We’re Marching to Zion

Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks with more than five million visitors annually. It is a small park comparatively with only 229 square miles.  Its main feature is Zion Canyon which is indeed a canyon since the Virgin River has, over time, cut through the red and tan sandstone walls and hollowed it out forming the canyon. The Canyon itself is 15 miles long and about one half of a mile deep.  Its highest peak, Horse Ranch Mountain, reaches 8,726 feet while its lowest peak, Coalpits Wash, is 3,666 feet. This National Park is also on the Colorado Plateau.

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As with much of Utah, the original inhabitants were American Indian groups like the Southern Paiute, Ute, Anasazi, and Parowan who came there to hunt in the valley.  They have discovered evidence of basketweaving and flaked stone knives and dart points there that confirm the archeologists’ conclusions.  The area remained “hidden” from people of European descent until 1776 when two Spanish priests, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, traveled through the region.  It would be another 100 years until the first Mormon farmers arrived in 1847.  Even then, they were unaware of the Canyon itself.  It was not until a Southern Paiute Indian guide took some of the settlers to Zion Canyon that they “discovered” it.  The Mormons named the place “Zion” which in the Bible refers to “a place of peace.”

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Due to its inaccessibility, Zion Canyon remained relatively unknown until John K. Hillers and his expedition photographed it in 1873. Also, Frederick Dellenbaugh did a series of paintings of Zion Canyon and exhibited them at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  This prompted then President Taft to set it aside as a National Monument.  Later, in 1919, it became a National Park.

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Zion National Park is no longer unknown.  There are so many visitors that the Park has implemented a shuttle bus system.  At the time the shuttle was implemented, there were up to 5000 vehicles a day for the 450 parking spaces. Cars are not allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive when the shuttle is running.  The shuttle system in the park is very efficient and is also free.  You can park in Springdale, a town adjacent to the Park, and there is another shuttle from there to the park entrance at no cost.

David and I spent several days in the Park visiting the Museum, watching the orientation video, going to the Visitor Center, and hiking in the Canyon.  We hiked the Pa’rus Trail which follows the Virgin River through the canyon, the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails that lead to some waterfalls, and the Kenyenta Trail.  We also hiked the Riverside Walk Trail to the Narrows and the Angels Landing Trail to Scout Lookout.

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Two of the most popular hikes in Zion are The Narrows via Riverside Walk Trail and Angels Landing Trail.  Riverside Walk Trail is a paved trail that follows the Virgin River to the far end of the Canyon called “The Narrows.”  Once you reach the end of the paved trail, you can continue hiking into some narrow passageways following the path of the river but you have to hike in the river itself much of the time.  One man who was returning from his hike in the Narrows said that he had to swim across part of the river on his trek.  There were lot of people who waded into the water and hiked in the Narrows.

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They do tell hikers who chose to go into the Narrows to be cautious and aware of the weather because flash floods can and do occur from mid-July through September. We were not prepared to walk in the water so we just did the Riverwalk Trail that day.

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The other popular trail is the Angels Landing Trail, via the West Rim Trail, which is a 5.4 mile round trip trek to the summit of one of the mountains and it is a 1,488 foot elevation change.  This is a strenuous and very steep hike and the last half of a mile the trail traverses a knife-blade ridge line with sheer drop-offs on either side of the narrow trail.  There are chains to help you climb to the point but if you fall from this height, however, you would surely die.  David and his backpacking buddies had made the ascent to Angels Landing on a previous trip so David did not want to go to Angels Landing again. (He didn’t tell me about this hike until he returned!)  I had no desire to hike the treacherous final half of a mile to Angels Landing but we did want to hike up to the top of the mountain so we went as far as Scout Lookout.  The trail to Scout Lookout is a strenuous 3.9 mile round trip hike with a 1,071 foot elevation change and it follows the same trail that leads to Angels Landing but is a wide trail with no sharp drop offs.  When we arrived at Scout Lookout we watched as the more daring hikers scrambled over the rocks and continued on the higher peak.  We were content to remain at Scout Lookout.  The views from the summit were spectacular.  We could see much of the fascinating Canyon.

Zion National Park is another wonderful and unique national park.  The only negative for us was the sheer number of people in the park.  Because it is so hot in the summer, September is the ideal time to visit Zion. At times, the trails and shuttles overflowed with park visitors.  We would recommend either coming early in the morning, which we did the second day we were there, or staying late in the afternoon.  Our time in Zion National Park was a great experience and we look forward to returning to this park again soon.

P.S. We did not explore the east side of the park as there is a one mile-long tunnel to access it. We drive a “dually” truck (Silver Fox) to pull our Bighorn camper. We knew that the camper is too tall (over 13.1 feet) for the east side tunnel, but what we did not realize was even without pulling the camper our “too-wide” truck required an “escort vehicle” which stops the traffic and allows you to go through. This costs $15 per round trip as long as you make the return within seven days. Also note that the hours that the traffic control is available varies by season. For example, from September 3rd to 30th, the hours are 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

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