Saturday, May 28, 2011


Lack of planning on road trips can lead to lots of spontaneous fun. It can also lead to unexpectedly landing in one of the nations busiest national parks during "Free National Parks Week." This coincided with spring break which I'm sure was nice for the bazillion other visitors who got a chance to explore a beautiful park for free while their kids were out of school. For us, there was no benefit to this timing. My kids are always out of school, and we could get in the park free any time this year with our America the Beautiful Pass. 

If you're into traveling and beautiful places, this pass is a great deal- $80 for a year gets you in to ALL the national parks and monuments for FREE. It could pay for itself in no time if you just hit a few of the bigger parks. We ended up hitting the big parks during their promotional free week, but we used the pass at a lot of other parks, and I know we'll continue to. I'm happy to support the parks anyway, even if they did threaten to shut down on us.

Despite the "free week" crowds, we found a campground in Springdale, Utah. This adorable, but rather pricey little tourist town along the Virgin River is right at the edge of the park. We didn't even try for camping in the park since we imagined they would be full, and besides- we really wanted showers and laundry facilities. The campground we got was full to the max and a completely overpriced place to pitch a tent, but there were several things I loved about the town. First, they have this wonderful shuttle system that runs everywhere for free. It even goes all the way to the parks gates, where you can walk in and catch another shuttle around the park.

Smooth running public transportation is really impressive to me, and not something you see very often in my home state of California. Imagine- clean buses with friendly drivers coming by every 15 minutes....did I mention it was FREE? After several thousand miles behind the wheel in the previous few weeks, I was very glad to leave the driving to someone else. This ingenious set up not only reduces traffic and parking problems, but allows tired drivers to toast their good fortune with a glass of wine while visiting all the cute shops.

Zion itself is spectacular in a natural wonders and amazing views kind of way, but the park itself REALLY has its act together. I had read someplace that Zion was like the Disney of the National Parks, and I agree. Everything about the place was friendly, efficient and clean. It made up for the lack of solitude by being well managed.

The shuttle system runs on propane so you don't have to smell diesel fumes. You can hop off, go for a hike, and almost all trails lead to another stop. No worrying about backtracking, missing the bus or it being too crowded- just catch the next one in 15 minutes.

The trails were all well maintained, but like the rest of the place, full of people. There was no litter though, and they had recycling facilities all over the place. Another impressive thing is that the park does not sell bottled water. Even with recycling, the number of plastic bottles that need to be dealt with in such a popular park is ridiculous, so they just said "no more." You can buy stainless steel water bottles and refill your own for free with spring water, but no single use disposables are sold anywhere in the park. Good for them for taking a stand.

Of all the national Parks I have visited, at Zion in particular, I noticed a really large number of people out on the trails who didn't look like typical hikers. We passed by tons of very elderly people and people of all ages and sizes who didn't appear to be outdoorsy types. It actually made my day to know these people were out there with their canes and inhalers and getting some exercise and a dose of nature though. It was a very encouraging thing to see indeed, although one gentleman had me a little concerned for the condition of his heart as he puffed and stopped, puffed and stopped. All I remember from the mandatory CPR class I took is that chest compressions alone are better than nothing, but no one needed emergency rescue services that day. Also, with the handy warning signs about falling to our deaths, my Boy Child decided to stay on the trail without any reminders.

We hiked until our legs hurt. A good chunk of time we were craning our necks looking up and ooohing and aaahing over the massive rock formations that left us feeling very small in the scheme of all this great big beauty in the world.

We also had to do some serious mud jumping, but luckily did not wipe out. Not all hikers were so lucky, and we saw both children and adults who had apparently taken accidental mud baths. None of them looked very happy, so I opted to not take their pictures.

At night, we ate like burly men, slept like logs, and were woken with a big, loud and unexpected thunderstorm. I have since learned that you should seek the shelter of your car if lightning is less than 7 miles away. At our last count, it was 3, but thankfully we all survived, and the dusty tent got a good rinse before we headed to on.

I had read terrifying accounts that the highway east out of Zion was a horribly scary mountain road with sheer cliffs and no guard rails. I pictured cars precariously dangling on the edge, speeding motor homes running people off the road and other frightening scenarios, but any other route would have taken us much too far out of the way. So, I practiced my deep breathing and went for it. It turns out the all the hoopla was unwarranted- the drive was scenic, and no problem at all. There were some really long and narrow tunnels that might have freaked us out if they hadn't conveniently put open windows every so often giving us the ability to breathe fresh air and see daylight. Even that was well planned for comfort.

As we drove away, we all agreed that southern Utah is simply beautiful- the whole bottom half of the state is pretty enough to be a national park. The parks themselves are gems- so diverse and amazing, they left me feeling rather poetic. I didn't take time for writing a haiku about how we humans are all different and lovely too, but I did ponder it. As free ranging homeschoolers, I think my kids have a good opportunity for clarity and openness to finding their own individual paths, without worrying if their life's landscape looks like anyone elses. For me, it reaffirmed that my own life deserves trust and freedom too, and with them, wonderful things will develop.