The first time I visited Zion National Park was an accident—and I saw virtually nothing. I had been on a trip, visiting various places in the Southwest. Towards the end of the trip, after visiting the Grand Canyon South Rim, I was ready to head home. I decided that instead of just driving straight to my hotel room in Las Vegas, I would take a detour to the Grand Canyon North Rim for a short afternoon visit.
But the North Rim was gorgeous, and a storm was moving across the canyon from the South Rim. How could I not stay longer to watch that unfold? But that delay meant that I was en route to my Las Vegas hotel room about 10 pm rather than earlier in the day. It was dark. It was cloudy. It was raining. I was blindly following my AAA Triptik that said the next turn was to pick up Highway 9 en route to Interstate 15.
Highway 9 took me right through Zion National Park via the 1.1 mile tunnel at the east entrance. In the pitch black of that night with no highway lights whatsoever, that tunnel felt about 10 miles long. All I saw of the park was some red dirt and an occasional frog that jumped across the road.
A couple years later I planned a real trip to Zion National Park. The light spring rains helped the wildflowers pop up everywhere. And back then, I was able to drive all throughout the park, stopping at the various overlooks and trailheads.
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive runs north with stops at such vantage points as Court of the Patriarchs, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, and the Temple of the Sinawava. At some of these sites, visitors can hike along the Virgin River or sit on its banks to enjoy a picnic lunch.
Highway 9, also called the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, took me east through the tunnel I had traversed before to the east entrance and the Checkerboard Mesa. On this trip, I learned that the 1.1 mile tunnel on this route was opened in 1930. It took 3 years to complete the project at the cost of almost $2,000,000. Just imagine what it would cost today!
This Spring, I returned to Zion National Park. It is still bold and dramatic. The canyon runs for fifteen miles and reaches an elevation close to 9,000 feet. The area cover 146,597 acres; that’s 229 square miles. The Zion Mount Carmel Highway twists and turns back on itself as it runs east through the park showcasing the sheer cliffs, high plateaus, and intricate alcoves and arches. The contrast of the deep green of the pinyon, pine, and juniper forests and occasional wildflowers against the red slopes is impressive.
It is no wonder that the area was named a National Monument by President William Howard Taft in 1909. The goal was to preserve the “brilliantly colored strata of unique composition” and “extraordinary examples of canyon erosion.” In 1919, the area was upgraded to a National Park and its name was changed from Mukuntuweap to Zion, under the stupid* idea at the time that non-native names would better promote visitors. It is the Virgin River that has cut this marvelous canyon that is almost a half-mile deep. No wonder John Wesley Powel declared in 1895, “All this is the music of waters.”
On this most recent trip, it was crowded. In 2011, more than 2.8 million visitors were recorded at the park. The number has surely increased in three years. During this visit, there was virtually no designated parking space left anywhere. Because of this increase in visits, Zion National Park now limits where private cars can drive from April to October. A free shuttle takes visitors to the overlooks and trailheads along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
This spring, I was able to ignore the crowds by staying a roadside naturalist. I drove the Zion Mount Carmel Highway from the south to the east entrance, enjoying all the twists and turns of that route and the passage through the tunnel.
Parking and some limited hiking was still possible at Checkerboard Mesa. I figure my next trip will be sometime between November and April, so I can once again drive to all the great overlooks and pathways myself—and maybe avoid some crowds.
Outside the park at the east entrance, my sister and I were pleasantly surprised to see a small herd of buffalo ambling along. We were not quite so pleased to see signs for a local restaurant advertising buffalo steak and jerky on the menu. [I’m not a vegetarian, but I prefer to delude myself and see my meat only in supermarkets, not wandering in a field!]
En route back to our hotel, we drove back through the park to marvel once again at the massive red cliffs.
If you have never visited this magnificent park, it is well worth the trip. The cliffs and plateaus are substantial, ancient, vibrant, spiritual. The landscape has been emerging for over 150 million years. Inhabitants started populating the area in small family groups roughly 8,000 years ago. Whenever I experience Zion National Park, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature and am thus encouraged to reflect on my place in the universe and the spirituality that connects us all. As Clarence E. Dutton expounds: “There is an eloquence to these forms which stirs the imagination. . , and kindles in the mind a glowing response. . . . [It is hard to] exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion Valley.”
*Sorry. The stupid label is mine. Our government has done some stupid things over the years. There is no denying that. At least Zion National Park and other areas have been preserved.
Note: Zion National Park has a second section called Kolob Canyons. I will write about my visit there at a later time.
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QUOTES ABOUT NATURE & SPIRITUALITY
“There are no random acts. We are all connected. You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” Mitch Albom
“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” Buddha
“A comely sight indeed it is to see a world of blossoms on an apple tree.” John Bunyan
“There is not one blade of grass, there is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” John Calvin
“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with nature.” Joseph Campbell
“I thank God for most this amazing day; for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural, which is infinite.” e. e. cummings
“The magic begins in you. Feel your own energy and realize similar energy exists within the Earth, stones, plants, water, wind, fire, colours, and animals.” Scott Cunningham
“Everything in our world, even a drop of dew, is a microcosm of the universe.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Nature is the art of God eternal.” Dante
“The snow, the wind, the sun and the sounds of nature, can all be reminders to you that you’re an integral part of the natural world.” Wayne Dyer
“A man is related to all nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson