Hidden Gems of Zion

Three Backcountry Hikes
  |  Gorp.com
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Tangerine-colored sandstone. Rattlers. Cacti that stab with little provocation. Serpentine slots winding through cliffs. This is a mountain region? Most visitors to Zion National Park would say that the Utah treasure is simply a desert gorge with red cliffs and sagebrush, but that's not entirely true: Beyond and above famous Zion Canyon lies a universe of peaks and valleys, a mountainous backcountry where you measure distance in hours, not miles.

The Setting

Zion is a small park, only 15 miles on one side. But, as in far-larger Yosemite, one tiny canyon attracts most of the visitors. Here people spend half a day, then drive on to either of the two nearby parks: Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. Rarely do visitors hike more than a mile or two, for trails rise abruptly from the cottonwood-dappled canyon floor. Sweat and switchbacks aren't on most tourists' list of "What to Do in Zion."

The canyon, naturally, is famous for a reason: It is awesome. It took the Virgin River (and other erosive forces) about 11 million years to cut the 2,000-foot-deep slot in the earth, and work goes on today, as evidenced by the river, muddy and aggressive for months at a time. Sandstone absorbs mineral stains easily, and Zion is blessed with every nuance of color from the warm half of the rainbow. Pinks and ochers, burnt orange, saddlebag tan, blood reds and sienna and apricot—they're everywhere. We can thank the oxides of iron for most of this patina, a dazzling colorfest unmatched on our planet.

The backcountry of Zion—some 220 square miles—is often as colorful as the main canyon, if only slightly less dramatic in scale. Most visitors never see this expanse, though some venture across roadside slickrock for a brief foray into the wilds. But many tourists soon seek the exit road, for, in fact, there's little to do in Zion unless you work hard for your pleasures. Few trails exist, and though the general terrain looks inviting, it's forbidding, too, with hidden gorges and soaring slabs blocking easy passage. To explore the back acreage, you'll have to leave your car and sweat. But it's worth it.

Steve Roper is the author of the classic Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (with Allen Steck) and Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber. The longtime editor of Ascent, he has written many other books and has had his work appear in Summit, Backpacker, Rock & Ice, and many other magazines. Steve's articles on Yosemite's high country, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the Mount Conness Loop, and El Capitan have been featured on GORP.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 27 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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