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Utah’s Zion National Park is one of those places of natural beauty that will render you speechless. Whether you’re standing at the base of a 6,000-foot-tall mountain of Navajo sandstone or looking down into a canyon from the edge of a 1,500-foot-high rock formation, there are often no words. The geologic formations in this 146,000-acre-plus landscape — dotted with hanging gardens, pine and juniper trees and slender waterfalls — are some 250 million years old, and they continue to change even today.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft designated the area as Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1918, the name was changed to Zion, an ancient Hebrew word meaning “place of refuge” or “sanctuary.” A year later, the land was designated a national park.
A place of refuge, indeed, Zion is one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S. Last year, more than 3 million tourists came to hike, bike, climb and explore Zion’s endless trails, slot canyons and vistas. Some of the best times to visit include April, May and November through February, according to Michael Plyler, director of Zion Canyon Field Institute, which offers immersive, hands-on educational classes that help visitors delve deeper into the park’s nature and culture.
I visited Zion in late October 2015, camping for a full week in Watchman Campground, the only of the park’s three campsites that allows reservations. (Zion Lodge, run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, is the only other in-park accommodation. Agents should note that it does not offer commission.)
The timing — when tourism begins dwindling and the weather becomes cooler — made for an unforgettable trip. When my partner and I arrived, we thought the unexpected torrential downpours would put a damper on our vacation, but instead, we were awestruck.
While touring the canyon in one of the park’s propane-powered shuttles, the only vehicles allowed within the main part of Zion from April to October, we witnessed light rain that first turned into a deluge before becoming hail. Impromptu waterfalls dumped from the tops of Zion’s formidable rock formations — a brilliant ombre of cinnamon, vermillion and chalky-white hues — down into the canyon below, taking rocks, mud, plants and sometimes even trees with them. When the storm finally eased up, steam rose off the wet, now-chocolate-colored sandstone as the sun peeked through the thick clouds. I found I couldn’t speak — only cry — at the amalgam of nature’s beauty and force.
But don’t be mistaken — you don’t need unpredictable rainfall to have a memorable experience in Zion. Hiking through the park is one of the destination’s top draws, and there are trails for every fitness level. Angel’s Landing, Observation Point and the Narrows are some of the must-dos for more adventurous types. Angel’s and Observation Point — both strenuous, exposed hikes with a fair amount of elevation gain — are best in spring or fall, when temperatures are cooler. The reward for both is stunning views of Zion canyon from a heavenly perspective.
Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, encompasses more than 146,000 acres of stunning natural landscape. // © 2016 NPS Photo
Originally named Mukuntuweap, or “straight canyon,” by nomadic tribes, the park was renamed Zion — Hebrew for “sanctuary” or “refuge” — in the late 1800s by Mormon settlers. // © 2016 Kyle Deven
Observation Point is a strenuous, 8-mile hike with an elevation gain of more than 2,100 feet. // © Michelle Juergen
The 1.7-mile Pa’rus Trail is a paved pathway great for families, cyclists and people in wheelchairs. // © Michelle Juergen
Cycling trips, such as those with Bicycle Adventures, are a unique way to see the park. // © Bicycle Adventures
Angel’s Landing, one of the most popular hiking trails, after a rainstorm // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
The Narrows canyon is so narrow (natch) that the river covers the bottom in many spots, and visitors must wade or swim to continue on. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Photographers have plenty of opportunities to take scenic shots — be sure to carry an extra battery pack! // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Zion Lodge is the only in-park lodging available. // © 2016 NPS Photo/Bryanna Plog
The Zion Canyon Field Institute offers classes, lectures and youth programs led by experts. // © 2016 NPS Photo
Biking along the Virgin River is peaceful and quiet, and cyclists may be able to spot wildlife as they ride. // © Bicycle Adventures
A view of the Watchman, which towers above Watchman Campground, the park’s only site with reservations available. // © 2016 NPS Photo
Hiking or canyoneering in the Narrows is a fantastical experience. Surrounded by steep, 1,000-foot cliffs inside a gorge sometimes only 20 feet wide, I felt like I was on an epic journey to the ends of the earth. Because of the slot canyon’s structure, visitors must get wet — and potentially swim at times, depending on the water level — if they wish to hike into the Narrows. Trekkers can rent gear such as wetsuits, water shoes and hiking sticks (if nothing else, bring a hiking stick) from businesses such as Zion Adventure Company in nearby Springdale. It can be highly dangerous to be inside the Narrows if there’s a chance of a flash flood, so it’s important to check the weather and posted signs before departing. For a less-crowded hike, Plyler recommends Kolob Canyons, located at the northwest section of the park.
Biking can also be a powerful way to view the park. With an all-inclusive trip through an operator such as Bicycle Adventures — which offers fully supported tours that can be tailored for clients depending on their interests and abilities — clients can actively explore areas of Zion where no cars are allowed.
“I like to call Zion ‘God’s Disneyland,’” said Brad Barnard, vice president and co-owner of Bicycle Adventures. “At every turn and every vista, this place is amazing. From the seat of a bike, you can experience this park not only visually, but the smells and sounds — or lack of sounds — also suck you into this landscape.”
Zion’s centrality to other national parks and scenic destinations, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Lake Powell and Grand Canyon National Park, also makes it a great day-trip option for those looking to discover more of the area’s wonders. Operators such as Insight Vacations, G Adventures, Collette, Globus, Tauck, Intrepid Travel and Yankee Holidays offer itineraries that include a day or so of exploration in Zion.
But no matter how you see the park, if you find yourself at a loss for words, you’re doing it right.
Zion Canyon Field Institutewww.zionpark.org
Zion National Parkwww.nps.gov