For everyone who thinks Zion is the Jewish homeland or the humans' hideaway in the "Matrix" movies, it's good to remember the word's origin: a citadel and refuge.

Zion National Park has been that kind of place for thousands of years, succoring ancient Indian tribes, Mormon settlers and now travelers seeking solace from the civilized hurly-burly. Its canyons catch and hold water in an otherwise brutal desert. Tucked into the southwest corner of Utah, it delivers most of the geologic and historic wonders of the Grand Canyon at a slightly more human scale.

Driving down Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City, the landscape doesn't give many hints of what's behind the wall of nondescript mountains to the east. It's about a two-day drive to St. George, Utah, which makes a good preparation point before heading into the canyons.

It's also a good place to measure the stunning change of scenery that occurs when you reach the entrance to the national park. The gray Montana blahs of March quickly melt in the blinding light of Zion's white, orange and red cliff walls.

There are two main ways to enter the park, and they're not connected. In a sense, there are almost two separate parks: Kolob Canyons on the northwest and Zion Canyon to the southeast. The Kolob section entrance comes right off I-15, but has no camping facilities inside the park. The Zion entrance waits down the road.

A third option for the tough-driving set involves the Kolob Terrace Road, which is unpaved for much of its length and unplowed through most of winter. It has no camping sites within the park, and trailers are discouraged.

And a fourth option exists for those coming from the east and Bryce Canyon National Park. But this road has strict vehicle length restrictions and an incredible set of switchbacks as it scales the entire canyon wall. It is closed in winter, and will be undergoing major renovations this spring.

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We opted for the southern Zion Canyon gate, where most of the park's museums, campgrounds and other facilities are concentrated. The road into the heart of the park is only seven miles long. That's a deceptive figure, though. Zion's attractions are three-dimensional.

Before the spring shuttle service starts running, you can make the drive from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinawava turnaround and back in under an hour. If you never get out of the car, you could call it an hour well-spent and head back for a pizza at St. George.

That would be like opening an oyster to find the pearl, but ignoring the mother-of-pearl that decorates either side of the shell. The folds in Zion's walls conceal dozens of trails and exhibits.

The National Park Service has done its best to make many of these accessible to the faint of heart or frail of leg. But Zion keeps its best wonders for those who are prepared to break a serious sweat. Most turnouts offer a point of interest, followed by a zigzag trail that shoots for the sky. Some of these also involve crossing stomach-plunging wooden bridges chained to sheer cliffs.

And virtually none of them have water, so bring your own ample supply. Temperatures in the summer have hit 110 degrees, and all that up-and-down action takes a quick toll.

Evidence of human presence in Zion dates back almost 12,000 years, according to National Park Service research. The canyon's hospitable bottomland helped develop the farming Virgin Anasazi culture, which lasted almost 1,500 years. Droughts pushed them out about 800 years ago. The more desert-adapted Paiute people replaced them.

The relative abundance of water in Zion Canyon is a destructive blessing. Its relatively soft rock strata allow rainfall to slice through the rim walls, turning little cracks into slot canyons that blast water like a geologic firehose.

Evidence of the place's constant metamorphosis was on scary display as we hiked up the Echo Canyon trail. Several hundred feet above the Weeping Rock turnout, the bright red rock surroundings were dusted with chalk-white rubble. Looking up, we could see where an SUV-sized boulder had fallen from a white rock layer more than 1,000 feet farther up. The trail showed scrape marks from a recent repair job.

Geologic time moves on the double-quick in Zion.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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