Magical Zion National Park

Deserts aren't just mean endless stretches of bleak, blazing sands. These ecosystems pulsate with life, and if you keep your eyes open, you might spot a jackrabbit or lizard, or even a coyote or chuckwalla.

Deserts are at their most dazzling in the spring. Wildflowers carpet the terrain in showy color, and sometimes, the starkest and most unlikely looking cactus produces the most flamboyant blossoms. Trips to the desert in the spring are always educational and inspirational, as well as rugged outdoor fun.

Though ancestral Puebloan people inhabited Zion Canyon around the time of Christ, and much later a small tribe of Paiutes called the canyon "Mukuntuweap," it was a biblical name given by Mormons that stuck. This narrow, curving gorge, nearly 25 miles long, inspired the name Zion, meaning "the heavenly city of God" or "a place of refuge."

To give things an earthly perspective, it is said that the canyon, which is near Springdale, Utah, is so narrow at its upper end that two men with arms fully outstretched can reach from one wall to the other. Don't let your children test out this theory, but do let them marvel at the concept that the Virgin River, even at its most placid and meandering, continues to slowly, inexorably carve the canyon ever deeper.

Stash a supply of pencils and paper in case anyone in the family is inspired to compose verse while gazing upon the sandstone cliffs, which rise 3,000 feet from the valley floor. Watercolors, pastels or markers might help to capture the cliffs, colored in shades of vermilion.

This is a park to explore by any means necessary — car, foot, bike, even horseback. By car, you can get the big picture — the great stone monoliths, the grand canyon views. Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, you ascend from lower Zion to the high plateaus to the east. In fact, two narrow tunnels let you literally climb "through" the massive walls to the top of the canyon.

Make Sure to Walk

But make sure to get out of the car and walk, even if it's only a short, stroller-accessible trail. Weeping Rock, an easy half-hour hike, brings you to the springs that drip through the porous rock, shedding tears that give the trail its name and watering the lush hanging gardens. To reach a pool and three waterfalls, take the easy 1½-hour Lower Emerald Falls Trail, especially in spring when the waterfalls roar and the park is ablaze with wildflowers.

While your personal experience at Zion National Park (www.nps.gov/zion/) will surely be larger than life, the IMAX film Treasure Of The Gods provides a dramatic counterpoint and another perspective on your day at the park. It's also a way to visit places you could never reach on your own — and safely enjoy such phenomena as flash floods along the way.

Many visitors spend one to two days at Zion as part of a circuit that includes Bryce Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/brca/), Lake Powell (www.page-lakepowell.com/) and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (www.nps.gov/grca/). In fact, this southwest corner of Utah, known as "Color Country," claims to have America's largest concentration of natural scenic wonders, all within 150 miles. Las Vegas is a popular point of entry for the 120-mile drive to Zion.

Accommodations

For accommodations within Zion's boundaries, book five to six months in advance at the 120-unit Zion Lodge. Call 435-772-3213 for reservations or more information.

Just outside the park, in Springdale, try the year-old Zion Park Inn (www.zionparkinn.com/ )(800-934-7275), which has a pool and jacuzzi.

Flanigan's Inn (www.flanigans.com/ )(800-765-RSVP), a hand-crafted complex with 39 rooms and indoor-outdoor dining in a setting of natural wood and rock walls, includes a complimentary continental breakfast buffet. A larger choice of accommodations is available in the Utah cities of Hurricane, 30 miles away, or St. George, 45 miles from Zion.

Please note that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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