“Marching to Zion” Part 1

Hi everyone,

In this week’s adventure, I take you to Zion National Park for the first park of the story. This park has so much to offer that it needs two posts to cover it all!

At the end of last week’s article, we left Bryce Canyon National Park. Click here if you missed that post or want to review. It’s about eighty miles between Bryce and Zion, most of the drive travels through the Dixie National Forest. About nine miles west of Bryce Canyon, we came to the Red Canyon area with its pink, orange, and red rock formations. It’s said to be the most photographed place in Utah. Therefore, not to be left out, I added a few photos to my collection when we stopped for an early lunch at the rest area along Scenic Byway 12.

A few miles from the rest area, we turned onto Highway 89 that would take us to Mt. Carmel Junction. There we turned west onto the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Byway and the east entrance to the park. After several days of relatively light traffic, there were many more cars on the road to Zion, an indication of its popularity with visitors from around the world. Just outside the park entrance we saw an enclosure with a herd of buffalo and an old broken down windmill. There was also a decomposing deer carcass upwind from where we parked. Needless to say, I didn’t dilly-dally taking photos!

Zion National Park

It was a thrill to stop at the entrance of Zion to shoot this photo. I long wanted to see this park after reading so much about it and seeing thousands of photos. After showing our senior pass at the entrance station, the two-lane road became more curvy as we meandered through the mesas towards the visitor center. There were several turnouts and overlooks but we only stopped at a few due to limited parking. Since we were in the Zion area for three days, we vowed to return early in the day when it wasn’t so crowded and the light better for photography. Alas, that would not happen due to a rock slide later that night, closing the east entrance for several days.

Not far from the entrance station, there was available parking at the Checkerboard Mesa overlook. This view is one of the most celebrated in the park. It’s quite a stunning feature with the colors, lines, patterns, and textures.

A bit further down the road, I wanted to stop and walk the location in the photo below. It’s a favorite of photographers due to the varied landscape features that seem to change every few yards. There’s one short mesa, like the one on the left side of the photo below, with a lone pinyon tree that is photographed and posted on Facebook and Instagram. Again, I wanted to come back in better light and when I had more time. The rock slide eliminated that plan.

To reach the park visitor center from the east entrance, travelers are required to pass through two tunnels. When driving west, the first tunnel is short, when entering you can see the exit. The second tunnel is over one-mile long and it curves through the mountain. It’s a relief to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” on the other end! I should point out that larger vehicles like RVs and truck need an escort through the tunnel. When is occurs traffic is halted until the vehicle passes through the tunnel.

After the tunnel is a series of switchbacks down to the valley floor leading to the visitor center. It was early afternoon and the sign to entrance of the parking lot said the lot was full. Our reaction was: “What? How can that be?” For your information, the parking lot is huge, there is room for hundreds of cars. We learned that in November, arrive by 8 or 8:30 AM for a parking spot. During the high season, May through October, it’s best to arrive no later than 7 AM. There is additional parking for a fee in Springdale, the tourist town just outside the town, with a free shuttle bus to the visitor center.

Fortunately, we saw a few cars leave so circled back to another entrance and snagged one of only a few parking spots open. We walked over to the visitor center and large gift shop to use the rest rooms and look around. We stood in line to chat with a ranger who provided some good information on the shuttle bus that travels the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This drive is closed to almost all vehicle traffic, so the shuttle is the only way to see the canyon. We would come back the next day as we had a 3 PM check-in time at our Airbnb and we needed to replenish our food supply. I’ll tell you more about the Airbnb in next weeks post.

At the visitor center, we learned that Zion National Park is located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert. This allows for a unique geography with a variety of features such as jagged mountains, buttes, mesas rivers, canyons, arches, woodlands, and desert. This makes it perfect for a national park. The most prominent feature of the park is fifteen mile long Zion Canyon that was carved by the Virgin River. I’ll share photos of this canyon next week.

You might be wondering how this park was named. In the early 1870s, the explorer John Wesley Powell was in the area and named this area Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon.” The Mormon settlers that moved to this area beginning in the 1850s, called it Zion, a place of peace referred to in the Bible. That name stuck mostly because the other name was hard to pronounce, spell, and likely more appealing to a broader audience.

In 1909, the Zion Canyon part of what is now Zion National Park was designated the Mukuntuweap National Monument. It was later renamed Zion National Monument and in 1919 designated a national park. The park today consists of nearly 150,000 acres of land. Nearly four million visitors were expected to visit Zion in 2021. I’m pleased to say my Traveling Partner and I were part of that crowd. Fortunately, we made our visit during the low season, I can’t imagine the high season crowds as Zion is one of the most popular parks in the country. The weather during our stay was very mild, sunny skies, highs during the day in the 60s, with lows in the 30s at night.

We did walk one of the paths near the visitor center to gawk and take photos of the majestic peaks. This is a little of what we saw making it hard to wait until the next day to see even more.

Towers of the Virgin

Stay tuned next week for the rest of the story. For more information on Zion National Park, click here for the National Park Service website.

Until then, happy travels!