Driving Interstate 15, south of Cedar City, you'll never see the Kolob section of Zion National Park, hidden as it is by the grey escarpment of the formidable Hurricane Cliffs.
Those with some knowledge of the country may turn off the highway at the Kanarraville-New Harmony exit, 15 miles south of Cedar City. A short drive west will reveal the battlements of red sandstone cliffs that rise like the prows of battleships above the desert landscape.Most travelers, whose curiosity is piqued by the official brown and tan signs, will exit on the Kolob Canyons road (20 miles south of Cedar City or 35 miles north of St. George), taking a five-mile mile spur to overlooks that reveal one of the truly marvelous panoramas of the desert southwest.
The red cliffs rise upwards of 2,000 feet, incised by slit-like box canyons. Between the canyons, jutting promontories bear such names as Tucupit, Beatty, and Paria Points, while the pine and aspen thatched summits of Horse Ranch Mountain, Gregory Butte, and Timber Top Mesa scrape the sky.
After a 16-month hiatus I decided to return to the Kolob section of Zion this autumn, to spend a couple of days backpacking and see what changes, if any, had been wrought.
For those planning an overnight stay in the back country, a stop at the modest visitor center is a must - for maps, brochures, and a required back country use permit.
Location of entry: Lee Pass. Location of exit: the same. Method of travel: walk. Destination: LaVerkin Creek, Kolob Arch, Hop Valley. The tag must be attached to your pack at all times, a pleasant lady at the visitor center reminds me.
I must admit, there is an elitist attitude among backpackers who strap on a 40-pound pack while motorists whiz by. None will experience what Aldo Leopold called "the elemental simplicities of wilderness travel," nor the "shining adventure" it affords.
There are many who make the 14-mile round-trip into Kolob Arch in a single day in what the park brochure euphemistically describes as a "fairly strenuous hike." One can only wonder if they appreciate what they have seen in their haste.
At Lee Pass (elevation 6,500 feet) you are on the crest of Hurricane Fault, looking directly into Kolob Canyons. Sharply dipping talus slopes are fringed with stately evergreens, shading into mixed stands of oak, manzanita, pinyon and juniper, while in the canyon bottoms willow, box elder, ash, and the gnarled Fremont cottonwood dominate.
From the trail-head you make a fairly steep descent to Timber Creek, traverse a rise of small hills dotted with pinyon and juniper, then drop into LaVerkin Creek Canyon. Total distance: about four miles.
Timber Creek is somewhat misnamed. Except for an occasional stagnant seep, its stream bed is dry, shaken only by periodic summertime flash floods that slash the canyons. It's wise to carry adequate water (rule of thumb, a gallon a day in hot weather) when making this hike.
The world of LaVerkin Creek is altogether different. A crystal stream pours over shallow ledges laced with mossy growth of emerald hues. The water temperature is surprisingly cool. In mid-summer when daytime readings surpass 90 degrees, a plunge into LaVerkin Creek would afford welcome relief.
The best times to visit Kolob Canyons are the Spring, April through May, or as I did, in the autumn, when the cottonwoods and oak are tinged with hues of red and gold.
Gregory Butte (named for geologist Herbert Gregory) rises nearly 2,000 feet above LaVerkin Creek, and dominates the landscape northwest, while southeast, an equally imposing red wall is painted scarlet by the setting sun.
The point where the trail joins LaVerkin Creek is one of the beauty spots in the canyon, and the place where I pitched my tent for a night's stay. Most backpackers I observed - and there were only a handful - preferred instead to trudge upstream another 2 1/2 miles or so to be nearer to their destination, the Kolob Arch and perhaps Hop Valley.
Kolob Arch is in itself stunning. It lies like an amphitheater of stark Navajo Sandstone. With a span of 310 feet, it is longer than Landscape Arch in Arches National Park.
We know that for a fact because in the late 1950s Kolob Arch was scaled by mountaineers, who made their calculations the hard way. It was measured again in 1986, likely by instruments, and likely more accurately.
The canyon below the span is heavily wooded - thick with Douglas and white fir, ash and a variety of shrubs - all fed by a clear-water stream that trickles out of Arch Canyon.
In 1972 I made camp here. Since then flash floods have savaged this side of the canyon, bringing down huge boulders, tree trunks and other debris. The half-mile trail is impassable for horses and that which passes for a footpath disappears from time to time amid the detritus.
There are a number of excellent campsites near the spot where the two canyons join, however, and the location is a fine choice for one wishing to explore more of the Kolob wilderness.
Kolob Terrace is part of the so-called "Grand Staircase," a series of plateaus that rise in step-like fashion from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Its unworldly beauty prompted Mormon pioneers to name it for the central star of the universe in Mormon cosmogony - Kolob, the great one . . . next to the throne of God.
The core rocks are Navajo Sandstone, laid down 140 million years ago in an ancient desert that rivaled the Sahara in size. In its symphony of undulating striations one can see the layering of petrified dunes.
Its rutilance is due to the oxidation of ferrous iron, changing it to ferric red. In the Grand Canyon the red of the famous red wall is a patina covering grey limestone. In Kolob the rocks are red through and through.
Hop Valley, a unique geologic feature of the Kolob section, is a sand-filled defile with vertical walls rising from a nearly level floor. You reach it by making a stiff hike over an ancient landslide.
I well remember my first hike into Kolob Canyons in the mid-1970s, camping at the head of Hop Valley, and digging a hole in the sand for water. I also recall stepping over a rattlesnake, too chilled in the cold morning air to move. Then, as now, you enter this lesser-known region with a sense of adventure.
In those days, the area was Kolob National Monument, and separate from the park. It did not become a part of Zion National Park until 1967.
A guide book published in 1941 called it "cruel - malevolent desert country, far from towns or accommodations. . . . Although it (the trail through the monument) passes through some extremely rugged and scenic country, visitors say that the area does not compare with Zion Park."
These days, it is doubtful that the 150,000 people who visit Kolob Canyons annually would agree with that assessment. The primitive road, once the route of "sheep and cattlemen and wood haulers," is paved. It snakes past the Three Forks of Taylor Creek, ascends to Lee Pass and continues for another two miles to a high point where a spacious parking area and restrooms are provided.
In July and August, the Park Service conducts auto tours along the route with stops at various points of interest. A nature walk into the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek is also on the summer schedule. This is a modest 2-3 hour hike ending at Double Arch Alcove. On both tours the natural history geology and historical significance of the area is discussed.
Although most visitors come during summer and autumn months, the spur road is plowed in the winter and the canyons are open to motorists and hikers alike.