Springdale, Utah

By Jeremy Pugh

Zion National Park
Photo by Tom Till

Shaking off winter in Jackson Hole can be slow. Spring tends to be muddy, overstay its welcome and, at times, rudely act like winter. Ignore these slights and distract yourself by planning a trip to a less-moody climate, like Springdale, Utah’s, for example. There are few things that summon up summer like a road trip to a national park, and Zion National Park is located conveniently on Springdale’s doorstep.

Zion is one of the biggies in the national park lineup.

Zion is one of the biggies in the national park lineup. With regard to splendors, it’s on par with Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Every year, four-million-plus visitors affirm its awesomeness. And, they all go through Springdale, which is literally right outside Zion’s main entrance. The small town embraces its role as Zion’s gateway and has an enlightened selection of interesting galleries, scrumptious eateries, and top-shelf lodging. In many ways, it’s like a smaller Jackson, if you substitute rock cliffs and desert for conifers and high-alpine mountains.

Zion Lodge

Get Your Architecture (and History) On

Established in 1919, Zion was the first of the five national parks in Utah—Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands are the others. President William Howard Taft first drew attention to the area ten years earlier, in 1909, when he created the Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1918, the National Park Service’s (NPS) assistant director, Horace Albright (who went on to become superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and also have a mountain, Albright Peak, in Grand Teton National Park named after him), was expanding the footprint of America’s parks and sought congressional approval to elevate Taft’s monument to national park status. In the process, he opted to change its name to Zion, a Biblical term co-opted by Mormon settlers as a sort of holy nickname for Utah. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the congressional proclamation and Zion National Park was officially born.

Springdale was originally a Mormon farming community, but today appears more beholden to Zion than to any religion. Its prevailing architectural style is “early twenty-first century tourist town.” Buildings blend nicely with the desert surroundings. They are inoffensive, but architecturally don’t have an overwhelming sense of place. There is one very special architectural treasure: Zion National Park Lodge (1 Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., Springdale, 435/772-7700, zionlodge.com), the only lodging located inside Zion National Park. It is one of the grand park lodges designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Underwood graduated from Harvard in 1923 and then lucked into the gig of a lifetime working for the Union Pacific Railroad to design and build infrastructure in NPS locations to lure people to the parks out West. The railroad commissioned him to design lodges. Zion Lodge was one of his first, constructed in what would come to be known as “Parkitecture style,” a rustic approach that featured rough-hewn local materials. Construction on Zion Lodge was finished in 1927, about the same time the architect was remodeling Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone and building lodges in Bryce Canyon and on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. (Underwood went on to also design, in Yosemite, the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. The Ahwahnee was recently forced to change its name to Majestic Yosemite Hotel after a lawsuit.) The Zion Lodge burned down in a fire in 1966 and was quickly rebuilt without the original rustic look. In the 1990s, it was restored to Underwood’s original design.

Zion Lodge was one of Gilbert Stanley underwood’s first, constructed in what would come to be known as “Parkitecture style,” a rustic approach that featured rough-hewn local materials.

On the way into Springdale, traveling west to east on Route 9, you’ll pass through two historic towns, Grafton (graftonheritage.org) and Rockville. They’re worth doubling back to explore (or stopping the first time you go through). Rockville is the site of a historic steel truss bridge spanning the Virgin River. The bridge, built in 1924, is the only surviving “Parker through truss” bridge in Utah and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll cross this very bridge east of Grafton, a collection of well-preserved frontier buildings that are the remnants of a small farming community that went ghost town around 1945. Grafton was used as a set in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was the location where actors Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross rode bicycles accompanied by Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

Springdale Shuttle

Worthington Gallery

Bring it Home

Springdale is essentially one main drag that includes all the usual tourist shops selling trinkets and all-I-got-was-this-lousy-T-shirt kind of T-shirts. But it’s also home to an enclave of artists from painters to potters. Nick Blaisdell is a ceramicist known for his enigmatic pots that evoke both Native American and Oriental designs, but somehow are neither. You’ll find his work along with an excellent selection by other standout artists at LaFave Gallery (1214 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-0464, lafavegallery.com). On the way into town, you will likely see displays of beautiful wind sculptures in local yards and adorning businesses and restaurants. These whirligigs are most likely the work of desert-dwelling artist Lyman Whitaker. He calls them kinetic wind sculptures, but we just call them fun. You’ll find a selection of his creations at Worthington Gallery (789 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3446, worthingtongallery.com).

Weeping Rock

Play

You came here to explore and get involved with some national-park-level beauty, right? The truly adventurous will want to consider a technical canyoneering adventure in the slot canyons and wild areas in and around Zion. Zion Adventure Company (36 Lion Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-1001, zionadventures.com) offers guided excursions and instruction as well as gear rental, maps, and advice. For something that doesn’t involve wearing a helmet and a climbing harness, consider renting river tubes from Zion Outfitter (7 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-5090, zionoutfitter.com). In spring and early summer, floating the Virgin River is one of the most fun and refreshing ways to see the area.

As a side effect of the world’s love for Zion National Park, the main road up Zion Canyon is closed to cars during the summer months. (By the way, Zion gets about as many visitors as Yellowstone, but is about one-fifteenth the size.) Visitors must use the park’s shuttle service to explore. But there is a loophole: The road is always open to cyclists. Because the only traffic consists of shuttle buses and the few drivers who are staying at Zion Lodge, it’s a uniquely peaceful road-biking experience and one of the best and most convenient ways to see the park. Zion Cycles (868 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-0400, zioncycles.com) has a selection of bikes from upright cruisers to, for the spandex set, carbon-fiber racers. It also rents electric bikes.

By the way, Zion gets about as many visitors as Yellowstone, but is about one-fifteenth the size.

Angels Landing

Hiking, however, is Zion’s central activity, and there’s a range of trails from strenuous whoppers like Angels Landing to what are essentially nature walks, like the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock. You will have no doubt heard of Angels Landing. One of the most iconic (and strenuous) hikes in the National Park System, the trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) well before there were lawyers on the NPS payroll. Its last bit is too steep and precipitous to “hike” without using your hands. The CCC installed, in the rock face, swags of linked chains for hikers to use to pull themselves up (and also to hold onto to keep from falling off).

Angels Landing is not for the faint of heart. Despite the fear factor, it is nevertheless one of Zion’s most popular (read: most crowded) hikes. Lines of people having varying degrees of fitness and fear of heights pick their way along the chains. If you opt to do this hike—it’s bucket list worthy, so please do, unless you have paralyzing acrophobia—wear solid footwear with grippy soles and don’t be too proud to go slow. Don’t let the idiot in the Converse Chuck Taylors rush you. If the chain section sounds too daunting, you can hike to where it starts and still enjoy an amazing view.

The Narrows

Zion’s other bucket list “hike” is the Narrows. We put hike in quotes here because trekking the Narrows means walking on smooth, softball-size rocks in water that’s between ankle- and thigh-deep. Is “river scrambling” a thing? If you don’t twist your ankle, the Narrows is worth the effort: You’re walking in the Virgin River and below towering rock walls that grow increasingly, you guessed it, narrow. Pro tip: Rent river shoes and a stout pole or two from Zion Outfitter or Zion Adventure Company. This low-cost gear addition will make your walk upriver easier and more comfortable. For colder weather, both shops offer waders and full dry suits as well.

Bistro H

Eat (and Drink)

Being more about daytime adventure, Springdale doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife, but what little there is centers around the Bit & Spur (1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3498, bitandspur.com). It’s a local hangout with a decent menu of Southwestern pub food. If a touring band happens to be passing through, this is where they’ll play. Craft beer lovers will want to stop into Zion Canyon Brew Pub (95 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-0336, brewpubspringdale.com) to taste the local brews.

Zion Canyon Brew Pub

As you plan your outdoor excursions, pick up provisions and a picnic lunch from Sol Foods (995 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3100, solfoods.com), a hip little market with a deli counter in the back. For an ice cream treat, stop by Hoodoos (35 Lion Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3101, hoodoosmarket.com). For your big dinner out, try either The Spotted Dog Café (428 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-0700, flanigans.com) or Bistro H (281 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/216-1639, bistrohspringdale.com). The former is a Springdale mainstay serving up variations on wild game, fish, and pastas. Bistro H’s menu specializes in succulent, slow-roasted meats—it’s hard to go wrong with the featured chef’s choice roast—gourmet burgers, and flatbread pizzas. Both restaurants have lovely outdoor patios for patrons to enjoy the scenery as the sun sets.

The pool at Cable Mountain Lodge

Rest Up

The Cliffrose Lodge (281 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3234, cliffroselodge.com) is right on the Virgin River and has a range of suites with full kitchens. Flanigan’s Inn (450 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3244, flanigans.com) is tucked away from the main road and offers a spa-retreat atmosphere. Cable Mountain Lodge (147 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3366, cablemountainlodge.com) has a selection of suites and studios in a complex that borders the park entrance. For something completely different, consider luxury camping with Under Canvas Zion (3955 Kolob Terrace Rd., Virgin, 888/496-1148, undercanvas.com/camps/zion). Deluxe canvas tents, on-site chef-prepared meals, helicopter rides, guide services and more are available from March to mid-November. And then, of course, if you make your reservation well in advance, there’s Underwood’s Zion Lodge.

The lobby tent at Under Canvas Zion

Under Canvas Zion

 

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