Zion Casts a Spell

Imagination Candy in One of Utah's National Parks
  |  Gorp.com
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Panorama of Zion's rock face
The majestic rock that makes up Zion
Trip Practicalities

Getting There By Plane: You can fly from Salt Lake City to either St. George or Cedar City, which are the closest towns to the park.

Driving: You can approach Zion from the less-scenic south entrance following Utah 9 or Utah 17. The western approach is also not a very scenic one, but it is simple and direct and takes you through Springdale, a hub for gearing up or accommodations. Approaching from the east is the most scenic and takes you through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.

Distance from Neighboring Parks: About 90 miles southwest of Bryce Canyon; 120 miles northwest of Grand Canyon in northern Arizona; about 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada — a park of a different sort; about 200 miles southwest of Capitol Reef National Park.

Tourism Information: Zion Natural History Association, (800) 635-3959 is a nonprofit organization offering books, maps, videos. There are two visitor centers, one by the south entrance, (435) 772-3256, is the main info hub. It also has a museum and rangers available for questions and concerns. The other is Kolob Canyons Visitor Center, (435) 586-9548 in the northwest corner.

Entry Fees and Permits: For up to seven days, each vehicle costs $10. Backcountry hikers must obtain a permit, available at either visitor center. The cost is $5 per person per night. Just for Fun: Fly over the majesty that is Zion with Scenic Airlines (800) 634-6801. They offer air tours for around $300. And for the kids, the Junior Rangers is there for the joining. It is a great way for the kids to learn about wilderness, Zion, geology, and earn badges and certificates while they are at it. They have daily sessions from May to September. Inquire at either visitor center.


I arrived in Salt Lake City to the first snow of the season. It was late, after 10 p.m., and as the taxi drove me to my hotel, I couldn't determine if the white being illuminated by the full moon was clouds or the high peaks of mountains surrounding me. Vehicles were donning ski racks and making tracks in the freshly fallen snow on the black tarmac. There seemed to be a restless spirit to the city — like a cat detecting a distant thunderstorm. Frisky was the mood, as I suspected everyone was thrilled to see snow finally, and was heading to the slopes.

This would not be a skiing sojourn for me. I would not be partaking in the fresh talcum powder like snow falling on the slopes around Salt Lake City. Instead, I would be making a journey southwest to nature's art project, Zion National Park. It is here that Mother Nature practiced her sculpting and geometry — sheer multicolored walls of sandstone, and arches contorting in varying shapes and sizes.

Zion National Park encompasses some 150,000 acres of wild canyon country east of St. George, Utah, including the narrow Kolob Canyons to the north, many miles of largely impenetrable mountain wilderness, and Zion Canyon to the east. The vast majority of visitors come only to see Zion Canyon, probably the most spectacular of the many geological wonders in Utah. Sheer red and white sandstone cliffs tower up to 2,500 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River, and gradually become closer together upstream until only practically an arm's width apart. With names like Fat Man's Misery, and the Narrows it's obvious some trails are not exactly fun for claustrophobics or acrophobics.

I awoke to my early morning wake-up call and the day was glorious — that post-snow crispiness was in the air and the fluid rays of the sun reflected off the white-skirted peaks. A perfect day for the 5-hour overland trip I would make to get to Zion, or Zions as I heard locals refer to it.

My two rugged companions, Mike and Jud, drove us south so that we could take Utah 9 from the east — the most scenic and spectacular approach into the park. Having never visited Utah before, the drive was an eye-opener into this playground of natural wonders and picture-perfect culture of Middle America.

The urban vibe of Salt Lake City quickly tapered off and was replaced by vast open land punctuated by solitary gas stations, trailers in the valley, and cows in the field. Dry dust and tumbleweed spiraled around traffic signs as the desert wind whipped around quintessential western images. We drove along the Colorado plateau, which extends along the state's entire southern border and halfway up the east side. It's also where all five of Utah's national parks are located.

I knew I was getting closer to the park's boundary because the temperature appeared warmer and the flat and barren landscape that dominated much of the drive suddenly got edgy. Rugged multicolored walls of sandstone resembling that popular dessert of the 1980's, Jello 1-2-3, elevated the climb toward Zion, and the beauty of the mammoth and mysterious landscape tempted my appetite for adventure even further.

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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