The best part about driving to Zion National Park is, obviously, the payoff at the end of the road. But along with the pleasure that comes from a weekend exploring and enjoying the park’s beauty and tranquility, the three hours on the road can be broken up into a series of short jaunts that takes you through three states, offering smaller rewards along the way.
The Nevada portion of the drive north on Interstate 15 is the longest and least visually stimulating, unless you get turned on by the sight of the Apex Industrial Park. But leaving for Zion on a Saturday morning provides my wife, Melissa, and me with more than enough anticipation to get us through the first 80 miles of nothingness. A stop for some down-home grub at the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Mesquite’s Virgin River hotel-casino also helps.
In making this drive countless times over the past 20 years, my favorite part remains the 30-mile slice of northwestern Arizona that carries travelers through the Virgin River Gorge. On this stretch of highway—the most expensive stretch of Interstate per mile ever built when it opened in 1973—here’s where the drive converges with the Virgin River, which flows through the narrow, winding canyon on its way toward Lake Mead. The limestone walls are spectacular, although trying to sightsee while navigating the road’s twists and turns isn’t wise. Once you make it through the canyon’s most menacing stretch, there are a few places to pull over and view the river or access the cliffs.
St. George, Utah, is just minutes away, and it’s a second convenient stop before we leave I-15 and head east on Route 9 for the final 35 miles. The distant mountains hint at Zion’s waiting beauty as we cruise through the sleepy towns of Hurricane, La Verkin, Virgin and Rockville before reaching Springdale, which neighbors Zion’s south entrance.
We take it easy Saturday night, enjoying the sunset over a few beers before having dinner in Springdale. We spend all of Sunday in Zion, taking a couple of hikes—highlighted by the Emerald Pools trail—before reluctantly hitting the road.
The Place: Zion National Park.
The Way: Interstate 15 north to Route 9 (about 130 miles), passing through Arizona and crossing into Utah. Take Route 9 to Exit 16, then head east toward Hurricane and continue to follow to Zion (about 35 miles).
The Wheels: Kia Sorento from Findlay Kia; $37,000, including leather interior, sunroof, satellite navigation, Infinity surround-sound system and Sirius XM Radio; 19 mpg city, 25 highway. The assessment: It rode so smoothly, the SUV practically drove itself.
The Sound: Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots; the Decemberists, The King Is Dead; Underground Garage and Outlaw Country on Sirius XM Radio (highlighted by Shooter Jennings’ Electric Rodeo show).
The Eats: St. George, Utah, has a wide selection of eateries, including the country goodness found at Cracker Barrel. Café Soleil in Springdale, Utah, is walking distance from Zion’s entrance and is a great spot for breakfast or lunch to fuel up for a day of hiking.
The Lodging: The Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale, Utah (147 Zion Park Blvd., 877-712-3366, CableMountainLodge.com), is next to the park’s south entrance and the Virgin River. It features luxurious suites and a heated swimming pool with a great view of Watchman Peak. The hotel also is near a gift shop and market, several restaurants and the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theatre.
While You’re at It: Take advantage of the area’s free shuttle service. There are no private vehicles allowed in Zion from April through October, but the Zion Canyon Shuttle runs frequently throughout the day, stopping at eight locations within Utah’s oldest national park. There are also six shuttle stops in Springdale.
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