Driving across the United States

PART 9: Utah’s Zion National Park

Zion National Park in SW Utah

Zion National Park is not big but it has a natural beauty that takes your breath away. This one has jagged canyon cliff edges that tower above you. In September, the Virgin River seems like a lazy creek by your feet as you crane your neck up to blue sky with puffy white clouds. Your eyes drink it in but our trusty little point and shoot camera will not do it justice. Certainly, our words cannot.

We woke rested after another long day’s drive. At Cedar City, we are 250 miles south of Salt Lake City and 170 miles north of Las Vegas on Interstate 15; and just north of Zion National Park. No more Go West! for us because we are now solidly headed SSW toward California.

Actually, the entrance to Zion is worthy of a few photo-ops, itself.

With two nights booked for Cedar City we can relax. Our big morning decision was to enter Zion National Park from the east so we can make a giant loop. Forget SSW, we’ll go East first. Flexibility is our middle name.

Zion National Park Shuttle Service

To get acclimated and check out as much as possible, we took the shuttle that stopped at five or six spots not accessible any other way. Like a hop-on/hop-off city bus, you get off and on as desired.  We used the “go to the furthest spot first” tactic and rode along to a place where you can walk alongside the river for maybe half a mile or so and back. 

Maybe it was the hot day or the crowds after being so alone in the mountains — or maybe it is the bus or the construction that had us stopped for 10-15 minutes at a time — or the narrow canyons or whatever, but I gave that part of the day a thumbs down. It was beautiful but brought on a major headache. Rob is more forgiving and voted thumbs up.

If you don’t take the shuttle, you can drive. At first you share the road with shuttles but then the road veers off and you can take another path that is quite nice, too.  In fact, after we got back to the car, we did exactly that. Before going to any national park you should check out the current conditions at National Park Service.

Driving through Zion is a trip in itself

Certainly, the geology of Zion is quite remarkable and we both really enjoyed the drive in and out, as we proceeded via our own car.  There was one section where we looked up and there was a hole in the mountainside. Honest, this “hole” was surrounded by sculpted concrete like a cement balcony wall at the bottom and open on top, looking into the mountain, feet above anything. It appeared to us that there was no conceivable way to get near. 

Some time later we rounded a turn, entered a tunnel and – voila – the “balcony” became an air and light shaft running parallel to the road through the tunnel.  Further on, there was one spot where the face of the rock looks like a checkerboard!  Really steep and narrow bits of road and you need to keep your wits about you as you drive on some spots.

The spectacular scenery doesn’t stop outside the park

When near the end of the road, just before we hit the north-south road that is beyond Zion and runs roughly parallel to the Interstate, we were treated to a fabulous view of a mesa (or butte?) that I recognized from posters – for some reason. The afternoon sun hit this just so, and the exposed white rock all along the top seems to float over the terrain below, with a mauve cushion separating the layers. 

Further down the road we were treated to the single-most spectacular rainbow either of us has ever seen.  It had every color – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet – from one side to the other. Not just one end, either; we got to see both ends. And then a second ring began to show toward the north end.  We pulled over to gape and try taking photos only to realize everyone traveling this road has pulled off as well. It truly was a rare site to see such a spectacular rainbow.

Eventually we started driving again, still thinking about the rainbow, when we saw our turnoff coming up on the left.  We had decided earlier that we’d take the less traveled bit to cut back west.  When you look at a map you are never sure what you’ll see along the way, just that it will get you from Point A to Point B.

Double full rainbow.

It turned out that our trip back to Cedar City was a bit like the drive through Wyoming – wild and beautiful and less traveled. Only this time we are treated to switchbacks and steep hills and drop-offs through canyons in the dark, as night seemed to descend too early. 

Thank goodness for a moonlit night!

No city or residential lights in a forest makes everything look eerie but the full moon peaked out to keep us company every so often. I couldn’t help look for a silhouette of a witch on a broomstick.  

We were glad to have a home to go to by the time we returned to Cedar City. Both of us were tired after three solid days in the car. Today’s memories were great, though. What a fantastic variety of things we’ve seen. Tomorrow will bring us solidly back to civilization as we will zoom toward Lake Mead and Las Vegas in the morning.

This post is one in a series that document our 400-day trip round the world (2005-2006). Each segment will be linked in at RTW.

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