When the original Mormon settlers in southwest Utah saw the fantastically shaped 3,000-foot sandstone cliffs that formed the canyon of the north fork Virgin River, just north of present-day Springdale, they decided the terrain resembled Zion, the heavenly city described in the Old Testament.

Mormon leader Brigham Young, hearing that the flock he’d sent down south was openly calling an earthly place Zion, rode down as fast as he could from Salt Lake City to see for himself. Young toured the canyon, nodding in wonder at all its spectacular forms. But in the end, he said that “as beautiful as this place is, it is notZion.” Then he returned north.

Obedient to Young’s wishes, but still won over by the canyon’s ethereal beauty, the settlers promptly began referring to the place as “Not Zion.” The federal government, wishing to avoid getting caught in the middle of an internal Mormon argument over nomenclature, wisely decided to call Zion “Mukuntuweep” (Paiute for “sacred cliffs”) when Congress declared the area a national monument in 1909. By the time Mukuntuweep was elevated to national park status in 1919, Young’s harrumph had been forgotten and the Feds named the place “Zion” with few protests.

What Congress had set aside was 229 square miles of a deeply eroded plateau at the extreme northeastern end of the Mojave Desert. The primary agent of erosion, the little Virgin River, was a feisty watercourse that, abetted by thousands of years of flash floods and heavy spring runoffs, had sliced down through Navajo sandstone by tossing boulders and propelling massive volumes of grit down its narrow channel. As the Virgin widened its bed horizontally, tributary streams began making vertical incisions into the surrounding cliffs.

By the time the Mormons arrived, the Virgin had created a valley flanked by water-hewn monoliths and long, high ramparts in a palette of blazing colors – orange, carnelian, vermilion, pink, gold, ivory and rust. Some people later called it “a Yosemite with colors,” and the analogy worked in many ways. Not only was Zion’s narrow valley imposingly high and sculpted like Yosemite’s, it too boasted seasonal waterfalls that plunged 1,000 or more feet. And, like Yosemite’s El Capitan and Half Dome, Zion’s Great White Throne and Court of the Patriarchs gave the park similarly memorable landmarks.

But there were differences, too. Zion’s canyon was shorter and narrower, ending at a cleft, rather than a wall of granite, where the Virgin, now only yards wide, was contained by still resistant walls. And where Yosemite was blanketed by conifers, Zion’s trees were mostly broad-leafed cottonwoods clustered along the Virgin in small groves on narrow bench lands.

People came to see that while Zion could be compared in some ways to other national parks – Yosemite’s vertical scale, Bryce’s colors, Grand Canyon’s displays of erosion – it is in the end a park like no other. The mental echoes it inspires among travelers are soon forgotten as it reveals its own unique, inimitable qualities. For even the most hurried or casual traveler, there are certain highlights to this park that shouldn’t be missed.

Take the shuttle ride up Zion Canyon – Several years ago the National Park Service banned cars from Zion’s main road and replaced private transportation with open-air shuttles that run regularly along its 6.2-miles. The shuttle starts at the Visitor Center on the park’s south end, just across the line from the town of Springdale, and makes nine stops along the way to its turnaround at the Narrows of the Virgin. You can get off at any one of the stops and pick up another shuttle when you’re ready.

See the vista of the Court of the Patriarchs – On stormy days, with their summits cloaked in roiling clouds, these three pyramid-shaped peaks call to mind Mt. Sinai or any place where the divine is said to have come down to communicate with humanity. The steepness, color and symmetry of this landmark ensemble makes it one of the most beautiful and popular in the park.

Stop to explore Zion Park Lodge – The original lodge burned down in 1966, but was later lovingly restored. Like most lodges at the great western parks, this building’s combination of wood, stone and rustic design instantly puts guests at ease and in the mood for long talks by the fireplace at night or reading a summer novel on the veranda.

Have a picnic at The Grotto – Just north of the lodge, the Virgin has laid down a broad bench of fertile soil, the perfect place for a large grove of cottonwoods to take root and create a very nice spot for lunch or a sit-down snack. It’s an easy stroll to the river, and the east side of the area is bordered by tall sandstone cliffs. Rest here long enough and you’ll easily meet people from almost every continent and most states of the Union.

Visit Weeping Rock – Despite the Virgin’s raging flows after the spring melt or a summer monsoon rainstorm, water is not an abundant commodity at Zion. The park’s high desert location keeps it dry throughout much of the year. So the glistening year-round wetness of Weeping Rock makes this one of visitors’ favorite stops.

This alcove, a vertical rock face sheltered under a ledge, is fed by water that drips from the overhang. Rainwater that landed decades ago on a sandstone summit far above has patiently worked its way down, finally emerging as a steady patter of drops that feeds mosses, small plants and algae in abundance. Weeping Rock is a cool, shady, endearing little oasis, made all the more precious by the vast size of the arid spaces beyond it. 

Contemplate the Great White Throne from the turnout just past Weeping Rock – The Great White Throne (named by a Methodist minister after a phrase in biblical Book of Revelation), so called because it’s composed of light sandstone that lacks the iron content of its neighbors, soars 2,400 above the canyon floor and is probably Zion’s most distinctive formation. Its shape reminds some of the extremely steep great pyramid at Tikal. Looking back at the Great White Throne from your vantage, with the Virgin making a wide loop below you, you are in the very heart of the park, amid high walls and wild rock. The view here will give you one of your most sublime moments at Zion.

Walk up the Narrows of the Virgin – The road ends shortly beyond the Great White Throne at a spot where the Virgin River squeezes out from between the high walls of a very narrow canyon. You can easily wade the river here in summer and even clomp upstream toward the Narrows, a section where the canyon walls are less than 20 feet apart. The thrill is here is knowing that a sudden squall further upcountry could produce a flash flood. Several people have died over the years in the Narrows, helpless before a surge of water trying to fit through so constricted a space.  

Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway – In 1931, some very brave and imaginative engineers designed a road that would connect Zion to the east, allowing people to avoid a 100-mile detour. The road had to zig-zag its way up a steep canyon, then bore through a mile of rock. While digging the tunnel, the builders cleverly solved two problems at the same time when they burrowed perpendicularly to punch out a series of windows alongside the tunnel. The windows not only provided ventilation and some natural light, they were convenient places through which workmen could shove all the rock they’d blasted while tunneling. (Within a year, Pine Creek, the little canyon waterway they dropped their debris on, had managed to shove the rocks all the way downstream to the Virgin River.)

This highway is one of the national parks’ E rides. There’s not only the fun of negotiating its outlandish switchbacks, it opens up great views as it climbs (or descends). The tunnel windows make you gasp in appreciation at what men with simple tools, some imagination and a lot of grit could build. Best of all, if you can arrange to drive this route on a moonless night, stop in the middle of the tunnel and turn your headlights off. It’s so dark you won’t be able to see your hand. Kids can’t get over how dark darkness can be (and adults get a kick out of being reminded how neat it is to be amazed.)

If you have more time or can travel whatever time of year you want:

  • Walk or bike the canyon. Nature designed our senses to be most efficient at slow speeds. Sauntering or rolling leisurely through this landscape adds immeasurably to your experience.
  • See Zion in winter – the combination of bright snow atop red rock under a deep blue sky is a wonder. Besides, almost nobody else is here. If solitude amidst beauty is your thing, winter will be the season of your content.
  • Hike the trails above the canyon. That assumes you are reasonably buff and prepared. The heights can be dizzying, and sections of the trails can be steep and even slippery. The beauty of the views here compare to Glacier Point in Yosemite and Going to the Sun Road in Glacier.
  • Visit Kolob Canyon – The northwest section of Zion, which you must take an interstate highway part way to access, has a beautiful section of white and buff-colored formations in Kolob Canyon. This is a day trip and you may want to combine it with a visit to the little college town of Cedar City further north, which often has plays or other cultural events going on.
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