The Mighty 5: Day 7

IMG_1790When we first arrived at Arches National Park, we asked a ranger at the entrance about a park pass that would give us access to all of the Mighty 5. She asked how much time we had set aside to visit the five parks, and we said five days. She responded, “Well, that’s going to be VERY difficult.”

Difficult it was, but we did it.

We not only visited the Mighty 5 in five days, we did so in a way that allowed us to get up close and personal with each of these beloved parks, experiencing not only their immense grandeur but also their unique diversity.

It was exhausting, and exhilarating.

Today’s visit to Zion National Park was the culmination of almost a year of planning and dogged determination. As the National Parks go, our visit to Zion wasn’t the best of experiences, but it was certainly memorable.

After getting a late start from our Bryce Canyon campsite, we arrived at Zion around mid-afternoon. We quickly set up and then set out for our Mighty 5 finale. We knew that access to the Scenic Drive was limited to shuttles, but we had no idea the impact riding in one of these people movers would have on our park experience. They were hot, noisy, and crowded. Plus, the vehicles have “two lite slider” windows that make it nearly impossible to enjoy the views or take photos — two things that visitors to the park want to do most. We were so dissatisfied with our introduction to the shuttle experience that we disembarked at Stop Number Two and vowed to return to our own vehicle and drive as far as we could go.

Then we realized we could go no farther than Stop Number Three.

Guests at Zion Lodge can drive as far as Stop Number Five, but anyone wanting to access the rest of Scenic Drive can do so only via shuttle. So, we resigned ourselves to getting off the shuttle at each of the remaining stops, hiking to the various viewpoints, taking in the scenery, and then waiting for the next shuttle to arrive before continuing on.

This plan went well until Stop Number Five. That’s when we unknowningly boarded a “down canyon” shuttle instead of an “up canyon” shuttle and found ourselves going back to the beginning. It was sort of like losing your turn in a board game and having to go back two spaces. Eventually, we figured things out and started making real progress.

Then, at Stop Number Seven, Electric Shuttle appeared.

We boarded the beautifully appointed, air-conditioned, electric-battery-powered bus and we were hooked. Its spacious interiors and wide aisles were luxurious. Most important, it was blessedly quiet. We were so enthralled that we stayed on board through Stop Number Eight and went right to Stop Number Nine, the Temple of Sinawava, at the end of the route. There, we skipped the River Walk so we could ensure we had a seat on Electric Shuttle for the 40-minute return trip.

More about Electric Shuttle in a moment. First, a bit of background.

In 1997, Zion received more than 2.4 million visitors, and with them came traffic gridlock, noise pollution, and associated resource damage. The shuttle system was established in 2000 to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon. Eighteen years ago, the shuttle system was nearly universally applauded as a way to protect the park and improve the visitor experience. In fact, its positive impact became immediately apparent — a quieter canyon, no fights over parking spaces, significantly fewer cars, the resurgence of some wildlife species and less damage to roadside vegetation. Last year alone, the park shuttles carried more than 6.3 million riders.

Although open-air trams were initially considered, park officials thought they would be unsafe in rollovers and expose passengers to rain and wind, among other disadvantages. So park managers designed the current shuttles — propane-powered buses that pull a trailer — without air-conditioning to reduce noise. With the windows open, park managers argued, the buses would get enough airflow to make the temperature tolerable. Despite the fact that the buses have been rehabilitated with new motors, transmissions, seats, painting and decals, the aging fleet is on its last wheels. For the past several years, the park been considering retrofitting the existing vehicles with electric motors, or simply replacing them altogether.

Which brings us back to Electric Shuttle. It is one of several options park officials are considering, so passenger feedback is encouraged.

Unfortunately, with no funding source in place, it may be only wishful thinking to one day see an entire fleet of Electric Shuttles up and down Zion Canyon. In the meantime, if you want a more peaceful experience during your visit, you can always hike or bike along Scenic Drive.

Throughout the day, we learned several things worth sharing:

  1. If you’re assigned the site nearest the RV resort office, you’ll likely get a lot of “drop-in” visitors who want to talk about your Airstream. This is when being a “brand ambassador” is not only most important but also most effective.
  2. Hunger is a good cook — in other words, everything tastes good when you’re hungry, especially when you sit down to dinner at 10 p.m.
  3. The ability to develop and use technology is what distinguishes human beings from the other species, so take the plunge.