Earthly Paradise: Zion National Park

When it comes to standing in awe of nature’s magnificence, it’s hard to beat the Grand Circle Tour—especially the northern arc that carves across southern Utah and encompasses Zion National Park at the western edge and Arches National Park to the east. In between are the natural wonders of Cedar Breaks National MonumentBryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National MonumentNatural Bridges National MonumentCanyonlands National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park.

Zion was carved out of the Markagunt Plateau by the Virgin River, which carved down a half-mile into the sandstone. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion was carved out of the Markagunt Plateau by the Virgin River, which carved down a half-mile into the sandstone. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of them all, however, it is Zion that offers outdoor enthusiasts an earthly paradise. While southwestern Utah’s Zion National Park may not be heaven, you can see it from there.

It’s been said that there is no heaven on earth, but there are pieces of it. Like Zion National Park.
If that sounds like hyperbole, bear in mind this park’s very name implies a heavenly refuge. And while you’re unlikely to find any pearly gates or harp-strumming cherubim, there are definitely places where this 229-square-mile reserve does feel divinely inspired.

The Zion landscape is as rugged as they come, full of narrow slot canyons, massive buttes, 2,000-foot cliffs, rushing rivers, and soaring natural arches. The red-and-tan-colored Navajo sandstone here makes for a vibrant backdrop, with shades of purple, orange, red, and green emerging as the sun makes its way across the intensely blue high-desert sky.

Home to sandstone cliffs that are among the highest in the world, the canyon was named “Zion” by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s. In 1909, it was established as Mukuntuweap National Monument (Mukuntuweap is a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon”); 10 years later, it was expanded and renamed Zion National Park (the northwestern section, known as Kolob was added in 1937).

Kolob Canyons is conveniently located at Exit 40 off Interstate 15. This 5-mile scenic drive is typically less crowded than the main section of the park and therefore is a good place for those seeking solitude.

The main part of the park is accessed from the south entrance in Springdale, via state Route 9, which leads to I-15 and the city of St. George. Though it’s bound to be more crowded, it is also home to Zion’s most spectacular scenery and should definitely not be missed.

This main section of the park can also be accessed via the east entrance, which leads you through the 1.1-mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and along a series of steep switchbacks.

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware that motorhomes taller than 11 feet 3 inches and wider than 7 feet 9 inches will need a $15 tunnel permit, and can only travel this section of roadway during limited hours. The oversize permit fee covers the cost of rangers who temporarily suspend two-way traffic through the tunnel long enough for an RV to pass through. Vehicles taller than 13 feet 1 inch are prohibited.

From spring through fall, free shuttle buses provide access to the locations in the main part of the park. Shuttles run from early morning to late evening, as often as every seven minutes at peak times. A separate free shuttle service provides transportation within the town of Springdale.

Even with the free shuttles, traffic can be bad at the park entrances so plan on arriving early to avoid the crowds. Alternately, you can park in Springdale and take the town shuttle to the Zion visitor center.

Because of the shuttle system, be sure to bring everything you’ll need to spend the day in the park with you, including water/snacks, walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.

Zion is relatively small by national park standards and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is relatively small by national park standards and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel can accommodate larger RVs only with permits and at special times. Check with rangers at the visitor center to find out more.

For all the natural beauty on display here, the one sight most visitors miss is the night sky.

Zion National Park’s clear air and lack of light pollution combine to give visitors views of a starscape that’s guaranteed to be far more vivid than what they can see at home.

Ultimately reveling in the stars above you may be as close as you actually get to heaven. But look carefully and you’ll find pieces of it wherever you turn in Zion National Park.

The Kolob Canyon section is home to spectacular finger canyons with soaring cliffs of red Navajo sandstone and deep pocket canyons just waiting to be discovered. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kolob Canyon section is home to spectacular finger canyons with soaring cliffs of red Navajo sandstone and deep pocket canyons just waiting to be discovered. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.
— Isaac Behunin, 1861

Leave a Reply