Southern Utah and northern Arizona have arguably the greatest concentration of scenic wonders in North America, with four national parks that attract more than a million visitors a year – Grand Canyon (often ranked the second-most popular national park), Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches.
They're all within a half-day's drive of each other.
Scattered along the roadway on the way to Zion are mesas and arroyos that in most states would merit at least a name on the map. Here are so many, however, that only the most spectacular are named.
Zion has a sense of power that is operatic in scale.
Like Yosemite, Zion is a vertical park. Its red Navajo sandstone canyon walls stand in for California's gray granite. Its landscape is deeply etched with slot canyons.
Those deep and sometimes twisting canyons offer many photographic opportunities with their contrasting light and shadows.
American Indians called the main canyon Mukuntuweap – "Straight Canyon." In 1909, President William Howard Taft created the Mukuntuweap National Monument to protect the area. In 1919 the area received national park status but the name was changed to one more familiar to western ears – Zion.
The name came from log cabin settler Isaac Behunin who said, "A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion."
Many landmarks in the park derive from biblical references: temples, angels, an altar, patriarchs, and throne.
Elevations in Zion National Park range from 3,600 to 8,700 feet. Mojave Desert, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau communities of plants and animals are represented in various parts.
The Zion Canyon main visitors center has well-organized sets of interpretive tour maps organized by the desired amount of time and degree of difficulty. And organized you'll want to be: Zion rewards those who plan ahead.
The map and hiking guide that come with admission to the park lists 18 trails from easy to strenuous with estimated times of travel and elevation gain.
The park could occupy a full week's vacation. After exhausting the 15 trails in Zion Canyon, there are three more on the north end of the park at Kolb Canyons. If these are too pedestrian, you can hire a guide to help you with advanced rock-climbing, canyoneering and trail-finding on slick rock.
Between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, Zion gets a large share of day visitors in addition to those who stay longer. Spring, summer and fall access to the most popular section of the park, Zion Canyon, is only via shuttle. It was not uncommon to see large extended families of three generations on the shuttle buses.
Highlights in Zion include slot canyons so narrow you can touch both walls simultaneously. One of the most popular, the Narrows, is accessible from a hike that departs from the end of the easy Riverwalk trail. The two-hour hike will take you to Orderville Canyon, but you can't go past there without a permit.
Adventurous hikers make the 16-mile, all-day hike from top to bottom of Orderville Canyon, but in addition to the permit, a private shuttle to trailhead is required.
Angels Landing is a knife-edged trail on a fin of sandstone with a 1,200-foot fall on either side and only a single chain to hang onto.
Parking lots at Zion fill up relatively fast, depending on the day of the week and season. And if you want to camp, arrive early; the first-come, first-served sites fill quickly.
The coldest months in Zion Canyon are December and January with average highs in the low 50s and lows about 30. The average daily high temperature peaks in July and August around 100 degrees, with averages falling about 10 degrees per month on either side.
Because flash flooding can occur even miles downstream from a cloudburst, hikers should always check the risk of such events.
Park access is via three unconnected paved roads and one unpaved. Newcomers will want to stick to the two roads where visitors centers are located. The main visitors center is on the bank of the Virgin River, the architect of Zion Canyon. On the north is the Kolob Canyons Visitors Center; save this for a second trip or longer stay.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
What: Hiking, canyoneering, biking, birding, climbing and camping at three campgrounds.
Where: State Route 9 in Springdale, Utah, 40 miles from Saint George, Utah, or 163 miles from Las Vegas
When: Park is open every day; hours for the visitor center and other facilities vary by the season. A shuttle is required much of the year for access to the most popular part of the park. Check before your trip.
Cost: Passes, valid for seven consecutive days, range from $12 for individuals to $25 for private vehicle.
Information: (435) 772-3256; www.nps.gov/zion