Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adventures In Zion Plus An Award Booking Tip

Two weekends ago, I did a quick backpacking trip through Zion National Park, Utah. With all the international travel I do, it's sometimes easy to forget that there are some pretty amazing sights to see here at home. I've always had a thing for the outdoors, and this quick 3-day hop was the perfect answer for getting out of the hustle and bustle of city life.

In addition, this trip was sort of a fulfillment of a childhood dream of mine. When I was young, my parents bought a beautiful picture book detailing all of the national parks in the United States. I remember the one picture that really stood out to me was from Zion Narrows. The red-hued slot canyon seemed to literally engulf it's hikers, who were standing knee-deep in the Virgin River. This image stayed with me throughout the past 20 years, and I was very excited to finally be able to see it up close and in person.

The largest airport near Zion National Park is Las Vegas, although there is a closer municipal airport near the town of St. George, about 30 miles southwest of Zion. It is serviced by Skywest Airlines (Delta Connection), but flying into St. George isn't cheap. Thus, we decided it made much more sense to fly into Las Vegas, pick up our rental car, and do the quick 3-hour drive to Springdale, the small town right outside of Zion National Park.

Amazingly, when searching for airfare from San Jose, CA to Las Vegas, I realized that only Southwest Airlines services this direct route - which came as a big surprise to me. In any case, I used my newly minted Southwest Rapid Rewards points earned from their recent credit card offer to book a one-way ticket from SJC-LAS. I will talk about the return flight later in this post, as I used a lesser-known method to secure an award flight back.

This was the first time I flew out of the new Terminal B in San Jose, and I was very excited to take some pictures and explore the shops and restaurants. I'm happy to say that it is absolutely beautiful inside, and I'm very proud to call this my home airport (despite my love for SFO :)). There were sculptures and artwork, a large and efficient security check area, tons of seats with power outlets, and plenty of restaurants and shops showcasing some of the best of Silicon Valley. After seeing all this, I really do hope that SJC can continue to expand despite the economy and recent exodus of airlines from this hub.

The flight itself was very typically Southwest (despite not having flown them in more than 5 years), which I love and hate. I really do enjoy the friendly service, peanuts, and general efficiency of the airline, but I also really dislike the cattle-herding nature of their boarding process. But what really won me over was their no change fee and no baggage fee policy. These 2 things in itself saved me at least a good $100, as I changed the time of my flight a week before, and also had to check a large hiking backpack!

For the rest of the trip report about Zion National Park, I'll just do a quick description of the trail, and let the pictures do the talking. There are 3 ways to see the Zion Narrows, which is arguably the most famous of all the hikes in the park. Most people will do a quick day trip, starting at the Temple of Sinawava and hiking up about 3-4 miles to see the Wall Street section of the Narrows (the narrowest and probably most spectacular), then hiking back down the same way. This can be accomplished in a just a few hours. The 2nd method is for those who want to see the entire Zion Narrows. The top-down 16-mile trail is best done in 2 days, and there are backcountry permits available to reserve campsites along the river at around the half-way point. This is the method we chose to do. Be sure to reserve your permits online as early as possible, as you can do that up to 3 months in advance of your start date. Amazingly, for those who are extremely fit and capable, the 3rd way of seeing the Narrows is to do the entire 16-mile trail in one day. I would definitely not recommend this unless you have a lot of experience hiking and backpacking, as we realized once the hike started that it was a lot more strenuous than the map would have you believe!

The trail head for the 16-mile hike actually starts outside of the park at Chamberlain's Ranch. We booked a shared shuttle through the Zion Adventure Company, and they drive you from their office in Sprindale all the way there, with the one-way trip taking approximately 1h 30m. We also rented all our equipment from them as well, including the tent, water hiking shoes, neoprene socks, and hiking sticks. For those who don't know, the vast majority of the hike is in the Virgin River, with the river serving as the trail itself. During various parts of the year, the water level can go up to chest-deep... and through certain portions of the trail, we actually had to swim short distances (yes, with our backpacks on)!

Here are some pictures of the spectacular views we saw during our 2 days in Zion National Park. It was definitely some of the most amazing scenery I've ever witnessed in my life... and as always, pictures just don't do it any justice:

End of Canyon Overlook Trail

Zion Narrows trail head at Chamberlain's Ranch 

Hard to imagine the Virgin River starts as a little creek

Water hiking shoes, neoprene socks, and walking stick

Entering Wall Street

Sliver of sky

On the way back, we spent one night in Las Vegas. I've never really been a huge fan of Vegas since I don't gamble, and I don't really enjoy the party scene much, but since we were already there, I figured we should check out the new hotels at CityCenter. I ended up booking one night at Aria Hotel and Casino on Priceline for a decent $130. I have the say, the hotel itself was beautiful, but the rooms were actually kind of small compared to the newer-styled suites at the Palazzo or Wynn. The dinner buffet wasn't bad either.

Aria water wall

Lobby area

View from the room

Now for the return flight, there was a little tip I learned from reading travel blogs that I put to good use. I had already decided that I would be traveling to Cambodia and Laos in March 2012 for two weeks, and I found availability on Cathay Pacific from SFO-HKG-PNH using American Airlines AAdvantage miles. The good thing about AA award flights is that you can have one stopover at your gateway city in North America. Meaning, for example, if I were to book an award flight from DEN-SFO-HKG, I could have a stopover in San Francisco for as long as their schedule allows.

Using this knowledge, I went ahead and combined my return flight from Las Vegas (with a quick layover in LAX) with my departure flight to Cambodia next March. Thus, my entire award flight became LAS-(LAX)-SFO-HKG-PNH, with a 5-month layover in San Francisco ;). Using this method, I saved the miles I would have needed to book my return flight from Las Vegas, and just tagged this itinerary onto my Asia trip next year!

I will say, however, there is a slight risk involved with doing this, since once you start your award itinerary, you cannot cancel it for any reason. So if my plans change within the next 5 months and I can no longer go to Cambodia/Laos, then I will have forfeited all of my miles associated with the itinerary. Hence, fingers crossed that nothings happens between now and then!

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