Park It . . . Then Park It

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

At Zion National Park, they don't seem at all eager to forget the bad old days. In fact, around the visitors center on a stunning June morning, it's easy to find folks happy to dish about how awful a summer visit to Zion used to be.

"Oh, it could be miserable," says Tom Haraden. He's a boyish, mustachioed ranger in the Ron Howard mode, and he talks about Zion's famous peak-season gridlock with something like glee: Each day, more than 5,000 cars, buses and RVs jammed the six-mile scenic road into the heart of the park, all vying for fewer than 500 parking spaces at the trailheads and scenic spots along the way. The result was a chronic bad-tempered backup. Tailpipe haze smothered the juniper air, horn honks and muffler roars overwhelmed the whisper of the nearby Virgin River, and purple oaths echoed from ocher cliffs. In all, a summer day in Zion -- with its biblical name meaning "place of sanctuary" -- boasted all the appeal of a Manhattan rush hour.

"It wasn't the number of people, it was the number of cars," says Haraden. "Some days, it was just a giant conveyor belt of cars, out to the end and back with no place to stop or park."

Ranger Rebekka Anderson remembers the bleak effect traffic had throughout the canyon, even from 3,000 feet above. "You could hear it from Angels Landing," she says, referring to one of the park's highest outlooks, a soaring rock peak with a falcon's-eye view of the terrain below. "After a hard hike up there, you'd look down and see nothing but bumper-to-bumper cars."

And now? "You should go up and see," Anderson says, beaming.

There's still a bright line of morning sun creeping down the red cliff face as I walk out to the curb, where a big white bus waits to take me on a tour through the future of America's national parks. Day is still just shouldering aside the cool canyon shadows, but the large parking lot behind the visitors center is more than half full of cars. A steady current of visitors flows through the wide plaza of the new $2.5 million center, eddying around the handsome timber kiosks where carefully crafted displays brief them on Zion's attractions and history. Two of the kiosks are devoted to describing various half- and full-day itineraries, and by the time they reach the covered timber bus shelter on the far side, most people should have a pretty good idea how Zion works.

Zion, in southwest Utah, is one of the Four Corner parks, and tourists typically add it to their circuit visits of Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Arches national parks. Like those others, Zion is defined by the dramatic landforms carved by the eons from the high desert plateau, most notably the tight and winding Zion Canyon. Its intimate grandeur -- a soaring corridor lined with homey riverside clearings and a variety of day trails -- drew almost 2.7 million folks last year. That's where the shuttle goes.

At the white bus, emblazoned with a golden eagle on the side, I step aside for an older couple to make their way up the steps -- slow but serious hikers, judging by the matching Tilley hats, the Magellan GPS unit and their Komperdell collapsible trekking poles. I follow a family of four, fragrant of sunblock and each wearing a day pack. The bus is half full, and at the back, a group of college-age women make last-minute adjustments to the bulging overnight backpacks on their laps.

"Welcome to Zion National Park and the Zion shuttle," says the driver after we pull away with a hydraulic hiss. His spiel is carried on speakers in our bus and through the attached trailer bus trundling behind us. "The Zion shuttle is the only access into the canyon and the Zion Scenic Drive. We'll be making eight stops on our way up-canyon. You're welcome to get off at any stop, stay as long as you like and get back on another shuttle. Buses run every seven minutes. If you were to stay on the bus for the entire loop, the trip up and back will take about 90 minutes. The last shuttle to the visitors center departs the Temple of Sinawava at 11 p.m.

"First stop, the Zion Human History Museum."

At first, though, we're not going anywhere. The shuttle idles quietly for a good four minutes near the park entrance, as an unyielding string of cars and RVs zips by. Nothing surprising about that. Some 2,800 cars will pour into the park on this beautiful June day in southwestern Utah, bring some of the 2 million-plus visitors that come to Zion each year. This edge of the park is completely open to traffic.

Finally we pull out and join the pack heading along Route 9. But after about a mile, something profound happens. The traffic forks right, toward the Mount Carmel Tunnel, and points east. But the shuttle bears left, into the heart of Zion on a highway that is utterly empty. It's quiet, a two-lane drive all our own. The road is open and so are all the windows; a pinyon breeze ruffles hair and bandannas all along the bus.

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