Zion National Park, Utah

This morning Kai sent me a photo from this day last year, and it was a shot of ya girl, helmet-clad taking a snap in Zion National Park. I had a million feelings rush through my chest when I saw the photo, because at that time Kai and I weren’t engaged – we were just two kids in love, adventuring around the Southwest on the road trip of a lifetime. That Ali had no idea she’d be looking back a year later, married to the love of her life, complete with a new last name!

The photo also made me nostalgic. Sure, Kai and I had some awesome adventures around Europe this summer, but wow, a fall trip diving into mother nature, camping, drinking pumpkin beer, hiking on crunchy leaves, eating saucy BBQ, and taking in some of the most phenomenal scenery the US has to offer – take me back!!And that leads me to this post, from exactly one year ago, when Kai and I were trailblazing through Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, finally making our way to Zion National Park. Yes, I am SO behind in sharing these photos, but now that the wedding madness is over, I want to really get caught up on blog content (in addition to doing some small renovations around the house and learning German – fall goals!!) So here we are with Zion!

After a few nights in Vegas, and taking a pit stop at Valley of Fire State Park, Kai and I set off to drive the final leg of the day, with the hopes of reaching Zion before nightfall so we could set up our first campsite of the trip!I don’t have any photos from our first night in Zion, because we arrived late, set up our tent, and then went to Zion Brewery for burgers and beer. It was all business and beer, and very little photo taking that evening!We were staying in Zion National Park at South Campground, which I booked well in advance – they have a pretty strict reservation system, so if you want to stay in the park, I suggest researching ahead of time and making sure to book it in. Staying in Zion was by far the best option for us, as we wanted to spend most of our time hiking. Zion is off limits to passenger cars, but there’s a free shuttle that runs through the park, taking outdoor enthusiasts to all of the major trailheads. The ease of being able to wake up, walk to the shuttle, and be at a trailhead within minutes made our visit a breeze!Tip: If you do stay at South Campground and need to access the shuttle, head to Zion Museum and get on the shuttle there. The visitor center often has a 1+ hour wait to get on the shuttle, however, the museum is usually pretty sparse at the shuttle stop, and we literally arrived, hopped on the next bus, and set off – without any wait at all!The only other thing to note is that South Campground doesn’t have showers, however we saw this online in advance and were prepared to pack shower bags and drive up to Zion Outfitter at the park entrance to bathe. The showers there were well kept and only $5. While typically this might sound like a hassle, the luxury of staying in the park, deeply immersed in stunning nature, far outweighed having to drive five minutes to shower!Because we’d arrived under the cover of darkness the night before, when we woke up in the morning, we were blown away by the scenery we had been surrounded by all night! Wild deer roamed through the campground, and tall, stoic mountains loomed over our tent.We cooked a big, hearty breakfast at the campsite, and then set off for our first hike.To say that Zion was beautiful would be a massive understatement. Zion’s beauty literally stops you in your path every 10 steps. You forget to breathe. You stumble over your feet because you’re so busy gawking at your surroundings. If Zion were a girl, she’d be the one you never talk to, because it’s so painfully obvious that she’s way out of your league. But there we were, hiking up one of her stunning and welcoming trails at sunrise.The first hike we did that day was one we could easily access by foot from our campground: Watchman Trail. Watchman is an easy 3 mile loop, with stunning views of the Towers of the Virgin, including Bee Hive Peak, the Sentinel, and Mount Moroni. We climbed to the top, and found a perfect spot to take in the scenery, check out our map, and hydrate!At the height of the loop, we hiked around a couple of the smaller trails leading off of Watchman, but overall we appreciated the fantastic views and the easy, gradual hike as it was the first one of our trip!It took us about two hours to do the whole loop and a couple of the smaller paths off of the main trail, but that’s mostly because I made us stop every 90 seconds to take photos, and we had a long snack break at the top :)I love a good loop hike, because there’s always new scenery to take in and you wind up right back where you started! However, this time around when we reached the base, we were both quite hungry, so instead of walking all the way down to the bridge and then doubling back on the other side of the river to our campground, we decided to take a short cut and wade through the The Virgin River, which would put us at the foot of our campsite.This led to one of the most memorable moments of our trip: the river was VERY strong and extremely cold (with lots of slippery pebbles!) and I was nervous about hopping in with my sneakers, my hiking pack, and my DSLR camera, so I decided to throw my (brand new) trail running shoes across the river first, so I didn’t have to worry about juggling a bunch of different items while I crossed. Bad idea.

I chucked one shoe, which barely made it half way across the river before plopping into the water and starting a rapid descent downstream. I saw the life of my trail running shoe flash before my eyes, and immediately dropped my belongings and started to sprint down the river bank. I closed in on my shoe, and then dashed into the freezing river, barely snagging my sneaker. When the shock of what had just happened wore off and I had my prize in hand, I realized HOW COLD the river was and ran to the other side screeching. The whole ordeal probably took 60 seconds, but it felt like an elongated saga in which I was the hero. However, Kai is the true protagonist of this tale, because seconds after my glorious win, I realized I’d left ALL of my belongings on the OTHER side of the river. So Kai, being a lovely German gentleman, crossed the river again, got my other sneaker, bag, and camera, and then waded back over to our campsite – he’s a keeper ;)

After the whole ordeal we were super chilly and probably could have walked to the bridge in the time it took us to cross the freezing river multiple times, but hey, we made it out on the other side to tell the tale!! Which is a feat considering that The Virgin River literally carved Zion National Park. Those sharp, jagged mountains and the steep rocky valleys were created by the river and flash floods that, over millions of years, slowly eroded more and more rock away, creating the park as we now know it. So the river that carved Zion National Park did not claim my sneaker, and that is something to be proud of!!After our river adventure, we decided to drive into town for lunch. Before the trip, we asked around for recommendations in the area, and thusly had a decent-sized list of restaurants to check out in the area. Here’s the list in case you’re ever looking for some good eats around Zion!

Hurricane at River Rock Roasting Company – Great pit stop to make if you’re driving from St. George to Zion. Delicious pizza and views.

Zion Pizza & Noodle Co – The best post-hike joint for pizza and local brews. There’s seating out back and on the patio, with a big selection of salads, pasta, and wine as well if pizza and beer aren’t your thing!

Oscar’s Cafe – Killer breakfast burritos. Across the alley is Deep Creek Coffee, who serve excellent pastries. They also have delicious organic food like quinoa bowls, avocado toast and breakfast burritos.

Zion Brewery — This brewery sits at the base of the park in Springdale. We went here on our first night in town and had excellent burgers and beers!

Bear Paw Café – The classic all American cafe with loads of greasy breakfast options.

Bumbleberry Gift Shop And Bakery – A cute spot where Kai and I charged our phones and had some amazing blueberry pie with ice cream, and big iced coffees to go! They sell apparel, homemade jams, and scrumptious confections.

Porters Smokehouse and Grill – Kai wanted BBQ, so we swung in here for lunch after hiking Watchman’s Trail. The food was good, but we both found it a bit over priced – I had a salmon salad that was $18, Kai had a burger that was $18, and we shared a starter. Our meal plus two drinks came to more than $90 which we found a bit much for a quick lunch stop. That said, we had no complaints about the food and would perhaps recommend the spot for supper if you’re planning on making an evening out of it – the cost would feel a bit more justified with a longer dwell time!After lunch at Porters Smokehouse and a slice of blueberry pie from Bumbelberry, we walked over to Zion Cycles where we rented bikes for the afternoon. We rode back into the park, down the  Pa’rus Trail, and then picked up the road to the Temple of Sinawava – a route that had been highly recommended to us by a friend.Everything was so, so, so breathtaking. I felt like we were cycling through a movie set all afternoon!After our cycle, we were both *starving* again, so we went back to our campsite to cook dinner.

Before we hit the road, we spent an arm and a leg on food at Trader Joe’s, and we also had to buy cooking utensils and a camping stove, but it was SO rewarding to cook our own meals out in the open. Honestly, I think we might have come out even in the end had we decided to eat out and forego the groceries and cooking supplies, but something about living in the wilderness feels so primal and simple, and cooking over an open flame is part of the experience that’s too good to pass up!
As is drinking pumpkin beer by the fire after a long day of hiking and biking! Before this trip last year, I was feeling especially sluggish. I remember I got a massage before I left Amsterdam, and the masseuse told me I had a lot of tension in and around my kidney area. She said I needed to get out into nature more. My body always goes through some kind of physical withdrawal in the autumn – I feel slower, I want to drink tea and take baths, and I also tend to have cravings for food that aren’t typically part of my diet (chocolate and red wine, I’m looking at you!) I’m a firm believer in listening to my body, moving a lot, and trying to eat whole, unprocessed food, but last fall I found it difficult to live by my own motto and just wanted to hibernate, eat carbs, and drink wine. I was really looking forward to this trip, because I knew we’d be moving a lot! And while I’d normally turn off my healthy brain on vacation and just go with the flow, Kai and I did a super healthy haul from Trader Joe’s to try to counter balance my sluggish mindset and the pizza and beer we’d undoubtedly be consuming after each hike!

Before we left, I made a list of healthy meals Kai and I both had a taste for, and then that along with some drinks and cooking basics formed our shopping list. Here’s a low-down on our healthy camping meals:

Breakfast: Egg veggie scrambles with sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, broccoli, and zucchini. • Oatmeal, bananas, cinnamon, and dried cranberries. • Peanut butter and bananas on sprouted bread or rice cakes (great for mornings on the go!)

Lunch: Sprouted bread with peanut butter and jam, or peanut butter and banana. • Tuna fish on sprouted bread. • Smashed avocado on rice cakes. • Hummus, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches on sprouted bread. • Hard boiled eggs, dried cranberries, hummus and spinach dip, and veggies. • I’m allergic to nuts, but we got some for Kai :)

Dinner: Baked sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon, grilled broccoli, onion, and mushrooms. • Grilled salmon with asparagus, tomatoes, lemon, onions. • Corn on the cob with black beans, garlic, tomato, and zucchini stir fry. • Chicken sausage, grilled peppers, and corn on the cob. • Mexican sweet potatoes stuffed with black beans, onions, and avocado. Served with cucumber, tomato, and lemon salad.

Other: We also got wine, beer, marshmallows, graham crackers, Hershey’s Chocolate, candy corn, and Jiffy Pop to snack on around the camp fire at night :) And of course fire wood and ice, akin to silver and gold on any camping trip!!

I tried to double up on ingredients, changing breakfast and dinner meals slightly with different seasonings so we could use the same food in a new way for each meal. These meals saw us through the two weeks of our road trip, intermingled with a meal or two out a day. It was perfect, although like I said, the price was probably around the same had we just decided to eat out every meal, and we had the added chore of always making sure our food was cold in the cooler, emptying out water, cleaning dishes, moving food into the car before bed so it didn’t get ravaged by animals, etc etc. Hard work? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely! After our long bike ride, campfire smoked salmon and veggies were on the menu, which were divine!!

Another thing that was a bit weird about camping was our sleeping schedule. When it got dark, it was hard to do anything other than hang around the campfire . . . and it got dark around 7.30pm.

On a typical camping night we’d cook dinner around 6pm, clean up, get into our comfy clothes, and then settle in with a beer around the fire. We’d toast marshmallows, play card games, listen to music, and talk for a few hours, before exclaiming that we were both exhausted and that it was time for bed! However, when we looked at our phones, we’d discover that it was only 9:18pm or some other embarrassingly early hour! Hanging outside in the dark legitimately makes you sleepy!! As it was vacation, we just rolled with it and hit the hay whenever we so desired – even if it was at 9pm!! On the flip side, when the sun came up in the morning, our tent would start to stuff up from the heat, and sunlight would shine in from all all directions (and let’s be real, sleeping on the ground isn’t the most comfortable, sleep inducing experience) so once our eyes were open in the morning, it was hard to get them closed. So we wound up waking up with the sun, and falling asleep not long after it left as well. Which honestly worked since we wanted to make the most of the daylight, and our days were filled with strenuous activity. Spoiler alert: we were basically on our way to being an old, married couple anyways ;)

So, on day two in Zion, we were up with the sun, which was exciting because we had saved that day to hike Angels Landing! Angels Landing is one of the park’s most famous hikes, as it boasts of some of the most beautiful and stomach-churning views. It’s also often tooted as the US’s most dangerous hike, and with good reason.In total, Angels Landing is about a 5-mile round trip hike, with an elevation gain of 1500 feet. It’s a strenuous hike, and it took Kai and me, who are experienced hikers, about 4 hours to complete with some time to relax at the summit. As we’d heard the shuttle can get crowded, we caught the first one of the day up to the The Grotto to begin the hike. This meant that our ascent was done in the shadows, which was a gorgeous way to see the park. We also set off early as temperatures are still cool and the hike is more tolerable.The reason Angels Landing is so dangers is due to the last peak of the hike, which is called Scouts Lookout. Here, the trail narrows to about 3 feet, and there is a 1,000 foot drop on either side with strong cross winds. It’s scary as f*** and frankly I got about a third of the way in and said ‘no thank you!!’ and turned right around. Hikers frequently die here and frankly I’m not hiking for thrill – give me fresh air, activity, sunshine – for me it’s about enjoying mother nature versus being a dare devil.While I didn’t make it all the way to the final summit, I did snap these photos from my brief time on Scouts Lookout – you can see the Virgin River winding through the valley, and if you really squint, you can make out the shuttle bus for scale!!

Shudder!! That said, Kai did want to complete the full hike (which to be fair, was only 500 more feet at that point!) so I hung out with this little guy and ate a banana sandwich while I wanted. Somehow, things got aggressive, and soon I was being attacked on all sides by six chipmunks who apparently love peanut butter. I did not feed them, but man, those guys up there are vicious!! By the time Kai got back, the sun was higher in the sky and the trail was heating up. We stripped off some layers and started our descent in full fledged sunlight, which was a nice change from our hike up but also, as we had suspected, much hotter Afterwards, we had planned on doing a few hours of hiking through The Narrows (another one of the park’s very iconic hikes!) but honestly our legs were wobbly from a day and a half of solid activities, so we decided to go for something slightly less strenuous.We hiked along Grotto Trail, which connects the Grotto to Zion Lodge. It took about 20 minutes and was much easier than waiting around for the shuttle!At the lodge, we used the restroom and each had our preferred pre-lunch snack . . . for me soft serve ice cream and for Kai, chicken fingers and french fries! From here, we picked up the Lower Emerald Pool Trail to check out the Lower Emerald Pools and Waterfalls. The round trip hike took us about an hour, and although there were some steep and slippery drop-offs, there was not a huge elevation gain and it was an easy hike compared to Angels Landing. It was a pretty hike, and we passed lots of families on the trail – it was a nice way to end a day of hiking at Zion!Exhausted, we headed back to our campsite and gorged on snacks, however it was a bit too late for lunch, and a bit too early for dinner, so we decided to pass the rest of the afternoon with a ride in our convertible!!I think I mentioned previously that as we were camping and saving quite a bit of money on accommodations, we decided to get a fun car as we had the extra cash and we would be spending a lot of time driving. Frankly, Kai was hesitant (probably because he’d never driven a convertible before!) but I convinced him, and in hindsight I think we could both con confidentially say that the car was one of the best parts of the trip!Cruising through the mountains with the roof down and music on. Feeling the temperature change on my face as we drove through different climate zones. Having the dessert sun shine directly on my skin. It was an experience I cannot fully express the magic of in words. Get a convertible. Road trip through the Southwest – it will make you feel like you’re living in a Tom Petty song. We followed the Zion scenic drive route, winding from one end of the park to the other. We were treated to stunning scenery and even a glimpse of some Bighorn Sheep (below)!On the way back, I took the wheel. I could get used to the Mustang driving experience!We finished our drive at Zion Pizza & Noodle Co where we split a big BBQ chicken pizza. I snagged us a table and Kai stood in line to order, which turned into a memorable experience. He started chatting to the couple behind him in line, who were on a three month adventure through the Southwest. The line was quite long, and when they learned Kai was German, they got to chatting about Oktoberfest, beer, Munich, life in Europe . . . all of the typical German conversation topics! When it was finally Kai’s turn to order, he got our pizza and also asked for two beers, but the restaurant refused to serve him as they didn’t accept international IDs. He came back to the table a bit bummed, since it had been a long day and we were both craving a drink (I had my US passport and was served a beer no problem) but we brushed it off and he started telling me about the friendly couple in line behind him. A few minutes later, a guy came up to Kai, put a beer down on the table next to him, and then walked off. It was the beer Kai had tried to order, and his new friends from the queue had ordered it for him! At the end of our meal, Kai tried to give the couple cash, and they refused. It was a super sweet gesture, and made me really think about the people we came across in our travels – they were all so genuine and kind, and Kai and I did our best to put good karma out into the world and return the favor :)

When we got back, there were some visitors in our campsite. That was one of the best parts of staying in South Campground – every day at daybreak and dusk, deer would appear in the campground, scavenging for a meal. We loved being immersed in nature and this was by far one of the highlights!The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn to drive to Knab and enter the lottery to hike the Wave.
I’ll tell you all about the experience and the results in my next post!! Which will hopefully be soon :)

xo Ali

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