October 22nd – Zion National Park – Munkutuweap (Straight Canyon)
Impossibly tall spires, pinnacles, monuments, ramparts, towers, precipices, aeries. These are some of the descriptive elements that make up the experience that is Zion Canyon. For me, the experience of entering Zion Canyon for the first time was an emotional one. I was simply overcome by the feeling that a place like this couldn’t possibly be for real. Indeed, some of the first Europeans to enter the canyon described a place that people simply couldn’t comprehend. A place with walls and formations so tall that they were surely home to angels. The great nineteenth-century American landscape painter, Thomas Moran, did a noble job capturing the vistas of Zion Canyon. Apparently though, when these paintings were exhibited back east they were met with disbelief. Surely Moran was painting a fantasy world, not the real world. Zion is also a place that is sacred to the original inhabitants. Apparently, these people never ventured into the Canyon, for fear that they would not return from the Spirit world. When the first Mormon pioneer went in the canyon overnight and emerged in the morning, the people thought they were seeing a ghost.
When photographs and paintings of Zion were shown at the 1904 World Exhibition in St. Louis it spurred a great deal of interest. Designation as a National Park followed in 1919 and soon people began visiting the Park in greater numbers, with the advent of the automobile. In the 1930s a road (the one we entered on) was built entering Zion Canyon from the East. This Road features a mile-long tunnel high on the canyon wall and a series of switchbacks spiraling down to the canyon floor. This road must have been quite an engineering feat for its time. If a vehicle pulling a trailer approaches the tunnel then traffic must be blocked and the vehicle escorted through, due to the narrowness of the tunnel.
The photographs in this blog entry are not mine. Rather, they are selected from the internet. I forgot my camera on this trip and even my iPhone died, so I couldn’t take my own photos. I think the photographs do an amazing job of capturing Zion in all its magnificence. The photos show the canyon both from above and below. The canyon itself was carved over eons by the Virgin River. The Virgin River always has water, and one of the great experiences in Zion is walking in the river as one explores what is known as The Narrows. The Narrows goes on for miles, and must be the tallest slot canyon anywhere. The highest walls in the canyon rise over 3,700 feet. I suppose that the bottom of Zion Canyon must approximate the feeling of being in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The walls of Zion go straight up though, whereas the Grand Canyon walls step back. It also reminds me of Yosemite Valley. Rock climbers are drawn to both places for world-class climbing. These walls are best left to the pros.
We took the Grotto Trail to some wonderful pools at the base of a large formation. There are lower waterfalls where the upper pools empty into a natural amphitheater. Climbing the trail a little higher takes one to an otherworldly place where a misty waterfall hundreds of feet high empties into the upper pools. The waterfall when we were there was just the lightest mist, such that the waterfall could not be seen from a distance.
Zion is near the top of the Grand Staircase. The staircase starts in Arizona near the Grand Canyon, rises to the Vermillion Cliffs on the Utah border, rises to Bryce National Park and Zion National Park and reaches its pinnacle at Cedar Breaks National Monument to the north of Zion. All told the staircase rises over one mile.
Camping in Zion was a joy. The campground is surrounded by the canyon formations. In the dark of night the formations still loom – taking on an almost eery presence. Watching the sun set and rise on the canyon walls is delightful. The dark, colorless formations begin to emerge in their colorful glory as the morning progresses.
I recommend visiting Zion in the early Spring or late fall, to avoid the crowds and to visit when it’s not so brutally hot, as it is in the summer. Zion Canyon is served by a shuttle that takes visitors from point to scenic point, which is a relief from the pollution that used to be caused by so many cars in the canyon at one time. Yosemite Valley should finally enact a shuttle system, to protect those formations from pollution.