FEATURE — Let me preface this piece by saying if you are thinking about a daytrip to Zion or Springdale on a whim and were unaware of the extent of construction on state Route 9, you may want to reconsider, if only for the added time on your trip. And you may not even get into the main part of the park anyway depending on when you go.
But if you already have plans or were maybe considering a local “staycation” in Springdale, despite horror stories you might have heard, it’s still a good option. Maybe even a better option than you might have had without the construction. Bear with me; I’ll explain.
My wife and I fall into the “already had plans” category, as we have traditionally gone to Springdale at some point between Christmas and New Year’s for the past five years. We hand off our wonderful, holiday-exhausted children to family and escape to this breathtaking location in our own backyard for two nights of quiet reflection.
Sometimes we make it into the park. Sometimes not. We like the town enough that it’s a sufficient getaway.
So maybe it’s just having two days away from the kids that plays into the sense of serenity I experienced on our most recent trip. The military could’ve been testing warheads in downtown Springdale and my wife and I probably would’ve walked blissfully through the rubble, knowing we wouldn’t have to warn the children not to play with the shrapnel or run out in front of the tanks.
But honestly, I think it’s more than that.
Remember Springdale and Zion National Park in the ‘90s? Remember how quiet it was, especially during the winter months? I do, and while I understand the inevitability of gems this large eventually being discovered in a big way (thanks a lot, Mighty 5 campaign), I also miss the simpler days.
To that effect, besides the fact that road construction on state Route 9 through Springdale has narrowed traffic to one lane, with the other lane – and occasionally whole stretches of sidewalk – being completely torn up and littered with road debris, dirt piles and heavy equipment, the overall resulting atmosphere brought back good memories.
How was this possible? I was as surprised then as you are hearing it now.
When we drove into Springdale on Dec. 27, flaggers were stopping traffic (or at least traffic was backed up and stopped) not far past the big sign welcoming visitors to town. While Zion National Park news releases had warned of 25-minute delays, when all was said and done, our wait was probably closer to 45 minutes. These delays, which were reported on the Zion alert webpage as long as 1-2 hours over the holidays, are a result of only one direction of traffic at a time moving through Springdale to the park – and back from the park if drivers aren’t continuing on SR-9.
However, the effect of this construction pattern is that pedestrians in town only experience short bursts of what is normally a steady flow of traffic. Otherwise, unless you happen to be near one of the areas where machinery is actually operating, the other stretches of the road are quiet. Look again at the photos included in this article, this time focusing on the road instead of the mess. See any cars? That’s how it was for most of the two days we spent there.
And perhaps that’s the key to enjoying your visit. Look beyond the road work. Why are you looking at the road anyway? Look up. Rise above it. You don’t have to be in the park boundaries to see those beautiful cliffs and spires.
This is a good opportunity to remember what you may have taken for granted – or perhaps never knew about in the first place. Have you ever gone to the public library and Canyon Community Center? I never had, and it was quite pleasant, both locations nestled together on Lion Boulevard away from the sounds or sights of construction.
But be ready to walk. Or you can ride your bike if you’re feeling brave. Upon arrival and seeing the extent of the construction delays, we parked our car at our lodging and walked everywhere for two days – a good idea anyway given the amount of food we ate.
If you really must get into the park but don’t want to risk the delays (or to have to get up early enough to avoid them), you could even walk or bike in. For two people, it ends up being the same entrance fee as a car. Once in the park, take the Pa’rus Trail past the park museum (when is the last time you went there?). At Canyon Junction, walking into the main canyon is still an option, but it’s pretty dicey, as there are no official designated walking trails.
Bikers can take the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive at the junction. It’s still a bit of a gamble this time of year when the shuttles aren’t running – meaning more traffic to deal with. The park’s biking webpage says it’s definitely better during shuttle operation months.
However, John Marciano, Zion public information officer, said motorized vehicle traffic may be limited or restricted entirely depending on when you get there, and biking may be the only option anyway.
The construction apparently didn’t diminish park visitation over the holidays, Marciano said. If anything, it was higher, he said, reflecting a consistent pattern in 2017, a year that broke 2016’s visitation records sometime in late October, early November.
Visitation had been so high over the holidays, Marciano said, they had closed the scenic drive to motorized traffic several days, as early as 9:30 a.m. one day.
“People overwhelmed all the parking, I think the latest was 11:30 a.m.,” he said. “And it closed to everyone coming into the park. … For six or eight hours, the scenic drive was closed.”
He laughed when he said it doesn’t seem like anything could keep people from coming to the park, but he also sounded tired. Or maybe exasperated.
It’s understandable. Besides taking some grief specific to the fact that the shuttles aren’t running year-round – an issue that existed before the construction but was exacerbated by it over the holidays – Marciano said compared with other national parks, Zion faces some unique challenges to go along with its record visitation. These range from having the majority of their trailheads on one side of the park along a stretch of road only 6 ½ miles long to having a through-road on the other side that has to be open 24/7 and continually monitored for oversized vehicles.
“We’re trying very hard to get the Department of Interior / National Park Service to look at our park differently than all other parks,” Marciano said.
But that’s another article for another day. St. George News has been keeping a close eye on Zion issues and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, almost every time an article is published about the visitation levels, potential fee increases or a reservation system, I see readers saying “Well, I guess I won’t be going back to Zion.”
It’s sad, but I won’t argue with them. Honestly, there are lots of gems you can find in Southern Utah with a lot less people.
But there is only one Springdale, and they are our neighbors and we should support them. In fact, for a complete listing of Springdale and Zion Canyon business winter hours, click here.
We can’t go back to the ‘90s – awesome as they were in many ways – but for this brief stint of time while Springdale is preparing for the future, you can still catch hints of the past.
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