Zion National Park

“Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.”
—Psalms 48:2

Since today is Easter, I think it only fitting that I kick off this week-long series of posts celebrating National Parks Week with Zion. I always thought this name was a long-established one going back to the Mormons who settled there in the 1800s, but Wikipedia tells me that the original national monument created by President Taft in 1909 used the Pauite name, Mukuntuweap, and it was only later changed to Zion before it became an official park in 1919. Intriguing.

In any case, as the name of the precarious Angels Landing (pictured above) hints at, Zion is certainly a spot where one might find oneself confronting the important questions in life, namely, whether to risk it all to get to a place called Angels Landing.

But I digress…

The Court of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
The Court of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Zion is often the first (or last) stop on what is referred to as the Grand Circle, a road-trip loop through southern Utah and northern Arizona that takes in six national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon) and Monument Valley. This circuit is a national park lover’s dream, and I had the good fortune to complete it just over five years ago with The Boys, my close friends from New York (who I see all too rarely these days). However, since Zion is only about two hours from Las Vegas, you could visit this park as a day trip from there.

If you want to stay near the park, the town of Springdale is right outside the gates. It’s cute with a number a great places to eat. We were pleasantly surprised. From Springdale, you can walk or grab a bus to the park entrance, and the park itself has a free shuttle system, so I highly encourage you to leave your car back at the hotel, or in Zion’s parking lot. I believe in the summer the park is completely closed to cars, though I don’t think it was for us in October.

On the day of our arrival, we took the shuttle the whole length of the canyon, making stops along the way to see sights (Weeping Rock, Court of the Patriarchs) and take short walks, such as the Riverside Walk to the Narrows and the Pa’rus Trail along the Virgin River, which served as a lovely evening stroll back to the south entrance.

Cactus on the Pa'rus Trail along the Virgin River
Cactus on the Pa’rus Trail along the Virgin River
The lush vegetation of the Weeping Rock grotto
The lush vegetation of the Weeping Rock grotto

I should perhaps explain that, unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is a canyon park where you travel along the bottom of the canyon, not the rim. The beauty of this, of course, is that when you hike, you hike up first, and the return is downhill. Nearby Bryce Canyon, which I will feature tomorrow, is the torturous opposite.

Heading upstream to the Narrows on the Riverside Walk
Heading upstream to the Narrows on the Riverside Walk

While you can see most of the highlights of the canyon from the viewpoints on the shuttle route, it’s nice to get out on the trails as well. We did just that on our second day, taking the West Rim Trail to Angels Landing. This section of the trail is only 2.5 miles, but it has a 1500 ft elevation gain, so it’s no picnic (though Scout Lookout near the top is a lovely spot for a picnic).

Walter's Wiggles, the twenty-one switchbacks that wind up to Scout Lookout
Walter’s Wiggles, the twenty-one switchbacks that wind up to Scout Lookout

The final half-mile from Scout Lookout to Angels Landing is not for the faint of heart. I tried to go up, but I turned around when I got to these chains…

The chains on the way to Angels Landing supposedly provide "security" for the exposed spots.
The chains on the way to Angels Landing supposedly provide “security” for the exposed spots.
Looking down at Big Bend from Scout Lookout on the West Rim Trail
Looking down at Big Bend from Scout Lookout on the West Rim Trail

Before this, I hadn’t realized I was scared of heights, but I most definitely am. I really shouldn’t have looked down. Lesson learned. [Side note: Only one of us dared go the whole way, so he is one who took the featured picture at the top of this post.*]

This tarantula we saw hiking back down was definitely less scary than Angels Landing
This tarantula we saw hiking back down was definitely less scary than Angels Landing

Despite this newly discovered weakness, Zion was one of my favorite parks on this trip. The water-rich environment of the canyon floor provides for an incredible array of flora and fauna and contrasts greatly with the desert environment one finds above, or in most of the other Utah parks. Also, I love a park that you can experience even with limited mobility. The shuttle service is incredibly well designed and run and it was great to not have to deal with our own or other cars. More parks should look into something similar.

As we exited the park on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, heading east to Bryce Canyon, we made one last stop to take the Canyon Overlook trail and get one last stellar view of the canyon. I highly recommend looking out for this parking area if you are coming from the east on Route 9. The trailhead is right before the tunnel and this road is not on the shuttle route.

Not quite as bad as seeing chains up ahead, but still. Luckily, the Canyon Overlook view is worth it.
Not quite as bad as seeing chains up ahead, but still. Luckily, the Canyon Overlook view is worth it.
One last look at Zion from the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail
One last look at Zion from the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail

Entry to Zion National Park is $25 per car for seven days. If you are doing more than one park, I recommend getting the annual parks pass, which is $80. The pass is good for a full year and can be used to cover the entrance or other fees at over 2000 federal recreation sites. For example, I can use mine to visit Muir Woods, which is just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.



*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos.

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