep immediately.

Day 4

Playing Tourist
As we did when we were in Yosemite, we planned for our third day in the park to be our easy day, knowing that we’d have to be in the car the next day, and that our legs had been through a lot the first two days. We still woke up early, ate breakfast, and headed immediately out, but our itinerary for this final day was looser. We planned on hitting up all of the easy, tourist-y trails off of the main loop. We arrived to the visitor center parking around 8:00, and since it was a warm, sunny day, and a Friday, it was already pretty crowded. We began by hiking the Watchman Trail. About 3 miles, and with a gentle elevation, I was shocked that this trail wasn’t swarming with other tourists. It’s probably the only easy, quick peak in the park, and the trailhead begins at the visitor center. It afforded impressive views, and only took just over an hour for us to complete. I really was surprised by this little hike, and not only because when we reached the top, I found a dollar (which I plan on donating at the next National Park we visit – Acadia in August). It should have been PACKED, and maybe it was later on in the afternoon, but we only saw scattered handfuls of people. I was definitely grateful for this, but certainly surprised. It stops short of being an accessible trail, but it certainly is a gentle hike that children, grandparents, and all ages of people who are mobile can do to enjoy the views that Zion offers.
Following the Watchman, we took on the Pa’Rus trail – a paved trail that’s just over a mile long that walks along the valley undernearth the Watchman and ends just past the iconic bridge view that everyone takes photos of. Again, I expected this to be completely overrun with people, but we had very long stretches where it was just us. It’s not a hike, it’s more of a stroll (paved and flat), but it affords some fantastic sights. So far, so good! Our next adventure was to what Elan called “The Temple of Schwarma” shuttle stop, to take on the Riverside trail that leads to the entrance of the Narrows. We didn’t have enough time to take on the famous Narrows hike, but we did enjoy walking the path and listening to the river along the way. The river kept it cool, and we stopped to have a picnic on one of the boulders off of the path. At this point, the crowds had definitely come out full force, and it was an ocean of visitors on the pathway. Still, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, as we were able to eat lunch in relative peace and quiet. At this point, we’d done about 8 easy miles between hikes and walks in between, and poor Elan’s knee was bothering him. He reluctantly agreed that we could do the Emerald Pools trail, too, as our last stop of the day. Here’s where things got a little overwhelming. This stop featured the Zion Lodge (the only non-camping guest space in Zion), as well as a gift shop, restaurant, and bus parking- and there were busses, OH, were there busses. Some were filled with elderly tourists, some were filled with fifth graders on a field trip, but they all stopped at the Emerald Pools, and along the same trail we were about to climb.
As we approached the trailhead, a park ranger ambulance was pulling in with lights flashing, and a man waved him down and was explaining something about someone up the path. We didn’t want to eavesdrop, so we kept going, swept up in a sea of fifth graders wearing matching shirts. The trail was uphill, but paved and simple, so we couldn’t imagine what sort of medical emergency could have occurred. This trail was so easy that we saw a couple who was carrying a bijon frise dog in a backpack behind them. We soon came upon a woman on the ground, with some people around her. She was conscious, but just sitting. I imagine she either tripped and hit her head or she perhaps fainted from the heat, who knows. Either way, one of the people waiting with her asked if we had seen an ambulance, and we told her we had and they were on their way, and continued along. At this point, Elan’s knee was pretty much busted, and he was limping pretty badly. We reached the first of the pools, and decided to turn around. It was crowded and hot, and turning around seemed to make sense. As we were on our way down, the rescue rangers arrived- about 8 of them, carrying a stretcher. I thought of how grateful they must be that this happened on a wide, paved trail instead of one where they’d have to climb in. We returned to the ground and headed over to the gift shop to grab a couple of gifts (we found the cutest female park ranger doll for our niece, and made sure to take some pictures of her in her natural habitat before we left), and then waited for a shuttle bus back to head back. All in all, we did about 12 miles of mini-trails and hikes. None were challenging, but between the heat and Elan’s bum knee, we were pretty wiped out. The crowds, which we had so expertly avoided the previous two days, were catching up with us, and we had to wait for a couple shuttle bus cycles until there was one we could fit on.
“The crowds, which we had so expertly avoided the previous two days, were catching up with us.”

Real casual.

We returned to Under Canvas to shower and rest a bit before heading to downtown Springdale for a dinner and a cocktail. We were so tired we barely spoke to each other. We ate in record time, because Elan had plans to drive back into the park and do yet another mini-hike to see the sunset from the renowned Canyon Overlook. The drive is beautiful, but very windy (and a little fear-inducing if you have an irrational fear of driving off the side of a mountain, like I do), and at one section requires a drive through a long tunnel (literally through the mountain), which we wound up having to do three times, because of lack of parking at the trailhead and lack of turnaround locations.
We finally parked and made our way to the trailhead, and I was not prepared. I was expecting a simple stroll to a spot where you could look out, but instead it was a trail on the side of the canyon that was more terrifying to me than any of the other hikes we had done. Maybe it was because I was exhausted or because I had had one cocktail, but I began to feel myself losing control as I walked along. Tears sprang to my eyes without warning, and I tried to shrug them away and keep walking. Elan was barreling forward, eager to get his sunset photo, and I lagged back a bit. At one point, there’s a wooden bridge that you have to cross, supported underneath by only a few iron bars hovering on their own directly over an endless abyss. Crossing that made me lose my mind. I got through and burst into tears. I tried choking them back to keep going (it’s a short trail, so I knew we must be close to the end), and then I saw the next section. Elan was already there, and a woman was, too, and I heard her say to him “Oh, that’s so narrow, and that’s a long way down! Have to be very careful!” Then, my friends, I completely lost it. I was going to just try and regain some sanity and keep going, but Elan noticed and told me to turn around and go back to the car. I told him to keep going, but he insisted that if I wasn’t going to enjoy it, it wasn’t worth it, so we basically ran back to the car. Sunset photo fail.

Day 5

leaving | final thoughts
We had a 6-7 hour drive to Huntington Beach ahead of us, and knew we had to hit the road early. We woke up before the sun, got dressed and packed, ate some breakfast, and bid adieu to Under Canvas, Zion, and all of the phenomenal scenery that we had come to love. Fortunately, it was a very warm morning, and we were able to enjoy our breakfast looking out over that vista one last time. Our bad moods from the sunset photo fiasco had dissipated just in time for us to leave. As we drove out of the Under Canvas grounds, a cowboy on a horse with about 15 cows (including babies!) was riding by. In modern cowboy fashion, he was talking on a cell phone as he wrangled.

So, did we like Yosemite or Zion better? Why not both?

We liked our hikes in Zion better than our hikes in Yosemite. There were fewer other people on the trails, the routes were more varied in landscape/hiking terrain, and they were just so spectacular. The Subway, in particular, was our joint favorite hike pretty much ever, and there’s nothing that can really compare with that in Yosemite. That being said, when we visited Yosemite, we were able to stay inside the park, allowing us 24/7 access to its trails and sights, and the Valley Loop trail allowed for pedestrian access to all of the big trails, and it was easy to rent a bike and take in the whole valley.  This time of year, Zion requires shuttle access only to all of the major trails, and there are no walking paths linking all of the main points of interest. We very much loved Under Canvas and our stay, but we missed being able to wake up inside the park and play in the park after our hikes were done. Yosemite felt, to me, to be a spiritual place. It was impossible not to look at our surroundings and not feel like I was praying with my eyes. I could feel the history, and the sheer power of the park – the fact that someone went missing while we were staying there emphasized that. There was a mystery to Yosemite that contradicted the throngs of visitors everywhere you looked. Zion, on the other hand, didn’t have that awesome, mystic feel to it. It instead felt like another world all together. Impressive and beautiful and strong, but not so much mysterious as it was bold and proud. It felt as though it wasn’t a land created for humans, but one that wasn’t necessarily out to prove that, in the way that Yosemite was. We truly loved both parks, and look forward to visiting them again. It’s important to visit places that make you feel small in order to appreciate just how big and beautiful our home planet is.

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