This is a spiritual place. A glorious place. A place of serene ocher mountains and leaning narrow canyons.
“People are coming not only to tour the park but to nourish themselves,” says Harriet Killshorse, owner of a local antiques shop, who has lived amid the enviable scenery for 25 years. “You can’t help but feel the mountain spirits.”
As Zion National Park’s popularity rises, those spirits may be feeling a bit crushed and crowded these days. But Zion is coping.
“We are having severe issues with parking,” says park ranger Jamie Mansfield. “We have to figure out how not to love the place too much.”
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When America’s naturalists and lawmakers began designating national parks, the idea was to preserve beautiful places for future generations. In 1903, artist Frederick Dellenbaugh’s painting of Zion’s ravishing loveliness was displayed at the St. Louis World's Fair, prompting people back east to marvel and officials to name it a national monument in 1909, and in 1919, a congressional bill designating Zion National Park was signed into law.
With its towering sandstone cliffs and slot canyons shaped over the millenia by the winding Virgin River, Zion is one of the nation’s busiest national parks. This year, an 18 percent jump in visitors through May puts it on pace for 3.6 million visitors in 2015 — 1 million more than in 2006. The visitor center parking lot is full by 10 a.m. A system of park and town shuttles is efficient but can get overwhelmed.
One thing protecting Zion's treasures? The far-sighted decision in 1997 to ban cars in Zion Canyon from March 15 to Oct. 25. You either have to take a shuttle or hike.
Yet, solitary contemplation of nature’s beauty can still be had at Zion, which sprawls over 229 square miles. You just have to look harder to find it.
One morning on the Emerald Pools Trail, waterfalls spill from above as visitors stroll below, gripping an iron railing fastened to rock. Because Zion is in oft-parched southwest Utah, visitors expect arid conditions. But the microclimate of Zion and its meandering Virgin River creates lush, green areas flush with ferns, columbines and cottonwood trees.
I meet Sherry Schmidt, her husband and twin 11-year-old daughters. The family is trying to see highlights of Zion in just two days as part of a sightseeing circuit. They’ve just left arid Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and are enjoying the green of Zion.
“The parks are all very different,” Schmidt says, pausing at a lookout that encompasses Zion Canyon from a bird's-eye view. “But you can see how they are all connected.”
Zion’s most famous sights include Emerald Pools and the Narrows, a water-filled slot canyon that, at points, is only 20 feet wide. Zion’s most famous hike is Angel’s Landing, a not-for-the-faint-of-heart trek with precarious drop-offs. The park's most famous vista may be the Court of the Patriarchs, three peaks that reminded early visitors of three biblical figures: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But Zion also is special because of its American Indian roots, from ancient Pueblo settlers to the Paiute, says Killshorse. Her husband is Kiowa Native American. Their Springdale antiques and Indian trading post, about a mile from the park gates, is called Frontier Plunder.
No matter how many people pile into the park, it will remain steady, she predicts. Zion's ancient mountains have patiently endured generations of eager tourists, skilled climbers, foolish hikers, disrespectful louts and solace-seekers
Zion “amplifies spirits, both good and bad. We often do ceremonies to protect the visitors, that they not harm Mother Nature or themselves,” she says.
“For us, this is a metaphysical place.”
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Zion National Park is a 3-hour drive and 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas. It is 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. The park has two entrances, the main Zion Canyon entrance in Springdale, and the Kolub Canyon entrance 45 miles north.
Lodging: The Zion Park Lodge within the park has some limited availability for summer, about $209 per night (zionlodge.com). Just outside park gates, Springdale has many clean, decent hotels (for a list, see www.zionpark.com) including Hampton Inn & Suites and Holiday Inn Express (both about $200 per night in season.)
Zion Park entry fee: Vehicle entry is $30; pedestrians are $15. Entry ticket is good for 7 days.
Activities: Zion has horseback riding, climbing, cycling, camping, hiking, ranger programs and canyoneering.
For more: nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit
THE GRAND CIRCLE
Zion National Park is part of the so-called "Grand Circle" of parks in the southwest U.S.
Notable attractions on the Grand Circle include Monument Valley; Mesa Verde National Park; Lake Powell-Glen Canyon National Recreation Area; Canyon de Chelly National Park; Valley of the Gods; Natural Bridges National Monument.
For a free visitors guide see www.grandcircle.org.
5 tips that give you the best Zion Park experience
As Zion gets more popular, use strategies for getting the experience you came for by following these tips:
Timing: Even in busy June, I found Zion delightful in the cool mornings between 7 and 10 a.m. It also was nice after around 4 p.m., when a lot of day visitors left and the late day sun turned everything rosy gold. Come early or late, and you also miss the midday heat.
Days and seasons: Come midweek, not weekends. Come on a regular day, not a holiday or holiday weekend. Come in April or October, the shoulder seasons, rather than in busy July and August. Zion is open all winter (it does get some snow and ice), but you can drive your car rather than take the shuttle then.
Trails: Don’t shun easy trails such as Emerald Pools and Riverside Walk just because they're popular. Both are extremely beautiful, even when you are surrounded by other tourists. More challenging trails such as Angel's Landing or the Narrows require proper gear and preparation; don't just set off on your own in flip-flops.
Shuttle stops: The busiest park shuttle stops in Zion Canyon are the visitors center and Temple of Sinawava (near the Narrows), but for some alone time, hop off at Canyon Junction or Big Bend and just find a quiet spot to look up, take a breath and sit still.
Lodging strategy: Zion is not exactly close to major metropolitan areas. If you can, camp in the park or stay nearby in one of the new hotels in Springdale. Most visitors to Zion come for about two to three days, says ranger Jamie Mansfield. Take at least that long to see Zion in its best light — morning, noon and night.