Zion on a Core Strand – The Frugal Traveler’s Guide

Climbing season is here, and I just hosted my first carload of weekend warriors, showing them around, getting out to some amazing multi-pitch climbs, and, of course, filling my living room with dirty but grateful climbing friends. I LOVE that more and more people are exploring Zion, but I only have so much couch space, so I feel obliged to pass on a few tips toward pulling off the dirtbag lifestyle here in Zion.

Springdale, Utah and the West Temple

View of Mount Kinesava and Springdale from the Watchman

First, let’s discuss impact. There is a lot of room to be carefree, to find your own way, to get out into wilderness, but in order to maintain and protect such freedoms, we must act as stewards to our Parks and public lands. I have always liked the Leave No Trace motto, “Making your mark is overrated.” The reality is that to continue enjoying places like Zion, we need to recognize our potential impact, and respect the environment and others who are here to enjoy pristine wilderness.

A minimum-impact guidelines to keep in mind:

• Sleep only in established campsites, unless you are at least ½ mile away from any road
• Walking only on established trails or drainage bottoms is key to preserving the fragile desert landscape.
• Cryptobiotic crust (the blackish crunchy stuff amongst all the cactus) preservation is a big concern of mine. It is the first step in desert soil development; one poorly chosen step can destroy decades of growth. Please keep a sharp eye out for this stuff and avoid disrupting the crust.
• Fires are for forested landscapes, not the desert. If you must have a fire, bring firewood from home (do not collect it locally) and establish a large, safe area around a small fire. Wildfires are easy to start in the desert, often sparked by a single drifting hot cinder.

Free camping is often the biggest concern for most of us trying to live inexpensively. Fortunately, Zion is surrounded by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. This is public-use land (i.e. you own it, I own it, all Americans own it) and there several great areas for setting up camp within a short drive from the Park entrance. BLM land typically does not have bathroom facilities or flowing water; a few areas have closed due to health hazards created by campers burying solid waste (poo). Organic matter does not break down quickly in the desert; in fact, the dry heat tends to preserve organic matter like few other climates can. So do yourself and everyone who loves Zion a favor: buy some poo bags, make use of the public restrooms at Sol Foods and the River Park, and DON’T SHIT WHERE YOU SLEEP.

That said, I’ll come down off the soap box and give the the skinny on the local low-budget camping scene:

• The original “climber camp” at Mosquito Cove is currently CLOSED (south side of SR9 between mile marker 23 and 24) The winter flooding has deposited a thick layer of soft sand that has made it impossible to drive into the campground.
• A NEW camp has sprouted about 2 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road, north of Virgin. If you drive up this way, you will see a camping area with a sign saying “use by donation”. This is a beautiful place to call home. I could not locate a donation box, but if you find a place to leave a donation and you are staying here, ante up so we can continue to use this spot.
• Coal Pits Wash is a small camping area on BLM land between the towns of Virgin and Rockville. This area is on the north side of State Route 9 between mile markers 25 and 26, on the west side of the Coal Pits Wash. The wash itself is signed; the camping area is not. This campsite also serves as the trailhead for the Coal Pits Wash trail.
• The Smithsonian Butte BLM area, off Bridge Road in Rockville, has all sorts of quiet, dark, and remote places to camp for the night. Best for those with high clearance vehicles, this area provides good camping in a gorgeous locale, while still being close to town.
• Camping inside Zion National Park at either South Campground or Watchman Campground is a great option if you can spare a few dollars ($14 per night). Reserve your campsite ahead of time if you plan to camp here in the spring and summer (especially on the weekends). There is a distinct benefit to having clean toilets, flowing water, and immediate access to the Park.
• In the summer there is a free, remote campground at Lava Point, about 14 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road. This is a beautiful place to camp, and the 8,000-feet elevation makes for a MUCH cooler place to camp. Camping is first-come, first-served here, and there are only 12 spots.

Now, as far as impact and quality of living go, I have to ask, “What is a climbing bum’s commitment to hygiene?” Well, for those wanting to go all out, there are pay showers at Zion Rock and Mountain Guides on the west side of Springdale, and at the Quality Inn RV Park (you must get a coupon from us at Zion Adventure Company). The alternative (read: free) approach to cleanliness is jumping in the river. Depending on when you are visiting Zion, a river immersion can be a very refreshing experience. My favorite place to swim in the Virgin River is the diversion dam on the Pa’ Rus trail. It is halfway between the museum and Canyon Junction. There is a pull out on the road that subtly notes river access, and if you are hiking along the Pa’ Rus trail there is a sign pointing out the history of the diversion dam. Below the dam is the perfect swimming hole; beautiful deep water, big cottonwoods, a great diving rock, and RATTLESNAKES (sometimes).

The third, and possibly most important, part of traveling on the cheap, is finding food. Honestly, there is no cheap food in Springdale, but there is a lot of good food. Restaurants such as The Whiptail Grill, The Flying Monkey, Zion Pizza and Noodle Co., and Oscar’s have great eats, but an entrée will probably cost $15 when all said and done. For frugal-minded individuals, cooking your own food is the only way to go. Buy your food in Hurricane, St. George, Cedar City, or elsewhere, and if you need a few last minute items, Sol Foods Market is a great grocery store (if a bit expensive).

Another suggestion I have for people visiting Zion is to take your time. You can save a lot of money by simply staying put, and taking advantage of all the opportunities in the Park. Avoid planning a lot of driving, and you will cut your budget significantly. Springdale has all the essential amenities (laundromat, post office, bank, camping equipment, liquor store, etc.) One can find free reading, internet access, and a beautiful resource for air-conditioned peace and quiet at the Springdale Library. Another little secret I learned recently is that the campground in the park has a FREE bin of half-used propane and butane tanks for camp stoves; just ask a Campground Host. We also have a typically-full box fill with propane, white gas, and butane canisters at Zion Adventure Company.

I hope this information helps make a trip to Zion more accessible to not only climbing bums, but also backpackers, road trippers, and anyone looking to live simply and enjoy the amazingness that is Zion. If you have any tips to pass on, it would be sweet if you noted them here for the rest of us to learn from. Good luck and enjoy yourselves out there!


About Calvin

Calvin Laatsch guides canyoneering, rock climbing, and mountain biking trips at Zion Adventure Company; he also consults staff and clients alike on Norwegian customs, smooth dance moves, and the latest in dirtbag fashion. Bring your binoculars with you on the Zion Scenic Drive, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Calvin WAY up a wall, testing his mettle in form-fitting jeans.
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2 Responses to Zion on a Core Strand – The Frugal Traveler’s Guide

  1. thanks for the great camping beta, good to know there are options besides Mosquito Cove.

  2. avatar Alec says:

    Thanks for the beta, Calvin — guess I should have checked out the blog before coming down!