Zion National Park

The Narrows, Zion National Park
The Narrows, Zion National Park (Nathan Borchelt)

Protected within Zion's 229 square miles is a wilderness full of the unexpected. The narrow and deep Zion Canyon is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the park. Sheer, vividly colored cliffs tower above as you move along the floor of Zion Canyon. The canyon sparks a sense of wonder and disbelief as you stand beneath its 2,000- to 3,000-foot-high walls.

On most days, the Virgin River winds peacefully through the canyon. Fremont cottonwoods, willows, and velvet ashes along its banks provide shady spots for a picnic or a short walk. Mule deer and many birds seek refuge from the extreme midday heat of summer beneath this canopy. Other wildlife including ringtail cats, bobcats, foxes, rock squirrels, and cottontails rest under rocky ledges. The best times to see animals along the road are early morning, evening, and at night when they are most active. These are also ideal times to see the conspicuous white trumpet-shaped flowers of the sacred datura. This common roadside plant is also called moonlily because its blossoms open in the cooler hours of evening and wilt with the rising heat of the day.

A Zion truism is that there is no bad trail in the park: This is a magnificent hiking park. For an easy half-mile hike, stroll up to Weeping Rock, a rock alcove with dripping springs decorated with wildflowers in the spring and summer. For a more challenging adventure, Zion Narrows is one of the country's great hikes.

Zion's rock formations exert a strong presence. Perhaps the Great White Throne is Zion's chief landmark. The throne is a huge grayish-white slab that towers over Zion Canyon. The Watchman rises 6,555 feet at the South Entrance. The Checkerboard Mesa is an immense cone etched by horizontal bedding planes and vertical cracks. The mystical Temple of Sinawava stands guard near the entrance to the Zion Narrows (this spot has such a strong presence, the indigenous Pauite Indians refused to draw near it after nightfall).

If you want to beat the crowds that flock to the canyon, head for Kolob Canyons, a series of spectacular sandstone canyons located in the northwestern section of Zion National Park. The towering vertical cliffs carved into the red Navajo sandstone give the Kolob a striking presence. Some great trails originate here, featuring cliff-side panoramas and tramps through highland forest. At 310 feet, Kolob Arch is the world's largest natural span, and a major hiking destination in the area. Hikers experience simpler natural wonders along the way, including small waterfalls and clear backcountry pools.

Perhaps the best weather at Zion is rainy weather. Waterfalls sprout from previously unnoticed notches and crannies in the park. And if you're lucky enough to see the sun break while the rocks are still wet, a vivid show of shifting color and light plays out before your eyes.

Way better than TV.


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