We're not in Utah anymore
With its bars, boutiques and galleries, Springdale is a cozy and cosmopolitan gateway to Zion
Nestled below the towering cliffs at the entrance to Zion National Park, Springdale is probably the most cosmopolitan small town in America — but most tourists seem blissfully unaware of that fact. Most of Zion’s 3 million annual visitors see the town as just a place to park to catch the shuttle in to Zion, and Springdale is fine with that. The 530 folks who call Springdale home exude a quiet confidence commensurate with the impressive offerings that line Zion Park Boulevard, the city’s only trafficked road.
Towns this small are usually quiet and conservative, especially in Utah, but with the sheer volume of visitors to Zion, Springdale ( springdaletown.com) has had to keep with the times. The main road is dotted with art galleries, bars, restaurants, shops, boutiques and hotels worthy of any major city. As Springdale Mayor Pat Cluff puts it, “When you’re in Springdale, you’re not in Utah.”
A touching proof of the mayor’s words comes from the two owners of Under the Eaves ( undertheeaves.com), a beautifully appointed bed & breakfast just minutes from Zion’s entrance. Mark Chambers and Joe Pitti have been together for 22 years. Four years ago, vacationing at Zion, they stayed at the quiet B&B, fell in love with the place and bought it. The town embraced them. Chambers is now on the town council and Pitti is chair of the planning commission. “We’re stewards of this land,” says Pitti, echoing a sentiment shared by virtually every resident.
To feel the love where the locals go, The Bit & Spur ( bitandspur.com) can’t be beat. Opened in 1981, The Bit, as locals call it, has a large patio where casual diners can watch the setting sun light up The Watchman, one of the incredibly colorful monoliths that make Zion famous. Business is bustling, but Joe Jennings, one of The Bit’s owners, knows it’s all because of Zion. “The park has to be your number one priority if you’re going to have a business in Springdale,” he says. To that end, the Bit & Spur is more than happy to give up its parking lot for tourists catching the shuttle system into the park. They know that after a long day of hiking, tourists parked in their lot are likely to hop off the shuttle and walk right in to The Bit for a cold beer. The last weekend in September, The Bit & Spur hosts the Zion Canyon Music Festival ( zioncanyonmusicfestival.com), a free, two-day outdoor music fest in a uniquely beautiful setting. In keeping with Springdale’s spirit of responsible stewardship, this “Leave No Trace” festival is powered by “solar trailers” that provide portable solar energy. For those with a sweet tooth, no trip to Springdale is complete without a Bumbleberry pie. Baked on site at the Bumbleberry Inn ( bumbleberry.com), the sweet, tart pies have been a Springdale institution for more than 40 years. Rooms at the inn come complete with private decks and access to a small petting zoo.
For a more upscale hotel experience, check out the Best Western Zion Park Inn ( zionparkinn.com). Yes, it’s a Best Western, but put out of your mind any images of dreary chain hotels. Clean and modern rooms mean tourists can sleep well after adventuring in Zion. To get ready for the next day’s travels, rooms include a breakfast buffet at the on-site Switchback grill, complete with a live-action egg station (for hungry hikers, this means a lot). The dining room itself is impressive, with bare timbers and enormous, west-facing windows that the staff opens on pleasant days. Best Western’s owner, Mike Marion, embodies the dichotomy of this rural Utah destination. A practicing Mormon, Marion followed in the footsteps of LDS Prophet Joseph Smith by getting into the hotel business. Likewise, when he acquired the rights to the town’s only state liquor store. Adjacent to the liquor store is Switchback Jack’s, the best (and only) sports bar in town. Marion observes the more traditional side of his LDS roots at Springdale’s Mormon church. A pretty brick building, the “Visitors Welcome” sign out front is most definitely observed. About half of Springdale’s residents are Mormon, and on Sundays, the pews are packed with locals and tourists alike. According to Marion, on major holidays like Easter, attendance can be more than 80 percent tourists.
[HEAR MORE: Get inside tips on great Zion hikes on " KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Of course, everything winds its way back to Zion. For those looking to do more in Zion than a few day hikes, the place to go is Zion Adventure Company ( zionadventures.com). It’s the one-stop shop for all things Zion — from equipment rentals to guided trips to backcountry shuttles. But their most valuable service has no price: Nobody in Springdale knows more about Zion than these people. But like everyone else in town, they’re genuinely enthused about sharing their love of the park with the tourists from around the world who discover on Zion’s doorstep a very big small town.
Take a hike already
Accessible and awesome, Zion is pretty grand, too
Though Zion Canyon may not be as massive as its “Grand” neighbor to the south, the amazing features of Zion are much more accessible. Zion’s main attraction is The Narrows, where the Virgin River lets hikers “wade in the shade,” fording upstream beneath cliffs more than 1,000 feet high and as little as 20 feet apart. To get an aerial view of the canyon, test your nerves on Angels Landing, an isthmus of sandstone with 1,500-foot cliffs on three sides. Similar views can be had across the canyon at Observation Point, where hikers need strong legs instead of steady ones — it’s an extra 700 feet of climbing, but not nearly as dangerous. For a short, family-friendly adventure, check out Weeping Rock, a permanent spring that drips water like rain from an overhanging cliff. Tip: Weeping Rock can be hiked at night, providing sweeping views down canyon with a backdrop of stars. AG
Save the dates
Sights, sounds and events in the Zion area this fall and beyond
Adventurous racers can test themselves with a 1,500-meter swim in the reservoir at Sand Hollow State Park, a 20-mile bike ride amid shifting sand dunes and red sandstone, followed by a 10k back through the park. Sept. 14, St. George, bbsctri.com/kokopelli
See a play or hear a concert with the most beautiful set imaginable — Utah’s Color Country. The natural amphitheater is nestled into the rocks near Snow Canyon State Park and boasts everything from “Mary Poppins” to “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Performances throughout fall, tuacahn.org
Utah Shakespeare Festival
This month’s offering is the historical drama “Richard II.” Also on tap are “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a musical set in a 1950s high school, and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which tells the backstory of Peter Pan. Performances through Oct. 19, bard.org
Zion Canyon Music Festival
This free, two-day concert event is held in Springdale, and hosts a variety of live bands, local foods and brews, arts & crafts and a kids’ zone. Acts on this year’s bill include the Hollering Pines, We Are Mirrors and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Sept. 27-28, zioncanyonmusicfestival.com