Escape to Zion
A feast for body and soul
The yen to travel only seems to grow more intense when you feel you can’t or shouldn’t. Finally, after months of dreaming about taking off somewhere—anywhere!—we decided to take a trip to one of our favorite destinations, Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. My husband Jeff, who has never really stopped zipping around locally in Southern California and further afield to capture photos and videos for his Photowalks show, has already posted his take on our experience. My version is, as always, more food-oriented—and we did eat well, perhaps a bit too well. But isn’t that excusable on vacation?
With milder weather, longer days and, more importantly, wider access to vaccinations, everyone else seems have been infected with the same impulse to travel that struck us last month.
Still, heading to Zion through Las Vegas on a Sunday morning was a breeze. It included a stop at Jeff’s favorite restaurant—Juan’s Flaming Fajitas. He insisted on timing our visit to lunchtime—and who am I to turn down a platter of chicken and beef strips, peppers and onions that arrives at your table awash in flames?
The waiter claimed special spices, plus the sizzling alcohol—vodka, he said—bestow a caramelized glaze on the meat and vegetables, setting this presentation apart from other versions of this popular Tex-Mex dish. Wrapped inside freshly made corn tortillas and served with refried beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo, it’s a very filling meal. By the time we got back in our car, I was ready for a siesta! (That’s usually about the time Jeff asks me to drive!)
Neither of us can figure out how many times we’ve visited Zion—it could be as many as 20 over the years. But each visit feels like the first—the soaring sandstone canyon walls and jutting peaks, often outlined in gold from the sun, never fail to take my breath away.
The downside is that the park has been discovered and, with well over 4 million visitors annually (a number that has risen 60% in the last decade!), now permits only shuttles, bikes and pedestrians through its main canyon road. But, with a bit of advance planning, it’s doable, fun and worth braving the crowds (though we’re already considering a return visit in the off-season, around November to early March, when the shuttles are idle and you can drive into the park).
We surprised ourselves by hiking most of the way up a challenging trail—Angels Landing—stopping right before the perilous half-mile ascent that requires chain handholds and features steep drops on all sides. I wished myself at the top, but had to be satisfied with views at the slightly lower elevation, also spectacular.
It was sobering to read stories of people who were hiking there alone and never returned or who were too busy taking selfies to notice that they were too close to the edge. The sign said 13 people had perished in falls since 2004, but I was told that the number was probably at least 17. Luckily, we maintained our balance and avoided venturing too close to the edge.
When it came to The Narrows, another famous hike that draws passionate trekkers from all over the world, I didn’t get so far, despite renting full gear—heavy-duty waterproof overalls, shoes and stout walking sticks—from a local outfitter to brave a slog through a rocky-bottomed river that offers a photographer’s feast of sun-streaked red walls soaring above. Jeff dashed ahead to capture some glorious shots, while I gingerly picked my way along, fearing to reawaken old ankle and knee injuries. I finally opted to turn around and meander along The Riverside Trail, an easy mile of paved walkway that travels beside this section of the Virgin River, before ending at the point where hikers who wish to travel further have no choice but to start wading into the water.
Signs warn that as tame as The Narrows may appear, there are dangers inherent in hiking in a narrow canyon with steep walls on either side—flash floods can occur without warning and sweep even experienced hikers away. Perhaps that’s part of the adventure, charm, fear and wonder of traveling in a wild area—the unexpected can happen at any moment. But somehow confronting the vagaries of nature amid stunning scenery seemed like a minor worry compared to the COVID-19 terrors we’ve faced over the past year.
About the Food
All that hiking awakened our appetites not only for mountain vistas, but also for grub. When you’re near the top of a mile-high mountain and all you’ve thought to bring are two apples (they do taste like ambrosia when you’re that hungry!), a great topic of conversation as you head back down the path is what’s for lunch.
All thoughts of eating healthy blew away with the orange dust—the Zion Lodge, which has limited food service at the moment because of the pandemic, offered a basic menu of hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, drinks, chips, etc. It was just fine with us and tasted delicious—undoubtedly because we were truly hungry and also because, for health reasons, we’ve all but banished beef from our diet.
In the course of our five-day trip, I ignored all my resolutions and ate burgers three times. I know there are reasons not to eat beef—not only for personal health, but to contribute to the health of the planet and its inhabitants, but, perhaps because of depriving ourselves of so much in the course of the last year, it’s easy to rationalize indulging now while saving the guilt for later.
Other food and travel notes
Springdale, the town at the entrance to Zion, with a population in 2021 of 675 (compared to 529 in 2010), swings wildly in size and activity depending on the number of tourists who alternately flood into town en route to Zion attractions, then make themselves scarce when the weather cools. We’ve been there at Christmas when most of the shops and eateries were shuttered or open limited hours and snow and ice were piled along the roads and popular trails. In that season, the latter are usually closed or too treacherous to tackle.
Everything was open when we were there, and waits weren’t too long for most of the popular restaurants. We dined twice at one of our favorites, the Bit & Spur, a fixture in town since 1981. The menu is a trendy mix of Mexican, Southwestern and contemporary fare, with a broad drinks selection. Jeff loved his taco and enchilada plate, while I was quite happy with sweet potato and masa tamales with sautéed mushrooms and tomato-tomatillo salsa. A creamy slice of peanut butter pie hit the spot for dessert.
One day, we drove to the adjacent town of Virgin and came across a little place that was once a post office and is now a small cafe/bookstore/crafts enterprise run by four longtime friends. Bread lover that I am, I was intrigued to learn that one of the partners of Virgin Goods went to culinary school and makes a rustic country French sourdough bread called pain de campagne. The restaurant serves open-face sandwiches on toasted slices of the bread. They were delicious, as were the homemade brownies. I imagine the chocolate eclairs that show up on weekends are also worth a stop—as are the gourds, quilts and honey, all handcrafted by family and friends of the owners.
The place was one of these little gems that turn up when you take an unplanned drive in the opposite direction than you intend, stop at an intriguing sign and decide to step inside to investigate. That’s what’s we love about a road trip—the unexpected finds. We’ll be heading out again soon in search of more.
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