Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Zion National Park

On Friday, October 14, after our visits to Yellowstone, Glacier and Olympic NPs, we continued our National Park Odyssey with a visit to Zion National Park.  The park was almost an hour’s drive from our campsite in Leeds, but well worth the trip.  Much of the canyon was carved by the Virgin River, which when we visited was a gentle stream.  Obviously it’s capable of much greater things in the past or when it is swollen by snowmelt in the spring.  Even today it is said to carry a total of one million tons of sediment each year downstream to the Colorado River, where the Virgin joins it at Lake Mead.  

The park itself encompasses over 146,000 acres, including the main park, and the Kolob Canyon section.  Some 225 million years ago the area was the floor of a shallow sea.  Later, some 150 million years ago, a sandy desert covered much of the western United States, including what would become Zion.  Then, some 4 million years ago the Colorado Plateau began to rise above surrounding plains.  At that point, streams began to flow from the plateau, carrying sand, gravel and debris and beginning to carve the canyons of Zion and the surrounding area. 

Today, mammoth cliffs of Navajo Sandstone rise some 2,000 above the canyon floor, and formations have names like The Watchman, The Great White Throne, Angels Landing and Checkerboard Mesa, shown below.  

We threaded our way through wheeled and pedestrian traffic to the entrance station and presented my Golden Age Passport to have the $25 park entrance fee waived.  (See, there are some benefits to being over age 62!  We figure it and John’s Senior Pass have saved us over $300 this trip, including park admissions and discounts on camping.)  

We began our tour with a drive through the park on the Mt. Carmel highway.  From the canyon floor, we joined a line of cars snaking their way up the canyon wall via a series of switchbacks, pulling over frequently at the numerous viewpoints. 

As we drove through the canyon, we kept seeing holes in the cliffs like this one.

A little later we discovered they were ventilation shafts to the tunnels through the mountain. 
We went through two tunnels, the longest over a mile in length.  And unlike most other vehicular tunnels, these have no lights inside.  

Hikers and bicyclists are prohibited in the tunnels, and the only illumination is from car headlights and a couple of the ventilation shafts.  It's almost like Carlsbad Caverns when they turn out the lights.

Scenery through the canyon was breathtaking.  Some of the smaller trees had their fall colors.

And this beautiful blue bird perched beside me at an overlook.  I think it was a juvenile piƱon jay, but I’d be happy to hear from more experienced birders if they have another suggestion. 

On Saturday, we returned to Zion for a shuttle trip down the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.  Because of the number of visitors to the park, spring through fall the only vehicles allowed on the scenic drive are shuttle buses or bicycles.  The buses run frequently and deliver The buses were crowded, and unfortunately the drivers’ narration was almost impossible to hear.  The bus windows were also small, and it was hard to see the tops of the canyon walls as we drove along, or to take photos out the window.

We did get a glimpse of some climbers on a couple of the cliff faces.   

If you look closely at the first photo above, you can see a couple of climbers on the platform fastened to the side of the cliff and some of their equipment hanging above them.  We were told that the climbers spend the night on platform suspended from the cliff, strapped in to keep them safe.

There are trailheads at most of the shuttle stops, and many people were taking hikes along the river and up the cliffs.  A few years ago we would have joined them, but time and distance to and from the park encouraged us to avoid a back-country hike.

John and I did walk over a mile upstream from the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the shuttle bus route.  Apparently several miles up the canyon (which gets progressively more narrow) there are areas similar to slot canyons.  If we pass this way again, I'll vote to take the shuttle directly to the last stop and spend some more time hiking up the river to see them.    

It is a beautiful trail, but the numbers of visitors accessing the canyon sometimes made it feel more like a walk at the mall, or perhaps a stroll through the UN.  Many of the people we met on the trail were foreign tourists who had arrived by tour bus.   Frequently they were outfitted in rent-a-shoes like these, and were being herded along by their tour directors. 

There is talk of limiting the number of visitors to Zion, but no decision has been made to my knowledge.  It is sad to think that our national parks might have to limit access, but it equally sad for people to travel hundreds of miles to see these parks, only to find themselves elbow-to-elbow (or bumper-to-bumper) with other visitors.   And we visited in mid-October.  I can’t imagine what the crowds were like in the summer.  Maybe November or December would be a better time.


  1. Oh my. Wish I could see for my self. Guess I'll have to settle for the LLI class on national parks. Each week a park ranger talks about one of the parks where they have been assigned. Apparently this is an on-going class year after year. I've heard 1 lecture and it was terrific but it was on DC's national memorials.

  2. What a great opportunity to learn about the NPs. We like to catch a ranger talk when we can, but we can't always be there at the right time.