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Travel: Discovering Zion

The stately red cliffs of Zion Canyon are one of southern Utah’s most popular destinations



The national parks of southern Utah have a timeless, prehistoric feel that conjure images of Fred Flintstone and Brontosaurus Rex. Soaring rock formations glow in unearthly hues of pink and orange while unlikely spires of sandstone jut skyward, their shape and form changing slowly with the weather. Hardy desert plants cling to the soil, well adapted to both the blistering heat of summer and the sharp chill of night. On the high desert plateaus, snow falls in winter and temperatures have been known to reach a bone chilling 30 degrees below zero.

Seeking warmer climes and a respite from British Columbia's chilly April rain we hit the road and pointed the car south. Heading through the US, Highway 93 is a pleasant alternative to the uninspiring interstate. The big skies and broad, rolling valleys of Montana are framed by distant snowy peaks. Towns, well kept and lovingly restored, recall a time before freeways and motorcars. Stately farmhouses punctuate the hills and between settlements, horses and cattle graze beneath a chilly sky.

Our first destination was Zion National Park, located in the southwest corner of Utah and over 2,000 kilometres away. As we headed south, Highway 93 passed dramatically into Idaho atop a snowy mountain pass before descending into a picturesque valley where stately rock formations flanked a quietly meandering river. Grand villas, dramatically situated on sunny hillsides or beneath soaring cliffs, dotted immaculately kept farmland. Weather ranged from near freezing to pleasant and warm.

Before long, the land flattened into a parched desert clad in hardy sagebrush and tumbling tumbleweeds. Mysterious buildings in the distance and restricted access roads hinted at top secret government operations in a harsh and unforgiving land. There even existed a place with the curious name of Atomic City. A strong wind battered our small car as we hurried through, heading toward the tangle of crowded freeways that bypass Salt Lake City.

After three solid days in the car climbing snowy mountain passes, crossing harsh windswept deserts and negotiating freeways of alarming capacity, we came upon a timeless land of soaring red cliffs and sunshine. At Zion one enters a world of towering Navajo Sandstone, the campsite set in the bowels of a narrow, shaded canyon formed by the lazily flowing Virgin River. The grandeur of the place immediately assured me that it had, indeed, been worth the drive.

The first white settlers of Zion Canyon arrived in the mid 1800s. On the banks of the Virgin River, flanked by majestic cliffs that glow red in the twilight, Mormon farmers from the Salt Lake area grew things like corn and tobacco and planted fruit trees. These pioneers named the area Zion, a Hebrew word, meaning "place of peace and relaxation."