Updated: May 4, 2021
Two weeks ago Shep and I drove from St. George to Cedar City, Utah so we could visit our friend Carol and, while enjoying her hospitality, explore the surrounding area. Our family lived in the central Utah city of Nephi from 1997-2003 but because of my professional commitments, we did not have the ability to explore this most amazing state. So far our time here has had a few challenges, from mild altitude sickness to severe weather, but we had a grand trip the other day and anticipate another exploration later this week when the gale force winds, rain and intermittent snowfall cease. Ibn Battuta once said “Traveling-It leaves you speechless the turns you into a story teller.” So, are you ready for a new story along with some facts and photos?
If you spent 24 hours on a driving exploration in this state, the wide variety of climates in Utah would surprise and delight you. In fact, during this single day with the exception of the climate of Antarctica , you would encounter every climate found on our earth. During a conversation that resulted in our moving to Utah following my retirement from the Navy, I ignorantly stated that my experience had demonstrated that Utah was a desolate wasteland.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This glorious state has mountain peaks that soar 13,700 feet above sea level, wide plains, beautiful valleys and many kinds of desert. (You didn’t think there was just ONE kind of desert, did you?)
Desert landscapes in Utah come in many forms: “red rock, vermillion cliffs, buffed sandstone canyons, rounded arches, lunar landscapes, dramatic gorges and expansive salt flats. Within a few hours of each other are high fortified alpine highways and wild dirt roads stretching across broad, low-lying desert lands” (1) Home to six of our national parks and numerous national monuments, these protected areas join the many state parks which preserve as well as share the beauty of this state.
Last week, we spent a full day-a relaxing, inspiring, and most enjoyable day on our bikes inside Zion National Park. It was one of those perfect 70 degree, sunny days that seem almost ordained as a gift from heaven above. Adding to the perfect climate and more-beautiful-around-every-corner scenery was the tranquility of the ride. Our day was a direct contrast to the experiences of many park visitors prior to a big change that occurred in 2000.
Zion national park was designed to handle about 1 million visitors per year. By the year 2000, the beautiful scenic parkway of this dead end canyon had been turned into a frustrating, angry tourist inducing and very noisy parking lot by the over 2.5 million visitors who arrived each year. In the peak season of April through October, that translated to an average of 2,000 cars and 20 tour buses a day. On a busy holiday weekend, as many as 3,000 vehicles entered the narrow, canyon in a day - all of them trying to squeeze into 450 parking spaces.
One of the primary reasons a national park is established is to protect and preserve the natural resources within its boundaries. To carve out additional parking lots from the 6 mile long canyon was counterproductive. Wisely, the park service management came up with a unique idea: partner with the neighboring town of Springville to increase parking spaces and require visitors to access the park areas past the visitor center via foot, bicycle or park shuttle buses. Zion officials took the plunge and held their collective breaths To see if the public would respond to the plan as hoped. They did. Today approximately 4.5 million visitors come to Zion national park annually and enjoy the propane powered shuttle bus system. With the advent of e-bikes and their general acceptance in national parks, visitors like us experience the grandeur of this mighty canyon in tranquility that serves to enhance the areas beauty.
During our visit we saw many families walking, folks touring on bicycles, and visitors quietly picnicking by the park’s main architect, the Virgin river. As we quietly pedaled and scanned the views that surrounded us, shuttle buses passed by at regular intervals, disgorging hikers headed for some of the area’s famous hiking experiences, e.g., Angels Landing and Emerald Pools. At the last sweeping curve before the canyon ended we stopped to enjoy the view when a quiet voice from far above ground level drew my eyes to a sheer rock face. There, far above us, Shep and I could see 5 rock climbers ascending the several hundred of feet high cliff. In my youth I enjoyed scrambling as well as both low level free climbing and aid climbing. These days I enjoy seeing others excel in this sport while, at ground level, I pedal quietly by with my beloved adventure companion.
As our day progressed, we found ourselves nearly nose to nose with a young mule deer doe and found the antics of the plateau lizard is a small,with distinctive patches of blue along its belly. This is Zion’s most common lizard, often seen along the trails in Zion Canyon. Down by a rock ledge at the river, I caught a brief glimpse of the long tail of a retreating western whip tail lizard. Various birds shared their songs with us along the way. For a couple of “kids” from Washington state, the variety of creatures native to this rather hostile environment amazes. While the spring weather we enjoyed was delightful, both summer and winter climes are not. From June till September this folded area of the Colorado Plateau is scorchingly hot. During the winter, it a place which is bone numbing and frostbite inducing cold. Like most of this state Zion is a place that can be too hot, too cold, too remote (lacking cell service), too dry or too wet. Despite these qualities, it is a place that should be on everyones bucket list.
As we made the turn to leave the depths of the Zion parkway, we met up with another one of the area’s weather challenges-too windy. :-) We made the return trip to Springville facing directly into a blustery spring wind, chuckling at challenges that present while riding with our bike helmet mounted sun visors. As I chuckled at the present challenge I was facing, I remembered reading a quote on a magnet which advised “Of all the paths you take, make certain a few of them are dirt.”(author unknown). As we drove home that evening we found ourselves a bit dirty as well as expressing a mixture of gratitude, delight and amazement at what Zion national park had shared with us. Truly, our system of national parks is one thing that is remarkably American. Yellowstone was born on March 1, 1872, making it the world’s first national park. As other nations came to establish their own national parks we each became all the richer for it.
As Jan noted, the weather was perfect for our ride in the park, 70 to 75 Degrees. This was our first exercise after dealing with altitude sickness for over a week. Thanks to our Rad City e-bikes that regenerate when coasting, we had a comfortable ride. We ended the day with 3/5 batteries, pretty impressive considering we fought headwinds all the way back in the afternoon.
The views were amazing! On bikes, we were able to stop as often was we wished to enjoy views, take photos, and just sit on a rock and soak in the vision before us.
As the day went on, the colors of the rocks changed also. Mixed in the palette were all shades of gray, white, red, and even copper green. The layers stacked up and the shape of all the rock was mesmerizing.
Of course we had to put ourselves into the perspective of this beautiful landscape. Being Spring, there was plenty of water, blossoms, vivid green leaves, and new grasses everywhere.
As a closing, here are three shots taken during the early part of the day. after riding almost 20 miles, we were a little tired, but enjoyed the day. We celebrated with a Reuben sandwich and onion rings at a local eatery. On the next trip to this park, we will take some of the hikes.
(1) Sjoquist, Christine, Backroads & Byways of Utah, p. 9, The Countryman Press, New York, 2017.