Zion Casts a Spell

First Impressions
  |  Gorp.com

It was a place made in the movies. Where John Wayne's shadow appeared larger than life on the sun-drenched barren mountainside as he walked toward his enemy, about to draw his gun. A place where petroglyphs etched into canyon walls more than a thousand years ago tell us a story of ancient America; where the Spanish padres blazed through centuries ago; where notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy sought hiding places; where explorer John Wesley Powell rafted the rivers' rapids; where Brigham Young led the Mormons . . . a place I would soon be exploring for myself.

The drama started at the east entrance of the park along the steep Zion Mt. Carmel highway that descends through a mile-long tunnel that burrows through the cliffs. Though you can't stop in the tunnel, huge natural "windows" are carved along the outer wall of the tunnel — an enticing glimpse of the beauty and adventure waiting at the other end.

The scenic drive from the entrance and through part of the park took us to the Zion Visitor Center, passing along the way iconic features to the park — Checkerboard Mesa, which looks like a carved checkerboard in the cliff-side, and the Great Arch of Zion, carved high in a stone cliff. The Zion Visitor Center is where the 14-mile round-trip Zion Canyon Scenic Drive begins. RV's, private cars, and buses make their way into the canyon, stopping at viewpoints and trailheads.

This is expected to change. The drive can feel more like a New York City commuter experience than a casual, peaceful drive through a national park, according to a ranger at the visitor's center. Traffic, pollution, and noise have prompted officials to introduce a shuttle bus service that will operate this route sometime in 2000.

Slots 101
We picked up maps, checked the weather status for our planned hiking routes, and went on our way toward Zion Ponderosa Lodge — our accommodation on the east rim of the park. I kicked my feet up on the headrest of our jeep and rested my head and took in the enormity of the canyon as it breathed down on us winding through its vast body.

The jeep stopped at a lookout point, and Mike and Jud thought it would be useful to briefly stomp the slot canyons before the sun went down. This hike was known as Observation Point — a little primer to get my feet wet, they said. I didn't feel up to the scramble over rock and cliff but I followed their pursuit, showing a relaxed face even though my city-minded self felt uneasy with my out-of-practice nature balance.

It wasn't so bad as we followed the paved trail, but my two adventurers leading the way decided to go backcountry hiking — off the prescribed route. We scrambled, jumped over hundred-foot drops, bushwhacked through thorny and sharp bush, came to sheer drops — obvious dead ends, and continued to blaze alternative routes. I quickly learned why you shouldn't grab onto trees or plants with your hands. After laying a strong grip on an unsuspecting cactus, I spent the whole weekend with tweezers in hand, dissecting the plant's defense out of my fleshy palm.

The Ponderosa Lodge was cozy. And after I passed the primer at Observation Point, I appreciated the solitude in my secluded log cabin, complete with wood-burning stove. I started a fire, settled into the noisy silence and began to fade away . . . only to wake up with the compulsion to stretch in preparation for the weekend's adventures.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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