ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah Jane and Dave Ford had expected this to be a quick stop.
"We're snowbirds," said Jane, resting on a bench after a summer afternoon trail ride. "We've been in Scottsdale, and we're on our way home. We normally zip back as fast as we can."
But the Fords, who live in West Vancouver, British Columbia, found themselves transfixed by the beauty of Zion National Park.
"It's gorgeous. It's spectacular," Dave said. "I used to be a tour bus driver herding people through the Canadian Rockies. We used to show off things (we described) as spectacular, and they were nothing like this. These sandstone cliffs are spectacular."
"It certainly makes you feel small," Jane said. "How insignificant you are."
It's easy to plan a trip of only a few hours to Zion National Park. Many of the show-stopping attractions are accessible from the park's main road, served by an efficient shuttle system. What's more, Zion is within a few hours' drive of other national park gems such as Utah's Bryce Canyon or Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, or even the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
But watch out. As you begin to climb the steep trails, dip your feet into cool pools and explore the narrow canyons, a few hours may stretch into days.
It's not a stretch to say the Mormon pioneers were awed when they settled this part of Utah back in the 1860s. They're the ones who decided that Zion, a name with roots in the Bible, was an appropriate name for the entire area.
It's almost impossible not to cast your eyes heavenward. Zion is home to some of the world's tallest monoliths, red sandstone cliffs rising 2,000 feet or more above the Virgin River.
And once you're looking up, well, thoughts of heaven may just follow.
The names of many of the landmark formations are reminders of the park's genesis: Angels Landing, the Great White Throne, the Altar of Sacrifice and the Court of the Patriarchs, a monolith trio named for the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
With that in mind, I laced up my hiking shoes one summer morning, slipped on my backpack and started looking for trails to explore.
Zion is one of the nation's most-visited parks 2.6 million people arrived last year but on the trails it feels much less crowded. Hit the snack shop at Zion Lodge in midafternoon and the line stretches out the door. But on the winding trail that climbs past Weeping Rock you may find yourself looking for company.
Summer days can be hot 90s and even 100s so an early start is smart. On my first morning I was in search of the Emerald Pools, three crystal-clear ponds accessed by a climb that's just steep enough to make you appreciate chances to rest.
As the trail snakes up the mountain, it becomes difficult to decide whether to look down or up. Below meanders the North Fork of the Virgin River, responsible for excavating Zion Canyon many millions of years ago. Above, the vermilion cliffs rise at angles that seem impossibly steep.
After a mile or so the first of the pools appears, and the rewards are immediate refreshing water to soak your feet, great slabs of red rock to rest upon and thick forest cover for shade. Water seeps from the rocky walls. A narrow waterfall sprays from high above.
The pools are a pretty easy climb, but don't let them be your gauge. Other trails offer significantly greater challenges.
Ed and Terry Tennison of Austin, Texas, found that out firsthand on a hike to Angels Landing, which earned its name apparently because it's so steep no one but an angel could land on its peak.
"We saw a guy pointing to the peak and he said, 'We're going there,"' Ed said. "I just started laughing. But we did go there."
Park literature refers to the Angels Landing hike as strenuous.
"There's almost a ledge connecting one peak to another," Terry said of their experience. "There are sharp drop-offs on both sides. It's not two people wide. And it's steep."
Fortunately, chains along the steepest parts of the trail offer a little security.
"And it's something I really wanted to hang onto," Ed said. "At some point I started laughing at the word 'hike.' It was more of a climb."
"Which we now have a term for," Terry said. "Clike."
Back on safer ground, the Tennisons remembered one other thing from their ascent: "awesome views."
I met the Tennisons one morning on another hike, a two-mile walk with ranger Holly Baker called "On the Edge of Survival."
Sounds dicey, but it wasn't our survival we were worried about. More about plants and animals and how they endure in this difficult land.
"It's a pretty harsh landscape," Baker said.
Zion stretches through parts of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts as well as the Colorado Plateau. The area receives less than 14 inches of rain a year. "Plus the constant sun really adds to the harshness," Baker said.
How, then, can you account for the rich diversity of plant and animal life? More than 900 plant species can be found at Zion, the park Web site says. It's the richest array in Utah, along with 78 species of mammals, 291 types of birds and 44 species of reptiles and amphibians.
"Animals don't pay attention to the boundaries scientists have drawn on a map," Baker said. Still, they have had to come up with some pretty ingenious ways to survive. For instance, birds and lizards congregate beneath boulders or in other shady areas.
"One of the problems with living in the desert is there is a lot of exposure," Baker said. "There isn't much opportunity to escape the sun. ... So this is where the animals go to get away from the brutal sun in the afternoon."
Likewise, the prickly pear cactus has adapted with a waxy skin that protects like Chapstik. Its fine shallow roots take advantage of quick rains.
Baker pointed to a patch of black moss clinging to one rock along the trail. It's called resurrection moss, she said, and it's a good example of how quickly even a little water can aid a plant. We poured a few drops of water on the moss, and within seconds the black had turned to soft green. Ah, nature.
"Out here it's all about wet and dry," Baker said.
The Virgin River, one of the last undammed rivers in the West, shows the transformative power of water. Away from its banks grow yuccas and prickly pears, junipers and pinon pines. Plants and trees that need more water, like the Freemont cottonwood, are thick along the riverbank.
"It's a harsh land with a ribbon of life," Baker said. "We get this explosion of life here because water is the source of it all."
It's a short but steep climb from the shuttle to Weeping Rock, a monstrous rock alcove that drips continuously because of a spring. It's an interesting diversion, but by then I was game for something more.
The Hidden Canyon Trail was calling. The hike is only a couple of miles round trip, but the park newspaper describes it as strenuous, with an 850-foot ascent and deep dropoffs. Allow three hours to climb and return, it says.Comment on this story
So I headed down. I took a long draw from my water bottle and looked out across the canyon down at the Virgin River, across the valley and toward the Great White Throne.
And, strangely, I was reminded of "Field of Dreams." Do you remember the scene where Shoeless Joe Jackson asks Ray Kinsella, "Is this heaven?"
No. It was Utah.