Nearly 3 million visitors explored Zion National Park last year...but they saw only a fraction of it.
Far and away, most visitors to this towering sandstone icon of the National Park System enter via the South Entrance at Springdale, Utah, and head straight into Zion Canyon, anxious perhaps to climb to Angels Landing or to wade in the Virgin River upstream of the Temple of Sinawava. They come to stand in the drizzle of Weeping Rock, take a short hike to Emerald Pools, or maybe labor on the 8-mile roundtrip to Observation Point via the East Rim Trail. They stay two or three days, and then head on down the road.
Though these adventures in the park leave lifetime memories, how many visitors are aware of the other wonders that lie beyond Zion Canyon? How much of this not-quite-150,000-acre park have you seen?
It's not easy to take it all in in one visit, going from Zion Canyon to Kolob Canyon and then up onto the Kolob Plateau and on to Checkerboard Mesa. It wasn't until my fourth visit to the park that I made it up onto the plateau, and then only for a drive along the Kolob Terrace Road that whetted my appetite for a longer return stay.
Let's take a look at some of the areas outside of Zion Canyon that are definitely worth your attention:
Located in Zion's northwestern corner, just off Interstate 15 (Exit 40), this area offers a launching point into the park's backcountry wilderness. Though there's a 5-mile-long drive that shows off some of the colorful underbelly of the layercake sandstone that erosion has brought to the surface, it's hard to appreciate the geology and landscape without heading down one of the trails that start here.
The Taylor Creek Trail is a great half-day hike, running just 5 miles roundtrip. Though short, the payoffs include glimpses of the region's human past in the form of two historic homesteader's cabins, and the geological wonder of Double Arch Alcove that stands in a cleft in the Navajo Sandstone.
The LaVerkin Creek Trail descends down into the canyons in this corner of the park and into the Zion Wilderness. You can spend a long day on this trail...or use it to piece together a multi-day backcountry adventure.
Not far off this trail rises Kolob Arch, a towering, 287-foot-wide sandstone arch that dwarfs you and everything else in its shadows. There are some nice campsites along the creek, including one that features quick access to the "Jacuzzi," a natural whirlpool in the creek perfect for cooling off after a hot summer day.
If you've got the time, you can knit together a backcountry trek of roughly 50 miles by connecting the LaVerkin Creek, Hop Valley, Wild Cat Canyon, West Rim, and East Rim trails. Do that and you will see some incredible country!
Kolob Terrace Road
This road has been beckoning me for years, and I finally was able to drive it in late October. To begin this ride, you need to drive out of the park at Springdale and head west on Utah 9 to the Kolob Terrace Road that heads north from Virgin.
Along with enjoying some picturesque scenery -- colorful rock bands, outcrops, and spires dotting the pine and juniper forests -- this road provides access to the Left Fork of North Creek Trail that takes you down into the "Subway," and to the Wildcat Canyon Trail that ties into the West Rim Trail.
The Left Fork of North Creek Trail is one of the most-sought adventures in the park's high country. It loops more than 9 miles through areas of backcountry that require, among other things, you to rappel some sections and wade through water in others.
Due to this route's popularity, you'll need a permit to venture down the trail. You can find details on how to obtain one at this site.
The Kolob Terrace Road also can lead you to the Lava Point Campground, a "primitive" campground that offers six sites available on a first-come, first-served basis (a tricky proposition in that this campground is almost a 90-minute drive from the park's South Entrance at Springdale), pit toilets...and no water. But the solitude in this part of the park is sublime.
To reach Checkerboard Mesa on the east side of the park, you need to travel along one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century -- the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. The switchbacks on this red-paved highway that winds up Pine Canyon are amazing enough, but passing through the mile-long tunnel blasted through solid rock is the pièce de résistance. The only regret you'll have is not being able to stop to stare out of the "galleries," or windows, and onto the park's cliffs and pinnacles.
It took three years to complete the highway and tunnel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been recognized as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
But driving through the tunnel is not as straight-forward as it might seem. Due to the size of the tunnel, large rigs need an escort to pass through.
Any vehicle that is 11 feet 4 inches high or higher and 7 feet 10 inches wide or wider needs the one-way traffic control service.
Any vehicle 13 feet high or higher cannot pass through the tunnel.
Length restrictions are 40 feet for a single vehicle and 50 feet for any vehicle combination.
Once you pass through the tunnel on the way east, the landscape opens up a bit to reveal a rumpled and striated sandstone countryside. Though it might look bleak, it serves as a fabulous geologic primer. The sandstone, once sand dunes that time turned into rock, date to the Jurassic age and inherited their color from iron-rich minerals.
Stride across this juniper-studded landscape that was given its checkerboard appearance by winds that blew the sand dunes this way and that before they were fossilized and you'll cross the geologic mid-section of the Colorado Plateau with its Carmel Formation, Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation, Wingate Sandstone, Chinle Formation, and Moencopia Formation. And you'll possibly come upon some of the desert bighorn sheep that live in the park.
Though there are enough wonders within the walls of Zion Canyon to fill a vacation, those parts of the park outside the canyon offer equally rich experiences that deserve your attention.