We’re a Mask-wearing, Quarantining Family; We Vacationed in Zion National Park, and You Can Too
Like many of you, we canceled our summer vacation, one that would’ve required getting on an airplane, back in April, when it became clear that quarantine wasn’t ending any time soon. In May, after two months of not leaving the house other than for grocery shopping (and sanitizing those groceries once we got home), we started looking for a way we could take the kids — Jack, 12, Kate, 9, Henry, 6 — on a road trip to somewhere we’d be outdoors most of the time. A national park was the obvious answer. We’d been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton over the past few years, and Zion, just a six-hour drive from our home in Southern California, was next on our list. I began planning for a mid-July vacation, feeling a small amount of anticipation and a whole lot of, “Is this the worst idea, ever?”
I had two main concerns, the first being gas and bathroom breaks between home and Zion. We’d need to gas up near Vegas, and the truck stops along I-15 felt like COVID-central. I bought Clorox wipes to use for opening doors and using sink handles, and I also bought — what’s the word I’m looking for? — a SHIT-TON of hand sanitizer we kept in the van. My second concern was staying in The Zion Lodge. I would’ve preferred a cabin in which we weren’t breathing recirculated air, but we’re a family of five and the cabins slept four. After four months of quarantine, I couldn’t imagine standing in a lobby — that was a giant leap away from wiping down our Amazon packages. But, as soon as we arrived, I was put at ease. Reception had social-distancing markings on the floor, and the park had made a lot of meaningful changes to protect visitors during the coronavirus. For instance, there was no housekeeping service — once we checked in, we were the only ones to enter our room. Our room was a damp-toweled, half-eaten-muffined mess, but we felt safe. Also, the two restaurants that normally operate out of The Zion Lodge were closed for dining but open for takeout. There was a sprawling lawn in front of the lodge, with a giant cottonwood in the center under which families picnicked — well-distanced — and at dusk, deer showed up to graze on the grass. Lots of them! Several evenings, we sat on the lawn and watched the doe and their fawns, and threw a frisbee, or played Uno. (Pro-tip: Due to the coronavirus, the park does not serve alcohol. Pick up beer or wine before you get there. Our room had a fridge.)
These are the activities we enjoyed while easily social-distancing:
Hiking The Narrows — If you’ve seen the iconic Zion photos of hikers trekking through knee-deep water, with sunlit canyon walls as tall skyscrapers on either side of them, you were looking at The Narrows. Our Narrows day was the pinnacle of our visit — a must-do. While you definitely won’t be alone in the canyon, you can easily stay six feet away from others and usually much more. Getting to the famous ‘Wall Street’ — where the canyon gets so narrow you can almost touch both walls when you spread out your arms — is 3.2 miles in and 3.2 miles out. My husband turned back when our six and nine-year-old tired, but Jack and I made it to ‘Wall Street,’ and shared a moment of pure joy and satisfaction. On our pleasantly exhausted, mostly-silent trek back, as the late afternoon sunlight danced on the river, he said, “I’m going to bring my kids to Zion, too.”
Parent tip: You’ll want to rent the hiking boots, neoprene socks, and especially walking sticks. We rented our gear at Zion Guru and were very happy with them.
Hike to Emerald Pools — This hike is three miles roundtrip and was easy for the kids. Hiking up, there’s a steep drop-off on the left that made me nervous, but there were plenty of kids on the trail. There are lower pools, middle pools, and upper pools, and the upper pools are supposed to be the largest and most beautiful, but I can’t confirm — we got to the middle pools, found a pond full of frogs, and never continued on. We had to drag the kids away after a couple of hours. No gear needed, but go early; it was hot when we started at 11 am.
Playing in The Virgin River — Walk or bike The Pa’rus trail — 3.3 miles roundtrip — and stop at one of the many dirt turn-outs and spend the day. The river captivated all of our kids; they were lost in it — building pools to hold minnows and tadpoles, constructing dams, and sitting like statues so that the fish would nibble the dead skin from their feet. In fact, they had so much fun the first day, we went back later in the week with proper minnow and tadpole catching equipment: water bottles and empty fruit cups. You know those days when you look at your kids, their eyes glued to their tablets (what even is Roblox?) and you dream of moving to the country and raising them differently? The Virgin River is the answer, Mom.
ATV Sunset Tour — This was spendy. If you asked my kids what they enjoyed more, the ATV tour or playing in the river, they’d choose river hands-down, but if you have the means, it was a cool, one-off experience. The tour started at five and lasted until sunset, nearly four hours. Our affable, retiree tour guide, Dave, led our family — me and our two youngest in a four-seater; my husband and twelve-year-old on a two-seater — and a few other riders, roaring through The Mojave Desert, throwing up waves of red sand. To be in The Mojave, with no civilization in sight, was extraordinary. I booked the ATV tour for my daredevil, Henry, but, I have to admit, once I got comfortable driving, it was pretty thrilling to gun it. We used ATV & JEEP Adventure Tours; they were great with kids and especially caring with Kate, who was nervous early in the ride.
Getting Around the Park: Cars are not allowed on the Zion Canyon scenic drive and the most popular activities are in that area, so you’ll need to do one of the following three things: Book a shuttle — To protect passengers, shuttles are running at half capacity, require a ticket, and masks are mandatory. Tickets are $1 per person and can be reserved at www.recreation.gov. Book the open-air tram — The tram runs from The Zion Lodge to The Narrows in the morning and returns in the afternoon. Tickets are not required, but you do need to make a reservation with the front desk. Bring your bikes — If your kids are bike-confident, you can ride to almost any trailhead or attraction; that’s what we did. Since cars aren’t allowed on the scenic drive, there’s not a lot of traffic, which makes for a more relaxed ride with littles.
If you are an ‘err on the side of caution’ parent like I am, and you’re wondering: Can we do a family vacation in the time of coronavirus and feel safe and responsible doing it? The answer is yes, you can. We spent a week in Zion and never came within six feet of another person, other than the receptionist who checked us in, and she was wearing a mask. Adventure — as long as you pack Clorox wipes, jumbo hand-sanitizer, and masks — is out there!