The Road to Zion

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine. Text and Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis.

Utah’s State Road 9 runs through Zion National Park for a breathtaking 14-mile drive that National Geographic describes as one of “America’s 100 best adventures.”

The drive through Zion National Park on State Road 9, also known as the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, in southern Utah certainly took my breath away. Steep ravines where no bottom Emerald Trailseemed to exist, long tunnels with no end in sight, and tight switchbacks where drivers rode the brakes for miles created a nail-biting experience. In the end, though, the journey into one of America’s most awe-inspiring national parks was worth every white-knuckled hairpin turn.

Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the area thousands of years ago, as well as the Mormon pioneers who came to the region in the 1800s, considered the rocky canyons to be a refuge from the desert’s harsh climates. Zion means “promised land,” and the name certainly evoked the park’s significance after the drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion’s gateway town of Springdale.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway descends 2,000 feet from the park’s east entrance and skirts along Zion’s southern edge. When we finally pulled into the Zion Park Motel at dusk, my husband and I exhaled deeply and promised ourselves we would gather our courage to return to some of the highway’s overlooks for photographs.

Neither photos nor words do justice to the grandeur of Zion’s sandstone peaks, especially as the late afternoon shadows creep from one side of the highway to the other. This trip to three of America’s most beautiful national parks — Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion — had been on our bucket lists for years. We saved Zion National Park for last, as it was the one we most wanted to explore.

waterfall-with-hiker“All this is the music of the waters,” scientific explorer John Wesley Powell said of Zion in 1895. Zion’s peaks have been and continue to be carved by water. Weeping rocks create hanging gardens and waterfalls end in natural reflecting pools. Hiking the famous Zion Narrows requires wading shoes and waterproof bags, as the trail runs not alongside but rather in the Virgin River. The picturesque trail is also famous for flash floods and can be closed to hikers for impending storms.

Shuttles provide access from Springdale and the Zion Visitors Center to the park’s trail heads on the 6.6-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from April 1 through October. At nearly 150,000 acres — and much of it wilderness — Zion National Park is impossible to see in one visit or, for that matter, in a lifetime. Hiking a trail is the only way to truly experience the park. The easy Riverside Walk alongside the Virgin River is paved and wheelchair accessible. At its end, the more rugged hikers wade toward the often-photographed Narrows, where rock walls are 2,000 feet high but only twenty-to-thirty feet apart in places.

We chose to hike the moderate Emerald Pools and Grotto Trails, where the climb was steep enough to enjoy majestic views without creating additional nail-biting experiences. I also recommend catching the sunrise behind the Zion Human History Museum where the cream, pink, and red colors on the Towers of the Virgin and Bridge Mountain are dramatic.

Virgin-River-View--revisedAnd we really did keep our promise to return to the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, our road to Zion. This time we were prepared to pull over at the designated areas where we could inhale the beauty that inspires visitors today just as it did for Native Americans and early pioneers.

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