“…for glory of scenery and stupendous scenic effects [Zion] cannot be surpassed…It is a marvelous piece of Nature’s handiwork that is worth going a long distance to see.” (Thomas Moran, artist)
We almost missed Zion. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and, for a moment, we even thought to skip it altogether. I am glad we went. Our hours there do not count as a visit, but it was an exhilarating preview. At the end of ten days filled with mind-boggling wonders of the American Southwest, I thought my senses were dulled–still, a mere glimpse of Zion was enough: this place was special, extraordinary.
The drama of approaching Zion’s southeast entrance is worth a detour. Gradually, the scenery changes from sand-castle spires of pink and orange to massive, glistening rocks, their sharp, heavy faces keeping watch over an immense canyon, its size more impressive because you are at the bottom of it. Driving along that winding, narrow road, I felt like we were being consumed, slowly, by the scenery around us–overwhelmed and swallowed whole. Not that we minded.
The cliffs at Zion are distinctive: they were giant dunes once, part of the vast Navajo Desert. Each cliff is scarred by a myriad of lines, a petrified record of where the winds blew 190 million years ago.
Almost at the park, we got our first of several exciting wildlife sightings that evening: a desert bighorn sheep! Defying gravity, it seemed to glide across smooth sheets of rock. The prodigious horns, I later learned, are hollow inside. In spring, an odd sound sometimes breaks through Zion: horn-knocking of bighorn sheep can be heard a mile away. Bighorn disappeared from the park by 1950s, but a small population was reintroduced in the ’70s, growing to about 200 individuals today–we were lucky to see one.
Still reeling from the sheep’s acrobatics, we soon reached another local marvel, man-made this time: the 1.1-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel that cuts through the cliff. Driving through it was an odd experience, made less disorienting by occasional openings in the wall, or “galleries,” carved out to allow better ventilation for workers when the tunnel was being built. Once upon a time, it was possible to stop by these galleries and admire the breathtaking views. With steady traffic through the tunnel now, even in the waning days of October, you’ll have to wait to admire the vistas at the tunnel’s end. Don’t worry, you’ll get ample time to do so: outside the tunnel, a narrow road snakes its way down the cliff, deeper and deeper into the canyon–and to the park’s Visitors’ Center. Was all this JUST the beginning?!
We had an hour of daylight ahead, so we parked by the Visitors’ Center and hopped on the park’s shuttle (from April through October, Zion’s scenic drive is only accessible by shuttle to cut down on traffic). As with Bryce, Zion’s Park Newspaper was a handy guide. We decided to ride the shuttle through the park, a round-trip of 80 minutes. But even this basic plan was soon scaled down. We couldn’t resist getting out on some of the stops–with names like Court of the Patriarchs, and views to match, can you blame us?
Hiking through Zion must be an earth-shattering, deeply spiritual journey:
“We worked our way up through time. Each step consumed a thousand years…. In Zion Canyon you are engulfed in time. Time below you, time above you, time laid down beside you in minuscule grains of sand.” (Layman Hafen, Mukuntuweap: Landscape and Story in Zion Canyon)
Our only tactile experience at the park, for now, is a stroll to Weeping Rock, a half-mile round-trip trail, the shortest and one of the easiest in the park. The trail was a charming, gentle way to experience Zion’s more tempered, subdued beauty: its hanging gardens of wild columbines (come in spring to see them bloom) and maidenhair ferns, signs of water hidden in rock. A layer of Zion’s cliffs is porous Navajo sandstone, supported by the more impervious Kayenta Formation, which forces rainwater accumulating in the sandstone out as springs–too numerous to count and giving life to lush tufts of vegetation.
Springs of Weeping Rock never dry up. It is a quiet, meditative place. We were alone there, soaking in the sounds of falling water and soft whispers of fern, ruffled by a cool autumn breeze. Each drop has made a long journey to this moment–hydrologists tested the water seeping out of Weeping Rock and discovered that it has traveled through sandstone for over a millennium. A droplet that fell on me then first rained on these cliffs as the Mayan Civilization began its decline to the south, and Charlemagne ruled on the other side of the world.
Dusk approached. It was time to head back. We made one last stop to watch the sun set: Zion Lodge. Cottonwood groves by the Lodge come alive in the evenings with wild turkeys that roost here for the night and mule deer, snacking before nightfall.
As we wandered about, I saw an odd shape by the Lodge’s picnic tables–a grey fox! Fun fact: grey fox is the only member of the canine family that can climb trees, especially junipers, whose berries it so loves.
In our quest for wild turkeys, we rambled off into a cottonwood grove. Early pioneers delighted at the sight of cottonwood, the “tree of life”, they called it: cottonwoods are thirsty trees, so a grove of them signaled a reliable source of flowing water.
At the base of the canyon, you are at 4,000 ft elevation. Look up to the rim, 2,500 ft above you: those are ponderosa pines dotting the cliffs. I saw them up close at Bryce, those slim, silent giants–the difference of perspective is staggering.
As we prepare to leave, we pause by the banks of the Virgin River, looking so unoffending, so tame. The river is no larger today than it was millions of years ago when it began sculpting this landscape. Local tribes called it “Pa’rus,” or “rushing, turbulent stream.” Over centuries, it cut the depth of this canyon, while rain, springs, landslides, and waterfalls widened it.
The river, the rocks, the cottonwoods, and the ponderosa pines up above–this was only our first glimpse of Zion, barely a mouthful. Still, I am smitten. How could I not be?