Zion National Park


Zion Canyon – ‘Court of the Patriarchs’

I visited all five of the major national parks in Utah when I was a kid, and I remember enjoying them more than any other parks I’d seen. As many of the parks I visited bore little relation to fainy childhood memories, I was curious to see how they’d stack up.

The first park on the agenda was Zion, and here I found my evaluation stymied by continuing bad weather. I’d been pursued by rain through Southern California and Arizona, and it was as bad in Utah as it had been in Sedona. I stayed at Zion two days, and it rained intermittently both days. The weather could change within an hour or two, making predictions difficult. Should I hike or not? Tough to tell in advance.

I entered the park from the east entrance. Here the landscape was more astonishing than anything I’ve seen so far. Big swooping sandstone hills, ‘checkerboard mesa,’ it felt like a Doctor Seuss landscape. This section of the park is separated from the far more popular Zion Canyon by an impressive 1.1 mile tunnel, excavated in the 1930s. I passed through this section in clouds and vowed to take some pictures in what would presumably be better weather a few days later. But it was not to be: floods damaged this part of the road and I could not return, having to leave from the south entrance.


View of the canyon during rare sunlight

When I visited in the late 90s, these parks in Utah were considered hidden gems, but they’re secret no longer. The main road in this park is closed to cars and only accessible by shuttle buses, which arrive at every stop in 7-10 minute intervals on an 80-minute route. As you can imagine, this is a pretty substantial system, and many of the buses were nearly full. This in September. According to statistics I looked up, in 1996 there were 2.5 million visitors to Zion. In 2012, this had increased to 3 million, and it’s basically a linear increase. It will only get worse.


Angel’s Landing is at the top of this peak

After grabbing what was one of the last remaining campsites I hopped on the shuttle. I wanted to hike the famous Angel’s Landing trail, and took the long way past the ‘Emerald Pools,’ but the clouds began to darken and a light rain began to fall. I decided to turn back after hiking 4 miles here. It was a good decision – as I later found out, there were sections of the trail narrow enough that a chain is attached to the cliff on one side to provide a handhold. Not something I wanted to face on slick rock!


Dark clouds, about to pummel the campground

I returned to the campground and read for a little while, but the clouds were growing increasingly ominous. I’ve never seen clouds so dark. I was very happy that I was able to sleep in the van – I finished setting up my curtains and rearranging the junk inside just as the rain began to fall. It poured heavily for half an hour, and then continued to rain for another few hours until I fell asleep.

The next morning I wanted to do a strenuous hike, and chose the ‘Observation Point,’ which I believe is the highest accessible point in the park. A 2000 foot climb over 6 miles, I was able to climb steadily, but it was certainly exhausting. Many of these parks in Utah and Arizona are at deceptive elevations: as a ‘baseline,’ both Zion and Grand Canyon are 7000 feet, and here I climbed over 8500. I can definitely feel the difference in elevation.


Narrow slot canyon, 700 feet above the main Zion floor

This trail began with some rather dull switchbacks, but quickly entered a beautiful slot canyon, with a small stream. Crossing the stream, climibing continues around some mountains. Here, the fog began to close in, though it wasn’t yet raining. The last 400 feet of climbing are along a bare cliff edge, by far the most harrowing I’ve seen on my trip so far. The path is about 4 feet wide, with a 100+ foot drop to one side and a vertical cliff to the other. I took it carefully: at some places a slip or collapse of the rain-soaked ground could have been very dangerous.


“View” from Observation Point

Finally a reached the summit and the observation point – but I’d climbed through the fog and there was nothing to observe! The other neary peaks were visible, rising like islands about the clouds, and it seemed like maybe the fog would be lifting: tendrils wound their way around these mountains, sticking close to the rock. The fog moved with surprising rapidity, but seemed to have an endless stock. It just kept coming, and soon I was completely enclosed in fog, with visibility cut down to 20-30 feet. Regretfully I began my return journey.


Fog heading down from Observation Point. 20 feet of visibility, with a drop of hundreds of feet to the right

Soon enough, the rain began, and it really poured. Little streams appeared on the bare rock, and turned into waterfalls, some cascading over the path. I took shelter under one rock overhang with a few other people. Our concern was the flooding across the stream we’d crossed below.

Finally I headed out from safety, the rain just pouring down. The stream was higher than before, but I was able to cross without problems. It was all for naught, though, as rounding the corner there was an enormous waterfall pouring across the path – probably dropping 50 feet before it hit. I hesitated to cross, and when I did I could feel it pushing me. When I took my boots off later, I could literally pour water out.


A typical look at the trail

It cleared up when I finished this hike, but I decided to stay inside; the fog never lifted. Later in the afternoon, and through the night, the rain continued. This was my Zion experience.

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