Adventure—as long as you pack Clorox wipes, jumbo hand-sanitizer, and masks—is out there!
Like many of you, we canceled our summer vacation when it became clear that quarantine wasn’t ending any time soon. In May, after two months of not leaving the house except for grocery shopping (and sanitizing those groceries in the garage once we got home), we started looking for a way we could take our kids — Jack, 12, Kate, 9, and Henry, 6 — on a road trip to somewhere we’d be outdoors most of the time. A national park was the obvious answer. We’ve been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton over the past few years, and Zion, just a six-hour drive from our home in Southern California, was next on our list. I began planning for a mid-July vacation feeling a small amount of anticipation and a whole lot of, Is this the worst idea ever?
I had two main concerns, the first being gas and bathroom breaks between home and Zion. We’d need to fill up near Vegas, and the truck stops along I-15 felt like the most Covid-y places in the world. I bought Clorox wipes to use for opening doors and wiping down sink handles and packed — what’s the correct measurement here? — a shit-ton of hand sanitizer to keep in the van.
My second worry was staying in The Zion Lodge. I would’ve preferred a cabin where we weren’t breathing recirculated air, but we’re a family of five and the cabins only sleep four. After four months of quarantine and wiping down Amazon packages, I couldn’t imagine standing in a hotel lobby. But as soon as we arrived I felt at ease. Reception had social-distancing markings on the floor, and the park has made a lot of meaningful changes to protect visitors during coronavirus. For instance, there is no housekeeping service. Once we checked in, we were the only ones to enter our room, which soon became a damp-toweled, half-eaten-muffined mess, but we felt safe. The two restaurants that operate out of The Lodge are closed for dining but open for takeout. And there is a sprawling lawn in front of the hotel with a giant cottonwood in the center where families can picnic, well-distanced, and watch as deer graze on the grass at dusk. Several evenings during our stay, we sat on the lawn and watched the doe and their fawns, threw a frisbee, or played Uno.
Mom tip: Due to the coronavirus, the park does not serve alcohol. Pick up beer or wine before you get here.
Here are the activities we enjoyed in Zion while easily social-distancing:
Hiking The Narrows
If you’ve seen the iconic Zion photos of hikers trekking through knee-deep water between sunlit canyon walls as tall as skyscrapers, you were looking at The Narrows. Our Narrows day was the pinnacle of our visit — a must-see. While you definitely won’t be alone in the canyon, you can easily stay six feet away from others, if not more. Getting to the famous Wall Street, where the canyon gets so narrow you can almost touch both walls when you spread out your arms, is 3.2 miles in and 3.2 miles out. My husband turned back when our six and nine-year-old tapped out, but my twelve-year-old and I made it in and shared a moment of pure joy and satisfaction. On our pleasantly exhausted trek back, as the late afternoon sunlight danced on the river, he said, “I’m going to bring my kids to National Parks, too.”
Mom tip: You don’t want to do The Narrows without neoprene socks, hiking boots, and especially walking sticks. We rented our gear at Zion Guru and highly recommend them.
Hike to Emerald Pools
This hike is three miles roundtrip and was easy for the kids. On the way up, there’s a steep drop-off on the left that made me nervous, but there were plenty of kids on the trail. There are lower pools, middle pools, and upper pools. The upper pools are supposed to be the largest and most beautiful, but I can’t confirm. We got to the middle pools, found a pond full of frogs, and never continued on. We had to drag the kids away after a couple of hours.
Mom tip: No gear needed, but go early; it was hot when we started at 11 am.
Playing in The Virgin River
Walk or bike the Pa’rus trail — 3.3 miles roundtrip — and stop at one of the many dirt turn-outs to spend the day. The river captivated all of our kids; building pools to hold minnows and tadpoles, constructing dams, and sitting like statues so the fish would nibble the dead skin from their feet. They had so much fun the first day that we went back later in the week with proper minnow and tadpole catching equipment, water bottles and empty fruit cups. You know those days when you look at your kids, their eyes glued to their tablets (what even is Roblox?) and you dream of moving to the country to raise them differently? The Virgin River is the antidote, Mom.
ATV Sunset Tour
Confession: This was spendy, and if you asked my kids what they enjoyed more, the ATV tour or playing in the river, they’d choose the river hands-down. But if you have the means, this was a cool, one-off experience. The tour started at five and lasted until sunset. Our affable, retiree tour guide, Dave, led our family — me and our two youngest in a four-seater; my husband and twelve-year-old on a two-seater – along with a few other riders, roaring through The Mojave Desert, throwing up waves of red sand. To be in The Mojave Desert, with no civilization in sight, was extraordinary. I booked the ATV tour for my daredevil six-year-old, but I have to admit, once I got comfortable driving, it was pretty thrilling to gun it. We used ATV & JEEP Adventure Tours, and they were great with kids.
Getting Around the Park
Book a shuttle. To protect passengers, shuttles are running at half capacity, require a ticket, and masks are mandatory. Tickets are $1 per person and can be reserved at www.recreation.gov.
Book the open-air tram. The tram runs from The Zion Lodge to The Narrows in the morning and returns in the afternoon. Tickets are not required, but you do need to make a reservation with the front desk.
Bring your bikes. If your kids are bike-confident, you can ride to almost any trailhead or attraction; that’s what we did. Since cars aren’t allowed on the scenic drive, there’s not a lot of traffic, which makes for a more relaxed ride with littles.
If you are an err on the side of caution parent like I am and wondering, Can we do a family vacation in the time of coronavirus and feel safe and responsible doing it? The answer is yes, you can. We spent a week in Zion and never came within six feet of another person other than the receptionist who checked us in, and she was wearing a mask. Adventure—as long as you pack Clorox wipes, jumbo hand-sanitizer, and masks—is out there!
All images c/o Denise Massar.
Denise Massar is a mom, wife, and writer living in Southern California. She’s currently working on a memoir about her experience as an adoptee and adoptive mom, her miscarriage, the longing for a child, the grittiness and beauty of domestic adoption, the expectant moms she met as she searched for a baby, a marriage in trouble, a marriage strengthened, sex, drugs, and motherhood. You can read the first two chapters of her book, "Matched," at denisemassar.org