Zion National Park is among the most spectacular places in the world. It is a profound shame for anyone who lives as near as we do here in Hildale/Colorado City not to visit and appreciate it often. Unfortunately, Zion is one of the parks that is being loved nearly to death. There have been over 4 million visitors so far, this year. With that sort of visitation in such a narrow canyon, a simple hike can turn into a lengthy and unpleasant affair waiting in line for shuttles and dodging hordes of tourists, vying for space on narrow trails above precarious heights.
Most of the tourist traffic is confined to the main canyon of the park where you will find many of the better-known attractions such as the Narrows and Angels Landing. One of the lesser known and traveled areas of the park lies to the east, just outside of the tunnel. There are many adventures to be had in this section of the park, and while there are some well-defined trails, most are not marked.
Many National Parks enthusiasts fail to appreciate that much of the allure of these places lies in the solitude that can be found there. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get coming face to face with these massive landscapes and getting a sense of just how large they are, and how small you are in comparison. There is a humility and reverence that comes from this experience. You come away with a greater appreciation of what it must have been like for the natives that occupied the land for thousands of years. There are places in the park where you may stumble upon evidence of this history. You get a sense of how challenging it must have been for early European settlers to live in this rugged patch of earth. Some of the first settlers in southern Utah dwelled near Zion National Park and are responsible for the naming of many formations in the park.
This eastern section of the park is enchanting in part because of the mystery it holds. It gives you a genuine sense that you are exploring. That you could be the first person to set foot there. Even after exploring a few areas (using vague directions posted online), I couldn’t tell you exactly how to reach most of the places. My recommendation is to follow the road heading east toward Mt Carmel Junction until you find a place along the road that calls to you. Pull over and go on an adventure. Full disclosure, be very careful not to get lost. Bring plenty of water, food, and good hiking boots. Tell somebody the general area you are planning to visit when you plan to be back and bring a map. Try to familiarize yourself with the terrain ahead of time and pay close attention to your surroundings as you adventure. Remember to treat the place with the respect it deserves. It is a land of extremes, which makes it dangerous, but that is part of what makes it so beautiful. Remember that you must go back as far as you came.
On the fourth or fifth turn off spot, on the right side of the road, I found a trail. It followed a stream that led to a majestic but short slot canyon. From the roadside it gently meandered, coaxing me forward with promises of spectacular finds. Along this route was a large panel of pictographs and petroglyphs which were marked by signs. I found myself envying the people who made those marks. While I consciously understood that their lives were far from my idyllic cognitive rendering, the land must have held the same sense of wonder for them as it did for me. I can’t imagine it not taking complete hold of them. To this day there is a special reverence for the land among Native Americans. The markings are clear and vibrant in places and faded in others. They force you into a state of deep curiosity. What do they mean? How old are they? How did they end up here?
Looking beyond the etchings and to the wider surroundings is a mammoth sensory overload that nearly fritzes the bio-hardware. You can feel the sparks coming off your brain, shattering the stories that motivate the modern human experience. It seems to push the senses to their limits, coalescing in a super-sensory experience. Vivid, even psychedelic. There are nearly infinite shades of green. From the neon hues of moss to the welcoming shades offered by oaks and cottonwoods. From captivating blue-grey-greens of sage and brush to the noble dark greens of countless evergreens. You stumble upon endless alien varieties of mushrooms, which seem oddly placed in the desert. It is not uncommon to startle a cautious herd of mule deer or desert bighorn sheep. Birds of every color, size, and degree of musical talent imaginable. Just as interest wanes for one, it waxes for another. An infinite orchestra of individual players, animal, and vegetable, each vying for much-deserved attention.
As I continued to wander along the stream, I found myself scrambling up some slick rock and up to the source of the stream, which terminated at the end of a slot canyon. Inside this canyon was a magnificent runoff waterfall. I was there in the early spring just after a gentle but steady rainstorm that lasted several days. The walls shot upward what had to be nearly one hundred feet high. They were narrowly separated, letting in a focused stream of light. The waterfall was like a veil. The water source was broad, causing it to dissipate into a fine mist as it fell from the top. This resulted in an opulent wall of microdroplets that caught the focused light from above, each droplet taking a turn as it fell to capturing the light and casting it, with forceful grace, to my eye.
I quickly exhausted that route and decided to turn around and go back. I wasn’t done, however. I decided to climb up a checkerboard rock formation of white and pink sandstone that looked welcoming. It shot up at a steep angle but the striations in the rock provided a trustworthy foothold. Part of the allure of these types of excursions is that they can be arduous at points, which only amplifies the magic of the terrain. Colors and textures become overwhelmingly entertaining as a flood of endorphins surges through your bloodstream and dance around your brain. I found myself a perch from which I sat silently, allowing the waves of sensory pleasure to break upon me, washing every worldly care far away, leaving me glowing. This is the way these places should be enjoyed.
While it is fun to observe Zion National Park from a trail or from the comfort of a vehicle, there is something to be said for integrating yourself in the landscape and getting “lost” for a while. It brings you back to a state that is all too often, willfully maybe, but regretfully nonetheless, forgotten. The landscape has the power to give you a sense of childish wonder for the world. There is a reason they call these special places parks. Get out and play in them.