Archive for the ‘Utah’ Tag

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VI   8 comments

A soggy-sneakers shot of the Virgin River, upper Zion Canyon.

We’re almost finished with Zion National Park!  I’ve gone into a bit more detail than I expected I would.  Last post was a guide for first-timers.  This post suggests places to go if you’re planning a return trip.  But even first-timers will find the following useful if planning a little more time for in-depth exploration of the park.


Do the Narrows:  A return trip is the time to get off the beaten track by visiting one of the northern areas and/or hiking into the backcountry.  The Narrows is the most famous back-country hike at Zion (closely followed by the Subway below).  You’ll need a permit and car shuttle to do the usual one-night backpack trip, but it can be done as an out and back from the end of the road in Zion Canyon. 

Do some research and planning for the Narrows, starting of course at NPS’s site.  And for any back-country exploration a great website is Canyoneering USA.  Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones!) writes for this site, and he also has a classic guidebook for Zion.

Hike the Subway:  Situated in the Left Fork of North Creek off of Kolob Terrace Road, the 9+ mile hike to the Subway has become extremely popular in recent years.  In fact, so popular that the NPS has a lottery permit system in place if you’re doing it from March through October.  Check the NPS site for details.  Another popular slot canyon with a lottery system is Mystery Canyon.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

Of course your pictures of the Subway itself are not exactly going to be breaking new ground.  But it’s a fantastic canyon filled with photo opportunities.  It’s also a great challenge if you’re trying to “up your game” in terms of canyoneering.  If you plan to do an overnighter here, you’ll need a permit from the Park Service.  You can hike the Subway from the bottom-up and back or as a top-down semi-technical descent (entering from above the Subway).  Either way plan to get your feet wet.

Almost posted my shot of the Subway itself, but I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you’re not looking at any photos before you go there. This is looking down-canyon in Left Fork at sunset.

Do an off-trail canyon adventure.  Several companies offer guided hikes in canyons where you’ll generally need a shuttle and knowledge to get to remote trailheads.  You can also descend one of the amazing technical canyons at Zion. 

Canyoneering here (called canyoning in Europe) is renowned far and wide.  It requires rope and other gear, plus experience if you’re not going to do a course with one of the outfitters.  For photography you’ll need to leave the DSLR behind or have a foolproof way to keep your gear dry.  One of the best sources of information on canyoning at Zion is Tom Jones and CUSA

Hike Kolob Canyons.  This is the separate part of the park to the north off I-15.  The Taylor Creek trail is wonderful and feels very uncrowded compared to Zion Canyon’s trails.  For a longer walk, Kolob Arch (one of the world’s largest arches) is amazing and even less peopled.  I did the roughly 14-mile round trip and saw no other people.  No campground exists at Kolob Canyons, but there is one to the south at Red Cliffs Recreation Area, at the mouth of a gorgeous canyon I strongly recommend exploring.

Red Cliffs Recreation Area, although it isn’t in the park, is nonetheless a marvelous place to go.

Drive to Lava Point.  The Kolob Terrace Road, which starts near the town of Virgin, is a beautiful drive up to Zion’s high country.  Go past the trail-head for the Subway and let your imagination be your guide.  You’ll pass large monoliths that beg to be explored off-trail (remember, don’t trample the biological crust).  Or hike one of the trails near Lava Point.  Sunset from this area offers the opportunity to shoot unique pictures of the park.  There’s a campground up here too!

Hike Zion Top-to-Bottom.  A memorable way to enter Zion Canyon is to do a long one-way hike from the high plateau to the canyon bottom.  For West Rim, you’ll leave your car in Springdale (outside of shuttle season leave it at the Grotto).   Then drive or get shuttled up to the Lava Point Trailhead.  Then it’s about 14 miles and 3700 feet down to the canyon.  Healthy knees required!

For East Rim, get shuttled or drive a second car to the trailhead near the east entrance and hike 11 miles one-way to Weeping Rock trailhead in the canyon.  At first you climb gently, then it’s rolling until the big descent to the canyon floor.  From there you take the shuttle or pick up the car you left outside of shuttle season.  You can also start from East Mesa Trailhead; local shuttle drivers know where this is.

If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay for the shuttle you just hike from the east entrance, descend to the canyon, then climb back out for a very exhausting 20-miler.  I did it in combination with my mountain bike, but that’s because I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed!  For West Rim without a shuttle, do it from the bottom up: a 2500-foot elevation gain and drop.  You don’t go all the way to Lava Point unless it’s an overnighter.  Instead turn around at West Rim Spring.

Both of these hikes can be done as overnight backpack trips (where you’ll need a permit) and both are fantastic.  The West Rim route is longer and more diverse while the East Rim trip accesses more side-trails for a backpack trip.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Ride a horse up on Sand Bench.  In season (March – October) you can ride horses at Zion.  Though you can do a short jaunt along the Virgin River, a better way to become one with your mount is on a longer ride on the enormous slump block (type of landslide, see Part I) that is Sand Bench.  Prices are fairly reasonable I believe, though I don’t pay for riding horses (spent too much feeding mine!). 

For photography, hiking the 3-mile Sand Bench loop at sunset is a winner.  Pack a good flashlight for the hike down.  I personally resist the temptation to join all those other photogs. on the bridge over the Virgin River in the lower canyon.  I don’t want the same exact picture as everybody else has.  Which brings me to the topic for my final post in this series: Photography at Zion.

That’s it for now.  Enjoy ‘going deep’ at Zion, and have a wonderful week.

Prickly pear cactus growing up on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Visiting Zion National Park – Part V   2 comments

Fall hikes in Zion’s side-canyons can bring you to splashes of color like this.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park with specific recommendations on places to go.  I’m not really one to try and “guide” people on their travels.  Sure, I’ll have to get used to it if I decide to hang out a shingle and start leading photo trips.  But I believe once you have a general feel for an area, and as long as you have an adventurous spirit, you can do just fine on your own.  The key is having the time and desire to fumble around on your initial visit.  So to avoid some of that read on.

Sandstone detail on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

Detail of fractured cross-bedded sandstone on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.


Zion Canyon is a must-see.  So considering its popularity it’s a good idea to plan your first trip for a less-busy time. Try early spring, say mid-Feb. to early March.  The front or tail ends of fall color are good too.  Forests of tripods sprout at Zion during peak fall color in late October & early November.  The NPS actually publishes visitor numbers by month, so by all means check that page out when planning a trip. 

In springtime of course you’ll have longer days than in late autumn.  Plan at least two and probably three days for the main part of Zion.  That’s one full day for the canyon and a day each for East Zion and a longer hike.  The 3rd day could also be spent driving up Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons.

Walk along the Riverside:  Do an easy stroll along the Virgin River.  Or better yet two walks: in the lower canyon from the visitor center, and at the upper canyon’s Riverside Walk.  Both the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center and the Riverside Walk up-canyon are wheelchair-accessible.  

At sunset there are many photo opportunities along the canyon bottom, especially with fall colors.  For the upper Riverside Walk, if you’re willing to get your feet wet, your photos will be better for it.  Photographers more prepared and more averse to wet feet than I am use hip-waders.  If you continue up into the Narrows, make sure you’re prepared by talking it over with a ranger.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Short Hike to Emerald Pools or Hidden Canyon:  If it isn’t too busy (go early morning), Emerald Pools is definitely worthwhile.  The trailhead leaves from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and it’s about 3 miles round-trip.  Up-canyon from Emerald is the trailhead for Weeping Rock.  Do the short walk to the crybaby rock then take the trail on up to Hidden Canyon.  It’s a fairly short but steep hike.  For more strenuous hikes, read on…

Climb to a Canyon Viewpoint:  If you have the energy and time, do a longer hike in the Canyon.  The same trail to Hidden Canyon climbs steeply beyond to an amazing bird’s-eye view at Observation Point.  It’s 8 miles round-trip with a 2100-foot elevation gain.  There is another way to get to this outstanding viewpoint, but it requires driving to East Mesa trailhead over a rutted road.  Any vehicle with decent clearance should have no problem, though if it’s wet or snowy up there forget it.  

On my first day in the canyon back in the early ’90s I hiked to Observation Pt. then got lost coming back down off-trail.  Got cliffed-out, had to turn around, saw big cat tracks, and hiked back in the dark.  In other words a typical hike for me at the time.  But it was such a great intro. to the area.  

Zion Canyon from a high viewpoint along a sheep trail.

Angel’s Landing, despite its harrowing reputation, is quite a popular hike.  So do it early.  From the Grotto shuttle stop, you ascend the west (left) canyon wall 2.4 miles and 1500 feet to a jaw-dropping view.  The last 1/2 mile is true mountain-goat territory, so no small kids and no fear of heights allowed!

Explore East Zion:  East Zion is a spectacular area of the park, and is also your best chance to see bighorn sheep.  Don’t miss it.  Head past the turnoff for the main canyon and drive up the switchbacks, through the tunnels and into a land of slickrock and pinyon pine.  Park wherever you see an interesting side-canyon and simply walk up it, turning around as you please.  If you keep going you’ll be stopped sooner or later anyway by intimidating cliff walls. 


Canyon Overlook is a wonderful little trail that begins at the first (longer) tunnel’s east entrance.  The trail is quite popular and parking is limited.  So I recommend doing this at dawn for the great photo opportunities at trail’s end.  Except for this trail and the long one near the park’s east entrance, no other marked trails exist in East Zion.  But don’t let that stop you from exploring the area on foot.  

About Foot Travel at Zion:  

  • Be kind to the environment and if you’re off-trail walk on sandy canyon-bottoms or on bare sandstone slickrock.  Avoid the crusty and fragile soil at Zion and throughout the Southwest.  It’s actually alive!
  • At Zion you have quite a lot of choice, anything from simple hikes (on- or off-trail) to technical canyoneering descents.
  • Not to discourage you from exploring off-trail, but use good judgment.  If you head up (or worse, down) some random canyon on your own, realize it’s quite easy to get in over your head.  You may end up wondering when your simple canyon walk turned into technical canyoning without a rope (which I can say from cruel experience is not a very good feeling!).
  • Putting all the above together, think about signing up with one of the specialty outfitters for a guided canyon adventure.  I’m sorry I can’t make personal recommendations since I haven’t used any guides at Zion.  To research the park’s guides, Google away!

Next time we’ll go deeper with some lesser known places to explore at Zion.  Perfect for repeat visitors or people who have more time on a first visit.  Have a wonderful week everyone!

This spectacularly cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone could be mistaken for being at Zion, but it’s not far away in Snow Canyon State Park.


Visiting Zion National Park – Part IV   6 comments

A fall scene along the Pine Creek canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

A fall scene along Pine Creek’s canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

Happy New Year!  Friday Foto Talk will return next week.  Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S.  More than 3 million people visited last year alone!  What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon.  The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times. 

Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular!  By all means plan a visit.  This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time.  I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors.  For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.

One of Zion’s best-known landmarks, the Great White Thrown rises far above the Virgin River.


Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails.  I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon. 

One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains.  This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon.  Just be careful.  Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.

Spring is a great time to come to Zion.  The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring.  Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring. 

The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon.  If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible.  In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.

Spring is the time of blooming cactus!

Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park.  Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November.  Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon.  Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded. 

The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion.  The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends.  Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.    

Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion.  Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down.  In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather. 

Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January.  But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings.  Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons.  Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion's Kolob Canyons area.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.


Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah.  The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either.  St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town.  It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.    

Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car.  You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase.  But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.

And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc.  Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip.  Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks!  If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.   

There are two entrances to the main part of Zion.  One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest.  The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon.  There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.


The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences.  Either is perfectly suitable for Zion.  By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season.  Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace. 

For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time.  A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground.  Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter.  Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally.  Check the NPS site for details on camping.

If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park.  But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”.  For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible.  Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays.  Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object.  If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.

You don't even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

You don’t even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit.  A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please.  The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m.  You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons. 

Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park.  It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing.  A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes.  Let’s face it.  Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local.  So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about. 

That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph.  And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit.  Have a wonderful 2016!

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.


Visiting Zion National Park: Part III   10 comments


Morning light at chilly East Zion.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park in Utah by picking up the story of human presence in this southwestern corner of Utah.  For the history of the ancient ones, the American Indian at Zion, check out Part II, and for the geologic history and formation of Zion, see Part I.


During the time leading up to the mid-1800s, the Zion area was wild and populated thinly by the Southern Paiute.  They may have avoided Zion Canyon itself because they believed it was inhabited by capricious spirits.  Their names for features in the canyon indicate as much: Temple of Sinawava (Coyote the trickster), Mount Wynopits (god of evil), etc.  All this time the area was claimed by Spain, and then by Mexico once they had gained independence.

In the late 1700s Spanish explorers penetrated southern Utah, apparently missing the Zion region.  But the reports of Escalante, Dominguez and Rivera, and the beautiful maps of the artist-cartographer Bernardo Miera, greatly helped later white settlers.  In particular the Mormons were intrigued by the Spaniards’ tales of Utah, a fact that would determine the future for the Zion area.

Bernardo de Miera's map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

Bernardo de Miera’s map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

In the early 1800s, trappers and mountain men, while mostly staying to the north and east, did explore Utah.  They found (a word I use loosely) many of the old Indian trails like the Old Spanish Trail.  These would several decades later be used by white settlers.  John Fremont explored Utah in the mid 1840s but he too missed Zion.

It should be noted however that the quirky and tough mountain men befriended many natives that they met.  (They preferred Indian to white women as brides.)  Some of them took secrets of their travels to their graves.  So the odd mountain man could have walked up the Virgin River looking for beaver sign.  Or even wintered in the relatively mild climate of SW Utah.  We know Jedediah Smith, perhaps the widest-traveled mountain man (and my personal favorite), knew of the Virgin River.  We just don’t know if any of them stepped foot in Zion Canyon.

This is actually a replica not the real deal. But forts were required to subdue the native populations of the west.

This is actually a replica. But forts were certainly required to subdue the native populations of the west.


Led by their leader and prophet Brigham Young, in the summer of 1847 thousands of Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.  This was after their persecution back east (their founder and original prophet Joseph Smith was murdered while in prison).  At the time the area was beyond the boundaries of the U.S.  A year later that changed as all of Utah (including Zion) was part of the huge area ceded to the U.S. by Mexico.  This was the result of Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American war.

That didn’t deter Brigham Young.  He later became territorial governor of Utah, but the relationship between the government and Mormons has always been a tempestuous one (it’s a great story of its own).  After being named president of the Mormons, Young sent parties to explore SW Utah in the 1850s.  A mission to convert the Southern Paiute was established near what is now St. George not far from Zion.  They took Indian lands in order to grow corn and other cash crops, including cotton.  It didn’t take long for many Paiute to die of disease and starvation.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Because cotton and tobacco could be grown in the mild climate of SW Utah, and also because many of the settlers were originally from the American South, the area was named Dixie.  The mission and settlement was largely unsuccessful and many fled.  But Young kept it alive, sending more settlers south.  He also sent Mormons to other places in the intermountain West.  Mormons discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and even founded Las Vegas (of all places).

Under the cottonwoods in Zion Canyon, Utah.


John Wesley Powell (another favorite figure of mine) led an expedition to the Zion area in 1872, recording the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap.  This is a Southern Paiute name meaning “straight canyon” or “arrow quiver” depending on who you believe.  Powell may have been using the actual Indian name for the canyon or he may have gotten it wrong.  But in 1909, when the area was given national monument status, it was called Mukuntuweap.

This is despite the fact that it was named Zion decades earlier.  In 1858, the Mormon Indian interpreter and explorer Nephi Johnson explored the canyon (he is recorded as the first white person to see it).  Despite the typical Mormon take on it that he was just exploring, he was very likely looking for a place to hide and lay low.

Johnson was directly involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, not far north of St. George.  About 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, including women and children, were murdered by Mormon militia-men (disguised as American Indians).  A group of Southern Paiute, under direction of Johnson, also took part.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

In 1861 another Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin, armed with information from Johnson, entered the canyon and built a one-room log cabin at the site now occupied by Zion Lodge.  Like anyone, Behunin needed a name for his spectacular new surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

Under great political pressure from Mormons, who had all along been calling the place Zion and who were angry about the Paiute name, the acting director of the Park Service bowed to pressure and renamed it Zion.  This was fortuitous for the Mormons, since the iconic director of the NPS Stephen Mather, who was dead-set against a name-change, was on leave at the time, suffering one of his long bouts of depression.

When the fantastic canyon, which by this time was well known thanks to the wonderful paintings of Frederick Dellenbaugh (see below), became a National Park in 1919, it was called Zion.  And so it remains today.

Zion is a biblical word meaning place of refuge and peace.  Considering their long migration to seek refuge from persecution, it’s a name near and dear to Mormons.  But Nephi Johnson and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a way twists the ideal of Zion.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.


A road was completed up Zion Canyon in 1917 and Wylie Way Camp was established to house pioneering visitors.  Early tourists came to Zion in special convertible buses.  Using these buses, Zion became part of the “Great Circle”, which took in Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  When you take the shuttle bus or drive up Zion Canyon today, as you crane your neck trying to view the soaring canyon walls, you may wonder why that fantastic original idea of topless buses didn’t last.

Zion became Utah’s first National Park in 1919, and in that year about 3700 people visited.  William Wylie’s camp was purchased and Zion Lodge was completed in 1925.  Tourist access continued to increase when the road to Zion became a thru-route in 1930.

After three years of innovative but dangerous road engineering that cost one worker his life, a tunnel was completed through the high cliffs east of Zion Canyon, connecting the park to points east.  The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with its charming skylight windows overlooking Pine Creek Canyon (its route is very close to the cliff wall), is still one of the country’s most marvelous road-works.

Eastern entrance of Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Eastern entrance of Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The same year the tunnels were finished (there are actually two), tourist numbers had increased to about 55,000.  Visitation hit one million annually by 1975 and two million in 1990.  In 1997, with visitor numbers exploding and the canyon becoming a veritable parking lot in summertime, the Park Service instituted a long-overdue mandatory shuttle system.  From mid-March to the end of October, and also Thanksgiving weekends, you must take the free shuttle to access Zion Canyon.

Annual visitor numbers are now in excess of 2.5 million.  So Zion can be quite a busy park.  Next post in the series will focus on ways to come away from Zion with a positive experience while avoiding the potential negatives of all those fellow visitors.

Autumn is a magical time at Zion: ranch not far from the west entrance at Springdale.

Single-image Sunday: Afterlife   11 comments


This tree I found in a canyon not far from Zion National Park in Utah.  And since I’m doing a series on the park right now, I thought I’d post just this one image today, to show that the area around Zion is worth exploring too.

I called it afterlife because I think this ancient cottonwood may be dead.  But who knows, it is winter when many perfectly alive trees can look to be deceased, especially very old ones.  In any case, the old codger has obviously loved this rock for a long time.

And the tree continues to serve its ecosystem.  It has very likely served as home or shelter for many creatures, and it’s probably been a prime feeding spot for generations of insect-eating birds (like woodpeckers).  I’m also guessing many an owl has perched up there in the moonlight.  It’s a perfect height from which to swoop down on unsuspecting mice.

So if and when you come to Zion, at least on a second visit, make some time to explore the surrounding area as well as the park.  Hope your weekend and holiday preparations are going well.  But remember to enjoy the season and try not to stress out trying to make everything perfect.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Visiting Zion National Park: Part I   20 comments

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

I’m going to change pace and do a short travel series: an in-depth look at Zion National Park.  I’ve not done one of these for a long time.  As usual I’ll start with Zion’s natural history, including geology in this post.  Then I’ll go on to human history and life on display at Zion.  I’ll finish with travel logistics and recommendations for various visit lengths, focusing of course on photography.

If you haven’t yet visited Zion, this series will be an in-depth introduction with tips, but without presuming to tell you exactly where and how to photograph the park.  If you’ve been to Zion before, you will learn some interesting stuff about the park and probably find out about one or two out-of-the-way photo spots.

But mostly this is about background knowledge.  I strongly believe the more you know about a place the better your experience and photos will be.  Though my posts are always heavily illustrated, I hope you’ll try to forget the pictures when you go out yourself.  Do your own thing and get pictures that represent your own unique take on the park.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.


Zion National Park lies in southwestern Utah, in an area called Dixie.  That term is normally associated with the southern states (Alabama, Georgia, etc.).  Utah’s Dixie is certainly where the climate is warmest in the Beehive State.  But it’s much drier than the humid South.  Zion is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, that huge regional uplift of sedimentary rocks that covers parts of four states and defines much of the dramatic scenery of America’s desert southwest.


Zion is also on the western edge of a geologic feature called Grand Staircase.  This is a large series of cliff-forming sedimentary layers that steps downward from north to south.  Some of the area’s highest and youngest rocks are to the north near Bryce Canyon while some of the lowest and oldest rocks are exposed to the south in Grand Canyon.

But the rim of that last southern step (it’s a doozie!) tops out at 8800 feet in elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  That’s very similar to the top of Bryce (the northern step) at 9100 feet.  So the Grand Staircase not so much steps downward in elevation but in geology.


Zion Canyon, centerpiece of the park, plus Cedar Breaks to the north, are located where the land “breaks” downward off the high eastern plateaus of south-central Utah to meet the lower deserts of SW Utah and southern Nevada.  These breaks are also known as the Hurricane Cliffs, which continue south into NW Arizona.

The towns in this part of Utah, largest of which is St. George, are situated near the foot of this dramatic sandstone escarpment, at a relatively low elevation compared with much smaller burgs up in the plateau country to the east.  The Virgin River and its tributaries have cut generally SW-facing canyons down through the escarpment.  The most dramatic of these is Zion Canyon.

The Hurricane Cliffs 'break' down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The Hurricane Cliffs ‘break’ down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified by Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified here at Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.



The most prominent formation at Zion is Navajo Sandstone.  It forms most of the named dome-like features at Zion, such as the Patriarchs, the Sentinel, and White Throne.  The Navajo, which is generally a whitish sandstone, preserves record of an ancient desert.  This desert, which existed in the Jurassic age (dinosaur times), was dominated by enormous sand dune fields (ergs) similar to today’s Sahara Desert.

You can tell the rocks are ancient sand dunes because of cross-bedding.  Take a good look at the sandstone walls at Zion and notice the lines angled at about 35 degrees to the main rock layers, which are nearly horizontal.  A great place to see cross-bedding is at Checkerboard Mesa near the park’s east entrance, but you’ll see it everywhere in East Zion east of the tunnels.  The rocks behind the sheep below show cross-bedding.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

The desert sands of the Navajo formed when plate tectonics, beginning a couple hundred million years ago, dragged this area north from equatorial to much drier latitudes in the vicinity of the Tropic of Cancer (30 degrees north).  This is the latitude, both north and south of the equator (Tropic of Capricorn), where the world’s major deserts are still found.

Also contributing to desertification in the Jurassic were the mountains building to the west of Zion in Nevada and California.  These ranges, which were the result of tectonic collision at the western edge of North America, are now gone, eroded away.  But in the Jurassic they formed an effective rain-shadow, blocking rains coming off the Pacific and helping to dry things even further.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.


There is more than Navajo Sandstone at Zion, however.  The Virgin River has cut so deeply into the rocks that, despite the great thickness of the Navajo, other formations are visible beneath it.  These record shallow seas, meandering streams and floodplain environments.  For example, the Kayenta and Moenave Formations below the Navajo are reddish stream deposits formed in climates that changed from subtropical (for the older Moenave) to semi-arid (for the overlying Kayenta).

These older formations form the rubbly slopes and red cliff bands low on Zion’s canyon walls.  They’re also prominent above the town of Springdale, and up on Kolob Terrace Road.  Solid red cliffs of Kayenta, formed at the edge of that great encroaching desert, lie directly beneath the hard white sandstones of the Navajo.

If you gain a high vantage point you may notice the red “hats” or caps on top of the Navajo Formation’s highest white domes.  These belong to the Temple Cap and Carmel Formations, at 160 million years the youngest rocks at Zion.  Their reddish color is clue to wetter conditions returning in the late Jurassic.  A warm sea even invaded again, this signaled by limestones of the Carmel Formation.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.


Time didn’t stop after deposition of the Navajo and other Jurassic rocks at Zion.  Sedimentation continued into the Cretaceous and beyond; yet, save for an important exception (see below), younger rocks of the Zion region have been stripped away by erosion and transported down the Colorado River into the Pacific Ocean.

Erosion is a big deal at Zion.  The Colorado Plateau continues to be shoved upward by tectonic pressures (a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Zion in 1995).  Over time, this uplift has increased river gradients dramatically, resulting in very active erosion by streams and rivers as well as landslides.  Wind has helped sculpt the landscape.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained Navajo Sandstones.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained and dune cross-bedded Navajo Sandstones.


If you drive up to Lava Point on the Kolob Terrace Road, you will notice dark lava flows, which flowed out of vents that opened up as this area began to stretch (rift), starting about 2 million years ago.  This young age places the lava flows (which being basalt were quite fluid) in the Ice Ages, which were fairly wet times at Zion.  Think about the terrain at that time, which was dramatic canyon country as it is today.

This combination of climate, active basaltic volcanism and topography tells you something must have happened (and it did!):  lava-dammed lakes.  If you hike the Subway, a lake formed in that canyon when lava dammed the Left Fork; it extended all the way up to the Subway itself.  If you’re observant you’ll notice fine lake muds and silts laid down by this lake.  You pass right by them when you’re hiking back out of the canyon.

By the way, let’s put some numbers on this story.  Most of what you see at Zion is between about 200 and 160 million years old, placing it squarely in the Mesozoic Era, age of dinosaurs.  Less noticeable rocks beneath these are as old as 250 million years, while the young lavas are between 1.5 and 200,000 years old.

Dusk falls on the Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above red Kayenta sandstones. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found in the red formation.

Dusk falls on Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above steep red and mauve slopes of the Kayenta.  Beneath that in the foreground are brick-red rubbly cliffs of the Springdale Member of the Moenave Formation. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found here.


The older pre-dinosaur strata is worth mentioning because it is prominent at nearby attractions, such as Grand Canyon to the south of Zion.  Most prominent of the area’s oldest rock formations is the Kaibab.  It dates back to Permian times about 260 million years ago.  In these ancient times, an embayment of the ocean we call Panthalassa lapped at the edge of the world’s only landmass, the supercontinent Pangaea.  At that time this region, later to become Utah and Arizona, was near the equator.

The Kaibab is mostly limestone, formed in warm, shallow seas.  It’s visible in places low along the Virgin River within the park and also dramatically in the Hurricane Cliffs near the town of Hurricane and north along the east side of I-15.  It’s interesting to realize that the Kaibab, which hides low in Zion’s deep canyons, forms the high rim of Grand Canyon to the south.  This tells you something about the layout of the Grand Staircase.

Thought I'd throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

Thought I’d throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.


More recently during the Ice Ages, the climate at Zion was wetter than today’s.  The Virgin and other rivers carried more water, thus flash-flooding was more frequent and violent.  Four thousand years ago a huge landslide blocked the Virgin River and formed a 350 foot-deep lake in Zion Canyon.  This enormous slump block came off The Sentinel, so it’s called the Sentinel Slide.

The lake extended from Canyon Junction all the way to Angel’s Landing.  Sediments settled out on the canyon floor, partly filling its natural V-shape.  The river could not be stopped for long of course, and the natural dam was eventually breached.  The resulting flood drained the lake and formed the V-shaped inner canyon between Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.

So now you know why Zion Canyon is flat-bottomed; it’s the old lake-bed.  You can see the remains of the Sentinel Slide above you on the left as you drive up-canyon.  For a closer view hike or go on a horse-back ride on the Sand Bench Trail, which climbs up on top of the slump block itself.  By the way, the Sentinel Slide still acts up from time to time.  In 1995, part of the old slide slipped, briefly blocking the river.  The road was flooded for a time until the Virgin, never to be denied for long, re-established its channel.

Stay tuned for more from Zion National Park!

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.  I’m on top of one of the huge blocks moved by the slide.


Winter Photography, Part VI: Cold Shooting   16 comments

Morning at East Zion, Utah

Morning at East Zion, Utah

I’m not happy right now.  I had to leave Facebook (time for a break anyhow).  Not that it’s a big deal, but still, I don’t like being sort of forced into things.  You don’t want the dirty details.  Suffice to say, much as I believe I was born at least 100 years too late, I don’t think I’m made for today’s photography, at least in the landscape arena.

I’m thinking of giving up landscape photography it’s got me so discouraged.  The way to become popular in LS photography is to follow a path that I don’t want to follow.  In fact, I’m including pictures in this post that, while I like them for a few reasons, I’m really not satisfied with.  Maybe I’m being hard on myself, and tomorrow morning I’ll probably be out shooting happily.  But I’m really ready to move onward and upward, and am frustrated with my lack of artistic progress.  I’m not into this for a hobby.

A frozen pond on 13,000-foot Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies.

A frozen pond on 13,000-foot Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies.

Is this fun? An image I got by wading through a cold waist-deep stream, pushing aside floating ice.

Is this fun? An image I got by wading through the cold waist-deep water of Oneonta Creek, Ore., pushing aside floating ice.  P.S. it wasn’t really difficult, just making it seem that way!

So back to winter photography.  Here are a few parting tips for successful winter shooting:

  • Don’t Stay in Bed.  This is the hardest thing, at least for me.  Let’s face it, the best light is usually in the early morning or late afternoon, or with today’s cameras even in the middle of the night!  You can do winter photography at any time of day, but since days are shorter your time is limited.  If you want to focus on the golden hours near dusk or dawn, you have two chances each day, and they are much more closely spaced than in the summer.  So get out early and shoot late; you’ll still get plenty of sleep!
  • Positive Exposure Compensation.  Use your exposure compensation feature and over-expose by about a stop when you’re shooting in bright snow.  The amount you need depends on how bright the sun on the snow is, and on how much snow is in the frame.  The old film rule of thumb was +2 stops, but with DSLRs I’ve gotten away with anywhere from +2/3 to a stop and a half in most circumstances.  If you’re shooting RAW you can always bump up the brightness of the snowy parts on the computer, but it’s always best to get it right in camera.  Just don’t actually over-expose anything.  The easiest way to check for this is to set your blinking over-exposure warning (available on most all DSLRs) and always review the image on the LCD.
The Goblins in snow, Utah.

The Goblins in snow, Utah.

  • Watch the Weather.  Yeah, I know it’s great advice any time of year.  But I’ve found that weather patterns will settle into an area and make it so that one time per day is best, and that these conditions could last for a week or more.  I’ve also noticed that this bias is more prevalent in winter, at least in North America.  (It’s one of those things I pass on in this blog that nobody really talks about.)  That preferential shooting time could be around sunset or it could be sunrise.  If it happens to be dawn that is better than sunset, you better get your butt out of bed!
  • Strive for simplicity.  While this is a good thing to come back to from time to time, no matter the season, in winter the opportunities for simple compositions (and simple themes!) seem to abound.  There’s the obvious fact that snow blankets a lot of chaos with a smooth white, but even without snow there tends to be more simple compositions available during the cold months.
  • Take your tripod.  Winter makes it even more important to consider the limitation of low light.  Even during daytime, take your tripod just in case.
An approaching winter storm at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah.

An approaching winter storm at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah.

Alpenglow lights up Mount Hood in Oregon. Snow-covered Mirror Lake is at bottom.

Alpenglow lights up Mount Hood in Oregon. Snow-covered Mirror Lake is at bottom.

  • Be Ready.  Unless you are in Alaska or somewhere in high latitudes during that hemisphere’s months of shorter days, you should be ever cognizant of the brevity of the light.  In temperate regions (which includes nearly all of North America & Europe), so-called golden hour is noticeably briefer during winter months.  Of course your style may dictate that you are set up and ready at all times.  That’s not me, I wander even during good light.  Just be willing, during winter especially, to decide on a composition and subject well before the light comes.
New-fallen snow along the skiing trail: La Sal Mtns., Utah.

New-fallen snow along the skiing trail: La Sal Mtns., Utah.

  • Look for Details.  In winter, often the light is very clear but also quite boring.  That’s the time to look for details and macro opportunities.  Ice is a world unto itself, and often snow or ice clings to the most improbable objects, creating unusual and beautiful photos.  That is, if you’re looking for it.  As you travel through the environment, keep looking near and far, close-up and wide-open.

Okay, that’ll do it for Winter Photography.  I don’t like to be too prescriptive about photography, so it’s up to you from here on out.  Just bundle up and do it!  I’ll try to maintain the blog, even during my pause on social media (talk about love-hate).  But maybe I don’t consider this blog as the typical social media platform.  Anyway, have a great holiday season everyone!

Yesterday morning, with dramatic skies heralding coming snow, a simple corral up an unnamed canyon, southern Utah.

Yesterday morning, with dramatic skies heralding coming snow, a simple corral up an unnamed canyon, southern Utah.

Two for Tuesday: We’re Coming!   2 comments

If you want to see desert bighorn sheep, you can’t do much better than east Zion National Park in Utah.  Not the canyon itself so much; that can be a zoo in the warmer months.  If you travel east, through a couple spectacular tunnels, you come out in a wonderland of sandstone monoliths.  The bighorn sheep here are doing quite well.

I drove through my favorite part of Zion a couple days ago, stopping to take a short hike.  I saw two sheep browsing the spring growth and slowly pursued them, hoping they’d get comfortable with me.  They crossed the road and I crossed behind them.  Then I saw the babies & another female.

Mom was understandably shy about letting me get close to them, so I just watched as they climbed the steep sandstone.  Mom reached a viewpoint, but the kids were more careful.  They took their time, making sure each step was placed right.

Now they were very visible from the road and a few other cars stopped.   But since I had been with them for awhile, I ended up with a nice series, not just the one with them surveying their domain.  Stories and behavior are what I always hope for with wildlife.  I used my newish 600 mm. lens.  Enjoy!

Wait up mom, we’re coming!

Try and reach us now, haha!


Single-image Sunday: Patterns in Sandstone   5 comments

Since the Foto Talk this week was all about not getting too caught up in the search for abstract patterns in your photography, I thought I’d post an image whose sole aim was to abstract the subject.  But is this really an abstract?  I could have made it more so, for example by moving the camera or otherwise blurring details and color.  Or by getting experimental in post-processing.  But I wanted the close-up features of this dune sandstone to be very clear.

The abstraction is created by simply getting  close with my macro lens and framing so as to exclude the tiny flaws that are scattered through the rock.  I captured this at the famous Wave in southern Utah’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  The sandstone has been worn smooth by water and wind erosion, but up close you can see how rough it is, like sandpaper.

The tiny sand grains are frosted by winds that blew them into dunes during the early Jurassic Period nearly 200 million years ago when this whole region of the American southwest was a vast desert similar to the Sahara of today.

The thin layers (laminae) of alternating color are at an angle to the main sandstone beds.  This is called cross-bedding and is characteristic of dune sands.  The wind blew in grains that had been stained brick-red by iron.  Then it turned around and blew in cleaner, lighter-colored grains from a different source.  These grains would cascade down the steeper lee side of dunes, creating the cross-beds.

The flatter, thicker layers have been eroded into steps, a characteristic of the Wave.  Because of variation in their hardness, their ability to resist erosion, the layers stand out or are recessed.  This differential erosion is caused by variation in the amount and hardness of cement binding the sand grains together.

So what this image shows on a micro-scale is an ancient sand dune in cross-section that is now being sculpted by present-day winds.  In other words, it shows winds in a desert of the distant past, when early dinosaurs roamed the area.  And it shows what the desert of today is doing to those ancient dunes

So an abstract image can tell you something real about the subject.  I believe that’s the best kind of abstract in fact.  I’m hoping the image shows what nature can do, not what me or my camera can do.  Please let me know whether or not I succeeded.  I hope your weekend was a lot of fun.  Thanks for reading.


Wordless Wednesday: Old Movie Backdrop   3 comments

Marlboro Man Country

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