Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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The power and the glory

The dramatic scenery of Utah's Zion National Park has been inspiring awe for centuries

When you drive into Zion National Park from the east and begin the winding descent into the 732-metre-deep canyon, you begin a journey through epic geological history written by water and wind on the earth’s bones in southwestern Utah.

The park’s showcase of sculpted stone begins with highlands of creamy “slickrock,” where pillars have been eroded into weird hoodoos and the ochre mound of Checkerboard Mesa, a massive petrified sand dune has been crosshatched with horizontal and vertical cracks. The road then passes into the 1.6-kilometre-long Mount Carmel Tunnel — a remarkable feat of engineering completed in 1930 — before descending into the magnificent, soaring scenery of Zion’s main canyon.

Millions of visitors come to this corner of the American Southwest each year and those who experience even a small corner of the 59,488 hectares protected by the park will agree that few places in the region can match Zion’s visual impact. But, then, it has always been a place that evoked awe.

Spirited views

Paiute Indians, who came here after the Anasazi, feared the spirits they thought wandered the narrow spaces between the canyon’s towering walls. They thought Wai-no-Pits, the evil one who brought disease to the tribe and Kainesava, a fire god who hurled lightning bolts from its peaks lived here.

Mormon pioneer Isaac Behunin, who built a cabin in 1862 where Zion Lodge now stands, was impressed by the canyon’s majesty and gave the place its name, hoping it would be a sanctuary from religious persecution. Behunin regarded the pastel monoliths edging the canyon as “temples built not by the hands of man.”

But it was Frederick Vining Fisher, a Methodist minister, who gave many of the park’s prominent rock features their religious-oriented names after visiting the canyon in 1916: the Three Patriarchs, Angels Landing, the Pulpit, the Great Organ and the Temple of Sinawava. He called a huge slab of stone the Great White Throne and wrote of it, “I have looked for this mountain all my life, but I never expected to find it in this world.”

Even the practical John Wesley Powell — Union artillery officer, explorer of the American West and the second director of the US Geological Survey — waxed poetic in 1895 when he said, “All this is the music of water.” And he was dead on.

River world

Once the bottom of a vast inland sea, the magnificent rock formations in this corner of the American Southwest were first created by the layering of silt, gravel and sediment. Mountainous sand dunes formed when the climate changed and the waters receded. These, in turn, were submerged and petrified when the seas returned.

Then after the Colorado Plateau was pushed up by subterranean forces, it caused the layered rock to split into slabs tens of kilometres in length and width. As these slabs rose in height, the rivers and streams draining them became faster and more erosive, eventually hollowing out the great canyons.

Zion’s main sculptor is the North Fork of the Virgin River fed by the streams and waterfalls that pour into it from higher elevations of the plateau. Running through the 10-kilometre stretch of Zion Canyon, the Virgin is a gently meandering stream for most of the year. But after late-summer thunderstorms or unexpected downpours, the river can turn into a raging torrent that can carry away as much as 450,000 cubic metres of rock and sand in a single day.

As destructive as water can be here, it is also the sustaining life force of the canyon’s remarkably diverse habitats. It transforms the canyon floor into a lush oasis in contrast to the arid desolation of Utah’s Canyonlands to the northeast. Water or the lack of it, as well as elevation, decide what grows where in the park.

Along the Virgin’s banks are riverine forests of cottonwood trees, singleleaf ash and box elder. Away from the river, at the canyon’s lowest elevations, can be found desert plants such as cacti, creosote bush, purple sage and mesquite. Higher up in the nooks and crannies of the canyon’s walls pinon pines cluster in pygmy thickets, sharing precious space with junipers and wild flowers. Thriving in the relatively cool and moist environment above the canyon’s rim are white fir, aspen and red birch.

Throughout Zion in general can be found a remarkable wealth of fauna, ranging from bank beavers along the Virgin River to bobcats, pumas, mule deer, coyotes, wild turkeys, elk and the occasional black bear. Birders have spotted more than 200 species in and around the park. Zion National Park is beautiful but not pristine. More than 150 years of farming, grazing and recreation have left their mark and invasive species, such as tamarisk and cheat grass, have gradually replaced some of the less-hardy native plants.

Get on the bus

But the biggest impact has come from the ever-growing number of visitors. In the early 1990s when I first came here, it was in serious danger of being loved to death. With the completion of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway in 1930, the area became one of the most accessible parks in the U.S. Southwest. By 1993, I was one of about 2.3 million visitors who gaped at Zion’s rocks that year. The traffic jams were as monumental and memorable as the monoliths. In the spring and summer, the canyon would turn into a parking lot for enormous RVs and a barely moving stream of cars.

Salvation and the most important step toward the park’s recovery came in 1997 with the introduction of a free and highly efficient shuttle service from April to October, both to the park from the town of Springdale near the south entrance and also along Zion Canyon Road within the park itself. Buses run as often as every seven to 10 minutes from 5:30AM to 11PM and stop at eight points of interest along the way.

Passengers can get on and off as often as they want at the stops. Now the only private vehicles allowed on the Scenic Drive during the peak season are those belonging to overnight guests at Zion Lodge, a rustic complex with a big lawn, snack bar, restaurant and restrooms. On a recent visit, I could see that the shuttle service has significantly reduced air pollution and helped to restore some peace to a place best enjoyed with a measure of serenity.

While camping is popular in the park’s three campgrounds and overnight visitors can stay in a row of motels in Springdale or in Zion Lodge (where reservations should be made up to a year ahead), the majority come to the park on day trips to hike, picnic or just marvel at the rocks. Here are some highlights.

If you only have a day

Court of the Patriarchs
A trail from the parking lot leads to a viewpoint from which the patriarchs — three peaks named after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of the Old Testament — can be seen rising above Birch Creek Canyon and the Virgin River.
Emerald Pools
The trailhead to the three pools is just across the road from Zion Lodge and the trail to the first pool is paved to accommodate wheelchairs. By the time they reach the third pool, most hikers will break a sweat.
Temple of Sinawava
This canyon, with a flat paved trail beside the Virgin River, is reached from the last shuttle stop. Sandstone walls loom 610 metres above the river seeping with water that turns the floor of the canyon into a virtual rainforest in places. The 1.5-kilometre walk ends at The Narrows, a slot canyon that is often flooded in the spring and early summer.
Angels Landing
If you want a challenge and only have a day in the park, a good combination is an hour-long stroll along the Riverside Walk and then a strenuous climb to Angels Landing, Zion’s most spectacular hike. The 15-kilometre round trip takes climbers to the top of a slender 457-metre slab of rock for spectacular, vertiginous views. On the steepest sections, steel cables act as handholds.

If you have a few days

Zion Canyon Visitors Center
Open year-round at the south entrance to the park, this is a must-stop for those who want information about back-country hiking, trail conditions and schedules for transportation between trailheads. This is also the place to sign up for ranger-led tours. The bookstore is stocked with an impressive collection of books about the region’s natural and human history.
Other canyons
If you are already in the area, it would be a shame to miss Bryce Canyon National Park, an easy drive to the northeast. Not really a canyon at all, Bryce is a series of 14 huge amphitheatres descending through more than 300 metres of white and pink limestone carved into fantastic hoodoos, windows and pinnacles. Unlike Zion, where you look up, in Bryce the attractions are below you along the edge of the plateau. The southern end of the park rises to more than 2770 metres.

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