When I think of National Parks out West images of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and California's Great Redwoods are what come to mind. Then there is Zion, the place you've heard of and yet are not exactly sure what to expect, or where it is for that matter.
In my mind I knew Zion had to be great, but with it being so close to the Grand Canyon of Arizona and the slot canyons which make their way between two states, I had lost it in my minds map until it practically fell into my lap. I headed up to Lake Powell after a work trip in Glendale. I arrived some time after 9pm, paid the fees to camp ($15 to get into Glen Canyon and $10/night to camp), strapped on my headlamp, raised the tent, and made a camp fire under the stars and full moon which illuminated Lone Rock which sat just a few hundred yards off shore. It wasn't until talking with the Sheriff, who was driving along the beach as his dog ran Powell's shoreline, that I decided to go to Zion. I had come up to hike Antelope Canyon, but learned there was a hefty fee and you were required to hike with a tour guide and could only be there an hour and a half. The sheriff told me of the Toadstools, slot canyons you could hike for free, the wave (which I didn't go to of the near impossible to win lottery/permit). The next morning I woke up and drove to the nearest Bureau of Land Management office just a few miles up the road. From there I learned about Wire Pass, a trail/canyon you can hike for over 30 miles, but it slotted up pretty nicely about a mile in. The only trick was getting through the ten mile impassible-when-wet road. Luckily the conditions had been dry and my car is all wheel drive.
After a quick hike to the Toadstools I made the drive, paid the $6 hiking fee with quarters, nickels, and pennies (I only had $20's and no way to make change) and hiked on in. It was amazing, and all in all I spent about 2 hours playing around in the canyon. The hike only went a few miles in before it was flooded, but was still well worth it.
From there I made my way up to Kanab and then got into Zion for the sunset. The week long pass was only $25 and there is free camping within 5-10 miles of the entrance on BLM land (just get an atlas and search for the yellow outlined squares on the map... public land = free camping). I opted to car camp so I could get up and drive into Zion for an early morning hike.
It ended up working perfectly. After a quick coffee at the convenience store just outside of Zion I made my way in, waving my week pass at the Ranger as I passed through the entrance, and then drove straight to the trail head of Angel's Landing. After reading the warning sign that 4 hikers have fallen to their death on this hike since 2004, I ran up the path. The hike said it is a 2-3 hour out and back, but with a steady pace and no breaks I made the summit in 45 minutes. I was told the hike was going to be busy. "Zion has no off season" the lady told me the day before in the gear/coffee/bookstore I stopped by to get some replacement batteries for my headlamp, but to my happy surprise I had seen just 3 other hikers on my way up and no one was on top of Angel's Landing when I got to the top... even better yet no one was there the entire half hour I spent running around, leaning over the edge, looking thousands of feet down to the canyon floor. These are the perks of being able to go at 8am on a Wednesday in February.
So when you are planning a trip to Utah, or any other National Park for that matter, consider going in the off season, because they do still exist, and being out in nature is much better when it's just you or a couple of other friends (especially when the hike includes single wide paths holding onto chains with nothing to stop you from tumbling a quick 2,000 feet should you lose your handle and footing).
+All in all the trip cost me $56 and gas money
+Sheriff's in Utah are the coolest Sheriff's I have ever met.
+With the states sharing many similar geographic qualities, national parks, and beauty all within 10 miles, there is a definite Utah-Arizona rivalry... Many I talked to on the Utah side had never been to the Grand Canyon or Antelope Canyon, and many on the Arizona side had never made the hour long trip up to Zion, which all blew my mind, but they seemed to think the other state didn't know what was up when it came to natural beauty.
+What I would have done differently - Scheduled more time to be there! This is almost always the case, but I could spend two weeks in Utah/Arizona and not get tired of it. Everything was so different and if you talk to the right people, you'll find endless secret local hikes and pointers sure to keep you busy as long as you want. Also, consider hiking in minimalist or water shoes as to not get stopped by flooded areas, but since it's the off season be careful of hypothermia. I also would not have minded a hiking partner in case things did go wrong... but they haven't yet and if they did, heck I was on Angel's Landing in Zion. It would have been almost poetic.