Stepping Into Utah's Natural Cathedrals
Towering Challenges Lure Winter Visitors To Zion National Park
Sunday, January 11, 2009; Page P01
I stood outside Zion National Park in Utah, at the edge of a steep sandstone cliff, and peered nervously down. Dressed in a bright purple dry suit, rock-climbing helmet and harness, I was about to rappel 80 feet into a muddy, freezing pool of water. I glanced across the canyon and could see blue sky through the towering rock walls, though the November sunlight barely penetrated the narrow canyon. My heart pounded as I cautiously stepped backward and went over the edge.
In a near-sitting position, I crept slowly down the rock face, passing painterly strokes of black-and-white mineral deposits. After a brief tangle with a meddlesome tree growing sideways out of the flank, I landed with a plop in the waist-deep water. Then I floated on my back, using my backpack like a life jacket, and frog-kicked through the icy water to shore. Back on land, I started to laugh: I was acting as if I were on summer vacation, even though winter was in the air.
The European sport of canyoneering -- a blend of rock climbing, rappelling, hiking, swimming and scrambling -- attracts a growing crowd of adventurers to the Zion area, acclaimed for its red-rock slot canyons and soaring monoliths. The activity is most popular during the summer, when temperatures topping 100 degrees send people off the ledge in search of a cool splash. However, with its semi-arid climate and average winter highs in the 50s, Zion never hibernates. Nor do its hardy visitors.
Last year the park received more than 2.6 million guests, with most folks arriving June through September. From December 2007 through February 2008, attendance was only 63,000 per month. Some of the park's higher elevations in the northwest become difficult to access in the colder months, but the main attractions in Zion Canyon stay open year-round.
"In the winter," said Ron Terry, the park's chief of interpretation and visitor services, "you can avoid the crowds. You're likely to hike a trail and not see anyone else." The wildlife, though, will be out and about, including bald eagles (which appear only in winter, during their migration), desert bighorn sheep and mule deer.
Located 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas, the nearly 150,000-acre national park sits along the Colorado Plateau on what geologists call the Grand Staircase, a massive series of sedimentary uplifts that runs from Utah's Bryce Canyon to Arizona's Grand Canyon. Zion's sculptural rock formations, including the 3,000-foot-high Navajo Sandstone walls in Zion Canyon and the beautiful rock arches at Kolob Terrace, have long inspired mankind. The Paiute Indians called Zion Canyon "Mukuntuweap" (sacred cliffs), the name used when President William Howard Taft declared the site a national monument in 1909. In the 1860s, according to historical lore, Mormon settler Isaac Behunin said, "A man can worship God among these great cathedrals; this is Zion." Through lobbying by the Mormon Church, Zion became the area's official name when it was designated a national park in 1919.
My Zion foray left me similarly awestruck. My boyfriend and I started our visit on a rainy morning, at the park's south entrance just north of Springdale, Utah. At the visitors center, we received tips on the best trails to hike based on weather conditions. Snow rarely sticks in Zion's valley, where most visitors spend their time, or in the southern region, so hiking options are numerous year-round. Terry recommended the desert trails of Chinle, Coalpits and the Huber Washes, all of which are usually dry and provide scenic canyon views. Rangers also divulge one of the park's deepest secrets: the locations of the Anasazi petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings), created an estimated 1,000 years ago. (Directions to the artworks aren't widely publicized because of past acts of vandalism.)
As we turned our car onto Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, we didn't realize that we were experiencing a major off-season perk. In the crowded summer months, the six-mile road is closed to public traffic; visitors must take a shuttle to access the area. In winter, however, the road opens to cars, so we could take in such neck-craning sights as the 6,774-foot-high Great White Throne and the 6,930-foot-high Cathedral Mountain from the comfort of our vehicle. We also could park at the base of many of the most popular trailheads, a much-appreciated convenience.
In Zion Canyon, we started with an easy stroll down Riverside Walk, a paved, stroller-friendly trail that rambles along the Virgin River and ends at the start of the Narrows, a well-known hike that involves more wading than walking. (Although recommended for summer, the Narrows can be explored in the winter, depending on the weather. It's essential, however, to wear a dry suit and talk to a ranger first.) Afterward, we tackled Emerald Pools, a 2.6-mile loop that winds behind a roaring waterfall. Thanks to a downpour earlier in the day, a handful of other falls cascaded over nearby cliffs, making me glad we had hiked in spite of the rain. Depending on snowmelt and storms, waterfalls also can appear throughout winter at the lower and upper pools.
Soggy after a day of hiking, we stopped for hot chocolate and snacks at the Sol Foods Market, just outside the park's gates and a short walk from our hotel, the new Cable Mountain Lodge. All lodge guests receive free tickets to the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theatre, so that evening we attended the 40-minute film "Zion Canyon Treasure of the Gods," shown on a six-story-high screen, the largest in Utah. To be honest, the narrative was a bit cheesy, but the film provided dramatic bird's-eye views of Zion's canyons and made us wishful for clear weather the next day.
Prayers answered: We awoke to sunny skies and 50-degree weather. In these perfect conditions, we decided to tackle Angels Landing, one of the park's most challenging trails. Constructed in the 1920s, the five-mile route follows a series of steep switchbacks, known as Walter's Wiggles, that march nearly 1,500 feet up to the top of an exposed, narrow rock pinnacle with a jaw-dropping panorama. The final half-mile is bare and exposed, and it is sometimes closed due to ice in the winter. But the lower portions still provide grand overlooks and a strenuous workout.
Hiking Angels Landing prepared me (a little) for our canyoneering adventure ahead. Guided canyoneering trips are not allowed inside the park, so we booked a trip in a nearby canyon with Zion Adventure Co. Our guide, Lynn Unger, told us that we'd spend the day "problem solving" as we traversed the canyon by rope or foot or any other body part that might prove useful.
After five hours navigating our way up a steep, narrow trail, scrambling over boulders and rappelling four rock faces, I started to feel confident; just call me Indiana Jane. So, when we arrived at the final drop-off, my early-morning anxiety was gone. Until Unger said, "Getting down this cliff will require all the skills you've learned today, as well as the experiences you brought with you." That sounded like psychoanalysis.
The rock plunged at a steep angle, making it impossible to see the ground or my boyfriend, who had just disappeared down its face. Just to get to the edge, I had to squeeze between two large rocks. I must have looked slightly terrified, because Unger attempted to assure me: "You'll be fine."
I climbed halfway down the face and did not encounter anything scary or tricky. I started to think Unger had been joking. "What's the big deal?" I wondered. Then I found out: I had to navigate a slot just a few feet wide. My knuckles touched one wall and my backpack scraped the other. I started to panic, envisioning myself permanently sandwiched between two cold slabs of rock. With no other way to go, I squeezed my way down, hoping the space wouldn't slim any further. I'd never been so happy to drop, once again, into cold water.
Heart still thumping, I swam to land and looked at what I'd just scaled down: a nearly 100-foot cliff that angled into a narrow, miniature canyon. An experience, indeed, and I didn't have to wait for summer to have it.
Kristin Harrison last wrote for Travel about the California Academy of Sciences.