Utah Road Trip: Zion Canyon Loop | Reader's Digest

Utah Road Trip: Zion Canyon Loop

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details
Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 270 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round, except for Cedar Breaks, which is closed mid-October through May.

Words to the wise: Stay away from the edges of cliffs. (They may crumble and fall unexpectedly.)

Nearby attractions: Bryce Canyon National Park.

Pipe Spring National Monument (in Arizona).

Visitor centers: Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons (both in Zion National Park).

Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Further information: Zion National Park, SR 9, Springdale, UT 84767; tel. 435-772-3256, www.nps.gov/zion/.

Star Route

Smithsonian Butte Backway
Beginning at Rockville, just west of Zion Canyon, this nine-mile backway crosses the orchards and cattle pastures of the Virgin River valley before heading south on a gravel road that climbs to the summit of Wire Mesa. There a turnout offers stunning views of Zion’s towering rock formations to the northeast and the massive, 6,632-foot Smithsonian Butte to the east. Swinging west and then due south, the road flattens out, ending at Rte. 59. To take in all the views, travelers are advised to drive this route back in the opposite direction.

No one who visits Utah’s spectacular array of sandstone columns, canyons, and arches is likely ever to forget them. The soaring monoliths in Zion National Park—viewed from a number of angles along this scenic loop—combine with the stark, stadium-like chasm at Cedar Breaks to make this journey a sumptuous banquet for the eyes.

1. St. George
The population of Utah is two-thirds Mormon, and its history is suffused with the hopes of the Church of Latter-day Saints. In 1861 Mormon leader Brigham Young, who dreamed of a western “Dixie” that would provide the cotton that was unavailable from the South during the Civil War, sent 309 families southwest from Salt Lake City to St. George to plant cotton. Though the climate was fine for the crop, the experiment failed after the Civil War since cotton from the original Dixie was so much less expensive.

The St. George of today is a relatively small city, but not without its unique attractions. Among them are Brigham Young’s winter home and two imposing Mormon structures built in the 1870s. The tabernacle, made of hand-hewn sandstone blocks, is open to visitors. The white-walled temple, which is the oldest Mormon temple in the world still in use, is open only to Mormons.

2. Snow Canyon State Park
The route heads northwest on Rte. 18 from St. George to Snow Canyon, an eerie landscape comprising an assortment of lava flows, extinct volcanoes, and canyons. A half-mile off Rte. 18 at the park’s Panorama Point, jet-black chunks of volcanic ash pepper a red sandstone moonscape. Petroglyphs by ancient Indians appear in various places throughout the park, and carvings by 19th-century pioneers decorate Johnson’s Arch. After bidding farewell to Snow Canyon, the drive circles back to St. George via Santa Clara.

Smithsonian Butte Backway
Beginning at Rockville, just west of Zion Canyon, this nine-mile backway crosses the orchards and cattle pastures of the Virgin River valley before heading south on a gravel road that climbs to the summit of Wire Mesa. There a turnout offers stunning views of Zion’s towering rock formations to the northeast and the massive, 6,632-foot Smithsonian Butte to the east. Swinging west and then due south, the road flattens out, ending at Rte. 59. To take in all the views, travelers are advised to drive this route back in the opposite direction.

3. Hurricane
Once you head north on I-15 and then twist east on Rte. 9 through miles of arid landscape, a refreshing change awaits you at the town of Hurricane (named for the violent gusts that swirl off the surrounding hills). The fertile farms here, including orchards of apples, apricots, and peaches, owe their lushness to irrigation. A canal built long ago by intrepid Mormon settlers once linked this area with the Virgin River, and today a pressurized irrigation system keeps the land moist. As you leave town and cross the barricade-like Hurricane Cliffs, look northwest for views of the Pine Valley Mountains.

4. Kolob Terrace Road

Zion’s salmon-colored monoliths, jagged towers, and huge cliffs—dubbed temples by the first trailblazers—lie dead ahead along the muddy Virgin River as you near the town of Virgin. Before you begin your final approach to the park’s main entrance, however, consider taking a scenic detour 18 miles north from Virgin along the Kolob Terrace Road. The drive up Zion’s western fringe onto the Kolob Plateau is usually uncrowded, and it offers dramatic views of such red-walled mesas and bluffs as Tabernacle Dome and the two Guardian Angels. Note that some parts of the road are unpaved, and they may be impassable after rains; much of the road is closed throughout the winter.

5. Grafton
South of Rte. 9 near Rockville lurk the haunting remains of Grafton, a famous ghost town dating from the 1850s. The settlers were bedeviled in turn by drought, flood, and hostile Paiute Indians. By the early 1900s, even the most stalwart had moved to one of the neighboring towns. The road to Grafton is unpaved, but the town’s time-worn buildings and haunting ambience are well worth the trip. Frequently filmed and photographed, the town served as the backdrop for the bicycle scene in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.