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A Visit to Zion and Arches National Parks

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For our annual spring break trip we wanted to head some where warm with the Scamp, and being early April we knew we had to head pretty far south to find some sunshine. With only one week we could not visit all of the Mighty Five National Parks in Utah, so we chose Zion and Arches National Parks to split up the trip between the west and east side of Southern Utah. You’re probably thinking, that’s a long drive from the Seattle area for some birding in Zion National Park, and you’d be right! We chose to take three days to get there and on the return trip to make the days a little easier. We stopped in Eastern Oregon and just outside Salt Lake City to break the drives up. On both the drive there and on the way home we found the Mountain time zone has some interesting weather, from wind to rain to snow and back to sunshine all in a days drive, sometimes within an hours drive! Luckily the snow did not stick enough to the roads but visibility was always a question.

We had planned to stay three nights at the Watchman Campground in Zion National Park arriving on a Saturday. When we were within an hour or two from the park the rain was really coming down, and our weather app predicted it would not letup until Sunday afternoon. We were flexible and we decided to skip setting up camp in the rain and get a hotel in St. George, a touristy town just 45 minutes from the park. This turned out to be a great decision as there were plenty of nice restaurants and things to do in St. George. In the morning the sun started to peak out and we were able to visit Pioneer Park on the north side of town which gives you a taste of the red rocks and desert landscape before heading into Zion.

Arriving at Zion the following Sunday worked out very well as we were able to setup camp in the sunshine! On the west side of the Zion canyon there was still snow on the peaks making for quite a colorful backdrop with the reds and greens of the canyon capped with snow at the top. The weather was not quite ready to stay nice though as clouds would occasionally blow down the canyon with some gusts of wind, that is how it stayed until Monday and then it got hot and sunny the rest of the week.

The next day we managed to get in two hikes in one day! From spring to fall Zion gets VERY crowded, because of this the road that heads up the canyon is closed and they have buses that shuttle you that run all day long. This is a good thing as you’d likely not want to battle a crowded road with no parking at any of the trail heads or lodges up the canyon road. However, if you want to avoid the crowds you need to get up early and get to the shuttle. Camping at Watchman was quite useful for this, as we essentially already had a parking spot, a lot of day trippers had to get to the Zion entrance and battle to find parking just to stand in line to get a shuttle! We arrived at around 9:30am at the shuttle pick up area which was less than a 5 minute walk from our campsite. Even at 9:30am the line was pretty long, it probably took about 20 minutes for us to get on a shuttle.

We chose to do the Emerald Pools Trail hike as it was an easier one for the kids. This is a nice hike that takes you up to three sets of pools with the top pool sitting below a massively tall water fall. You start the hike by crossing the Virgin River which runs through the canyon all the way into the campground, when we were there the bridge to this trail was out so we crossed a bridge that was one shuttle stop further up the canyon, the same stop for the famous Angel’s Landing Trail. After you cross the bridge you head left towards the Emerald Pools, or right for Angel’s Landing (the full Angel’s Landing hike does require a permit so make sure to do your research before heading out!). On the way toward the pools you have incredible views down the canyon, it is not a difficult hike and I certainly would recommend it! The only issue was with the crowds, you should probably get their earlier than we did as there was a fairly constant flow of traffic up and down the trail. I find many National Parks hikers do not often hike so they don’t know trail etiquette, there were many stopped in the middle of the trail rather than resting on the side, and the right of way is for hikers heading up the trail not down. So be prepared to wait for others!

When we returned to the campground the beginning shuttle stop line was extremely long, probably now a 45 minute wait of longer, another reminder to get to the shuttle early! Our second hike starts at the campground and that is the Watchman Trail, the banner image for this post is from the viewpoint at the end of the trail, facing down the canyon overlooking the campground. This trail has a little more elevation than the Emerald Pools trail, and is more exposed to the sun, but the switchbacks keep it from getting too steep and make it a comfortable hike.

Desert wildlife seems much more harder to come by than say in the jungles of Belize! But we were able to find some birds, especially near the rivers and creeks. We saw Western Bluebirds, Lesser Goldfinch and Say’s Phoebes. New ones to us were the Lucy’s Warbler and Rock Wren. Lucy’s Warbler’s range map is actually quite small, they are known as the warbler that lives in the driest habitat compared to other warbler’s, they are also one of the only warblers that nest in tree cavity’s.

Rock Wren
Rock Wren
Rock Wren’s have a larger range map, and can be found in Eastern Washington if you’re looking for them in the PNW. They make nests in cavities in the rocks that are usually out of site, however they like to build little roads or paths to their nest, they will grab pebbles or glass or any small items and lay them out in a row for their path.

After enjoying out time in Zion we packed up and headed out the East Park Entrance through the Mt. Carmel tunnel, a very cool tunnel that cuts through a mile of rock in the cliffside! On the other side of the tunnel are more incredible trails before exiting the park. It’s about a 4 to 5 hour drive from here to Moab which was our base for visiting both Arches and Canyonland National Parks. Moab is centrally located for visiting this area and has a lot of great spots to eat including an excellent food truck court which has six to eight food trucks worth checking out!

Arches National Park entrance is just north of Moab and now requires a timed entry reservation to get in. This is their way of limiting the car traffic similar to Zion’s shuttle strategy. I don’t mind having to plan ahead and reserve if it allows you to enjoy your day with less traffic! Arches is another incredible park, just stunning rock formations everywhere you look, the park contains over 2,000 natural arches. The most iconic hike here is the Delicate Arch Trail, this is the arch you see on the Utah state license plate. We however found the Windows and Double Arch trails to be our favorite area as they were short hikes with incredible arches that you can walk under and around. The Double Arch is where a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) was filmed taking the Cross of Coronado from the looters in the Last Crusade.

Only a 45 minute drive north of Moab is the entrance to the Islands In the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. This park is so big it has four districts! There are multiple trails you can access through this entrance but we did the Grand View Trail. It is exactly as it says, a grand view of the canyons! The trail is near the end of a plateau that you walk out on as if it were a peninsula, with canyons dropping off on either side and mesa’s visible in all directions. You can really see the vastness of Canyonlands from here, I wish we had a whole week just to explore this park.

While we had a wonderful week in Southern Utah, it is great being back in the PNW as spring and summer are such an enjoyable time for birding up here!

Useful Links and Info:

  • Read our last post about Spada Lake!
  • Check out all our other birding and nature adventures here.
  • We recommend a good long sleeve hiking shirt to protect against the sun that stays dry. Here are men’s and women’s options.
  • Please help us out by clicking our Amazon Affiliate Link, while we recommend useful items for hiking, photography, travel, and birding any purchase through our link helps us out! if Also use for your travel! Thanks for your support.
  • Most of these shots were taken with the Sony a7 along with the Sony FE 200-600mm lens.
  • Always bring bug spray and sun screen when birding!


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