Zion Panorama

The view from Observation Point, which sits 6,507 feet above sea level

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.

A desert bighorn in the shadow of a slick rock slope

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 piƱon 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.”




Zion’s Waters

The Virgin River cuts a green ribbon through Zion National Park

One of the first things that struck me about Zion National Park when I was there in August was the amount of color Zion’s canyons hold.

After being lulled by the monotonous Mojave Desert and the buttes of the Colorado Plateau, the startling shock of green vegetation and the reds and pinks of the sandstone cliffs stand in stark contrast to the surrounding deserts.

At least that was my reaction when I first entered Zion — the deserts of southwest Utah are lovely in a way, and even relaxing in their quiet solitude, but the scrub and buttes become predictable after a few hours worth of driving.

Zion Canyon manages to stay relatively green, even though it averages 16 inches of rainfall per year. Water determines where and how things grow. Wherever there is a trickle of water, there is also life.

When I started hiking Zion I sought water, because that’s where nature is concentrated in the desert. According to the National Park Service, 500 times more species originate at water sources in the desert, compared to the surrounding area.

First, I hiked along the Virgin River, which cuts a ribbon of green through Zion. The Virgin isn’t much to look at on a normal day–I found a shallow and lazy river crowded by large cottonwoods with visitors swimming and wading in its shallows..

Despite lacking size, the Virgin actually packs quite a punch. The river descends sharply, dropping 7,800 feet over its 160 mile course, giving it the force to cut entire canyons (as it did in Zion).

Elsewhere, water is scarce. Luckily, trailheads point towards popular day hikes like the Emerald Pools trail.

I hiked the short trail, and to my surprise found small pools of water teeming with life that supported hanging gardens.

Hiking up through short scrub oak and aspen, I came upon the first pool on the trail. It looked like the type of pool a crazed and thirsty wanderer would stumble into. Really, it was just a place where water could collect runoff from the canyon cliffs. However, the pool was filled with sizable tadpoles. Canyon tree frogs inhabit the pools, and I found their spawn in each and every pool I came across.

The lower pool on the Emerald Pools trail

Up the trail, a trickle of a waterfall rained on a hanging garden filled with ferns, golden columbine and Indian paintbrush. Hummingbirds busied themselves buzzing between flowers. Moss clung to wet sandstone wherever it could.

I’d stumbled into a fairy garden in the desert. I wondered if these things were the fodder that made mirages.

The larger, and upper most pool stood at the base of the canyon’s cliff walls. Canyon wrens stopped by to take a dip while frogs chilled out on rocks, apparently unalarmed at their relative isolation in a body of water the size of a swimming pool.

The short day-hike gave me an appreciation for the power that water holds over the arid land that I was in. Not only because it determined for where things lived either; by the time I exited the park I’d seen old log jams discarded by flash floods, and I’d driven by a car-sized boulder carved away from the cliffs by water.