Zion National Park: A Springtime Oasis in the Middle of a Desert
SPRINGDALE, UTAH—Most of Southern Utah is a dry, arid, desert landscape. You’ll drive down a road and you can see for miles in every direction. There’s dirt, there’s brush, there are low-lying hills…but there aren’t really mountains or a lush green landscape to speak of. Approaching Zion National Park takes you through a ton of land that is just like this, that is sparse, unimposing, and really not notable in any particular way.
Don’t get me wrong—this region is beautiful—but all of a sudden, you’re driving along US-9 and you approach Springdale, Utah, and you think to yourself wow, this is a different land…it’s a fertile area. There are small B&Bs with neatly tended gardens. It’s clearly a place where an elderly retired couple would love to come and spend their last days, relaxing in the lush green setting of a place called Zion. There’s a photography gallery, a Thai restaurant, coffee joints, neatly tended gardens—it’s a beautiful little town that you find yourself in, quite suddenly at that.
Before you know it, you look past this neat little community and see the imposing cliffs of Zion Canyon. In a way, it reminded me of Yosemite…in the middle of nowhere, there’s not much around it, not many people at least, and then—BAM—you're in this small bastion of absolutely incredible scenery, this valley that is surrounded by high granite (in Yosemite) and sandstone (in Zion); cliffs that protect the ecosystem in between.
The Virgin River is the lifeblood of Zion Canyon. It gives life to everything that lives within it—from the trees, plants, and reeds to the frogs, elk and mountain lions. It is quite literally an oasis—a Zion—in the middle of the desert.
I decided to make my way to the mouth of the Virgin River, known as the Temple of Shinawa, to see the lifeblood of Zion begin to make its way into the canyon. This requires you to wade through the river for a bit to reach the Narrows—the smallest bit of the canyon, only a few feet wide, where the Virgin originates.
On this particular day, there was no danger of a flash flood, but it’s certainly something to be wary of. People have been killed by flash floods when they waded up to the Narrows and found timber and driftwood being washed downriver, a sure indicator that a flood is imminent. People have been killed here…it’s scary, but it’s nature. It makes you realize that Mother Earth is not always predictable and you need to be prepared.
Fortunately, the Virgin River was peaceful, calm, and rather unimposing during my visit. It was simply what gave life to all of the plant life and the vegetation in the canyon. In late May—early spring—it was absolutely beautiful; illuminating the electric-green plant life.
Zion National Park is actually quite small. There are a number of longer hikes that you can do, one being the famous Angel’s Landing trail. The Park Service recommends four hours for a round-trip, but I was up and down in two. They generally overcompensate on these recommendations to make sure that everyone has time to make it back safely…a wise practice. Angel’s Landing looks imposing, but really it’s not that difficult. As long as you’re OK with heights, you’ll be fine. The last quarter mile is the most difficult part. It’s a small, narrow, winding rock that sticks out into the canyon. You need to scramble up, there are thousand foot drops on either side…it’s pretty exposed. There are ropes to help you, but once you do get up to the top, the view is stunning. Looking out on the canyon below you, it kind of does remind you of the Grand Canyon, but this time you’ve earned it. You’ve hiked from the bottom of the canyon up to a view on the top, where you can see and experience Zion Canyon has to offer.
There’s a longer loop, about ten miles, and there’s a multi-day backpacking route, which is about 25 miles, both fairly popular options, but requiring more than a day’s time. Zion is also serviced by as single bus with 8 stops along the way. It’s a park that can be easily seen from 9-5 if you want to just stop, mosey about, and see the sights, but you can always spend as much time as you want. That’s one of the reasons why I love photography so much: it gives me the opportunity to appreciate parks and nature in a way that I might not otherwise.
While Zion is the sixth most visited park in the U.S., it is in the middle of nowhere and takes some effort to get to. In a sense, that’s one of the aspects that makes this park so special…because you do get a chance to see the arid landscape for miles and miles before you arrive in…Zion.
Spring was a wonderful time of year to visit. I’m certain that autumn is gorgeous; I saw what it was like in the photography galleries. The leaves turn burnt orange, they lose their leaves, and in winter everything’s blanketed in snow and that must be gorgeous as well…but there’s something about being in a canyon in the middle of nowhere in an oasis in the desert with the Virgin River, the lifeblood of this canyon running through it, during springtime, giving it life, giving it the promise of something new, the promise of a fresh start, the promise of a bud on a tree taking root, of a flower readying to blossom—that’s a special experience. I’m not the first person to visit Zion and be captivated by the landscape, but I certainly see what all the fuss is about.