If you travel to Zion National Park you’ll probably spend most of your time looking up at the dramatic sandstone cliffs. Zion Canyon is a sight to behold; the walls of the canyon seem to rise straight up out of the ground without warning
Southern Paiutes called this area Mukuntuweap, which means “straight canyon”. The word is reflective of how Zion appears to the eye–it is a land that rises straight up from the ground.
Before being designated a national park, Zion was called Mukuntuweap National Monument from 1909-1918. The park’s current name comes from Mormon settlers who established themselves in the region in the 1860s.
The Mormons were inspired by the areas canyons and named it Zion, or “promised land”. Geographic features such as the three cliffs above Birch Creek Canyon known as the Court of the Patriarchs.
While it’s fine and good to marvel at Zion from the ground up, one of the best ways to view the canyon is from a higher elevation.
Two popular trails–Angels Landing and Observation Point–provide hikers with an opportunity to ascend to great vistas.
Angels Landing climbs 1,488 feet that travels partially over a thin trail perched on a cliff. My dad and I opted to hike to Observation Point, which climbs over 2,000 feet to the top of the Navajo Sandstone formation–a rock layer known for its contrasting colors.
The hike is an eight mile roundtrip trek that basically climbs switchbacks straight up, and then descends straight down on the way back.
After climbing the first set of switchbacks the trail goes through the smooth water-swept walls of Echo Canyon before spilling out onto slickrock slopes above.
We were lucky enough to run into a desert bighorn ram and two ewes munching on hardy shrubs. Desert bighorn live in isolation in steep and rocky areas and they can travel without water for five days or more, so the chance encounter was a treat.
Sitting across the gorge on a log, we watched the sheep mill around until another ram appeared on another slope. He spied the trio and scrambled down until he was directly across from them.
Separated by a crevice, the lone ram had no direct way to challenge his counterpart. He settled on battering a ponderosa pine for good measure. The resulting cracks were as loud as gunshots and echoed off the rocks of the canyon.
In response, the ewes curiously looked up from their grazing, which prompted their compatriot to batter a tree of his own. Frustrated, the loner climbed back up his slope and disappeared. It was an interesting ritual: beating up trees for babes.
After more climbing and crossing a trail carved into the face of the canyon wall, the remainder of the hike leveled off onto the canyon rim into sand where piñon pine, juniper, and sage grows.
The climb was well worth the effort. Apparently the trek is worth it even if you’re afraid of heights. As I took in the view and watched raptors climb columns of warm air an older man plodded up the trail behind a young girl.
“Well is it worth it?” he asked before coming into view of the canyon. “I don’t like heights much,” he explained.
I imagined the poor guy clutching the wall of the cliff face. However, he seemed satisfied when he finally came into view of the expanse of canyon. He turned and said something to the girl. I’d like to think he said, “Well, that was worth it.”