Oh Zion, How You’ve Changed   5 comments

In Zion National Park, Pine Creek flows down a canyon nearly as spectacular as Zion Canyon itself.

The last time I visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, it was with my uncle about 15 years ago.  It was my stay-at-home uncle’s only western road trip.  He has never had a driver’s license.  We visited Death Valley too, and we had a grand time.  But this post is not about that trip, it’s about my most recent one (which is still going).

Now that was not that long ago, in my opinion.  But this park has changed.  It is much more heavily visited than a decade and a half ago, of course.  It’s become one of those heavily visited parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite or Yellowstone.  There is a shuttle system in the canyon now, and I learned there has been since 1997!  Although I’m visiting in November, when the Park Circus allows you to drive into the canyon, it is busy enough to imagine how much of a nightmare it would be if they did not ban private vehicles from April through October.

The east side of Zion National Park is higher and sees frequent dustings of snow in the fall.

Perhaps not surprising but still disappointing is the change in the surrounding communities.  Springdale at the western entrance is the most heavily affected.  When I visited in the 90s, this was still just a quiet ranching community.  St George nearby had started to grow as a retirement haven, but the surrounding communities were still quiet, with very few services.

I drove through Springdale the other day and was disappointed.  It resembles Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the entrance to Great Smoky N.P.  All Springdale needs is a Dollywood!  Okay, it’s not as bad as Gatlinburg, but I think it’s catching up.  There are a cluster of restaurants, motels, and assorted ugly garbage clogging what once was a glorious entry into Zion Canyon.  They have one of those big theaters, IMAX I think, to show you on a screen what you can simply go into the canyon and see for real.

On the bright side, the towns a bit further from the entrance, Rockville and Virgin, are free of tourist clutter.  From Rockville you have some nice views toward Zion Canyon.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

Luckily, the entrance on the other side of the park is not like this.  If you come through the east portal, near Mount Carmel Junction, it still looks like rural Utah.  Long Valley on Hwy. 89 as well as Utah Hwy. 9 cutting west to the park, still have a nice feel.  There are some housing developments springing up nearer the entrance, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  I approached Zion on Hwy. 9, after a snowy morning at Red Canyon near Bryce.  It was night-time, and cold.  There were more deer on the road than you could shake a stick at, including some very big bucks with huge racks.  I drove slowly, and found a camp off the road to Orderville Canyon.

A sandy wash in Zion Canyon, Utah has seen a freezing night.

Next morning I drove into the park, and immediately noticed I had company.  Granted, it was a gorgeous Sunday, but after the Grand Staircase, it felt confining.  And I was on the quieter east side of the park!  When I drove through the spectacular Mt Carmel tunnel and down into the canyon proper, the traffic tripled.

But this time of year, being chilly and relatively uncrowded (relatively being the operative word), is an excellent time to explore the backcountry a bit.  Trails are uncrowded and trail-less canyon routes empty.  So I took a couple short hikes up side canyons, and I was feelin’ good in the sunshine.  I even saw a couple desert bighorn sheep (see image below).  The day was capped off nicely when my football team won big (I have satellite radio).

A desert bighorn sheep prowls the slickrock country of Zion National Park in Utah.

I ran into some serious-looking photographers, and only a couple seemed to want to use their feet to help their photography.  This is the biggest mistake would-be landscape photographers make in my opinion.  I think most (not all) know that their brain not their fancy gear is their best tool.  But their second-best tool, two legs & two feet, too many people ignore.  Sometimes I feel a bit foolish, running about, scrambling down road embankments, climbing roadcuts and spending perhaps too much time with one subject.  But then I say to myself, “Oh yeah, this is the only way I get half-way decent shots.  At least for me!”

The grass grows tall in Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon bottom.

I’ll admit this aversion to easy vantage points isn’t as important when the light is fantastic.  But at the very least I think you’re guaranteed to get shots that look a little different from everyone else’s.  When I saw a line of tripods on a bridge over the Virgin River, for example, I stopped a half-mile down and walked along the river bank to get the shot at bottom.  It’s not an award-winner, and it might not even be a better photograph than the group at the bridge got.  But I sure enjoyed the process!

Fallen autumn leaves litter mule’s ears in Zion National Park, Utah.

Okay, that’s my tip for the day: use your feet!  The conditions here now are not ideal (too clear), but I’ll stay and hike some.  I missed the end of the storm that passed through over the weekend.  I guess I’m too used to the Pacific Northwest, where the storms don’t clear up nearly as quick as they do here.  The light in Long Valley was so great at sunset the other day that it is hard not to regret not getting to Zion in time for it.  Stay tuned for more Zion!

A view of the Virgin River as it exits Zion Canyon near Springdale, Utah.

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5 responses to “Oh Zion, How You’ve Changed

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  1. Thanks Lyle. Yeah November is definitely uncrowded. I think maybe March would be good too.. The peak of fall colors is late October, but even now there are leaves on the trees.

  2. Thanks for the info. That location is on my bucket list and now I know when it would be much more enjoyable. Like you, I enjoy more peaceful surroundings with my nature.

  3. It doesn’t help to be around people who are at the same place we are to get away from people. Too many people, not enough space.

    • Thanks for commenting on the blog, so nice to get words instead of likes. I was more disappointed at the changes related to the increased visitation at Zion, rather than the people themselves. I don’t think all the crap that clusters around park entrances is necessary just because you have more visitors. I think some thought could go into zoning around parks, but I live in Oregon, where zoning is tied to quality of life. This is not the case in many states. Of course I know in our modern society you have to put up with commercialism. I didn’t realize my post gave the impression that I don’t like other visitors; that’s certainly not me. But I do know one thing: in any natural area, National Parks included, I naturally tend to find quiet places away from people. This is not too hard to do, even in crowded parks, so long as you are willing to use the legs God gave you.

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