Utah Road Trip: Zion Canyon Loop

Route Details Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 270 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round, except for Cedar

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.

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.

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest