Editor’s note: This is the first of four travel articles by photographer David Middlecamp. Look for coverage of Bryce Canyon National Park, Arches National Park and Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the weeks ahead.
We wanted to get out of state but didn’t want to spend a lot of time planning. A tour of national parks sounded good, so we packed, grabbed a few AAA maps and guide books, a laptop to make reservations, and then, with a full tank of gas, my wife Linda and I were off.
Southern Utah and Northern Arizona have arguably the greatest concentration of scenic wonders in North America, with four national parks that attract more than a million visitors a year — Grand Canyon (often ranked the second most popular national park), Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches. They’re all within a halfday’s drive of each other.
Zion, at 565 miles, is the closest to San Luis Obispo according to Google maps, with an estimated travel time of slightly less than 10 hours. So that was our first target.
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Located along I-15 between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, Zion gets a large share of day visitors in addition to those who stay longer. It was not uncommon to see large extended families of three generations on the shuttle buses. Spring, summer and fall access to the most popular section of the park, Zion Canyon, is only via shuttle.
Scattered along the roadway on the way to Zion are mesas and arroyos that in most states would merit at least a name on the map. There are so many, however, that only the most spectacular are named.
Zion has a sense of power that is operatic in scale.
Like Yosemite, Zion is a vertical park, with red Navajo Sandstone canyon walls rather than California’s gray granite. But instead of the myriad waterfalls leaping off the walls of Yosemite, Zion’s landscape is deeply etched with slot canyons.
The deep and sometimes twisting canyons offer many photographic opportunities with their contrasting light and shadows.
Native Americans called the main canyon Mukuntuweap, which translates to “Straight Canyon.”
In 1909, President William Howard Taft created the Mukuntuweap National Monument to protect the area. In 1919 the area received National Park status but the name was changed to one more familiar to western ears — Zion. The name came from log cabin settler Isaac Behunin who said, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church — this is Zion.”
Many landmarks in the park have biblical derivations; temples, angels, an altar, patriarchs, throne and.
Elevations in Zion National Park range from 3,600 to 8,700 feet. Mojave Desert, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau communities of plants and animals are represented in various parts.
The Zion Canyon main visitor’s center has well-organized sets of interpretive tour maps organized by the amount of time and degree of difficulty.
Park offers 18 varied trails
Zion National Park rewards those who plan ahead.
The map and hiking guide given out with admission lists 18 trails from easy to strenuous with estimated times of travel and elevation gain.
The park could occupy a full week’s vacation. After exhausting the 15 trails in Zion Canyon, there are three more on the north end of the park at Kolob Canyons. If these are too pedestrian, there are advanced adventures in rock climbing, canyoneering and trail finding on slick rock that you can hire a guide to help you experience.
Since we intended only to survey four parks, we had to save a couple of Zion’s highlights for our next trip:
Slot canyons so narrow you can touch both walls. One of the most popular, The Narrows, is accessible from a hike that departs from the end of the popular, easy Riverwalk trail. The two-hour hike will take you to Orderville Canyon, but you can’t go past there without a permit. Adventurous hikers make the 16-mile, all-day hike from top to bottom but this requires a permit and private shuttle to trailhead.
Angels Landing — A knife-edged trail on a fin of sandstone with a 1,200-foot fall on either side. With only a single chain to hang onto I may skip this trail next time, too.
IF YOU GO
RECOMMENDED CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT
Wear closed-toe hiking shoes made for water and neoprene socks if you will be walking in the rocky Virgin River’s North Fork. More than one source says the route shreds sandals or water shoes and saturates regular hiking boots.
Allow shoes to dry completely between water expeditions to protect wildlife from waterborne disease carried on your shoes from other canyons.
Take a walking stick, drinking water, waterproof bags and, if you plan to be in the canyon awhile, a foil bag to carry out waste. We didn’t plan that far ahead and given the gusty winds and low 60-degree temps in early April, the cold water did not look that appealing.
A canyoneering expedition to a remote location could require mountain climbing gear, a wetsuit and hiking shoes that can be submerged — along with backpacking equipment to carry it all in.
Temperature: Zion Canyon’s average daily high temperature peaks in July and August around 100 degrees, with averages falling about 10 degrees per month on either side. The coldest months are in January and December with average highs in the low 50s and lows about 30.
Flash flooding: Always check for flash-flood risk before attempting to hike the narrow canyons. A cloudburst far upstream can send a fatal wall of debris and water down canyon.
If you have room for only one map, the AAA Indian Country map is excellent, covering Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
Avoid the weekend traffic trap of Las Vegas, with major flows in on Friday and Saturday and out on Sunday. A major casino work-shift change happens at 3 p.m. Avoid that, too.
Parking lots at Zion fill up relatively fast, depending on the day of the week and season. During midweek on Easter break, they filled up by 9:30 a.m.
If you want to camp, arrive early; the first-come, first-served sites fill quickly.
Bring water bottles to fill for hiking. Stores in National Parks no longer carry bottled water to reduce litter and cut 20 percent of waste generated in parks. Park guides recommend drinking a gallon of water a day. We didn’t consume that much in the mild temperatures of early April, but we also did not hit the most strenuous trails.
The most popular section of Zion is next to Springdale, which is also a good place to stay outside the park since it’s closest to the main park entrance. Park in town and ride the free shuttle to the park gate. Inside, another free shuttle connects to the trails along the six-mile Zion canyon road.
Remember that backcountry hikes require a permit.
Park access is via three different unconnected paved roads and one unpaved. Newcomers will want to stick to the two roads where visitor’s centers are located. On the north is the Kolob Canyons Visitors Center; save this for a second trip or longer stay. The main visitor’s center is on the bank of the Virgin River, the architect of Zion Canyon.
If you plan to tour multiple national parks, consider an annual National Park pass for $80. Zion admission for pedestrians is $12 and for private vehicles is $25 — good for seven days.