Spellbinding red-rock desert, dramatic canyons and high-altitude forests are just a few of the wonders to discover in Zion National Park in the state of Utah, USA. A visit last month showed me a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow that is almost too spectacular to believe.
Zion is the third most visited park in the USA for very good reason. It is large, accessible and downright dramatic. The few hours I spent in the park were clearly not enough. It deserves several days of your time.
Human use of the area dates back to at least 6,000 B.C. but it was not known outside the local area until Mormon pioneers arriving in the area in the 1860s. They were so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Zion Canyon and its surroundings that they named it after the Old Testament name for the city of Jerusalem.
In 1863, Issac Behunin built the first log cabin in Zion Canyon, near the location of the present Zion Lodge. Soon the canyon was dotted with other homesteads but these struggled to survive and were eventually abandoned.
The park is centred on Zion Canyon—24 kilometres long and almost 1,000 metres deep in places. The old riverside town of Springdale is the park’s primary gateway. The main street is flanked by scores of hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops, as well as outfitters and tour operators that arrange adventure activities in and around the park.
Pedestrian and vehicle bridges connect Springdale with the park Visitor Centre on the other side of the Virgin River. In addition to exhibits and information, the visitor centre is the southern terminus of the Zion National Park Shuttle, which is the only way to reach the heart of the canyon during summer when visitation peaks.
The first stop on the shuttle route is the Zion Human History Museum, which details the heritage of Native Americans and Mormon pioneers in the region. Entering the canyon, the shuttle makes seven stops, including historic Zion Lodge, a classic national park lodging opened in 1927. The park’s most celebrated landmark—the Great White Throne, a 500-metre-high rock face—can be seen from numerous places along the canyon road.
The road and shuttle route ends inside the Temple of Sinawava, a colossal natural amphitheatre. A riverside path continues to the Narrows, where the three-hundred metres-high canyon walls are sometimes just 7 to 10 metres apart.
I found Zion Canyon epic, and it is full of off-the-beaten path adventures and hidden gems, perfect for seeking out during the crowded summer high season. There are also plenty of activities other than hiking. You can choose between rock climbing and rappelling, helicopter and 4×4 tours, guided hikes along the Narrows, and tubing on the Virgin River downstream from the park.
Zion, is not without its myths and legends. The major one is that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid built a cabin hide-out in Zion Canyon but there is no evidence of this. Though Cassidy grew up in nearby Circleville, Utah, virtually all of his train and bank robberies occurred out of state, where quick hide-outs were necessary.
The park’s ecosystems support about 800 native plant species, including more flowers than anywhere else in Utah. With an elevation change of about 1,500 metres, a myriad of habitats and species thrive here. Plants vary, as fir, ponderosa pine, and aspen prefer the snowy high-country winters, while other plants flourish in the desert heat. Likewise, animal life is diverse. Tiny pinon mice, golden eagles, California condors, Mexican spotted owls, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions are all found in the park but I saw only a few of these.
Accommodation and eating
Historic Zion Lodge is the only in-park lodging at Zion National Park and it fills up fast. Accommodation is in historic cabins with two double beds, full bath, gas log fireplace and private porch, and in hotel rooms. All rooms have air conditioning, phones, radio alarm clocks and hairdryers. There are also three campgrounds where reservations are recommended. There are dozens of hotels near Zion National Park, ranging from family-friendly hotels with pools to exquisite bed and breakfasts in Springdale.
Non-guests can eat at the year-round Red Rock Grill at Zion Lodge and enjoy spectacular views of the surroundings, while outdoor dining is available at the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. Before or after touring the park, Springdale is the fuelling point for quick bites and leisurely meals.
Zion National Park is located 75 kilometres northeast of St. George, 500 kilometres south of Salt Lake City and 250 kilometres northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Most visitors will arrive by car, either their own or a rental but there are bus tours available from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Images: Phensri Rutledge