Zion National Park is Southern Utah’s version of Yosemite National Park. It has towering canyon walls, rock monoliths, inspirational views, great hiking trails, even waterfalls. The two national parks are twins in many ways, but one. Zion is “Yosemite in living color.”
If Yosemite is ice, water and coolness, Zion is its counterpart. Its colorful canyons were not carved by glaciers, as was Yosemite, but by torrential flows resulting from sun-influenced snowmelt and thunderstorms that have, over millennia, carried gravel, rock, trees and sand over millennia to scar, twist and weather its cliffs to resemble the ruddy, lined complexion of a venerable Paiute chieftan.
In some places, sinuous canyons wind through narrow, shaded cuts in the rock. Into these slots, the sun’s rays peek, lighting their orange-red cliffs as if they’re smoldering, illuminated from within and glowing, afire. Utah’s slot canyons are favorite places to hike in summer. Though, wear water shoes as the hike is often through ankle to calf-deep water, and carry at least a quart of drinking water, as Utah summers are hot and dry.
Hiking in a slot canyon also requires being aware of predicted weather, as thunderstorms can occur miles upstream, quickly filling drainages with raging water. The Narrows, at the upper terminus of Zion Canyon, beyond the ruddy, Navajo sandstone cliffs of the Temple of Sinawava, is one of the most popular slot canyons to explore.
Ranger Jacqueline Drake said Mormon settlers found Zion Canyon to be so beautiful that they named it after the Hebrew word for “refuge.” Appropriately, some 3 million people take refuge in the national park, each year.
On a busy summer day, it seems most trek along Riverside Walk toward the Narrows, or to ascend to Angel’s Landing, the park’s premiere scenic trail (5.4 miles, 1,488 feet gain). Angel’s Landing is a mountain-goat-like trail up a steep, narrow path to the canyon’s west rim (not recommended for children or anyone fearful of heights) with notoriety similar to ascending the Cables on Yosemite’s Half Dome.
Have no fear, however. As, the national park staff does a good job of informing park visitors of potential storms, and the park has many, less-challenging hikes to emerald pools, grottos, wildflower-covered weeping rock walls, and overlooks. All of these trails begin near shuttle bus stops identified in the park map and guide, given out at entrance stations ($25 vehicle admission). During peak visitation months, Zion Canyon can only be accessed (unless staying at Zion Lodge) by parking one’s car outside the valley and riding a free shuttle bus.
Like Yosemite Valley, Zion Canyon is the most popularly visited area of its national park. There are, however, many lightly visited areas of the park. Take any of the “Moderate Trails” listed in the park guide, drive the Kolob Terrace Road (Zion’s counterpart to Yosemite’s Tioga Road) to reach Zion’s high backcountry, or explore the Kolob Canyons, a lightly visited wilderness area (group limit 12) at the north end of the national park, just off Interstate 15, for impressive views.
North of the Kolob Canyons toward Cedar City is Kanarraville. There, a 1.5-mile trail ($10 parking) follows Kanarra Creek into the Hurricane Cliffs and through a slot canyon to Kanarra Falls, a series of cooling waterfalls and pools. This provides a refreshing and less-traveled way to experience a slot canyon.
Marta Carr, 42, of St. George, leading her nine children and two other young mothers and their children to Kanarra Falls, stopped to rest before climbing a log ladder. In Utah’s tradition of sturdy pioneer women, she was carrying an infant on her back, as was another of the moms. One of Carr’s pre-teen daughters carried a toddler.
They were out for what Carr called “Adventure Wednesday” a ritual she sustained from her youth, when her mother would take her and her siblings on weekly outings.
“We lived near Cottonwood Canyon and my mother often took us there. I was surprised to learn that none of the other kids had ever gone. I decided my children wouldn’t be like them when I became a mom, and started my own Adventure Wednesdays, expanding it by inviting friends and their children to join us.”
As her kids hiked upstream toward Kanarra Falls and its natural waterslide, she stopped to say, “It’s a shame so few children experience the outdoors, as we do. Indoor and electronic distractions are so convenient, that they don’t make the effort. I wanted to make sure my kids got to do the things I did when I was growing up.”
Carr’s group is now so large that it was turned away from Kolob Canyon, because “we had more than 12 in our group and couldn’t split up. Some of the moms are inexperienced and couldn’t have done it alone.”
You don’t have to go it alone to hike near Cedar City. An excellent guide to Hiking Zion is produced by the Zion Adventure Co., which leads guided hikes, canyoneering, rock climbing, river tubing and other adventures. The Brian Head Chamber also publishes a mountain biking and hiking trail guide to Brian Head and its surrounding area. These and other guides are available from the Cedar City/Brian Head Tourism Bureau (scenicsouthernutah.com).
Cedar City is a convenient place to stay when exploring Southern Utah. Within 200 miles are three national parks, three national scenic monuments and one national recreation area. Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Cedar Breaks, and Bryce Canyon are all within reasonable driving time, and for those who don’t care to drive, there’s lots to enjoy in Cedar City, including: the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a variety of distinctive and satisfying restaurants and homespun shops, a pioneer history museum, and the trim campus of Southern Utah University. A popular lodging choice is the Crystal Inn, known for its exceptional staff, comfortable rooms and amenities.
In keeping with Zion’s reputation, Cedar City — gateway to the region’s national parks — is equally in living color.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.