107. Onward to Zion (and Bryce and GC North Rim)

Weds., October 14, 2020

About 50-60 miles north of my destination of Mt Carmel Junction, is the turnoff for Bryce Canyon (between Panguitch and Hatch). Bryce is just 17 miles east of Rt 89 on America’s Scenic Route 12 which is an absolutely breathtaking rim route through The Grand Staircase/Escalante area 120 miles to Torrey. I’ve done the route before and there are a lot of miles riding the ridge without much shoulder on either side of the road. I’ve been getting enough driving lately where a slight, inadvertent turn of the steering wheel can result in using up your entire 18” of shoulder and 19” can result in a disaster. So leaving Torrey this morning, I elected for a 40 mile longer route mostly southbound through what is known as “The Long Valley”.

So I parked the motorhome at the road side, disconnected the Jeep, and headed east to Bryce. Before you get to Bryce, you drive through an area known as “Red Canyon”.

Think that might rate at least ‘County park’ type status somewhere else?

Continuing on, you need to pass a large kitschy “tourist, leave your wallet here” section before you reach the Bryce Canyon National Park entrance. Much of the 17 mile drive thru Bryce is a bit pedestrian. Where are all the ‘hoodoos’?

Bryce is located on the high Kaibib Plateau which extends from the Grand Canyon in the south to Bryce in the north and also encompassing Zion Nat’l Park. The elevations run from 8,000-9,000 feet. So with minor 1,000’ or so elevation changes you are riding the high forested road comprised mainly of pines.

There are also many areas that have been deforested by wildfires in the past few years.

Then you are directed to side roads which end at overlooks and the canyon reveals itself thousands of feet below.

The views are gigantic and, in at least one case, quite surprising!

Autumn has arrived. Although most of the forestation here is of the Evergreen variety, the occasional clumps of Cottonwood and/or Birch provide a splash of color.

Hooked the Jeep back on to the bus and finished the drive to my campground. I’m located right at the Dead end intersection of Mt Carmel Road (Mt Carmel Junction) and Rt 89. There’s a Best Western motel/restaurant and golf course on one of the two corners, a fuel station and campground on another and on the third side another campground. It’s full hookup and backs to a stream at the bottom of the embankment. Campers also have access to the golf course and swimming pool. Zion National Park is about 20 miles west on Mt Carmel and Interstate 15 running between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas is about another 15 miles further west.

I was tipped by a fellow traveler that space on the shuttles, due to COVID, has been restricted and you can only get on with a ticket – $1.00 ea. However a portion of the tickets available each hour are available by reservation 30 days in advance. The remainder go on sale exactly at 9am Mountain Time the day before. So I set my alarm this morning to be sure I was awake and alert by 9 am. Within seconds the tickets for the 9 and 10 am slots for tomorrow were gone. I clicked on 11am but got the message they were gone. Ditto for noon. Saw that there were about 250 left for 2pm and 300+ left for 3pm. Yay, I scored a ticket to board anytime between 2 and 3 pm tomorrow. By 9:04am, everything was sold. By my calculation that would be about 2,000 tickets for the day PLUS I’m probably an equal number sold in the 30 day prior ‘auction’. So I’ll head over earlier and check out the towns of Virgin and Hurricane befNot that I would need to, but I can’t get there via Mt Carmel Rd with the motorhome in that there is a mile long tunnel which is curved. I’m low enough that with a permit I could drive the middle of the tunnel and not scrape (approx 13’ center clearance but a too low 11’4” clearance at the sides). They also limit the width, without a special permit, at 7’10”. With the Jeep, I’m also too long. There are serious curves in the tunnel and the geometry at the curves would put my roof onto the tunnel ceiling, not good! Some decades ago, when I was here pulling a 40’ fifth wheel, I was camped on the west side and for the same reason couldn’t get over to the east side and had to do a 60+ mile detour to accomplish it.

Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020

I left a little after 10 am this morning holding a shuttle ticket to begin at 2pm. The park entry kiosk is about 10 miles east of the Visitor’s Center and the great scenery starts about there. So does the TRAFFIC! It’s a bit of a difficult drive at that point. Between the fabulous views, the drop offs, the little turnouts with 5 cars trying to squeeze into a 3 car spot, pedestrians walking on the road with their faces in their camera viewfinders, there’s a lot to pay attention to.

I finally arrived at the visitor center and it’s many parking lots to be greeted by a sign that all lots were full. I don’t know how many cars can be accommodated but enough for a reasonable sized shopping center. Signs recommended leaving the park to the west and parking on the streets and lots in the adjacent town of Springdale and either walking back in or catching another shuttle. Being me, I decided to just cruise the visitor center parking lot and on my first go round, found an emptying space about 100’ from the center itself. Woot, woot! Another observation. It may be mid Oct and one might think the visitors would be mostly retirees. You’d be wrong! All those people out of work or diligently working from home are actually in the park. Kids! Everywhere! Apparently schools don’t take attendance in virtual school. If you thought it looked like a mid summer holiday weekend, you’d be right.

These first pics and vids are the ride in from the entry to the visitor center.

With apologies for dirty windshield.
Tunnel Dessert – leaving the tunnel.
Traffic waiting for small motorhome to exit before being able to enter the tunnel.
So if you watched the long tunnel video, congrats. You probably noticed 5 areas of outside light filtering in. There’s no power in the tunnel so no electric lights nor fans for ventilation. Instead they bored 5 ‘windows’ from the tunnel to and thru the cliff wall. To the left is one of those windows taken from a vantage point about halfway down the descent. To the right is my iPhone’s telephoto version of the same shot.
This map illustrates my entry to the park. The East entrance is off the map about 7 miles to the right of the “North” symbol. The buff colored road is the paved road. It ‘ends’ just before the ‘Canyon Overlook Panorama’ where the road becomes gray illustrating the long tunnel. The picture of the window is taken from the 2nd switchback. The Visitor Center is illustrated by the darker green shaded area labeled “Zion National Park” and the shuttle route is the white line heading north along the river.

So much for the entry drive to the visitor center. Following are shots from the shuttle. The shuttle rides about 7 miles up the valley and then back to the center. There are 8 scheduled stops where you can get off, explore, hike, picnic, whatever. You can get back on any bus or elect to walk to the next stop or two. There are lots of people who walk the entire 14 mile round trip plus side hikes (and there are many). Outside the park, in Springdale, there’s a cottage industry for bike rentals and bikers are everywhere. The best way to see the park is to walk or bike it as then you can stop wherever you wish. That’s not in the cards for me so I was limited to shuttle stops. Of those, half were off limits due to rock slides and other reasons. Frankly the shuttle, though socially distanced, was not worth it due to the limited stops, the limited views from one side of the shuttle to the other and dirty windows – even dirtier than mine. The windows were opened about 5” where I could put the iPhone. But this is what I saw.

Left: where I found a parking space with the visitor center in front. Right: where I had to walk to get the shuttle
At the Visitor Center they had a nice panoramic display of the canyon. You can see the valley, which is the shuttle bus route, running down the middle. Hiking would branch out from the valley.

This is my third visit to Zion since 1998 and my reaction has been the same each time. Absolutely beautiful and overwhelming in scale but totally underwhelming in presentation. Too busy. All three of the visits involved the shuttles and those are very limiting. If one is to divide the park into two segments, one being the Zion Valley area and the other being the drive from the East entrance to the visitor center, the latter, IMO, wins hands down. The 5 mile or so steep switchback descent/ascent, including the tunnel, down the face of the immense cliff is worth the price of admission – and then some. My preference between Zion and Bryce is Bryce if only that in your own car, you can fashion your trip your way and, frankly, on my trip there have been many canyons, many colored rocks, many mountains and valleys but the hoodoo formations of Bryce are so unusual and plentiful and the view of same from atop so unique.

Friday, Oct 16, 2020

I decided this morning on an ‘add’ and took off on a 210 mile (round trip) side trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Although the busier South Rim is only about 13-14 miles, as the crow flies, from the North Rim, it takes about another 200 miles to actually drive between the two. They are also worlds apart in terms of traffic etc.

Things seemed COVID strange. For example, 25 miles outside the park is a place call Jacob Lake. It’s located on the plateau and in the Kaibib National Forest. There is a large Federal campground there which has always been filled to the brim in prior visits. There are now gates across the entry noting that the campground is closed because of COVID19. About 18 miles down the road, closer to the North Rim, there is another federal campground (DeMott) and it appears to be open.

Within the immediate vicinity of the North Rim, there is the North Rim Lodge. You are able to walk into the lobby but no further. The huge spacious dining room is barricaded and you are not able to walk the 25 or so extra paces to the many rear lobby French doors which open to a large outdoor patio. You can however access the patio from the outside by climbing down rock stairs. Adjacent to the lobby is a bar. Its access is off a small hallway which measures at most 4’ wide. People line up in the hallway to place food orders. No social distancing. After placing the order, the patron has to walk past the line of people to get to another location on the far side of the main lobby to pick up their order. Two way traffic imposed in this narrow hall is puzzling as is forcing additional traffic thru the lobby. All bathrooms are off limits forcing all to use the tiny portable jons – as though those might have adequate air exchange!

Most puzzling are the cabins. The main campground is off limits. Dining and restrooms are limited. But there are probably 25-30 individual log cabins all in a courtyard adjacent to the lodge (actually, they are the lodging of the lodge). The concessionaire operator’s people were all over the cabins, throwing laundry bags of linens on to the yard, hauling in fresh linens, lining up extra roll away beds to be placed inside etc. In short, getting the complex ready for what appears to be full weekend occupancy.

Though all the parks in this blog post are US Govt National Parks, they are completely inconsistent vis a vis COVID. Bryce visitors are pretty much self contained in their cars except when they elect to exit at a scenic turn out (or voluntarily congregate at the food trucks). Zion, on the other hand, is schizophrenic. The shuttles have been modified to reduce seating and capacities are severely monitored via ticketing and employees who match visitors to seats. But if you are early for your shuttle time, you are directed to a small area to wait – yes it’s outdoors but crowded. Then there is Zion’s large souvenir concession shop. Walmart on Black Friday would be delighted with the crush of the crowds. Zero controls on capacity. All sales are directed to only two small checkout areas such that lines of folks trying to pay extend deep into the areas where others are browsing and where hoards of kids are running wild and of course touching every souvenir in sight. Then the North Rim restricts outdoor isolated camping, encourages congregating much more closely cabin to cabin, and can’t decide what’s off limits and what’s not off limits if it promotes a burger sale.

Unfortunately, there was smoke in the air again, especially showing with distant shots towards the west.

In June 2020 there was a forest fire (Jacob Lake Fire) about 16 miles north of the North Rim. It consumed over 70,000 acres and is of unknown origin. The effects are certainly observable driving to the Rim.

In 2015 0r 16 when I was here, I did some dispersed camping (no hookups, no marked campsite, just find a place to park or pitch a tent in a forest or at a lake etc) about 9 miles south of Jacob Lake and about 2 miles down a forest path. I spent 3 nights there and explored many of the more than a thousand forest roads and trails. Many would dead end into some remote Lookout over another portion of the Grand Canyon.

Google earth satellite view of the GPS coordinates where I camped overlayed with a pic of my rig camped there 4-5 yrs ago. The visible white areas are rocks.

I just had to drive down the trail again and see if I could find the site and see if it had burned. It hadn’t😎.

Saturday, Oct 17, 2020

I will be staying here yet Saturday and Sunday. Plan on doing my laundry, some grocery shopping and probably washing the rig. I also need to haul out the Atlas and figure out where I should head to next.

The old paper Atlas is still the way to go for overall planning – as in which direction shall I head and why. Once I’ve determined a general preference, then on line tools are helpful. I primarily use a program called Road Trippers (and others) to see what photo opportunities there may be on the way; I primarily use an app call All Stays to see what camping opportunities there are along with camper reviews of same; a program called RVPark Reviews for even more reviews, tips; websites of the parks of interest, Google to zoom in a sat view of the possible locations, Trip Advisor to see what shopping, groceries , restaurants, POIs etc are nearby, weather app for a one week forecast and an app called TV Towers to see what OTA stations are near and whether the tower they use will reach my campsite (I like local news and weather). If I am going to need Rx refills, I then need to see what pharmacies there are nearby.

When asked about full timing by people, I usually describe it more carefree as in “I get to a state line, flip a coin to decide whether to head right, left or continue straight.” Actually there’s quite a bit that goes into planning. I’m not quite like a hobo picking a freight car and waiting to see where it lands😎. But I like being closer to a hobo lifestyle than being tied to a piece of ground/dwelling with life, in general, circumscribed/bounded by a few mile radius. I just like my neighborhood to be bigger.

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5 thoughts on “107. Onward to Zion (and Bryce and GC North Rim)”

  1. Great pictures and narrative! I haven’t seen some of these places, such a variety of scenery in the USA! Am craving a twisty cone now!


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