1. It was 6 June, Day 20. From Bryce Canyon National Park we chose Route 12 to Route 89 before turning into Zion-Mt Carmel Highway (Highway 9) We were expecting some delay along Zion-Mt Carmel Highway as we read in the internet that there was on-going road work. However, we decided to proceed because it was a more direct way to Zion and it was also considered a very scenic route.
2. We reached the start of Zion-Mt Carmel Highway at about 5.30 pm. As we were concerned about possible delay ahead, we drove steadily ahead without stopping. Before the gate into the park, it was farmland, relatively flat, quite ordinary. It was very different after the gate. It became more mountainous. Texture of the mountains was unlike others that I saw earlier. Some looked like they had been plastered over, with the brush strokes still visible. A number looked like checkerboard, with horizontal and vertical lines; one aptly called Checkerboard Mesa.
3. Before long, we reached the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, a narrow, 1.1 mile tunnel through the mountain, completed in 1930. It was wide enough for 2 cars to just pass each other. For this reason, larger vehicle, like camper van, would need a permit to travel through the tunnel and be accompanied by a lead vehicle. Six (?) punched out "windows", at regular intervals, provided some sunlight into the tunnel, presumably to make the travel inside the tunnel a little easier for those who are claustrophobic.
4. To me, the mile long tunnel was clearly one key highlight of the drive along Zion-Mt Carmel Highway. It was not just an engineering marvel. It was an experience - driving in pitch darkness interrupted by occasional brightness afforded by the "windows". As we emerged from the tunnel, the feeling was indescribable. Suddenly it was all brightness and right in front of us high red mountains towering on all sides, including this Arch of Zion. It was like arriving at Shangri La. Driving down the very winding road down to the canyon floor was in itself an experience. When we ended our visit to Zion, we decided to take this route again, this in time in the opposite direction.
5. As it turned out, we did not encounter any road work or any delay along Zion-Mt Carmel Highway on our way into Zion. We were there on Saturday and we were told road work would only begin on Monday, and Zion-Mt Carmel Highway would be close Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 4 pm.
6. Before we went looking for hotel in Springdale, we stopped at the Visitor Centre to gather the necessary maps and brochures. As usual, it was tastefully designed; the architect keeping it low to blend in with the surrounding.
7. We checked into a family suite at Zion Park Motel in Springdale, which was just outside the South Entrance to Zion National Park, at US$150 a night. The town looked fairly busy and the first couple of hotels we checked were full. It was a weekend and summer season was just picking up. After dinner, we had an early night. We had the whole of Sunday to visit the park.
7. Zion National Park is located in the southern Utah. At 229 sq miles, the park protects the incredible rock formations and high sandstone cliffs within its boundaries and is a favorite spot for hiking, backpacking, canyoneering and climbing. Visitors to Zion walk on the canyon floor and look up, rather than looking down from the rim as in many parks. In addition to the magnificent monoliths and cliffs, the park is known for its desert landscape of sandstone canyons, mesas, and high plateaus. Early Mormon pioneers started to arrive in Zion in 1863 and began farming. Isaac Behunin built the first log cabin here. He named the place Zion, a place of refuge in Hebrew. The name stuck and it remains Zion till today.
8. The next morning, we drove to the Visitor Centre and left the car in the car park. From spring through fall, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to shuttle buses only. With 8 stops along the 6 miles route, visitors could access the various attractions in the park. Apparently, the decision was taken in 2000 to introduce the shuttle bus services and reduce movement of cars along the popular scenic drive when traffic became very heavy. It was a good decision. Overall, it's a better experience for the visitors. No car, no traffic jam, what a nice change! The efficient shuttle bus service route starts from the Visitor Centre.
9. We started the day by taking the shuttle bus to Temple of Shinawava, the last of the 8 stops. From there, we hiked the 2.2 miles Riverside Walk. The paved trail follows the Virgin River, along the bottom of the narrow canyon. It was a fairly easy walk, happy that it was morning and we were walking in the shade most of the time. It was least expected but it was like a walk in the garden. As sandstone is fairly porous, water travels along fault lines and seeps out of the rock walls, creating suitable condition for hanging gardens to flourish. It was quite a sight.
10. At the end of Riverside Walk, the canyon narrows. The trail could continue for another 4-5 miles (and another 5 hrs of trekking), walking on river bed, to The Narrows. At The Narrows, the canyon narrows very significantly. It would be quite an experience looking straight up at the vertical walls. But, The Narrows was closed and at any rate we were not prepared for this.
11. Our next stop was Weeping Rock. This was a short hike of 0.4 mile, with the paved trail ending at a rock alcove with dripping springs.
12. We took a lunch break at the Zion Lodge. It was a bright sunny day and many people were out on the field, taking their lunch and for some taking a nap. For sure our legs needed a rest.
13. After lunch, it was another hike, this time to the Lower Emerald Pools. It was 1.2 mile, about 1 hr of walking, up and down a paved trail to the pools and waterfalls. Here we are, reaching the alcove but we were disappointed. Water was trickling from above but flow was too little and I had difficulty finding the pools. They looked like puddles. No luck this time.
14. My next stop was the Zion Human History Museum, one stop after the Visitor Centre. In addition to the exhibits on the human history of Zion National Park, the 20 mins introductory film highlights the dramatic landscape of the park and examines the history of the canyon.
15. Outside, on the wall of the museum, was this picture with 3 taps for visitors to fill up their bottles with potable water. There were similar water points around the park. As a policy, the park does not sell bottled water. Reason is given in the picture, that it is bad for the environment. Of the parks we visited, Zion was the only one with this practice. This is one practice that other organisations, including those outside the US, could follow.
16. Due to the wetter condition in the valley, it was more green and more flowers. Here are a few:
16. In the evening, we took a drive to Kolob Canyons, which is really an extension of Zion National Park. It could be reached via a separate entrance, off I15, 45 miles from Springdale. Got there by 6 pm and the Visitor Centre there was already closed. We nonetheless drove in. It was quiet, clearly a much less visited park, possibly because of its distance from Zion. But, scenery was just as stunning.
17. Next morning, we left early, departing Springdale at 8 am. The rangers were already out at the entrance into Zion informing those taking the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway to clear the road by 9 am before the road was closed for road work. They were well organised.
18. It was a joy traveling this stretch again even though it was the 2nd time in 2 days. We were off to the North Rim of Grand Canyon.