Utah Road Trip: Zion Canyon Loop

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

11. Duck Creek
Civilization briefly reasserts itself at Duck Creek, a village bordered by meadows that draw cross-country skiers in the winter and hikers and picnickers throughout the summer. If you’re passing through on the weekend nearest Valentine’s Day, expect the hills to be alive with the sound of snowmobiles. Each year in mid-February, Duck Creek hosts one of the nation’s largest snowmobile races.

Another of the village’s claims to fame is its use as a location for Hollywood movies: both How the West Was Won and My Friend Flicka were filmed here.

12. Navajo Lake
Navajo Lake is small—barely 31⁄2 miles long—but its waters are astir with rainbow and brook trout. If you were to pace every inch of the lake’s shoreline, you’d be hard-pressed to find a surface outlet. The lake, it seems, was formed by lava flows that sealed up its eastern edge; its water drains instead through underwater sinkholes, eventually feeding into Duck Creek and Cascade Falls (visible via Forest Road 054). Sometimes, if the weather has been dry, three of the sinkholes are visible from a turnout at the east end of Navajo Lake.

13. Cedar Breaks National Monument
Imagine a giant, natural amphitheater, three miles from rim to rim and 2,500 feet deep. Then fill that giant bowl with countless shapes and kaleidoscopic colors and you have Cedar Breaks. Like Zion, Cedar Breaks was named by Utah pioneers: “cedar” for the junipers found in Dixie National Forest, and “breaks” for the nearly insurmountable badlands that fill the mammoth hollow.

Snow closes the road through Cedar Breaks from mid-October to late May, making it less traveled (but no less beautiful) than neighboring Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon national parks. The drive through the park is a five-mile stretch along recently designated Rte. 148 (Rte. 143 on older maps), which heads north off Rte. 14.

Each of four separate overlooks, at elevations greater than 10,000 feet, offers a unique perspective on the myriad columns and canyons within the amphitheater. Toward sunset the shadows grow long, their drama deepened by a medley of oranges and reds that are as bright as glowing embers. In midsummer the purple and crimson colors of the rocks mingle with a floral palette of lupine, larkspur, and Indian paintbrush. These wildflowers contrast sharply—in both size and age—with the bristlecone pine, the granddaddy of trees. Contorted by age and weather, a few of these venerable Cedar Breaks veterans have inhabited the plateau since the last days of the Roman Empire some 16 centuries ago.

14. Zion Overlook
Returning to Rte. 14, the drive continues northwest to a turnout known as Zion Overlook, midway between Cedar Breaks and Cedar City. The vista takes in the majestic buttes of Kolob Terrace and, in the distance, the towers of Zion.

15. Kolob Canyons Road

At Cedar City, turn south on I-15 and follow this four-lane highway 20 miles to the exit for Kolob Canyons Road. Winding through the rugged landscape of Zion’s backcountry, this paved 51⁄2-mile spur begins at the Kolob Canyons visitor center, and it skirts the fascinating Finger Canyons—so named because they are divided by long, narrow sandstone ridges that are parallel to each other.

Although you can’t see it from the road, the largest known freestanding arch in the world, Kolob Arch, is seven miles to the east. When the weather is warm and the air is clear, hikers often make overnight pilgrimages to visit the dizzying 310-foot span, among the most noted landmarks of the park.

Once you’ve left Kolob Canyons Road and rejoined I-15, it’s only about a half hour to the drive’s starting point at St. George. After traversing this remarkable loop—with its cliffs and summits rising heavenward—one can easily see why Mormon pioneers so revered this superb corner of Utah.