A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY #3 – Zion National Park
A WEEK IN RED ROCK COUNTRY #3 – Zion National Park
Day 3 Map
Zion National Park
After spending the night in St. George, UT, the next morning we headed off to spend the morning in Zion National Park on our way to the day’s destination at Bryce National Park. From St. George, Zion is only about an hour drive through farming valley’s and up into red rock country.
Zion is located where three large geologic areas meet in Southern Utah. These are the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert regions. On this travel log series, up till now we’ve been in the Mojave Desert region and are now moving into the Colorado Plateau region. Like Yosemite, the main feature of Zion National Park is the canyon. The entire park is 229-square-mile (590 km2) - for comparison Yosemite is 1168 square miles – but the Canyon itself is 15 miles (24 km) long and up to half a mile (800 m) deep. The canyon was formed where the North Fork of the Virgin River cut through Navajo Sandstone.
After driving up along the Virgin River from St. George through a fertile farming valley, we got to Springdale, which is next to the western entrance of the park. Zion first came under government control in 1909 when President William Howard Taft created Mukuntuweap National Monument to protect the canyon. Nine years later, in 1918, the acting director of the newly created National Park Service changed the park's name to Zion, the name used by the Mormons. According to historian Hal Rothman. "The name change played to a prevalent bias of the time. Many believed that Spanish and Indian names would deter visitors who, if they could not pronounce the name of a place, might not bother to visit it”. The new name, Zion, had greater appeal to an ethnocentric audience. The following year Congress established it as a National Park. The Kolob section was originally a separate National Monument created in 1937, but was incorporated into the park in 1956.
If you were a Native American before the occupation of North America by Europeans, Zion would have been a wonderful place to live. It has year round water, mild winters, game to hunt and fertile land. As such it’s no surprise that a string of different groups of people called Zion home. Going back about 8,000 years we had small family groups of Native Americans; the semi-nomadic Basketmaker Anasazi (300 CE). In turn, the Virgin Anasazi culture (500 CE) developed as the Basketmakers settled in permanent communities. A different group, the Parowan Fremont, lived in the area as well. Both groups moved away by 1300 and were replaced by the Parrusits and several other Southern Paiute subtribes. Mormons came into the area in 1858 and settled here in the early 1860s. Most of the Mormon’s lived in the town of Springdale, where the Virgin River exits the main part of the canyon so when the area came under US Gov’t control as a monument, and later a park, they did not include the town of Springdale in the protected area. The settlers inside the protected area moved to Springdale or other areas. Today Springdale is pretty much 100% dedicated to the tourist trade. It is made up of motels (more and more by the minute), restaurants and gift shops all lined up right up to the main entrance to Zion NP.
We arrived in Springdale around 11:00 am and made a quick stop at the visitor center. There’s not much to see in the visitor center itself but there is a museum a bit up the road but we didn’t stop there on this trip. But, the visitor center does have a working bathroom which was the main reason to stop. The visitor center is quite new and modern and is by the main campgrounds for the park. From here you can look up into the wide part of Zion Canyon where cottonwood trees line the river. Being February, the trees were bare but the light colored bark of the branches in the mid day sun made the branches glow white against the red hued cliffs behind them
Cottonwood trees in the South Campground near the Visitor Center
Cottonwood trees and Lower Zion Canyon near Visitor Center
VIRGIN RIVER BRIDGE
Out first stop after leaving the visitor center was at the bridge where RT-9 (Zion Park Blvd according to Google, but Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway according to the Park Service Map) goes over the North Fork of the Virgin River. From here you can see up river into the main canyon and down river toward Springdale to the west.
The geology of the Zion and Kolob canyons area includes nine formations that together represent 150 million years of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation. At various periods in that time warm, shallow seas, streams, ponds and lakes, vast deserts, and dry near-shore environments covered the area. Uplift associated with the creation of the Colorado Plateaus lifted the region 10,000 feet (3,000 m) starting 13 million years ago.
As you look at the walls you can see several different colored rock layers ranging from reds all the way to white representing these different sedimentary layers. Starting at the top there is the Temple Cap formation (light pink), Navajo Sandstone (white on top going to light red at bottom) and Kayenta Formation (red). The other layers below that are still underground at Zion but can be seen in other parks such as the Grand Canyon.
Small waterfall in cliff face
Zion National Park from Virgin river Bridge
Zion National Park from Virgin river Bridge
Virgin river looking toward Springdale
ZION CANYON SCENIC DRIVE LANDSLIDE
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive diverts from Rt-9 at the Virgin River bridge and follows the Virgin river 6.2 miles upstream to the Temple of Sinawava where you can continue on up river on foot to the mouth of the lower end of the narrows (gorge) itself. I should point out that this drive is not open to private vehicles between March 15 and November 29, except to get to the Zion Lodge with reservations. During that time they run free shuttle busses from the visitor center all the way to the Temple of Sinawava every 15 minute or so during daylight hours.
As you make your way up the scenic drive there are several sights to see. One of the first things you pass is the site of the April 1995 landslide. This landslide dammed the river causing it to form a lake. The landslide and subsequent rising water shorted out the underground power lines, broke the fresh water line and blocked the sewer line. Between the slide itself and the rising water the road was impassable. This stranded 450 people (150 staff and 300 visitors). They were all given rooms to stay in at the lodge or employee housing and plenty of food but no water, electricity or sewer services. Fortunately the slide took place around 9 pm when there was no traffic on the road and no one was injured. The lake that formed behind the slide got to be 30 feet deep and stretched a quarter of a mile up into the valley. Having an impromptu lake held back by only loose debris was a good recipe for a flash flood if that “dam” broke so they evacuated over 1,000 campers and vacationers downstream, some from riverside motels in Springdale. As it turned out the dirt dam didn’t break but the water carved a new channel which slowly eroded the dam and also do to the waters new path undercut the road. The next day, using heavy machinery trucked in from St. George, they were able to bull doze a one lane track through the debris and the stranded people were able to carefully drive their own vehicles past the slide and back to civilization.
COURT OF THE PATRIARCHS
Continuing up the road (no landslide this day) we stopped at the Court of the Patriarchs which is made up of 3 large mountain peaks (or points) overlooking Birch Creek Canyon and a section of the Virgin River. They were named after the 3 towering figures of the of the Old Testament (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in 1916 by Frederick Vining Fisher, a Methodist (not Mormon) minister. From the bus stop – which we used as a parking space since the buses were not running this time of year – it is a very short walk up a bit of hill. Took us maybe 3 minutes for this “hike” (whooo, am I tired). From the view point at the end of this short paved trail you can get a good view of these 3 towering formations.
Court of the Patriarchs
River Walk Trail & The Narrows
Due to time constraints, rather than stopping at a long list of other points of interest along the road we drove all the way to the end at the Temple of Sinawava and the beginning of the Riverside Walk. This is a 2.2 mile paved trail along the river with only a few ups and downs. Along the way you pass small meadows reclaimed from river sand bars, small river rapids, green grottos where water oozes out of the cliffs between geologic layers, and nice beaches suitable for swimming in warm weather. At each twist and turn in the canyon you are afforded with another spectacular view of sheer red cliffs ascending vertically thousands of feet straight up. As you make your way along the trail the canyon continues to narrow.
The end of this paved walk is the beginning of “The Narrows”. You’ll know you are there because the asphalt ends at the edge of the river and to continue you need to wade through the water to the other side. The Narrows is the most popular hike in the park and is one of the most spectacular canyon hikes in the word (Google “The Narrows Hike Zion” and you’ll see what I mean). The spectacular gorge (or narrows) was carved by the Virgin River forming what is now called Upper Zion Canyon. In places the canyon is over 2,000 feet tall and only 20 to 30 feet wide. Along the way are soaring sheer walls, sandstone grottos and hanging gardens.
In our younger days, 1972, we hiked much of the narrows but not today. If you do go, after wading across the river, the first part of The Narrows Trail is on land but after a bit you find that the trail is actually in the river itself, and you are wading upstream in the main river flow on slippery rocks. Although I think hiking poles are a ridiculous affectation, this is one place where they are almost mandatory to keep you vertical on the slippery rocks under the water. When we hiked it over 40 years ago at the beginning of the trail was a box where you could borrow wooden hiking poles.
The narrows hike is 9.4 miles (about 60% of which is in the water – many times up to waist or chest deep and depending on water flow you may have to swim some sections. The lower hike takes upwards of 8 hours – one way - if you’re fit. In the heat of the summer, hiking in the water is actually quite refreshing, but not so much in winter. Many more ambitious folks start at the top and hike down into the valley winding up at the River Walk. This turns out to be a 16 mile route so bringing food is a good idea. With a permit you are allowed to camp in route.
But a word of caution. The water can be cold and the current can be swift. And there is a significant danger of flash flooding. If you decide to do some portion of this hike you are a fool if you don’t stop at the visitor center first to get a weather and flash flood assessment. In this part of the country, especially in summer months, torrential thunderstorms come by from time to time. When this happens narrow canyons like this one can become a death trap with no way out. What makes it more important to check with the rangers first is that the weather at Zion may be perfectly clear but a thunderstorm over a hundred miles away (unseen and unheard at Zion) can cause these flash floods here. If the Rangers say there is even a mild chance of flash flooding – don’t go. Each year several people don’t heed the warnings and get caught.
I don’t have photos of “The Narrows” from the trip in 1972 but here are some of the River Walk
Side Canyon along River Walk
Tiny HooDoo in Cliff Face
Virgin River along the River Walk
Trees taking root on a sand bar
Sheer walls of Zion Canyon
Water Trickles down from side canyon above River Walk
A Hanging Garden along the River Walk
After a very pleasant lunch in the venerable Zion Lodge restaurant with a view out the picture windows to kill for, we said goodbye to the Virgin River and made our way toward the east entrance. We rejoined Rt-9 (Zion Mt. Carmel Highway) at canyon junction where it heads into a dead end box canyon at which point it ascends the side of the canyon through a series of switch backs eventually arriving at the “Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel”.
This 1.1 mile long tunnel was completed in 1930. When the tunnel was dedicated on July 4 that year it was the longest tunnel of its type in the United States. The purpose of the Tunnel Highway was to create direct access to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon from Zion National Park – which it does.
When the tunnel was designed in the 1920’s the main traffic in mind were private automobiles, perhaps with small trailers. Even the idea of big tour busses and those full size ranch houses (RV’s) that many folks vacation with today was unimaginable. As such the tunnel width and height was not created to accommodate such vehicles. Before 1989, large vehicles - including tour buses, motor homes, and large trailers, were involved in more and more accidents and near misses in the tunnel. A study by the Federal Highways Administration in early 1989 found that large vehicles could not negotiate the curves of the tunnel without crossing the center line and tall vehicles had to straddle the center line to avoid hitting the ceiling where it curved down near the edges of the roadway. To ensure safety, the National Park Service began traffic control at the tunnel in the spring of that year. Rangers posted at each end of the tunnel convert it to one-way when larger vehicles need to get through, ensuring safe passage. This service, for which a $15 dollar tunnel permit fee is charged, was provided for over 27,874 oversized vehicles in calendar year 2011. In addition large vehicles can only use the tunnel during daylight hours (times by month can be found online).
Of course what this means is that many times you get to the tunnel and have to wait before you can go through. If you’re in a large vehicle you have to wait till there is a collection of large vehicles that will be let through together – usually followed by a similar group going the other way. If you’re not in a large vehicle sometimes you have to wait till a group of large vehicles come through which is what happened to us in February. I can’ t image how time consuming this must be in the summer. Anyway, we had to wait about 15 minutes so we got out and took some photos from the roadside.
The Great Arch (2012 photo)
The Sentinel from West end of Tunnel
EAST OF THE TUNNEL (CHECKERBOARD MESA)
After passing through the tunnel, you find yourself 1,000 feet higher (5,000 ft +) than you were in Zion Canyon in a somewhat different sort of landscape. You’re no longer looking up at sheer cliffs but more looking out over fascinating landscapes. Not too far beyond the tunnel the road goes through some narrow areas with boulder strewn walls on both sides where Big Horn Sheep like to hang out and sun themselves on ledges overlooking the road. On this trip we saw one on a ledge above the road but by the time we found a pull off, stopped, got the camera out and switched to the long lens all we got was butt shots as he walked away so I’ll show you a photo of the same thing from our 2012 trip.
A bit further on we passed a very photogenic Bonsai Pine clinging to a knob but the nearest pull out to park was a quarter mile away so we just admired it as we went by (I have a 2012 photo that I’ll include).
Pressing on we came to Checkerboard Mesa. This is a massive hill towering 900 feet above the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and resembles a giant, extended chess or checkerboard with a crisscrossed pattern of fractures in the rock. It is actually a petrified sand dune. The left to right deep cracks are due to a north to south wind direction while the vertical cracks are a result of weathering, a cycle of freezing and thawing. Checkerboard Mesa was once known as Rock Candy Mountain, but in 1938 the superintendent gave it the name we use today.
Nearby is a formation called “Crazy Quilt Mesa” which has a different form of cross-bedding. This again is a petrified sand dune but here you can see how the sand blew one way then another before it was solidified.
Big Horn Sheep (2012 photo)
Bonsai Pine, On The Edge (2012 photo)
Crazy Quilt Mesa
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log. The next installment we’ll talk about Red Canyon.
This Blog can be found online here: http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/10/a-week-in-red-rock-country-3
Images from this trip can be found on my website at
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: Bighorn Sheep, Blog, Bonsai Pine, Checkerboard Mesa, Court of the Patriarchs, Crazy Quilt Mesa, Dan Hartford Photo, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogRedRock, Great Arch, Red Rock Formations, River Walk, Springdale, The Narrows (Zion), The Sentinel, Travel Blog, Travel Log, Virgin River, Zion, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Zion Tunnel
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