Cliffs and Canyon at Utah's Zion Park

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah - Late each winter, when the snow gets sloppy and the streams get muddy, the same thought begins creeping ever more insistently into my mind: I need green. I need warm. I need spring.

That feeling often demands beaches. But when it hit last winter, a different vision commanded - desert, slickrock cliffs and sheer monoliths. That meant southern Utah. And in southern Utah, there is no place better for a spring getaway than Zion National Park.

Zion is located in Utah's southwest corner, the part of the state that Utahns call Dixie, where the early leaders of the Mormon church kept their winter homes. It is here that spring arrives first.

The grass was still brown when we left our home in Montana in early April, headed south on Interstate 15. But as we descended the last stretch toward Zion, dropping from mountains into valleys, canyon walls soaring beside us until we reached the Virgin River, we could feel spring engulfing us.

Cottonwoods lined the river bank, flaunting fresh green leaves that swayed in the breeze over acres of brilliant green grass. Wildflowers were in riotous bloom under the warm desert sun. Kids on spring break splashed in the still-frigid river. Desert this may be, but after a long winter it was a welcoming oasis.

Established in 1919, Zion was Utah's first national park. The state hosts some of the nation's most spectacular parks - Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon - but Zion bows to none of them in its magnificence.

The park is part of the Grand Staircase, a huge geological formation on the Colorado Plateau. Layers of sedimentary rock have been lifted, tilted and eroded. Its colorful cliffs stretch from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon.

The scale of the staircase is enormous: The sedimentary rock layers were 10,000 feet thick before erosion began carving. The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon. (The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a separate park in Utah, is part of the formation.)

As the thousands of feet of sedimentary rock were lifted over the millennia, swift streams cut downward, forming the region's famous canyons. The main canyon in Zion, center of park activity and the focus of our visit, was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River.

It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000 to 3,000 feet high that draw rock climbers who savor big walls. Climbers can often be spotted camped in mid-ascent, their sleeping platforms suspended from pitons.

The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30 to 40 feet wide.

The canyon used to be overwhelmed by traffic during the spring and summer, bringing noise, pollution and endless frustration for visitors who could find nowhere to park. The National Park Service responded by beginning a mandatory shuttle bus system in the year 2000.

During the summer months - April through October - the heart of the Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles. Visitors board free propane-powered shuttle buses near the entrance station to complete their journey into the park.

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