As I said in an earlier post, we thought perhaps we could slip into Zion proper on a Monday morning without the crowds for which this park is famous. Silly us. In spite of the crowds, however, the road through the tunnel to the east side of the park is something I didn’t want to miss. It is spectacular.
We were camped much too close to the iconic National Park to miss seeing its wonders, crowds or not. Hiking was not on the agenda for the day, or at least nothing much beyond a short walk or two. With only one day, we decided to play “drive through tourist”. You know, you see them at most every National Park or Monument. The ones in the car driving slowly along, gawking at the sights that they can see from their windows, never emerging from the vehicle to actually experience the magic in more depth.
You know us well enough by now to know that we don’t do that all the time. Just sometimes. Still, in spite of our plans, we couldn’t manage to stay in the car entirely. I did jump out now and then for a photo, and yes, we did manage a short hike/walk before the day was finished.
Hiking is what you ‘do’ in Zion Canyon. This part was as I remembered, it is all about UP. Everything is up, up, up, and trying to take photos is a test of framing skill. I would shoot those magnificently colored eroded cliffs, carved by the innocent looking Virgin River, and then think, “Geez, everything just looks the same”. Up, and Red and White, and more UP, with a tiny bit of fresh new green in the canyon bottom from the spring explosion of box elder, Fremont cottonwoods, and willow.
It was early in the day when we drove east on Highway 9, through Virgin, through the sweet little town of Rockville, and into the gentrified, once Mormon pioneer community of Springdale, gateway to the park. Springdale was glitzy, with some rather ostentatious homes that looked incredibly out of place, a lovely paved bike trail, and all the associated restaurants, B and B’s, hotels, motels, shops and “fun stuff” associated with many National Parks.
Visitation to Zion is incredible, 7th on the list of the ten most visited national parks in the US, with 2,807,387 visits in 2013. That is an average of nearly 8,000 visits per day, and I would imagine that some of the worst winter days don’t see a lot of people, although winter is Zion isn’t daunting. Looking up these statistics, I was happy we weren’t visiting the Great Smoky Mountains NP, first on the list with 9,354,695 visits in 2013. Something tells me that as a nation, we love our national parks, so why are we not funding them properly?
The soil survey program in the National Parks has been headed by a good friend of mine for several years. He just retired, and just before his retirement, all funding for soil survey was ended except for projects already funded and in progress. It isn’t just scientific programs like soil survey that are ending, it is all sorts of other support needed for these parks to function well that are being cut.
On this morning, I saw a great example of how the Park Service is dealing with reduced funding in incredibly creative ways. The stunning Visitor Center had most of its displays outside the main lobby. The signs were beautifully done, easily understood and arranged in a way that visitors could learn about the park without even entering the small bookstore. Fewer people to interpret, but interpretive displays that made personal interaction a lesser requirement. Good for the parks.
We spent some time reviewing the hikes we might take in the future, looking at the plants, animals, geology, and layout of the park, reading a bit about the history of the area before we got back in the car to drive through the famous tunnel.
Currently the tunnel is open to RV’s, with an extra $15.00 fee required in addition to the regular $25.00 fee for simply driving through the park. This is one place where the senior pass saved us a bunch of cash, even without the rig along. Here is a link to questions about driving an RV on the Zion to Mt Carmel highway through the tunnel.
The story of the road and the building of the tunnel is fascinating, an engineering feat that was once considered impossible. Once the tunnel was completed in 1930, roads between the national parks on the Colorado Plateau were connected in a way to make travel between them much easier, and park visitation grew exponentially during the heyday of family car vacations from the 30’s forward.
We enjoyed the drive, patiently waiting for traffic here and there, and laughing about how this was the “experience’ of traveling in a national park any more. Many parks now have shuttles available to manage the worst of the traffic, and in Zion, after March 31, cars are not allowed in Zion Canyon. From April 1 through October in 2014, access to the canyon will be by shuttle only. A large number of the most famous hikes in Zion are from trailheads in the canyon, so hiking will require some planning ahead.
The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway connects Springdale with Kanab, Utah. West of Kanab, a side road leads to the Coral Pink Dunes State Park. The scenery between Zion and the Dunes is a bit less spectacular than some, with high juniper covered plateaus punctuated by distant mesas and mountains. I had been to the dunes in the past, only long enough to step on the sand and try to avoid the wild ATV’s screaming around having a great time. When I visited, the state park was filled with campers and 4 wheelers, and the noise was deafening.
Lots of fun for some folks, but not such a great place to wander sand dunes on foot. On this beautiful March morning, however, we practically had the dunes to ourselves, and the state park campground was nearly empty. What a treat!! The sand is soft soft grains of eroded Navajo sandstone, the same soft pink coral color found in the Navajo slickrock near Lake Powell. The sand was softer and silkier than any I have ever felt, except maybe that little bit that we walked through in Antelope Canyon.
Making our way back west, and re entering Zion NP, we were momentarily stopped by the typical wildlife jam found in most places where big critters hang out along the road. Joining the jam, we turned around and watched the baby goats dance along the slickrock.
One young woman was parked right in the middle of the road, and kept waving us to go around. Nope. Not on your life. It was a blind curve and we weren’t about to pass her! As cars piled up behind us, I finally got out and said, “Sorry, we aren’t going to pass on a blind curve, could you maybe move forward and pull over a bit?” She replied, “No, I am just waiting for my family” and didn’t move. Finally, after some time, she figured out that she was going to have to do something and drove the 400 feet or so ahead where a turnout gave her some space and all the rest of us managed to get around her. Ahh the joys of traveling a national park in a car!
Once back through the tunnel, we came to the turn toward the canyon and decided, what the heck, we won’t be back here soon. Knowing that it would be bumper to bumper, we didn’t even think about hiking.
At each trailhead, the lots were jammed and the cars were lined up on both sides of the road for some distance. People were everywhere! We could see the trails with lines and lines of people walking along, much like that line of ants that you see on Half Dome in Yosemite if you look closely.
At the end of the canyon is the famous view of The Great White Throne, iconic image of Zion, restrooms, and the trailhead for the Riverside Trail Walk, a short 2.2 mile round trip hike if you don’t attempt to cross the Virgin River into the Narrows. Again, the parking lot was jammed, people were everywhere, and we had no plans to hike. The Canyon knew better, however, and a parking slot opened up within a few feet of the trailhead.
Ok then. Maybe we can brave the crowds for a simple walk, get out of the car at least once? Ya think?
I can’t believe in the ability of the canyon to absorb all that humanity and still feel as wonderful as it did. Within minutes of walking north into the canyon on the wide paved trail, the humanity thinned out and the beauty of the canyon and river was ours. Sure, there were people, but it was totally worth it to experience the canyon in that late afternoon light.
We took our time, enjoying the views, the light and shadow, watching the rock climbers a bit, listening to the birds and the water dripping on the canyon walls in the hanging gardens. Two miles on a level trail doesn’t qualify as a “hike”, but at least we did get out of the car.
I plan to go back and read Mark’s accounts of the many hikes he and Bobbie have done in Zion and the time of year that they did them. We enjoyed camping at Virgin so much, and I have a feeling that we will return to this area again, hopefully during late fall, and maybe actually manage at least some of the gorgeous hikes in Zion National Park. For sure we can do the hikes that are accessible from the Kolob Canyon area that we explored yesterday.