The history books and Wikipedia will say that Utah is the 45th state, and that is true. But for me, on February 21, 2018, Utah became the 46th state in my quest to visit all 50 states! Originally we had planned only to attend a Road Scholar trip to Death Valley and the Valley of Fire the last week of February, but when I saw that the trip began in Las Vegas—which is a short drive from Zion National Park—adding a few days to check out Utah was a no-brainer!
We arrived in Nevada just before noon PT, following a very long trip that started at 3:00 AM ET. Neither of us had travelled to Las Vegas by air before, so the process for renting a car there was quite astonishing. We followed throngs of people to a bus stop where we boarded the last in a row of six full-size busses that ferried us from the airport to the rental car terminal. We thought the check-in would take hours with all those people, but we walked right up to the Alamo counter, and got our car as well as a recommendation to check out Bryce Canyon National Park, too, as long as we were going to be at Zion for a few days. That turned out to be really excellent advice.
The road trip from Las Vegas to Springdale, Utah was easy, and once we reached Arizona, quite scenic. Our jaws dropped when we arrived at our hotel, which nestles in between two canyon walls just south of the main entrance to Zion National Park. The view from our room was extraordinary and the hotel staff was extremely friendly, even providing a list of their favorite hikes upon check-in along with the times for sunset and sunrise and the best places to witness them in the canyon.
Views from our hotel! (Click on either image to enlarge.)
The next morning, we entered the park and hiked along the Pa’rus (Pah-roohs) Trail, which is one of two trails that start in close proximity to the Visitor Center. The flat, paved trail runs along the banks of the Virgin River, the body of water responsible for all the drama that created Zion Canyon. We took in the amazing views of the stratified canyon walls on either side of us as the seemingly peaceful, narrow river twisted and turned its way through the park. Seeing the size of the river and the geological sculpture for which it was responsible at times seemed incomprehensible.
Pa'rus Trail. Click on any image to enlarge.
After that out-and-back hike, we decided to try one of the hikes on the hotel staff’s list—the Canyon Overlook Trail. To get to the trailhead, we drove from the Visitor Center to the crossroads where the Pa’rus had ended and turned up the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. This road runs through the canyon and affords breathtaking views of the carved walls from various pullouts scattered along its many switchbacks. But before we could get to the Canyon Overlook trailhead, we had to drive through a mile-long tunnel with narrow lanes and a prohibition against pedestrians and bicycles! We mistakenly thought that successfully navigating the tunnel was our last white-knuckle adventure for the day. The trail itself proved somewhat frightening and death-defying in certain slippery locations above sheer drop-offs to the abyss, so at times we simply stuck close to the canyon wall and treaded very carefully along the narrow trail. Our feats of derring-do were rewarding with magnificent views of the canyon from above.
Zion Canyon. Click on any image to enlarge.
The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is also the road to Bryce Canyon National Park, so we decided to follow the Alamo employee’s advice and head up there for the afternoon. The weather changed along the way, and that, combined with the 4000 feet of elevation gain, led to a drastic drop in temperature at Bryce compared to Zion. Feeling our oats after having skirted the clutches of death earlier that day, we decided to check out Inspiration Point, on the advice of the park ranger at the entrance. Overlooking a forest of hoodoos, which look like they were created from a schoolyard of giants who let red sandstone mud drip through their clenched fists to form tall, towering sandcastles, the view from the point lived up to its name and inspired awe in each of us. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument appeared along the horizon to the east, adding to our sense of amazement about the formation of this part of the world.
Bryce Canyon National Park. Click on any image to enlarge.
We awoke the next day to a dusting of snow which, along with a bight blue sky, provided just the right contrast to cause the canyon’s colors to appear even more vibrant than the day before. The reds and oranges of the canyon walls looked brighter, while the greens of the trees and bushes looked deeper. After the long drives from the previous two days, we decided to limit ourselves to within Zion Canyon and hike the second of the two trails near the entrance to the park, the Watchman Trail. This trail winds its way up one of the park’s monoliths, and provides views of the lower part of Zion Canyon as well as the town of Springdale. We recognized from above some of the canyon features we had seen the day before on the Pa’rus Trail, and made some nice conversation with visitors from Wisconsin who offered some suggestions about where else to visit while they shared their cheese curds. (If you’ve never had a real, fresh Wisconsin cheese curd, don’t laugh…they are squeakily delicious!)
Watchman Trail. Click on any image to enlarge.
From there, we drove north on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, following the Virgin River. For the first time in two days, we actually experienced traffic and saw more than just three or four people at a time. We commented how miserable we thought we would be during the park’s heyday months of summer. The road ends at the Temple of Sinewava and the trailhead for the Riverside Walk. The trail hugs the walls of the canyon, which becomes more and more narrow as it approaches the iconic slot canyon of Zion National Park known as The Narrows. On this day, parts of Riverside Walk were slippery and icy, and large groups of icicles that had formed in the cold weather occasionally dropped off the cliffsides. I was reminded of a mystery I had read or seen on TV in which the supposed murder weapon ended up being an icicle that had fallen onto the victim, cutting through a major blood vessel, and then melting before investigators could figure out what had caused the fatal wound. I stayed away from the walls.
As I neared the end of the Riverside Walk, I passed several people in drysuits and waterproof shoes walking in the opposite direction. These intrepid hikers had traversed The Narrows in winter! I was content with my dry feet and warm clothes, but hope to return in another spring or autumn to experience that hike, which starts at the level of harder rock about 1200 feet higher than at the Riverside Walk’s terminus, so the canyons are narrower and deeper and gradually become shorter and wider as the canyon walls collapse.
The end of The Narrows/Riverside Walk. Zion National Park.
For our last full day at Zion National Park, we decided to check out the last two sections of the park we hadn’t yet seen—the Kolob Plateau and the Kolob Canyons. The only way to get to the Kolob Canyons from Zion Canyon is by leaving the park, heading north on Interstate 15, and re-entering the park at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center. This part of the park is on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, which includes Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks. The weather had cleared after the overnight snow (again), so we could see all the way to the Grand Canyon 100 miles away (as the raven flies) from the end of the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint Trail!
Kolob Canyons at Zion National Park. Click on either image to enlarge.
The photos can only do so much, so here's a video:
And another video from the lower section:
From that trail, we headed back down through the canyons to the Taylor Creek Trailhead. Taylor Creek is responsible for carving the canyons out of the sandstone in this part of the park, so we were anxious to see any differences between Kolob and Zion Canyons. Many people had already packed down the snow along the trail, so we were able to stay relatively dry in our regular water-resistant hiking boots. The trail included several dozen creek crossings and promised to lead to two rustic cabins from the early twentieth century and a double arch. After about an hour, Bruce found a beautiful spot to sit in the quiet under a tree and listen to the creek’s murmurings while he contemplated the epic journey of all the water molecules that passed by.
Taylor Creek Meditation. Open in full screen and turn up the volume!
I continued on, hoping to make it to the arch and back before it got dark. I arrived at the first of the two cabins when I noticed that I barely needed my sunglasses. I observed that the height of the canyon walls had almost reached the position of the sun in the sky, and remembered Bruce’s stories about how quickly it got dark in the Grand Canyon once the sun went down. I had a headlamp with me, but doubted it would help me distinguish between the ice and the water at all those creek crossings. I decided to keep one eye on the sky as I continued trekking through the ever narrowing canyon, hoping to find the second cabin and the famed arch, but the light seemed to get dimmer with each turn of the trail. Finally, I reached a creek crossing that looked too wide to cross and stay dry. The sky was almost completely overcast by then, and so I decided to turn around and head back to the car before the afternoon snows returned. Better to be safe and hike another day, even if it is kind of disappointing.
Taylor Creek Trail, Zion National Park. Click on either image to enlarge.
Bruce was back at the car and relayed his story about the serene spot he surveyed at the side of Taylor Creek, and I told him about the cabin, the shade of the canyon and the creek crossings. Even though I was unable to see the arch at the end of the trail, I decided that this part of Zion National Park was by far my favorite. Its pristine beauty, peacefulness, and vastness were overwhelming and breathtaking, and one day here was definitely not enough.
On the way back to the hotel, we decided to make a quick stop at the Kolob Plateau, a short drive up Kolob Terrace Road, which intersects the main route from I-15 to the Zion Visitor Center. This road afforded us views of lava deposits atop the existing sandstone, and lava rock debris along the hillsides. We followed the road until we reached the point where it had been closed because of the snow. The panorama we saw extended for miles east, west, and south, and again we could see the Grand Canyon looking south down the Colorado Plateau. The pictures we took from this vantage point pale in comparison to the real thing, mostly due to the tepid lighting from the overcast sky. Nevertheless, this trip to Zion National Park and our brief jaunt to Bryce Canyon National Park far exceeded my expectations, and I hope to return again…when it’s perhaps a little warmer but still uncrowded.