Friday, October 22, 2010

Zion National Park --

Zion National Park, Utah -- We arrived here late in the day after a long tiring drive across half of Nevada and then down the west side of Utah.
The campgrounds were full. Even the parking lots inside the national park were full when we pulled into the gateway town of Springdale, Utah. We used that as an excuse to find a decent meal and a motel.
The park was still a mystery to us but the scene out the back of the motel was very promising.

The little town, a former Mormon farming community now in the tourist business, was like a small-scale Gatlinburg, Tennessee, near the entrance to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park-- but without the carnival and sleaze. It felt like a ski resort town: expensive but semi-classy.

Despite doing some research on the internet we knew very little about Zion. The park's web site was not very helpful, except that it is one of several popular canyon parks in Utah and very pretty.
So pre-dawn the next morning we got one of the first parking spots in the park's lot (neither the gate kiosk nor the Visitor Center was open at 7 a.m.) and hopped onto the free shuttle bus to tour the canyon with four or five other early risers. You can also park outside the park gate, and ride a free shuttle in to the Visitor Center.

The Park Service shuttle system in Zion is a model of what good public systems should be. The road into the main canyon is too narrow and the visitors too numerous to allow private vehicles, but the buses run every seven minutes, the narration of what you are seeing out the window is interesting and audible, and the drivers were courteous and helpful.
At each stop the narrator/tour guide explained what trails and sites were available, how difficult or easy the walking would be, and what you could expect to see.
We rode to the end of the canyon to take the one-mile hike beyond where the road ends, gawking out the windows as we stared up at the multi-colored cliffs. The sun was still hiding so our photographs don't reflect the strong red colors of later in the day. The narrator provided some history, geology, and even a little poetry as we rode along. The place has a glowing sensual feel.
From the last shuttle stop we hiked to the end of the formal trail up the canyon, following the edge of the river. As the sun broke on the tops of the cliffs, the colors were breathtaking.
When the river takes over the entire narrow canyon floor, you have to make a choice.
Hearty walkers rent neoprene pants and walking staffs and continue up the canyon in the middle of the Virgin River for a mile or so more.
We watched that part, but kept our feet dry.

After spending most of the morning in the upper end of the canyon, we rode the shuttle back to the Zion Lodge to catch a late breakfast just before the lunch shift came on. The lodge was quiet, and beautiful, and did not seem crowded till much later in the day. Another pleasant surprise: the meal was excellent and reasonably priced, unlike many other national parks.

We found space in one of the campgrounds near the Visitor Center before getting back onto the shuttle for one more trip to explore the canyon. By the time we reached the excellent Human History Museum, one stop along the shuttle route, Pat was ready for a short nap on the benches out back.
I spent my time admiring the scenery, including a view of a very rare arch of stone high up the canyon wall. If it can be reached by today's hikers, I didn't ask or want to find out. It was pretty from a telephoto distance.
There were great views in all directions.
But soon it was back to the shuttle and a hike up to the verdant pools in the side canyons.
Unlike the dry desert flora of the highlands and the flat floor of the open canyon, these side canyons host pools that are wet constantly, producing entirely different vegetation and hosting different wildlife. Mostly German and French tourists.
We did see a few deer.
Our late afternoon ride out of the canyon was enhanced by three young Italian families, laughing, hugging their children, and celebrating being in a beautiful place.

As we drove out of Zion the next morning through a tunnel into higher terrain, we realized there are entirely different sections of the park we could have spent days in. The route out was one example, with amazing views and geology all around us. The northwest corner of the park, accessible from the Interstate, is much more remote and less visited.
Zion was not very crowded for our October visit, but I understand it can be very crowded in peak summer and holiday seasons. The campgrounds were full because of a long weekend holiday for the Utah school system children.
Go early.
Stay longer.

One of the smartest ideas we've seen in recent years was this effort by the Park Service to eliminate some of the millions of plastic bottles used for water. They do not sell bottle water in the park, but they do sell inexpensive refillable water bottles and provide fill-up stations along the way.
That's an idea I hope more parks will emulate.

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