Saturday, July 7, 2012

Zion Canyon

Zion National Park, close to Springdale, Utah, is, put simply, a paradise for nature lovers. Numerous attractions await – from sublime mountains, deep-lying canyons and the Virgin River, to equally impressive slot canyons, natural arches, buttes (steep-sided, isolated hills), mesas (or tablelands) and even monoliths. It’s all enough to make the heart of even the most hardened outdoors-loving environmentalist beat faster. Find out what else lies in store while letting the magic of Zion National Park overwhelm you in the following pictures.

Beautiful sky over Zion National Park
Shown here is a beautiful panoramic view of Zion Canyon National Park, seen from Angels Landing. This hike is demanding, stretching over 5.4 miles (8.7 km), past long drop-offs and onto the summit via a narrow, steep ridge. Not for vertigo sufferers, that’s for sure! Yet, all the effort is worth it, as we can see.

You know all other great American canyons – Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Glen Canyon to name but three – but Zion Canyon is certainly up there with the best of them.

Panorama over Zion Canyon National Park
Zion Canyon itself offers a stunning geological profile with its reddish and light brown-colored Navajo Sandstone. It is as much as half a mile (800 m) deep in some places, and the sandstone cliffs in the national park are some of the world’s highest! Though you can take a scenic drive along the floor of the 15-mile (24 km) long canyon that is served by a shuttle bus, those who wish to experience the natural beauty of the place up close and personal should consider one of the many hikes you can take, which range from easy to strenuous.

despite a rocky surface and long drop-offs, the aptly named Canyon Overlook Trail rewards visitors with stunning views into Zion Canyon. The one-mile (1.6 km) trail is a moderate hike of one hour that culminates at the viewpoint of Pine Creek Canyon and lower Zion Canyon.
Zion National Park is located at a point three different and important geographic territories meet: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. Its varying topography helps afford a diverse habitat for a large range of flora and fauna, and it has also tended to offer favorable conditions for farmers. Zion boasts wide, level spaces for cultivating food, a river providing water, and a climate that supports plant growth despite its desert setting.

beautiful waterfalls along Emerald Pools Trails whilst slipping in a hiking trail between downpours.
The area’s geology, favorable climate and rich natural resources contributed to its early settlement. Nearly 12,000 years ago, the first peoples arrived in Zion and hunted large (and in some cases very large!) animals such as mammoths, giant sloths and even camels. It’s hard to believe that, despite the physical power of these animals – and the primitive hunting tools humans used at the time – many of them ultimately became extinct due to the impact of both man and the Earth’s climate.

Zion Canyon as seen from the very top of Canyon Overlook Trail
The Narrows – a spectacular slot canyon north and upstream of Zion Canyon – is featured quite often in photos simply because it’s so scenic. But, be warned, it’s not an easy hike – as its dimensions alone suggest. Carved by the Virgin River, The Narrows is 16 miles (26 km) in length, up to 2,000 ft (610 m) deep, and sometimes no wider than 20 to 30 feet (6 m to 9 m). How’s that for a tight squeeze?

Stunning colors like these await sightseers visiting Zion National Park.
This description from the official Zion Canyon Guide and Map gives us an idea of both the attraction and hazards of The Narrows: “The Narrows, with its soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens can be an unforgettable experience. It is not, however, a trip to be underestimated. Hiking The Narrows means hiking in the Virgin River. At least 60 percent of the hike is spent wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the river. There is no maintained trail because the route is the river. The current is swift, the water may be cold and deep, and the rocks underfoot are slippery. Flash flooding and hypothermia are constant dangers.” Hey ho, let’s go!

Here, we get a sense of how The Narrows must have gotten its name. Barely meters apart, the solid rock faces leave little room for the Virgin River – hardly more than a trickle at this point in time but prone to becoming a raging torrent following heavy rain.
As we wind our way through The Narrows, let’s wind back the clock as well and peer back into the past of Zion National Park. About 8,000 years ago, a combination of over-hunting and climate change caused megafauna (giant animals) to die out, forcing humans to adapt and hunt medium-sized animals and gather other edibles instead. Time passed, and, as these natural resources dwindled in turn, around 2,600 years ago another culture began to emerge. The Virgin Anasazi – as the next people who inhabited the area are known – further adapted to Zion, gradually turning to farming over the ensuing 1,500 years.

Another spectacular view of The Narrows
When what is thought to have been a combination of drought and over-farming drove the Anasazi southward some 800 years ago, it was the Paiute people, a group of Native Americans, who managed to adjust their way of life to the demands of the desert environment and survive here. Then, in the mid-19th century, Mormon pioneers and other European explorers came to the area and endured by cultivating the land, living in a climate that could wreak destruction with its extremes – from unforgiving droughts to impetuous flash floods.

Red cliffs in Zion National Park
Because of its varying elevations – ranging from 3,666 to 8,726 feet (1,117 to 2,660 m) – and the resulting microclimates to which they have given rise, Zion National Park is home to diverse plant and animal life. The fauna alone includes over 78 different species of mammals, 291 bird species, 44 reptile and amphibian species, and 8 fish species – as well as myriad insects, spiders and other creepy-crawlies that also inhabit the park.

Pictured here is the narrow trail along the rock formation known as Angels Landing. The steepness of the cliff and its proximity to the trail are part of what makes this route a challenge. The hike also takes four hours. As you can imagine, it isn’t easy.
The 900 plant species to be found in Zion make it a botanist's dream. The national park is famous for its “hanging gardens” – natural arrangements of verdant ferns, mosses and wildflowers that hang decoratively over springs percolating out of the area’s Najavo Sandstone.

Zion Canyon as seen from Observation Point Trail
The natural wonder known as the Subway is a truly magical spot in this national park where two curved canyon walls come together to create a tunnel whose floor is replete with beautiful emerald colored pools. Photographer Willie Huang recalls his experience of the strenuous hike he undertook to Archangel Cascades to see the Subway: “This was also the first unmaintained trail that I hiked that required bouldering, rock scrambling, stream crossings, and route finding,” says Huang. “Despite the challenges, this hike is simply awesome and now ranks as one of my favorites. Not only is the hike to the Subway from the bottom fun but the second half of the trail is very scenic with various cascades.”

Another must-see in Zion National Park is the marvel known as the Subway, depicted here in all its glory.
Photographer Willie Huang continues his narrative: “Once inside the Subway I was just speechless,” he says. “It was beautiful, with pools of emerald ponds and fallen foliage. I ended staying around in the Subway for almost an hour waiting for the sun to rise overhead. When the sun reached the proper position past noon, the sunlight reflects off the canyon walls and beams into the Subway creating a wondrous glow.” Wow, what an experience!

Here’s another photo of the Subway, this one taken during fall, with colorful leaves having collected in a natural pool. Simply stunning!
Taking in this stunning view, one has to come to the conclusion that Mount Carmel Highway, seen at the bottom of the picture, is one of the most scenic public roads in the US. Part of Utah State Route 9, it connects Zion National Park with Grand Canyon National Park.

More of Zion's incredible sandstone cliffs
However, of course it’s not the motorway that is the lifeblood of Zion National Park but the natural thoroughfare that is the Virgin River, which snakes its way through the area. The Virgin can swirl gently around boulders and rocks in the riverbed and has slowly hewn the canyon walls over time, but it can also send dangerous flash floods down into bone-dry canyons and fling rocks unexpectedly and with wild force when flowing strongly. Truly an incarnation of nature’s whim.

'Imlay' Boulder, which is located in a stretch of the Virgin River in The Narrows
Zion National Park is wonderful to visit at any time of year, but like any place of untamed beauty, it comes with its own particular risks: steep cliffs, and a desert environment that demands sufficient hydration, for one. In addition, driving or hiking around the park calls for awareness of other visitors – including those of the feathered or four-legged variety. Thus prepared, you will undoubtedly have an unforgettable experience at Zion National Park.

What better way to close our excursion through Zion National Park than with a sunset image?


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