During COVID we made the decision to focus our wanderlust on camping and exploring our beloved state of Minnesota. After a long two years, we decided to shake things up head down to Utah to explore Zion National Park with our kids, ages 5 and 7.
Like with most of our trips, our planning starts with a goal or destination. In this instance our goal was to use up some expiring Delta vouchers and Chase Travel Rewards leftover from cancelled pandemic-era trips. We researched National Parks that we hadn’t been to and came across Zion. It looked beautiful and, because we would be going in March, we would miss the crowds and the heat! We settled on a five day, four night trip and started planning.
Day 1 – The Road to Zion
Zion is not the most accessible place, at least not with direct flights! From Minneapolis we flew in to Las Vegas, where we rented a car and drove two and a half hours to Hurricane, Utah. We stayed in Hurricane for three reasons: 1) the limited options with our Chase Travel Rewards (and not having to chip in cash!) 2) less crowds than in Springdale, which is the town right outside of the park 3) an indoor pool to reward the kids after long adventure days. We like flexibility and freedom and often feel that they are best enjoyed away from the crowds. Hurricane is only a half-hour outside of Zion and opened us up for other opportunities to explore.
A Hotel with a Pool
We arrived in Hurricane hungry but in good spirits. We hit up the local In-N-Out Burger in St. George, which is the next town over, and checked into the Comfort Inn and Suites Zion Park Area. The hotel was clean, centrally located, served breakfast, and most importantly, had an indoor pool. An issue we ran into when traveling in March was that most outdoor pools were not yet open for the season. We always try to stay where there is a pool as a quick swim can quickly turn any frown upside-down. It also gives parents a chance to put their feet up and regroup. We tested out the pool and hot tub and then went to bed early in anticipation of the big day ahead of us.
Day 2 – Lots of Hiking
The Entrance to Zion
This was our big hiking day. We love hiking and so do our kids, but we take it slow and try not to bite off more than we can chew. After arriving at the entrance to Zion National Park, we paid our entrance fee ($35 per car and is good for seven days), and parked. This parking lot can get very busy, so either get there early, or be prepared to park somewhere in Springdale. Zion operations two shuttle bus systems, one in the town of Springdale that will bring you from your car to the park entrance, and another that moves you up and down Zion canyon. Both are easy and convenient.
The hikes below are great options for exploring Zion National Park with younger kids. If your kids are older, check out the other hikes like Angels Landing (permit required).
Our first hike was the Riverside Walk, which starts at the last bus stop (Temple of Sinawava). We chose this hike because it is an easy and open, follows the river, and stops at the entrance to The Narrows (see day 3). We wanted to warm the kids up to hiking and check on whether the Narrows would be possible with a 5 and 7 year old. The hike is two miles round trip and takes an hour or two, depending on how much time your kids spend climbing rocks and monkeying around! We don’t like to rush hikes like this, so we let them explore to their heart’s content.
We then took the bus back down to Zion Lodge (stop 5) and hiked the Lower Emerald Pool Trail, Middle Emerald Pool Trail, and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. These are all connected and lead to different pools and viewpoints. They are relatively easy hikes, but the trails are narrower than Riverside Walk. The result is there are quite a few bottlenecks where you will be waiting for others to pass. The hikes offer great views and are an excellent next step for younger kids after the ease and openness of the Riverside Walk.
A Quick bite at Zion Brewery
Wee all were starving so decided to take the bus back to the park and to walk over the bridge to the town of Springdale. Right when we entered the town we saw Zion Brewery, Utah’s first microbrewery. My brother is a professional brewer, so I felt like we couldn’t pass up this opportunity. We had an excellent lunch on their outdoor patio with some very tasty brews and beautiful views of Zion Canyon. We also had a family meeting to discuss the Narrows and decided that we would do it if they had a wetsuit that fit Betty.
Picking up gear for The Narrows
Zion Outfitter is right across the open plaza from Zion Brewery and right at the entrance to Zion National Park. Luckily both kids were able to find suits that find. The Narrows is a walk through the river, so during the early spring you need to rent a dry suit, neoprene boots, and a walking stick so you can stay warm and dry. The staff was actually more worried that our son’s wrists were too skinny and his suit would leak! Little Betty must have some muscle in there! In the end everything fit and we were excited for the next day. One benefit of staying in Hurricane is the staff let us rent the gear and take it back with us. If you are staying in town, they will not let you rent gear for the next day until 4pm or later. We were tired, it was before 4PM, and were very happy they were able to bend the rules!
On our way back we drove part of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. It is beautiful and a great way to snag some peace and quiet. We were lucky to snag a car nap from the younger one. We then grabbed some groceries for a snack/dinner and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at the pool.
Day 3 – The Narrows
What is The Narrows?
Today was the big day to hike the Narrows. This hike starts where the Riverside Walk ends and consists almost entirely of wading up the Virgin River. It can be as short or long as you like. We did not have a particular goal in mind, but rather wanted to hike until we felt the kids were too tired. The views are breathtaking as you have up to 1,000 foot cliffs on both sides. When you travel with kids, you sometimes miss out on opportunities for proper adult levels of adventure. The Narrows is unique in that it is exciting for kids AND adults.
It was March and the air temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, meaning the water was equally as cold. Just make sure you check the weather and dress appropriately. The wet suit will keep you dry, however you still need proper insulated layers underneath early in the season! In the summer months you can get away with normal hiking clothes, but just remember the water temperature is still cold!
The Drybag We Wish We Had!
We brought a small backpack with snacks and our phones in zip lock baggies. I would recommend bringing a dry bag along that you can keep in your backpack. We like these Sea to Summit bags as they are light, packable, and waterproof. We bring them on our Boundary Waters trips and should have thought to bring one on this trip!
Five Hour on (or in) the Virgin River
We had an absolute blast and believe this is the best thing to do at Zion National Park with kids of all ages. The water levels were quite high and Betty loved just lying back and floating while we pulled her up river. Henrik was perfectly content leading the way. We stopped just short of Wall Street, had a big snack, and went back. In total we spent about five hours hiking and by the end everyone was getting a little hangry.
Dinner and an Impromptu UTV Rental
We stopped at Thai Sapa for some excellent Thai food and some much needed refreshments. On the way back to our hotel we saw signs for Southern Utah Adventure Center and decided to check it out. It had to have something exciting to offer with a name like that. It turns out Hurricane is right next to Sandy Hollow State Park, which we learned is a well known off-roading park. We booked a UTV for the following day and we set off to the hotel for some swimming and dreams of sand dunes and rock cliffs!
Day 4 – Off-roading in Sand Hollow State Park
Yes, you too can Rent a UTV
It may not seem like it, but renting a UTV (4×4, side-by-side, ATV, etc.) is accessible to almost anyone. It isn’t cheap, but you do not need a special license or skillset to enjoy a day on the trails. Having a background riding ATVs or dirt bikes helps, but even a novice could get out there and have some fun. This is a great addition to a trip to Zion National Park, with or without kids.
Initial Preparations at SUAC
We showed up at SUAC bright and early. I think Dad was the most excited for this adventure. We picked out our helmets and goggles and watched a couple of safety videos. The staff were very helpful and after a quick overview of our RAZR 4PC 1000cc UTV, we were off. The staff did set us up with a custom GPS map downloaded to our phones so we would know where we were going, even without signal. They also helped us pick out some trails that would be a good fit for our skillset, or lack thereof.
Real Dinosaur Tracks!
Our first stop was the Warner Valley Dinosaur Track site. To get there we just took the outer-most trail from the staging area right outside of town. It is an easy trail to start on as most of it is a normal dirt road. After a couple of turnoffs you enter onto a more technical trail, but without any steep inclines or drop-offs. The best part is you end at a site with actual dinosaur footprints. The kids loved searching for the prints and comparing them to their feet.
Flintstone House and Rock Climbing
After the dinosaur prints, we went back to the staging area so we could enter the main part of the park. Our goals were to find the sand dunes and The Flintstone House. There is a nice pull-over spot at the latter and the kids can climb inside of the hollowed out rock and even do a little kid-friendly rock climbing. The whole park is just a system of interconnecting trails, so it would be tough to get lost and you can make almost infinite loops!
Playing in the Sand Dunes
We stopped WAY off to the side at the sand dunes so the kids could do some sliding. They were able to play in the sand dunes on our trip to Morocco and were determined to do it here. By the end, they were covered in sand from head to toe! If you do decide to do this, please find a spot way off to the side and make sure your UTV is at the highest point and visible to all. It can be very disorienting in the sand dunes and these machines are fast! The last thing you want is for another driver to come down on top of you.
All in we spend about six hours exploring Sandy Hollow State Park and would do it again in an instant. It was one of the coolest impromptu adventures we’ve ever been on and, again, reinforces our belief that sometimes the best memories aren’t planned. We treated the kids to McDonalds this night as a peace offering for letting Mom and Dad go crazy for a while.
Day 5 – Back to Reality
Vacations tend to end too quickly. While we were sad to see it end, we looked back positively on a great five day trip to Zion National Park with our kids. We had a rather long trip home, so had breakfast and enjoyed the 2.5 hour drive back to Las Vegas. We ate at the airport and then were off!
This trip ended up being a perfect blend of Kristen’s planning and my complete inability to plan anything. If you are going to Zion, feel free to follow our itinerary completely or just use pieces of it. Zion National Park is a great place to visit with kids, and if you do go, don’t forget about the off-roading at Sandy Hollow State Park!
Options for Extending your Trip
There is so much to do in and around this area. If you are looking for a longer trip, we’d encourage you to check out Bryce Canyon National Park (one and a half hours northeast of Zion) and the Valley of Fire State Park (between Vegas International Airport and Zion). A quick google search of the area will pull up endless opportunities if time allows!