Today, we are back in Indiana. Our winter in the Southwest is now in the past; this collection of posts is nearly finished. In composing the blogs about this trip, I have used a lot of superlatives to describe the places we visited. All of those adjectives could easily apply to this final destination. It was that good. It was, in hindsight, simply the icing on our cake, the crème de la crème, the piece de resistance. This post and its photos must be sent out.
It doesn’t happen gradually. We’d been driving through rugged country ever since getting off the interstate, leaving the town of St. George, Utah several miles behind. Mostly open range country, the land was high desert, scrub brush with little shade. The northeastern fringe of the Mojave Desert. Distant mountains on the horizon. Otherwise, unremarkable. A roadside sign informed us the park entrance was just a dozen miles away. From what I was expecting to see, the landscape needed to change . . . in a big way . . . any time. It didn’t happen until nearly the last moment. We took a turn in the road and the view pretty much hit us smack in our windshield. Whoa! Incredible rocks. In colors that shouted out at you. There’s no easing in to this national part. Even before you arrive at the entrance gate, you get a very good sampling of what is in store for you. Zion National Park makes a statement at the get-go. You can’t help but be impressed.
It’s been called “Yosemite Valley in Technicolor,” but except for the towering rock formations, there are very few similarities. Both are deep, steep-walled canyons, but Yosemite was carved by glaciers, Zion is the result of eons of river erosion. Yosemite might have the dramatic natural landmarks, but Zion has a myriad collection of hanging valleys, slot canyons, blunt peaks and rock palisades in nearly every direction you care to look. And then there’s the colors of Zion—shades of red, oranges rust and rose of the sandstone rock that contrast vividly to the green foliage. Zion is, simply, a feast for your eyes.
The day we pulled in was as perfect as you could ask for. Spring is a great time for Zion, and although we were too early for the flowers that peak in May, we would be missing out on the bug season too. With summer temperatures reaching 100 degrees, our daytime highs would be in the 60s. Great hiking temps. March can have unpredictable weather—anything from snow and sleet to warm and sunny. It is normally the rainiest month. But we had a window of good weather for the coming days—would it be enough to satisfy us? We could only hope.
We headed into the park, still not totally prepared for the visual onslaught that would confront us. With each swing in the road we were met with a striking landmark. Imposing formations. Wondrous colors and patterns. Overwhelmed doesn’t describe our reactions. More like incredulous disbelief.
Rising in Utah’s high plateau country, the Virgin River carves its way to reach the lower desert elevations further south. After it flows through a canyon so deep and narrow that sunlight has trouble shining down, the canyon widens and the river begins to run a gauntlet of high palisade walls topped with slickrock peaks and hanging valleys still being carved by tributaries of the Virgin River. Unlike the Grand Canyon where you stand on the rim and look out, Zion Canyon is usually viewed from the bottom looking up. It is a breathtaking perspective, which cannot possibly be fully conveyed by mere photographs.
Although it’s only one section of the park, Zion Valley is undoubtedly its heart. Cutting through 2,000 feet of an ancient, layered sea bed, the North Fork of the Virgin River is still carving this incredible multi-colored canyon. This is what the vast majority of visitors come here to see.
The road through Zion Valley gives access to spectacular sights as well as many trailheads. When visitor numbers begin to climb as the peak season approaches, the road is closed and a shuttle system begins.
From April through October no private vehicles are allowed to drive through the canyon. Another perk for us, coming in March—the hoards hadn’t arrived and we could access the road, stopping for photo ops at our leisure. Early in the morning, the road was my private driveway.
As perfect as the day was, still we were under a sort of “weather gun.” Inclement weather was in the forecast. We would have two perfect days of ideal conditions, and then the virtual bottom was to fall out. We could only hope that less-desirable conditions wouldn’t hang around long. In the meantime, we needed to hit the ground running. Set up camp in record time (easy to do with an Airstream), and then head out for a trail I had been salivating over ever since reading about it. And getting to the trailhead would be half the fun.
Travel to the area before it was a national park was rare due to its remote location, lack of accommodations, and the absence of real roads in southern Utah. Old wagon roads were upgraded to the first automobile roads starting about 1910, and touring cars could reach Zion Canyon entering from the south by the summer of 1917. Still, the “road” was a single-lane dirt track that extended about three-quarters into the canyon. In 1925, the “Government Road” became gravel-surfaced and was extended to The Narrows. In 1931 work began on constructing a new alignment of the road, which remains to the present day.
Work on the Zion—Mt. Carmel Highway, which would connect Zion Canyon with the high plateau upcountry, started in 1927. When completed, it would make reliable access to the east side of the park possible. The road opened in 1930 and park visitation greatly increased. The most famous feature of this road is the 1.1-mile-long tunnel, which has 6 large windows cut through the massive sandstone cliff. Unique to tunnels, these galleries provide ventilation and light, as well as a means to dump rock that was generated during construction.
Our trailhead was located on the other side (east) of the tunnel. It was an uphill drive of a few miles, the road switchbacking up the rocky cliffs, gaining several thousand feet of elevation along the way. But the views were worth it, and fortunately there were scenic pull-offs to accommodate my insistence for taking photo stops.
The Canyon Overlook Trail leads to one of the park’s best high elevation viewpoints. After an initial elevation gain, and circumventing some rock faces via a man-made suspended boardwalk, the view you will earn is facing an impressive vista of red cliffs topped by white domes and plateaus. The road taken to reach this trail is easily seen in the foreground.
It is a vantage point to savor awhile . . . seeking out a comfortable spot and soaking up the scenery (or not).
The plateau area of Zion has its own character and look—different from the Canyon, but no less compelling. Having made the drive and taken the tunnel to arrive here, we chose to stay and see more, to follow the road to the park’s east entrance and take in these views. With the afternoon light behind us, and cumulus clouds sweeping overhead, our photos illustrate we made a good decision.
The fascinating aspect of Zion’s high plateau region is perhaps the layers of sedimentary formations. Remnants of long-buried sand dunes, strata of rock eroded and etched with grooves and cracks, dip and curve over the landscape. The Navajo sandstone displays a variety of textures and flowing lines in a wonderful range of reds, oranges, apricots and pinks. Another delight for your eyes. And endless possibilities for the photographer and artist.
Going down from the plateau is just as scenic as the drive up. You just need to know where and when to look, which is expecting a lot on account of the panoramic views in all directions. But there’s one horseshoe curve along the road where you need to look west—and be prepared to pull over. This is a view you need to stop for. In this park of exquisite beauty, where you’ll see breathtaking formations around every bend in the road, the view of West Temple from this location is extraordinary. The highest peak in the canyon, its prominent shape can be seen from many angles. But here, framed by the nearby hillsides, it truly is the centerpiece. Its soft pastel coloration against a turquoise sky epitomizes the hues of the Southwest. It is a memorable view, however you might perceive it.
We didn’t want to see an end to this incredible day. Before the sun set behind the towering monolithic rocks, we turned onto the Canyon Road to drive a little farther into the canyon. We saw sights the likes of which we had never before experienced. We pulled over to soak up each monumental view. We attempted to capture scenes with cameras, knowing even as we did it would never capture the “real life” experience. Nonetheless, we were bound to try.
With sensory overload, we retraced our route back down the canyon. The evening was coming on, and our campsite would be waiting. Headed toward the South Entrance, Canyon Road makes one crossing over the Virgin River. It is there, on that bridge, where arguably the most iconic view of Zion Park is seen. Watchman Peak is one of Zion’s most recognized features. Sitting prominently above the South Entrance, this giant rock buttress is the southern portion of a jagged ridgeline that runs on the east side of Zion Valley. And sunset is the prime photo op. Photographers lined up along the bridge’s railing give evidence of that. You can be sure I was counted among them.
So ended our first day at Zion. Making every moment count, our rewards had been great. We returned to camp—the Watchman Campground is appropriately located in the shadow of massive Watchman Peak. Having 176 sites with electricity, sites are reserveable from March through November. We were fortunate to have one of the handful of sites located along the Virgin River, within earshot of its constant flow.
Anxious to see what tomorrow will bring,
Melinda and Chris