Our National Parks: Zion National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Zion National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Springdale, UT 84767
Established 1919
147,034 Acres

The Big Picture: Next to its scenery, this park's greatest resource is the metaphors it rightfully inspires. Zion is a cathedral, a hanging garden of rock, a Yosemite in oils, or as its discoverer, Mormon settler Isaac Behunin, called it, the Heavenly City of God. All this might be overstating things a bit, but it's safe to say that Zion's preternatural spires, vivid colors, and Alice-in-Wonderland scale--2,000-foot-high walls separated by 20-foot-wide corridors--set it apart from Grand Canyon and its smaller, cuter neighbor, Bryce Canyon. Zion's sculptor, the North Fork of the Virgin River, drops 50 to 70 feet per mile (nine times as fast as the Colorado River) and cuts out a series of intricate galleries from the soft sandstone. Such attributes, however, are also why a commercial development concern, World Odyssey, would like very much to build a five-story movie theater and retail space on a parcel of land abutting the park entrance. The company says it'll be bringing the experience of the remote backcountry to those who can't get there; environmentalists call it a potential blight. The dispute is locked up in court, but if the crowds along the scenic drive continue to grow, a packed movie theater might not seem like such a bad alternative.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,503,068 total visitors, 12,028 backcountry visitors

As in other national parks, visitors tend to adhere to the unofficial 90/10 rule: The vast majority (90 percent) of tourists drive the 13-mile scenic loop through the canyon, many of them parking at the Temple of Sinawava for a two-mile stroll along the paved Gateway to the Narrows Trail. Weeping Rock Trail, Emerald Pools Trail, Watchman Trail, Canyon Overlook Trail, and the hike to Angels Landing--a five-mile round trip with a 1,488-foot climb--are all fairly besieged.

Where You Should Go: Zion isn't particularly large as national parks go, so it's best to adhere to the GAAMR rule: Go Anywhere Away from the Main Road. In Zion's case this can be a little tricky, as much of the good backcountry in the park's western and northern regions is accessible only on rigorous, up-and-down footpaths that barely qualify as trails. So you might want to pick up a backcountry permit at the visitor center and try to wade through the knee- to chest-deep waters of Narrows of Zion Canyon, which roughly follows the scenic drive. Sure, the crowds have gotten bigger in the last few years (the park now limits day as well as overnight use), and sure, the rangers are now forced to go in once a week to haul out human waste, but the 16-mile downstream trip remains the signature Zion experience. This stream, a tributary of the Virgin River, dips into the heart of the canyon and moves fast enough to make backtracking next to impossible. So give yourself at least 12 hours to cover the 16 miles, bring a walking stick and good hiking boots, and try not to worry about flash floods--the rangers have a solid track record when it comes to forecasting storms.

Or you could head north to Lava Point, a primitive six-site campground down a winding dirt road from the Kolob Reservoir. There you can camp at 8,000 feet among aspens, spruces, firs, and a coyote or two. Campsites are first come, first served; bring your own water.

Mountain biking is not allowed on park trails, so try Smithsonian Butte, a 25-mile gravel road that connects Route 9 and Route 59 and rises 2,000 feet above Zion Canyon in the sage and redrock. Zion Canyon Cycling in Springdale (801-772-3929) charges $10-$20 per day for a 21-speed bike, complete with map, helmet, and water bottle.

Finally, consider visiting the park in October. The crowds are gone, the weather can be perfect, and Zion's vaunted colors are best complemented by a fat harvest moon.

Don't Forget: That Zion's deep, narrow canyons require some extra gear: a flashlight, warm clothes for evenings, and plenty of water, as that of the Virgin River doesn't exactly live up to its name.

Where to Bunk: For views, try the Garden Suite of the Zion House Bed & Breakfast ($47-$65; 801-772-3281), which has its own entrance and two king-size beds and looks out over Watchman and Eagles Crag. For something more rustic, there are always the cabins at Zion Lodge ($63-$100 for a double; 801-772-3213).

Food Is: Decent, provided you accompany it with several margaritas from the Bit & Spur in Springdale (801-772-3498). The omnipresent T. W. Recreational Services runs a restaurant and snack bar in the park; avoid them if you can.

Park Lore: Sure, the park literature may prattle on about the erosional wonders of river and rain, but even in Zion, carving a canyon takes a little time. In the 2,000-foot deep, 20-foot-wide section called the Narrows, the walls are moving apart by a less-than-scintillating 0.003 inch per year.

Your Park Service at Work: Despite the rangers' nearly constant trumpeting about how Zion keeps visitor facilities and accommodations outside the park, this strategy may be on the verge of backfiring. With 2.5 million people visiting each year and much of the backcountry inaccessible, the Park Service has created a situation in which it's too easy to get to the park and too difficult to get around inside it beyond the overcrowded thoroughfares. "They're not providing anything I would consider a true park experience," says park volunteer and Springdale resident Marcel Rodriguez, "and visitation is increasing 6 to 8 percent a year. In five years it will be untenable--you won't be able to get in."

Where the money goes:
Budget: $2,627,300
Science: 0%
Visitor services: 19.9%
Maintenance: 41.9%
Other: 39.2%

Flashlight Reading: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey (Ballantine, $5.95). Most of it is set in nearby Arches National Park, but the lessons still apply. On the more practical side, try Exploring the Backcountry of Zion National Park: Off-Trail Routes, by Thomas Brereton and James Dunaway (Zion Natural History Association, $6.95).

Fun Index: Ed Abbey meets Walt Disney: 3

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