Along Kolob Terrace Road

Smith mesa off Kolob Terrace Road.

Smith Mesa off Kolob Terrace Road.

Here’s another post in our series on Zion National Park. Other articles include: Exploring Zion National Park, Exploring Zion Canyon, Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, and Exploring Kolob Canyons.

For another angle on Zion’s natural splendor, take time to drive the 20 or so miles up Kolob Terrace Road, an unassuming paved trail that snakes north from the tiny town of Virgin off State Route 9, about 13 miles due west of Springdale. You can pause to hike if you wish, but don’t be ashamed to take a break and just enjoy the ride.

There are no services on this route so be sure to stop for a packed lunch before setting off. In Springdale, Café Soleil (205 Zion Park Boulevard, not far from the main entrance to Zion) is a good choice and their chipotle chicken wrap is a winner. If you’re approaching from the west, Kokopelli Deli (390 W. State Street) in Hurricane is your best bet; they do a terrific take on the classic Reuben.

Your drive up Kolob Terrace Road begins unassumingly enough, through a modest residential area and into barren scrubland framed by Zion’s less spectacular backside to your right. But soon the road takes a short rise at the top of which the vista opens out to spectacular effect.

Off Kolob Terrace Road -- Zion National Park

View off Kolob Terrace Road.

Here you are on a narrow ridge between two canyons. On your right, you will see the enticing entrance gate to Sunset Valley Ranch. Alas, it’s private, but do pull off to peer over the edge at the lush green horse farm below.

As the road rises steadily (you will ascend some 3,000 feet during your journey), you will enter Zion National Park, greeted only by a sign. Along the way, various trailheads give access to some of the park’s more strenuous one- and two-day hikes.

Take note of the turn off to Smith Mesa Road on the left, but save it for your return trip when the afternoon sun is bathing the walls of Zion in theatrical lighting.

As the road winds in and out of park boundaries, pause frequently to admire and photograph the towering rock formations and distant vistas to the east.

Lava Point off Kolob Terrace Road.

View from Lava Point off Kolob Terrace Road.

At about the 20-mile mark on your odometer, you will reach, on your right, the turn off to Lava Point Campground and the Lava Point Overlook, a little less than two miles away along a seriously rutted dirt road. If there have been heavy rains recently, this stretch may prove impassable to the standard rental car.

If the weather cooperates, you will reach one of Zion’s loftiest viewpoints (nearly 7,900 feet in elevation) and be rewarded with a picnic table that overlooks a jaw-dropping, 180-degree panorama — one that extends to Arizona on a clear day. An interpretive sign aids you in spotting points you have already explored in Zion Canyon.

Smith Mesa off Kolob Terrace Road.

Another view of Smith Mesa off Kolob Terrace Road.

Retracing your route, you will discover that the return journey offers new and unexpected angles on the scenery you passed just a short time ago. This time, take the sharp right-hand turn onto Smith Mesa Road. Again, exercise caution if there have been recent rains. Even in dry weather, this road has some moments that will give you pause if you are only used to driving on well-paved roads.

While the drive up to Smith Mesa can seem like a mini-adventure, the real reward comes when you turn around after a few miles and descend. If you have timed it right, the sinking sun will be showcasing the canyon walls to the east in their perfect light.

Kolob Terrace Road -- Zion National Park

The moon over Kolob Terrace Road.

It’s an exhilarating end to a smashing scenic drive.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road (You Are Here)

Exploring Kolob Canyons

Exploring Kolob Canyons

Hanging valley at Kolob Canyons.

Hanging canyon at Kolob Canyons.

This is part of a series by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon on Zion National Park. Check out other articles here and here and here.

A 45-mile drive from Springdale, in the northwest part of the park, Kolob Canyons offers different rock formations and a much quieter experience than its cousin to the south, as relatively few Zion visitors appear to make the trip. Unless you elect a backcountry hike, you’ll probably see these canyons mostly from the 5-mile scenic drive on a red roadway that matches the color in some of strata of the canyon walls.

Pause about midway to admire a spectacular series of sandstone formations that feature so-called “hanging canyons.” Carved by centuries of snowmelt, these lush, green, v-shaped niches in the rock wall are canyons in the making.

Timber Creek Overlook Trail, a rather steep mile-long (round trip) hike accessed from the parking lot at the end of the scenic drive, offers spectacular views.

Timber Creek Overlook at Kolob Canyons.

Timber Creek Overlook at Kolob Canyons.

Kolob Canyons has its own Visitors Center near the entrance, just off I-15, complete with restrooms, a shop, and knowledgeable rangers. There’s a picnic area near the beginning of the Timber Creek trail with several tree-shaded tables. Packing in a picnic lunch is highly recommended.

Timber Creek Overlook Trail -- Zion National Park

Vista from the end of Timber Creek Overlook Trail.

Perhaps because it is less visited, you have a better chance of seeing wildlife here, especially if you venture along the trail system. When we visited, signs warned that a mountain lion had recently been spotted in the vicinity. Our own sightings were limited to birds, lizards, and squirrels.

To get to Kolob Canyons, drive west from Springdale on State Route 9, then north on State Route 17 and Interstate 15. The entrance to Kolob Canyons is at Exit 40.

Kolob Terrace Road -- Zion National Park

Along Kolob Terrace Road.

 

 

 

 

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons (You Are Here)

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

This is part of a series on Zion National Park by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon. Check out other articles here and here.

Twelve miles of State Route 9 cut through the southeastern corner of the park, connecting the park’s south and east entrances (and requiring payment of Zion’s entry fee). The stretch is designated a scenic highway, and it more than lives up to that name. The road climbs steeply from the canyon floor, passing through Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel on its way to Checkerboard Mesa and the park’s east entrance.

The 1.1-mile tunnel was the longest in the U.S. when it was completed in 1930. Its two lanes were plenty wide enough for two-way traffic back then, but a single lane can’t accommodate vehicles 11’4” tall or taller or 7’10” wide or wider.  As a result, most RVs, campers, trailers, and the like require “one-lane traffic control,” which means rangers at either end allow only one-way traffic until the large vehicle passes through. Visitors requiring that service in 2014 pay a $15 fee per vehicle in addition to their entry fee. The fee is good for two trips through the tunnel (for the same vehicle) in a 7-day period.

Sliprock along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Sliprock along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Once through the tunnel, the landscape changes dramatically. The drive showcases sliprock and “checkerboard” rock formations you don’t see on the Zion Canyon trails we hiked. Unless you are traveling on to Bryce Canyon National Park, you will turn around just before you reach the park’s east entrance.

Checkerboard mesa.

Checkerboard Mesa.

In addition to enjoying spectacular views from the many observation turnouts along the road, you can take a “moderate” hike on the rocky, mile-long (round trip) Canyon Overlook Trail. Accessed from near the east end of the Tunnel, the trail offers yet more views and lets you get up close and personal with the canyon flora. From its end, visitors can look down on the twisty road that brought them up from Zion Canyon. The Canyon itself lies ahead and far below them. Careful! The trail is sometimes steep and narrow with long drops to the floor below; not advised for those who have a fear of heights.

Canyon Overlook: View at end of trail.

Canyon Overlook: View at end of trail.

This drive can be done as part of a day in Zion Canyon.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (You Are Here)

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

Exploring Zion Canyon

Along Pa'rus Trail.

Along Pa’rus Trail.

This is another in a series of articles by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon about Zion National Park. Other articles include: Exploring Zion National Park, Along Kolob Terrace Road, Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, and Exploring Kolob Canyons.

First stop: The lanes where you pay your entrance fee ($25 per passenger vehicle in summer 2014 and $12 for pedestrians) and pick up your glossy full-color park map and very useful newspaper-style guide. Your entrance pass is good for seven days. Older adults get a great break: $10 for a lifetime national park pass if you can prove you are 60 or older. You need only one pass per private vehicle. Most entry and exit lanes moved surprisingly quickly on the three mid-June days we visited.

Next stop: The parking lot if you’re visiting April through October. Use of canyon shuttle buses is mandatory and included in your admission. The parking lot has special sections for RVs and other oversize vehicles. Onsite campers and guests of Zion Lodge can drive to their respective sites by showing the required permit. As noted above, Zion offers free shuttle service between Springdale and the park. Shuttles run from early morning to around sunset.

Exploring Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon, the 229-square-mile park’s biggest draw, boasts 13 trails, ranging from 0.4 to 9.4 miles in length round trip and in difficulty from “easy” to “moderate” to “strenuous.” We chose to skip the “strenuous” trails, among them the hike to Angel’s Landing, one of the park’s most popular (and thus crowded by mid-morning). Instead we explored several “easy,” “easy-moderate,” and “moderate” trails.

By far the easiest is the Pa’rus Trail, a 1.7-mile walk (one way) on a paved path between the Visitor Center and the second stop on the up-canyon shuttle. Walking south toward the Visitor Center, you can stop at the park’s Human History Museum (the shuttle’s first up-canyon stop). It screens a film about the park and its geology as well as some background on the indigenous populations, early explorers, the Mormon settlers who named the area Zion (because it promised them a peaceful life after persecution elsewhere), and the area’s 1909 designation as a national park by President William Taft. The Pa’rus is the only trail in the park that’s open to bicycles and pets; the latter must be on a leash less than 6 feet long.

Virgin River from Pa'rus Trail.

Virgin River from Pa’rus Trail.

Truth to tell, the trail segment from the Museum past the South Campground to the Visitor Center isn’t particularly interesting in itself, but it provides views of both the Virgin River, the area’s life-giving waterway, and the canyon’s stunning sandstone walls. Park rangers say it also offers an especially lovely view of the walls at sunset.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The trail to the lower Emerald Pool from Zion Lodge (the fifth of eight up-canyon shuttle stops) is an easy walk of well under two miles round trip on a paved path. It provides views of the river, vegetation, cliff walls, waterfalls that vary from wispy to spectacular depending on the season and rainfall, and the eponymous pool, as well as access to the river from several points for those wanting closer views or a chance to wade. The path was crowded in midafternoon, but appealing nonetheless.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

 

Zion Canyon -- Zion National Park

Rock squirrel at Riverside Walk.

The easy and very popular two-mile round trip Riverside Walk begins at the Temple of Sinawava, last stop for the up-canyon shuttle. An early-morning start put us ahead of the crowds. Bird song filled the forest. The river ran below us. Lizards and a rock squirrel scuttled near the path and interpretive signs offered information about the many varieties of plants growing beside the trail.

Best of all, as we turned a corner, we spotted three young mule deer bucks relaxing in the high vegetation beside the trail, the intensely colored canyon wall providing a spectacular backdrop. The trio seemed unbothered by the humans who stopped to photograph them. They were still there, and grazing, when we passed by an hour later on our return.

Riverside Walk -- Zion National Park

Mule deer graze beside Riverside Walk.

Riverside Walk ends at the river. From there, the more intrepid can hike The Narrows, a 9.4-mile, moderate-strenuous “trail” through the Virgin River into the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the walls narrow to just 20 feet apart in some places.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Signs warn Narrows’ hikers to equip themselves with a hiking stick, hard-toed shoes, and a fleece or windbreaker (among other things) and to be prepared to swim in places. Returnees we met later said it was a wonderful experience.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

We hit the steep, “moderate,” 2.7-mile round trip Watchman Trail an hour or so before sunset. The trail, which starts near the visitor center and the river, climbs rapidly in a series of switchbacks. The 0.9-mile loop at its end, high above the canyon floor, offers views into the far distance. We watched the last rays of sunlight climb the canyon walls to the top of the Watchman formation before heading back down in the dimming light.

Tip: If you plan to linger much past sunset, bring a flashlight to ensure a safe return hike. It’s a long way down if you should fall from the trail.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon (You Are Here)

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

An Introduction to Zion National Park

The Watchman from Pa'rus Trail

The Watchman from Pa’rus Trail.

Cactus flowers.

Cactus flowers.

By Kelly Monaghan & Sally Scanlon

Tucked into Utah’s southwestern corner, not far from the Arizona and Nevada borders, Zion National Park draws over two million visitors a year, a testament to the spectacular beauty of the park’s Zion and Kolob Canyons, its many hiking trails, and other opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Don’t let those visitor numbers discourage you. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon and you’ll find popular trails fairly quiet, even in summer. You won’t have them to yourself, but there’ll be few enough people on them that you’ll often feel as though you do.

Canyoneering, rock climbing, and multi-day backcountry hiking opportunities also abound—some of them in Zion and Kolob Canyons and others scattered around the park. Visitors looking for less strenuous options can drive three scenic routes through and adjacent to the park—though not up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive itself for seven months of the year. To minimize traffic and carbon emissions, the canyon road is closed to private vehicles and serviced by complimentary shuttle buses April 1 through most of October. The shuttle ride from Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Entrance to the end of the drive and back takes about 80 minutes. Buses stop at the park’s museum, Zion Lodge, and trailheads.

View from Kolob Terrace Road.

View from Kolob Canyons Road in the northeast corner of Zion National Park.

Lodging & eating: The park offers accommodations in Zion Canyon (in Zion Lodge and two campgrounds with a total of 309 campsites but no showers or laundry facilities) as well as in six campsites on the upper Kolob Plateau off Kolob Terrace Road. Its only food service is in the lodge. Wilderness camping is allowed but requires a permit and payment of a fee.

Zion Lodge, Zion National Park

Bridge near Zion Lodge connects visitors to trails.

We did not stay in the lodge, but the buzz is that the place is all about location, location, location. Accommodations are somewhat dated and the walls can prove distressingly thin. The restaurant, however, gets high marks.

For those who prefer softer beds, hot showers, and a variety of restaurants, art galleries, and shops within walking distance, Springdale, Utah, located just south of the park’s Zion Canyon entrance, has plenty to offer—plus frequent, free shuttle buses April through October to take you to and from Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

Springdale is also a great place to refuel after a strenuous day of hiking and exploring Zion, and many eateries get rave reviews. We were so taken by Café Oscar (948 Zion Park Blvd, 435-772-3232) on our first visit that we never bothered to sample other fare. Their Southwestern dishes like Chili Verde Tamales and Pork Chili Verde Burritos are addictive and the Murder Burger is, to coin a phrase, to die for. Wash it all down with a hearty pint of Polygamy Porter. Then come back for breakfast and try the Pork Verde Breakfast Burrito. Why mess with success?

Getting there: Las Vegas, 163 miles to the southwest, and Salt Lake City, 307 miles to the north, offer the nearest major airports. We chose Vegas.

Driving east from the Nevada border, we were greeted by mostly gray hills with interesting rock formations. Then, a few miles from the entrance to Zion Canyon, the sandstone hills take on varying shades of red, russet and pink, which blossom into a spectacular array of colors and shapes as you turn north to enter the park.

Zion Canyon wall, Zion National Park

One of Zion Canyon’s colorful walls.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park (You Are Here)

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons