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Visiting Zion

Some tourists try to see seven national parks in seven days. Others spend a week more wisely, getting to know four discreet corners of one—Zion.

Towers of the Virgin in Zion National Park, image
Photo caption
The Towers of the Virgin brush up against clouds in Zion.
I took my place in line with the convoy of cars and RVs entering the main canyon of Zion National Park. How many were drive-through consumers?

Inside the park, the Towers of the Virgin blushed as they marched toward the fire-dipped Altar of Sacrifice. They were dwarfed by the domineering West Temple with its stately symmetry. The crusty Patriarchs held their own court. A little farther along Scenic Drive loomed the Great White Throne. An ashen beacon, it rose 2,000 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River. All this was within just seven miles.

Even before you're officially inside Zion, its ruddy complexion fills your eye. Wearing its drama on its sleeve, Zion encourages far too many breeze-through visits. In the seven digits yearly, from the world over, they come to view, shoot, and run. The rainbow sandstone of its cliffs and deep canyons stands for it. Zion fits discreetly into the "Grand Circle" of nearly two dozen national parks and monuments in southern Utah, among them Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Rainbow Bridge, and—across the border in Arizona—the Grand Canyon.

But Zion has much to distinguish it. Last fall I endured the rash of drive-through viewings in the main canyon, then discovered the spoils of three slower-paced areas in the park.

One: In the fast lane

Zion is a Jurassic park. Its rocks were laid down during dinosaur times. It's part of a geological staircase of mudstone, siltstone, and sandstone ascending as cliffs and terraces. The showy Navajo Sandstone comprises the majority of the landscape. Its windblown and hardened layers of sand range in color from deep burgundy through brown, tan, and pink, laced with every shade between.

The crowds pour into Zion's main canyon from the adjacent town, Springdale. The large visitor center and Cinemax theater along this route supplement the hasty overview.

The canyon's Scenic Drive ends at the Temple of Sinawava, a thick, rotund formation, and gateway to the Riverside Walk. The mile is easy along the river, the Virgin, responsible for slicing through and polishing the canyons of Zion. Its banks, shaded by Fremont cottonwood, willow, and velvet ash, end where the Narrows begin. The Narrows' vertical walls close in tightly and glisten like wet clay vessels just spun on a pottery wheel.

The famous top-to-bottom Narrows Hike starts 16 miles upstream and requires two days, a permit, and expert planning. The river is the route. From this end I got an idea of the water-sculpted gorge, sandstone arches, grottoes, and fluted walls that induce backpackers to take such a plunge.

It was a warm October day, but the water temperature was in the low forties—officially high danger for hypothermia. I could see a dozen or so hikers tempting fate in the smoky emerald water. So I chose my walking stick from a collection left at the start and tolerated the knee-high water for half an hour.

The Virgin was not without muscle this day, but a flash flood excites its real power. It rages muddy and silted, tossing trees and boulders like sticks and stones. Hikers don't even think of messing with it when flood warning's in effect.

Though wind and volcanoes contributed, water was the chief sculpting tool of Zion, which was a tropical flood plain millions of years ago. Two short hikes in the main canyon lead to lingering lushness and respite from the crowded canyon floor.

Less than a mile up a trail past oak, maple, Rocky Mountain juniper, and fir sits the first tier of Emerald Pools. Another mile up sits a higher pool at the base of a cliff wall painted by flowing minerals.

You reach Weeping Rock along a quarter-mile paved trail passing box elder, bigtooth maple, and canyon grapevines. The rocks, from on high, weep big "tears" of water that fall as a curtain of mist. Moss and ferns grow like hair from a crown of rock and a pond has formed beneath the ledge. I stood in the channeled-out rock behind the peaceful hanging garden and the falling sheet of water and saw Zion as a rain forest.

Although you can see many of Zion's distinguishing red rock formations from the canyon floor, it's from on high that you really sense the high opera of its architecture. I diverged from the popular East and West Rim hikes and sampled views along two other steep walks. Neither would be suitable for anyone with strong fear of heights.

Hidden Canyon is two steep miles round-trip, plus another strenuous mile if you hike the box canyon. Where the views and long drop-offs start a link-chain appears, though it's not necessary to hold on in dry weather. The side canyon at the end in a joint of rock was so narrow the noon sun was blocked out. Every fifty feet or so I scrambled up or scaled a 10- to 15-foot wall of rock, each level depositing me onto sandy terrain. Soon I realized that the rocks and woody debris I stepped around spoke of tumult: flash flood zone.

If you have time for only one rim hike, take Angels Landing. Its 2.5 miles of steep switchbacks deliver you to a long, narrow perch at 1,500 feet above the canyon floor, where you can see how the canyon widens southward. The drop-offs are on either side and the views are dizzying, generous, and unimpeded. The chains toward the end are necessary to hoist yourself up the steeply graded rock. Near the top, the brick masonry of switchback walls, done in 1924, is as tasteful as the terra cotta of an Italian villa. At the rim, a couple from England lent me their binoculars so I could discern what the moving specks on the sheer wall across the canyon were--just some climbers on ropes, loaded with gear, putting up for the night.

Notwithstanding the beauty of Zion's main canyon, the crowds can lead to nerve-wracking incidents such as the following. After a day exploring the canyon, I returned early evening to South Campground to find my site taken over by an RV. Dwarfed by this frightful heap, my spacious two-person tent seemed to cower and shrink. Deeply-lined faces scowled. The RVers said I had invaded their space. I pulled myself up to my full height to protest, but it seemed their RV did the same. Besides, it felt sacrilegious to bicker in a place with temples, altars, and angel perches. A kind ranger directed me to the lower Watchman Campground, where to my delight no RVs were permitted.

I slept fine under the craggy gaze of the Watchman. Next morning I found a wormhole into a simultaneous universe.

Two: Nature's Groovy Corner

Imagine, if you will, a 1.1-mile-long cocoon of rock. Drive into the darkness and minutes later emerge from the hard chrysalis into open slickrock country. The tunnel was completed in 1930 and connects the lower canyon of Zion with the high plateaus to the east.

Checkerboard Mesa is the most prominent feature here. Its crossbedding design is so orderly, it's hard to believe nature did this cracking and grooving herself. The mesa looks like a quilted slab of gray, rust, buff, and ocher stones.

I parked in pullouts along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway where there were no other cars and wandered the quiet side canyons and washes. In a busy view-area I met groups of young Italian and Czech men on driving adventures through the Southwest in American jalopies. Unfortunately, the Czech's old Chevy was seriously overheating due to the road's grade.

I also met Jim Katz, from California, teaching a photography workshop in Zion through University of California, Santa Cruz Extension. I joined Jim and his class in the wash under the bridge that spans Pine Creek, west of the tunnel. At first the wash looked rather plain. But as we sat on a sandy bank, the reflection of a red and yellow sandstone pinnacle saturated the still stream. The sun textured the wavy rock wall and deepened the beauty of a piece of driftwood. The cottonwoods caught the fire of sun and a bluish light filtered Pine Creek Bridge, which has, by design, every color of rock in the cliffs of Zion. The photographers had a field day here and east of the tunnel, where the Navajo Sandstone pastels contrasted with the brilliance of fall-colored maples and oaks.

But the best kept secret of Zion—the northwest entrance—was yet to come.

Three: Kolob Finger Canyons

At the edge of Zion's northerly Kolob Terrace, streams have carved the deep Kolob Finger Canyons. Forming a sort of amphitheater, they look more like bent knuckles. To get to them you enter Zion from the northwest, at exit 40 from I-15.

The richly red Finger Canyons, 1,600 feet deep, are more vivid than the masterpieces in the main canyon. The visitor center here is quiet and under-stated and you can pick up the self-guiding booklet for a driving tour of the Kolob area.

Or, three and a half miles from the visitor center, at Lee Pass, park with no problem and find my favorite hike in Zion--to the Kolob Arch. It's 14 miles round-trip and requires a permit if you intend to camp along the way. I did it in a day.

At this higher altitude I passed through sage flats, stands of pinyon and juniper, gold-tinged cottonwoods, blood-amber maples, and orange oaks. Prickly pear cactus, bearing wine-purple fruit, was past its prime. A few miles out, where Timber Creek met La Verkin Creek, I found cascades and springs. I squeezed through a shoulder-high willow thicket, then cotton grass.

Six and a half miles out, everything began to glow pink—the water, the sandy path, the vegetation, even me. The red canyon had narrowed when I turned into a tall ponderosa forest. Up and down steep banks, over entanglements of roots and boulders, I forded the low creek many times.

At last, steeped in storybook glow, I climbed atop an eight-foot-high boulder and looked around until an eyebrow of rock winked at me. Deep blue sky poured through the freestanding arch, which spans 310 feet.

I loved this quiet, overlooked area so much I came back my last day and hiked the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek to the Double Arch Alcove. This trail is only 2.7 miles one way, but it crosses the creek numerous times, goes through a thick maple forest, and passes the historic Larsen and Old Fife Cabins. You arrive at a large grotto suffused with that soft coral glow again.

The Kolob Canyon area is refreshingly free of large crowds. But there's a place in Zion where you can get even more solitude.

Four: For true believers only

The Kolob Terrace Road into Zion is an unremarkable but well-signed turn off State Highway 9 from Virgin. The sunlight is suddenly radiant and pure. The road, more than a five percent grade in areas, climbs the desert mesas and plateaus, past cottonwood and upland sage. The face of Zion changes. Dark basaltic lava flows are more apparent. Black cliffs contrast with the white and red sandstone elsewhere.

The narrow winding road climbs to Lava Point at 7,890 feet, and beyond to Kolob Reservoir. I found idyllic isolation 16 miles from Virgin. There I sat for a few hours in the shade of a juniper with birds, the changing light, warm winds. It was just the parking area of North Fork trailhead, which provides access to several backcountry routes in Zion. I saw no one for hours. Cars passed at long intervals.

I wandered briefly down the trail, which leads to Wildcat Canyon trail where there are shady ponderosa pine forests, aspen groves, grassy meadows, and Gambel oak.

I knew for sure this area attracted true believers in solitude, when a hiker, apparently coming off a long trip, went out of his way to avoid eye contact and any manner of greeting me, the only other human for miles. It was fine with me. Zion is supposed to be just this: a gathering place of true believers.

The short and long of driving Zion

By 1998 a compulsory shuttle bus should keep most tourist traffic outside of Zion's main canyon. Until then, a few pointers:

Consider visiting during the slower months, November to February. Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services Denny Davies says that Zion's main canyon, though cold, is still beautiful and much less visited then. A little snow may cover the canyon floor, and trails at low elevations are usually open, such as the Chinle, Huber, and Coalpits Wash.

If you go during peak months, take the shuttle alternative: From Zion Lodge inside the park, leave your car and hop the shuttle for $4. It runs every hour from 9 to 5 p.m. throughout the main canyon, for about 50 minutes with an interpretive guide.

Photography courtesy of John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.