After the Grand Canyon, Page and Bryce National Park, we were wondering whether anything else in this patch of American desert could still amaze us. I’m pleased to say that Zion National Park succeeded, with a landscape that was again dramatically different to everything else we’d seen. Here, the amazing sights were not below but above us, taking the form of many giant mountains crowded around the winding course of the Virgin River. Peaceful riverside walks through verdant grottos were interspersed with daring hikes around the peaks, clinging onto chains for support. The quaint, single-street town of Springdale provided the perfect scenic base from which to explore.
The landscape accompanying our drive down from Bryce Canyon was consistently stunning, even after we’d left Bryce’s hoodoos behind. But upon entering Zion National Park, it was turned up several more notches. For the second time that day we could barely believe our eyes. Almost out of nowhere, immense mountains had risen up on either side of the road, their sides so steep it was impossible to see their peaks from our car. Although mostly a similar red-orange colour to the rock of Bryce, some of these monoliths were white, others black and elsewhere green due to a thin layer of vegetation.
At one point we spotted a crowd of people who’d stopped to watch a group of desert big horn sheep roaming nearby. We parked up to join them.
The road became more and more winding as we continued to drive through the park, until eventually we came out the other side at the neighbouring town of Springdale. Checking into Zion Park Motel, we were stopped in our tracks by the view from the car park. The mountains looming directly overhead appeared enflamed by the intense orange light of the setting sun. The reception was adorned with various Mormon paraphernalia, while our room was pleasantly austere, with a large Queen-size bed for each of us (a very common room arrangement in the US).
There was a handy catalogue of nearby eateries provided, from which we picked out the Spotted Dog Café. We didn’t realise until later that it was at the opposite end of town. Thus ensued a long walk down Springdale’s single road in the dark, guided by the torches on our phones.
It was busy when we arrived, so we were invited to wait for a table at the bar. The bartender asked me what kind of cocktail I fancied, and proceeded to concoct me a very expensive drink in a copper mug. Even Steve’s simple beer was pricey.
Having worked our way through the encyclopaedia of typical American cuisine this holiday, for dinner tonight I was craving something more delicate. The menu’s pesto penne with chicken hit the spot.We shared a starter of melted brie with crusty bread (delicious) and this, together with two servings of the complimentary house bread (thin, soft flatbreads with a red-wine-based dip) quickly filled us up. I took the rest of my pasta away in a box to have for lunch tomorrow (it was still tasty cold, but left my entire bag stinking of garlic).
We started the next day with a large breakfast at Wildcat Willies: a breakfast burrito for me and a ‘Baja Sunrise’ for Steve. My burrito was glorious, bursting with roasted vegetables melded together with oozing cheese. It further strengthened my conviction that Mexican food for breakfast is one of America’s greatest ideas. Steve wasn’t so keen on his dish, and spent considerable time picking out the olives.
River and waterfalls
After breakfast, we caught the free Springfield shuttle bus to the Visitor Centre and the Zion Canyon shuttle bus to Zion Lodge. Our destination was the Upper Emerald Pools walk.
The walk began by taking us over a pretty bridge and under a sparse waterfall, being blown into spray by the wind. Below rippled a small pool flowing into the Virgin River. The verdancy of the scene amazed us, particularly after the overwhelming redness of Bryce and Page, with even the water appearing the same shade of peridot-green as the fine tree branches tangling over it.
From below the waterfall we clambered up a path of piled rocks to the mid-level of pools, and finally to the top level. We ended up at the foot of a tall, thin waterfall spilling from far up high into a large pool below. The water here wasn’t green but an unpleasant shade of yellowish brown, no doubt due to the red rock sediments within. However, the views across the canyon from here were beautiful.
Rather than retracing our steps, we decided to walk to the Grotto, which although not a route highlighted by our map turned out to be a gorgeous walk. We couldn’t believe how green everything was! The area’s name was well deserved, as it really felt like a fairyland.
Returning over a bridge to the road, we next took the bus to the Weeping Rock stop. The aforementioned rock was a long, hanging ridge of moist, multi-coloured rock, dripping with water and mossy vegetation. Reached via a a short but steep walk, it was an interesting stop but a bit underwhelming.
The walk to Weeping Rock shares a start point with the Hidden Canyon walk, which we decided to attempt next. It was described as a longer and more challenging hike, and we were a little apprehensive seeing as sunset was just two hours away. But we decided to give it a go, and we’re so glad that we did. This interesting walk first took us up a wall of steep switchbacks, then around the edges of a couple of mountains along narrow ridges, with chains to hold onto for support. The views from the highest point were stunning.
The highest and narrowest sections were quite challenging for someone slightly scared of heights such as myself, but this made finishing the walk all the more rewarding. The route ended at its namesake, the ‘Hidden Canyon’: a narrow, uneven corridor blocked by rocks and logs. We continued through the chasm as far as we could, clambering over boulders and around puddles, until we came up against one rock just too high for me to climb. We turned around and found our way back down to the road long before the sun began setting.
Sunset over Virgin River
We caught the bus to Big Bend simply to check out the view, and while we were there climbed down to the riverside to appreciate the mountains at their maximum height. Afterwards it was on to our final stop of the day, Canyon Crossing. Many people had already gathered here to watch the sun setting over The Watchman: a pointed mountain that overlooks the meandering river.
With the bridge over the river pretty crowded, we sought out an alternative view from the banks of the river. We stayed down there, exploring and taking photos, until the sun disappeared, then climbed back up through the undergrowth just in time to catch the final bus back to Springdale.
For dinner we returned to Wildcat Willies, mostly because I had to try the intriguing ‘chicken-fried steak’ I’d spotted on the menu that morning. This was even more delicious than expected, comprising chopped and reformed steak coated in crispy southern-fried breadcrumbs and slathered in a thick white sauce flavoured with chicken and sausage (more ‘gravy’, though not as we Brits know it). It was accompanied by green beans and deliciously smooth and creamy mash. Steve had a ginormous burger that came with fantastically flavoursome chips. I drank a decently priced raspberry cocktail, while Steve was persuaded into spending an extra $1 to upgrade his pint of beer to a giant tankard. For dessert we shared the bread pudding, comprising soft, light, gooey brioche bread baked with apples and topped with ice cream and raspberry sauce. Unexpectedly, it was one of the best desserts we had!
One last hike
We needed to be back in Vegas by 6pm to return the car, but had just enough time left to squeeze one more hike out of Zion. We ate breakfast – French toast and blueberry pancakes, served with both poisonberry and maple syrups – at Oscar’s Café, sat on the terrace with a view of the mountains.
After checking out of Zion Park Motel, we drove to the beginning of Canyon Overlook walk. We were lucky enough to snatch the one last space in the car park. Thank goodness, because despite being relatively short it was a fantastic walk, taking us high above the canyon floor, beneath a cavernous overhang and along narrow edges to a magnificent viewpoint overlooking a long stretch of the canyon.
The walk’s furthermost point was a wide plateau strewn with large rocks that were perfect for climbing on to see the view from new angles. We returned to our car having had a brilliant work-out, ready for our last few hours of driving through the south-west US desert. Our final stop would be Las Vegas’ Fremont Street – just a few hours away distance-wise, but a million miles away in terms of substance…
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.