Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Birthday Road Trip {Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks}

As I’m sure you are well aware, the hubby and I love camping. When we were deciding what we wanted to do for our birthdays (they are three days apart), of course an outdoor adventure involving camping was going to be on the docket.


A few months ago we booked a campsite at Kern River. Well, due to the wildfires raging in SoCal (and the West Coast in general), three days before we left the National Forest Service closed down all the campgrounds and recreational areas.


Of course we totally understood the reasoning and would never want to strain the already taxed fire services, but we were still pretty bummed. With that said, we weren't going to let this little bump in the road cancel our birthday celebration. I got in the InterWebs, realized Utah was still “open”, started envisioning a plan and found us some campsites lickety-split.


The game plan quickly changed from camping in the Eastern Sierras in California to visiting National Parks in Utah. The itinerary morphed and, I’ve gotta say, I’m impressed at what we were able to throw together last minute.

We would leave from Carlsbad after I got off work Thursday evening (7pm) and drive as far as we could, staying on BLM land that first evening. Friday morning we would drive to Red Canyon and check it out, then head to Bryce Canyon National Park. We had a campsite at a nearby KOA for Friday and Saturday evenings, then we would drive to Zion National Park to spend Sunday. We didn’t have a spot reserved for Sunday night, but figured we’d look for some BLM land outside of Vegas or somewhere on the way between Utah and California. And now that you’ve got the brief overview, let’s dive in (and share all the pictures, because I’m sure that’s why you are really here) on what exactly we did on the epic trip.


As I mentioned, we left Thursday evening. We ended up stopping in Leeds, Utah, and finding an awesome BLM spot. Obviously we couldn’t see the beauty until we woke up (since we pulled in around 2am), but it was pretty magical.

The sunrise was still a little hazy due to the smoke, but was a million times better than home!

Love that the AdventureMobile can get off-road and go just about anywhere!

Friday morning, we woke up and went to a nearby park so we could use the facilities (we have a port-o-potty in the truck but I’d prefer to not use it if there are other options) and eat our breakfast on the picnic tables. Once we were packed and ready to go (one of the many things we love about the AdventureMobile is that it legit takes like 2 minutes to pop up or down, so we can be on the move in no time flat), we pointed the truck in the direction of Red Canyon and away we went.


Red Canyon wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when I had posted on social media about must do or see things in the Bryce Canyon area a couple people mentioned this spot. Let’s just say it was AWESOMESAUCE! The scenery in this area of the country, with all of the red rock (duh) and hoodoos, was something I had never seen before. We did a little 1 mile hike at the visitor center (on an interpretive path that had a guide to point out different things along the way - I love learning about everything that way! #NerdAlert) before jumping back in the truck to make our way to Bryce Canyon.

We thought it was only fitting that since fires had changed our plans that we get a picture with Smokey!

The rocks (and views in general) are so amazing!

Surprisingly, neither of us had been to this National Park before... and after seeing it, it is a MAJOR SHAME it took us this long to visit because it is FAN-FREAKIN’-TASTIC! Our campground was past Bryce, so we figured we'd go into the park, get the lay of the land, then head to the campground whenever we were ready (again, with the trip being so last minute, we didn't do our normal pre-adventure research as to what we should do or see, so the plan was very tentative).

Crossing another NP off our list!

When we grabbed the map at the front entrance, we learned there is really just one main road in the park that goes for about 18 miles. We decided we would drive to the end of the park (it took about 35 minutes or so) and then work our way back, stopping at all of the points of interest and awesome views we saw along the way.

Bryce Canyon Map

Even though it only took us a little over a half an hour on the way out, it turned into more like 2 hours on the way back because of all the stops and mini hikes we did. We hiked around the Bristlecone Loop (just about a mile or so) after we ate our lunch at Rainbow Point. On the drive, we stopped at the majority of the turnouts (Natural Bridge was my favorite, even though it wasn’t a bridge {more of an arch} because there wasn't any water #TheMoreYouKnow).

Love me a good trail sign!

The views of the Bryce Amphitheater are out of this world!

A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney, or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes
from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos typically consist of relatively soft rock
topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements.

Thought this hoodoo looked like a 'L'

I realize my iPhone 8 camera will NEVER do these views justice... so, just trust me, you must see them for yourself!

Peek-a-boo, I see you!

Me and the Natural Bridge

After our drive, we were both ready to shake out our legs (okay, technically we had been in and out of the car all day, but our legs were still screaming for a run). After consulting the map, we decided we would run to Hat Shop - which was a 4ish mile out and back route. Since we were in the AdventureMobile, we were quickly able to get in the back, throw on our running gear and hit the trail. We started around 3:30pm, which probably wasn’t ideal with the heat (it was in the 90s), but we made it work (taking plenty of water in our hydration vests). The views, like with the rest of the park, were stunning. Our average pace was 15:30/mile, but that includes stops for photos, hiking the uphills and just soaking in Mother Nature. We got in 4.73 miles and climbed over 1,000 feet of elevation (while being over 7,500 feet above sea level).

The picture on the right is at the turnaround for Hat Shop. See the rocks on top of the hoodoos? They sort of look like hats,
right?! Well, at least that's what we told ourselves since there were no signs explaining what we were looking at ;)

I saw this path off the main trail and told the hubby to stay put so he could snap a quick picture of me...
little did I know I would be soooooooo little in the picture ;)

Then he joined me on the path and took a couple up-close photos.

Selfie time!

I’d say for our first day in the park, we made the most out of it! On the way to the campground we stopped at Mossy Cave and the hubby was able to take a dip in the COLD water. (I normally go dirtbag style and don’t bathe on camping trips, but the KOA had showers included in our camp fee that I figured I’d take advantage of rather than a polar bear plunge.)

I am a BIG BABY when it comes to being cold...

After checking out the cave and waterfall (#RealTalk - you can probably skip this stop), we made our way to the campground, set up, scarfed down food, played cards and made a fire. All-in-all, Friday was a very full but fun day!

One MAJOR FAIL on my part was forgetting our {vegan} s'more ingredients...

The hubby was playing with his night camera options... this is what we got ;)

We decided we wanted to get in a longer trail run on Saturday, so landed on Fairyland Loop. Let me tell you before I get into it - it was AMAZEBALLS! Legit, Ry and I said multiple times while running it that it was in our top 3 trail runs EVER!

As always, anothing sign shot!

The trail is a loop (as I’m sure you picked up from the name, HA!) and about 8 miles long. We parked at Sunrise Point (since there were bathrooms, a little general store and it was close to other things we wanted to do afterwards) and were ready to run by about 9:30am. We ran the loop clockwise (we had done some research on AllTrails and it seemed like most people were suggesting traveling in that direction) and we felt like it was more runnable that way.

The hubby had me run ahead so he could get this shot of me with the gorgeous surroundings.

The map said it'd take 4-5 hours (average hiking time), but we were able to tackle it in just under two (which included a ton of stops to take in the views). Our average pace was faster than the day before (14:17/mile), even with the longer distance (8.34 miles) and more elevation (1,585 feet gained). The views on this trail were amazing, we had it to ourselves for the majority of the time (we might have seen 10 people total in the entire time we were out there), the trail was exquisitely maintained and easy to run on, there was a decent amount of shade for being out in the open and the weather was near perfect (can't say you'd get that every day, but we really lucked out!). I can't stress it enough, we loved this trail!

I mean, it just doesn't get much better than this...

How cool are these chimney hoodoos?!

Tower Bridge

By the time we finished the run, we were starvin' marvins so we grabbed our lunch out of the truck and made our way to some nearby picnic tables. (FYI - We love doing nut butter and bananas on a tortilla for a quick and easy lunch wrap with a side of chips/ nuts/ apple/ trail mix.) We cooled down, rehydrated and inhaled our food. The plan for the afternoon was to check out some more trails, and seeing as we figured we would probably end up running some of the downhills (originally the afternoon trek was going to be more of a hike than a run, but once your feet hit the dirt it's hard to stop them from zooming!) so needed to let our food digest a bit before heading out again.

Let's just say we got a little dusty on our dirt adventures ;)

We received recommendations to check out Navajo + Peekaboo Loops, so figured, why not throw another 4+ miles on the day while we were at it?! I wish I could say we loved this mini figure-8 as much as we enjoyed the morning trail, but we didn't. It was super steep in parts (making it less runnable), super packed (it was later in the day, which may have been the issue, but Navajo is also listed as one of the more popular routes, so I guess you just have to deal with the hoards of people) and super warm (again, probably because it was later in the day, but it seemed much drier, dustier and hotter than we would have preferred). The hubby was also pretty fatigued at this point from our morning run, so he was not feelin' it. If you were only going to do one "big" hike, I understand why people might choose this one, but I'd strongly urge folks to reconsider. In total it ended up being 6.91 miles, 1,610+ feet of elevation gain and it took us about 2:11 to finish. Don't get me wrong, there is still some awesome things to see along these two loops, but they just weren't our favorites.

Obviously the tunnels are natural, but they're still fun to go through


You can see the hubby towards the bottom of the climb on the left and on the right he is checking his
AllTrails app because originally it said 4.9 miles and we were already past that with no truck in sight...

Like I mentioned, the hubby was spent, so after hitting 15 miles for the day, we decided we had seen the majority of what the National Park had to offer, so we wanted to head back to the campground for a little R&R. On the way, though, we stopped in Old Bryce Town (right outside of the park entrance) because we had a hankerin' for a Tollhouse Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich. We popped in the gas station, but they didn't have one. We saw that the little "town" (more aptly described as a tourist area) had an ice cream shop, so we pulled over and jumped out. We snagged a couple stickers (we put them on the fridge inside the camper), a magnet (we put them on the fridge in the house) and a cone for each of us. (A family friend sent $10 for our birthdays and said to get an ice cream cone to celebrate - so obviously we had to obey :))

I can never pass up a good photo op ;)

I hadn't had a waffle cone in YEARS, but man was it tasty!

Back at the campground, we both utilized the showers (we figured if we were paying for them, we might as well take advantage of them - especially after being covered in dirt and dust from our runs) and made dinner. We snagged another bundle of wood (with all of the wildfires in California, there are major restrictions on fires around us, so we figured we'd take advantage of the opportunity to have a campfire, since we knew we wouldn't have the chance for a while) and chilled.

Sunday was a somewhat early morning because we wanted to get a jump on the drive to Zion. The drive was about 2 hours and along the way we saw some buffalo! (Sunday was the hubby's birthday, so we called them Bday Buffalo ;))

Some of them even came up super close to the railing by the road!

We knew from friends who had been to Zion National Park over Labor Day, they were limiting the amount of people on specific trails by requiring everyone get a shuttle pass. You see, the majority of the popular trails are along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. With COVID, they were restricting vehicles (expect for the park shuttles) on Scenic Drive, which meant if you wanted to get to those places you needed a shuttle ticket. They had 330 shuttle passes per hour (apparently based on how many people could fit in a shuttle and how many shuttles could run) and when our friends were there they weren't able to secure passes because they "sold out" (the passes cost $1, so it isn't about making money, but more limiting the potential risks and exposure). Thankfully on Saturday morning, before we started our run on Fairyland Loop, we were able to log on right at 9am when they released the follow day's passes and snag two for the 11am-12pm shuttle.

Zion doesn't have a sign like Bryce, so you've gotta work with whatcha got ;)

Although we've been lucky enough to visit Zion before, when we've gone together it's always been on the chillier side (Thanksgiving), which makes hiking The Narrows not as an enjoyable adventure (at least in my opinion, because you've gotta have a ton of cold weather gear like waders and waterproof clothes). I told the hubby that if we could get shuttle passes, we'd hike The Narrows for his birthday and he was totally down (I've done it before with two girlfriends on the way back from running the St. George Marathon a few years back, but he has had it on his list of things to do for a while now).

The last time we visited The Narrows...

I do need to preface that there was a warning in place to avoid the Virgin River and streams of Zion due to a toxic algae bloom. We decided we would "risk it" but did our darndest to avoid getting any water in our mouths, noses, etc. (We also put all of our gear that we wore and used while in The Narrows into a garbage bag that we then washed separately when we got home to make sure that if we had any of the toxins on us that we wouldn't contaminate things further.)


Hiking The Narrows is a pretty awesome experience. I would say that it is probably a one-and-done sort of hike for me (ha, well, I guess I can't really say that, seeing as this was the second time I had done it, but I mean that it isn't something I need to do every time I go to the park), but I would still highly recommend you do it at least once.

The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This gorge, with walls a thousand feet tall and the
river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide, is one of the most popular areas in Zion National Park.

A hike through The Narrows requires hiking in the Virgin River. You must get your feet wet since there's no trail.

The first mile or so was pretty busy. It seemed like a ton of people were back there, mostly trying to snap that perfect picture for their social media... The hubby and I were using our trekking poles and were able to cruise right along quicker than most folks (it seems like when you rent gear at the outfitter you get one walking stick, but we found having one in each hand super beneficial for balance). You still have to watch your step, the current, etc, but we made great time.

We ended up hiked back for about 2 hours (the hubby's GPS had us at about 7 miles and I had 6 miles, but with the height of the canyon walls it makes sense that GPS isn't super accurate) before turning around. After the first mile or so the crowds definitely thin out, and the further you go the fewer people are around. I'd say we were pretty wet the majority of the time (up to our waists at some points), but with the triple digit air temps, the chilly/ refreshing water kept us cool.

We wore running gear, trail shoes and used our trekking poles - which worked perfectly!

After we finished, we made our way back to the shuttle stop (you had to get your pass scanned every time you got on the shuttle) and cruised to the visitor center. We obviously had to stop in so I could get my passport stamped (#RealTalk - I forget it on most of our adventures, so I end up having to stamp a plain piece of paper and then tape it into my passport), ask the rangers a couple questions and refill all of our water containers. It was about dinner time when we got to the car (we get hungry with all our adventuring), so we figured we'd have {vegan} hotdogs with a view ;)

It might not have been a "classy" birthday dinner for the hubby, but it was near perfect for us!

Before we left the park we walked back to the spots we will be staying at for Thanksgiving (oh yeah, I guess I left that part out, we will be back in Zion for a week in November for Friendsgiving) to take a little video to send to everyone who will be joining us. While perusing the campground we saw deer having their dinner (five babies, a couple ladies and one buck).

More babies on our walk back to the truck

Eventually we decided to hit the road and head towards home. Originally we were planning to stop at a BLM spot on the way back, but it was still in the high 80s when we pulled in to both options so we figured we'd push on and just drive till we got back to Oceanside. (Side Note: I gave up pop {soda} a few years ago and haven't looked back, but Sunday night I had to grab a Diet Mountain Dew from the gas station in Primm to keep me wide awake for the drive.) We got home LATE (~3am), but it was nice to have all of Monday to get ready for the week (do laundry, meal prep, clean the truck, etc).


Even though our trip was different than we had originally planned and anticipated, it was amazing nonetheless! Any time spent with the hubby is AWESOMESAUCE, and to visit a couple National Parks was just icing on the {birthday} cake!

Have you ever been to Bryce Canyon or Zion National Parks?

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