Utah Road Trip: Zion Canyon Loop

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

6. Zion Canyon
Returning to Rte. 9, the drive approaches the main entrance to Zion, where visitors’ anticipation is stirred by the looming presence of the Watchman and the West Temple. These and the other ancient monuments of Zion were formed from sediment deposited in a succession of inland seas, rivers, and streams. The cliffs themselves, now thousands of feet high, are composed of Navajo sandstone—the remains of ancient dunes. In some places, dinosaur tracks send the imagination careering back to times when these giants walked the earth. Even Zion’s human history dates from the Paiute Indians who hunted there to the Anasazi, more than a thousand years earlier.

In the 1860s one of Brigham Young’s enthusiastic pioneers, Isaac Behunin, is said to have christened the area by proclaiming, “This is my Zion!” (The biblical reference names the hill in Jerusalem where the Temple was built.)

Today’s visitors, regardless of their religion, are similarly awed by the wonders here. For the most direct access to the park’s premier delights, follow the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive into the seven-mile trench that forms the centerpiece of the park. The canyon was carved over eons by the deceptively serene but relentless Virgin River. The canyon floor, an oasis of cottonwoods and box elders, is surrounded by awesome rock formations. The cluster of sky-high monoliths known as the Court of the Patriarchs seems to suggest a meeting of Titans. The Great White Throne, to the north, is a mass of Navajo sandstone with a flat, pale crown that sparkles in the sun. Topped by juniper and pine, Angels Landing forms a high ridge on the canyon’s western side. At the scenic spur’s terminus the popular Gateway to the Narrows Trail leads up the river to a deep, narrow chasm.

7. Zion–Mt. Carmel Tunnels
Returning to Rte. 9, the drive heads east on a steep stretch of road, completed in 1930, that zigzags around—and tunnels through—Zion’s formidable bulk. The first and longer of the tunnels, more than a mile in length and some 800 feet above Pine Creek, is a marvel of engineering. Although blasted from solid rock, it affords scenic passing glimpses through occasional windowlike openings. Just east of the first tunnel, you can stop and stretch your legs along the well-marked Canyon Overlook Walking Trail—an easy one-hour stroll permitting views of Zion Canyon and Pine Creek that are normally reserved for Steller’s jays and ravens. Just below the overlook, the singular Great Arch of Zion resembles a cathedral’s flying buttress. Beyond the second tunnel, along Zion’s high plateaus, lie petrified sand dunes and other surreal monuments. Among them is Checkerboard Mesa—a giant grayish formation cross-hatched over time with gridlike cracks.

8. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
The road east from Zion coasts into Mt. Carmel Junction, then veers south on Rte. 89 to a 12-mile spur that leads to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. The picturesque dunes there are formed by brisk winds that slice through the gap between the Moquith and Moccasin mountains, eroding sandstone and carrying off its crumbled remains. As rosy in color as their name would suggest, the dunes—up to several hundred feet high—extend to a horizon bedecked by the Vermilion Cliffs and rows of ponderosa and piñon pines.

9. Mt. Carmel
Returning to Rte. 89, the drive heads north through the orchards and verdant fields in and around Mt. Carmel, then passes through the tiny towns of Orderville and Glendale. In the distance are ranges of rough red-and-yellow plateaus that isolate these little villages and offer eloquent testimony to the independent spirit of the pioneers.

10. Strawberry Point

Veering west at Long Valley Junction onto Rte. 14 (the Markagunt Scenic Byway), the road climbs into Dixie National Forest, replete with juniper, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, aspen, and oak. (The forest’s unlikely name is a further reminder of Brigham Young’s unfulfilled hopes for a western land of cotton.) For a rare glimpse of Zion from the northeast, follow Forest Road 058 nine miles south to reach the panoramic perch known as Strawberry Point.

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