Zion National Park is a little slice of heaven

Majestic views, diverse landscapes captivate hikers

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9 2007 12:00 a.m. MST

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.