Just as Watchman Peak is Zion’s iconic sunset landmark, the Towers of the Virgin are the park’s notable sunrise image. I had read that when the predawn light begins to illuminate the cluster of peaks something almost magical can happen. The warm-colored rocks seem to glow from within, and when contrasted with the deep blue of the dawn sky, the scene is an amazing sight. You can be sure I was on location with time to spare.
Only problem was, the sun didn’t make an appearance. Heavy, overcast skies. No light. Oh well. Maybe tomorrow.
An hour or so later, wouldn’t you know, the sun did break through and the rest of the day was brilliant. With breakfast behind us, we set out to take in Zion’s most notable landmarks—some would be seen from the road, others we would hike to.
Free to drive along the Canyon Road, it’s amazing what can be seen even through your windshield.
The Mormon settlers who pioneered southern Utah from the 1850s to the 1860s thought the canyon was heaven sent. They gave it the biblical name of Zion and many of its natural features have spiritual titles—The Great White Throne, Angel’s Landing, Altar of Sacrifice, Temple of Sinawava, Towers of the Virgin. By 1863, a few families established farms within the valley, but sporadic flooding of the river kept it from being heavily settled.
After his first expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869, John Wesley Powell came through Zion Canyon in 1872, calling it Mukuntuweap, from the Paiute word meaning “straight canyon”. Encouraged to protect this unique location, President Taft set aside 16,000 acres for Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, noting the “labyrinth of remarkable canyons with highly ornate and beautifully colored walls, in which are plainly recorded the geological events of past ages.”
In 1918 its name was changed to Zion and a year later Congress designated it as a national park. Another 36,000 acres were set aside in conjunction with Zion by President Roosevelt, and those acres were incorporated into the park in 1956.
Landmarks rise sharply from the valley floor. Extraordinary columns of vertical rock, formed millions of years ago, show brilliant colors within the sandstone. Easily accessible, it is no wonder that Zion is Utah’s most visited national park.
One of the most recognized landmarks in the park, the Court of the Patriarchs (individually known as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Peaks), rise about 2,000 feet above the valley. Knowing that the morning sun strikes their facades, we made it our first stop. Easily seen from the road, I wanted a more intimate view. We followed the Sand Bench Trail up to their bases.
The Great White Throne is a singularly impressive monolith rising more than 2,300 feet above the canyon floor with an elevation of 6,744 feet. Historic brochures used a photo of it as the cover. A Methodist minister gave it the name in 1916 while on a trip to Zion.
The road built in 1916 was redesigned in the early 1930s by the National Park Service to highlight the natural features of the valley while presenting a natural-appearing construction. The design uses local materials such as red sandstone and rustic construction techniques as was fitting to the 1930s Park Service policy of naturalistic design. The road begins at the south boundary of the park and ends at the Temple of Sinawava. And what a drive it is!
At road’s end you will see yet again another landmark of Zion’s—the Temple of Sinawava—
a vertical-walled natural amphitheater nearly 3,000 feet deep.
Referring to the coyote god of the Paiute Indians, Sinawava is located at the end of Zion Canyon. The Pulpit rises in the middle of a cove formed by the river.
This is the gateway to the Narrows. It is the most popular spot in Zion.
It is also the trailhead for the Riverside Walk which follows the bank of the Virgin River, offering magnificent views along the way. The clear turquoise water cascades over rocks and boulders, sandy areas along the water’s edge entice you to take off those hiking boots and soak awhile, or enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade of a Cottonwood tree. In the fall, the foliage turns brilliant colors, adding yet another element to highlight the soaring sandstone cliffs.
No one could accuse us of wasting any time on our second day in Zion. Perhaps we didn’t delve deeply into any one aspect of the park, but we did get a thorough overview of what was here. We did the highlights. We know what we’d choose if the weather gods give us one more good day. But clouds moving in at the end of this day portend otherwise. It’s something veteran travelers learn to accept—you might have a lot of control over your destiny, but weather conditions aren’t one of them. Learn to make the best of what you’re given.
I had a strong feeling that our few remaining mornings wouldn’t get much better than the one we woke up to our third day in Zion. Maybe things would change, and I’d get a good one, but I wasn’t counting on it. It wasn’t raining (or snowing), so once again I packed up and headed to that special morning location in the early pre-dawn hour.
The peaks that comprise the Towers of the Virgin in Zion are illuminated by alpenglow about a half hour before sunrise. The peaks, including the West Temple, Sundial and Altar of Sacrifice, all rise more than 3,500 feet from the valley floor. West Temple, the tallest, rises to an elevation of 7,810 feet. Of course, it should go without saying that heavily overcast skies won’t produce alpenglow. On the plus side, I had the spot to myself and didn’t have to jockey for position among other photographers. My waiting paid off as the sun broke through for barely an instant, giving soft light to the colors of the sandstone peaks. Too late for that special lighting; nonetheless, it captures a mood.
And later, the skies opened up. The rain came down. Breakfast at the Zion Lodge helped to boost our spirits. Rebuilt in 1992 after a fire burned down the former lodge built in 1925, it remained faithful to the original, incorporating stone, wood and slate. Large windows look out over towering palisades of the Canyon. An outdoor patio has the same great view with a natural ambiance to go with it. In better days, that is.
You can’t count on seeing many waterfalls in Zion. The Emerald Pools collection usually produces waterfalls year round, but others are much dependent on rainfall and snowmelt. Late spring through early fall—forget it. But in the rainy month of March it’s a different story. Streams flowing on the high plateaus produce ephemeral falls dropping hundreds of feet into the Valley below. A real treat to find them, knowing how rare was the opportunity.
A paved trail leads to the Lower Emerald Pools falls—a popular place under better conditions. Named for their greenish tint caused by algae growth, the pools hold water year round. Continuing up the trail, the Middle and Upper Falls have more to offer. That is, if the trail isn’t closed due to unsafe, water-logged conditions.
At the Temple of Sinawava, a seasonal tributary of the Virgin River plunges from the canyon rim during spring runoff and after heavy rains. A very picturesque sight, except when you’re working in the pouring rain with wet feet and frozen fingers. Nevertheless, I bagged another one.
Our stay at Zion was ending. Tomorrow we would be driving towards home. For tonight, we were heading back to camp to dry out and warm up, when conditions suddenly changed. I understand that can happen here at Zion—you never know what the light will do. It can be very fleeting. We had to be quick—stop the car, grab the camera—another moment frozen in time. As fast as it came, the light disappeared. We packed up and called it a day.
Our last morning was the coldest. We awoke to see snow-dusted peaks. Another mood of Zion’s, having as much impact as our previous clear days. Just a different side to an ever-changing, photogenic place. Not much time to spend with the camera, but I managed to catch the atmosphere of this day. Maybe not one of Zion’s iconic scenes . . . but then again, does Zion have a bad side? Not from my perspective. And therein lies the attraction.
By the time we were hooked up and ready to leave, low-hanging clouds were moving in. Those snow-capped peaks were quickly disappearing and soon would be hidden from view. No parting shots. Until . . .
Yes! I got a last one.
Good by, beautiful Zion . . .
. . . we’re setting a course for home.
Melinda and Chris
–until our next trip.