By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
In presenting the most direct route from Bryce Canyon to Springdale, Utah, Google didn’t offer a hint that it was sending us on an unexpected tour through one of the most other-worldly stretches of road you’ll encounter anywhere.
Heading west on Highway 9, it was a surprise when we rolled up to an entry point into Zion National Park, which we planned to access from Springdale. We had to pay the $30 park entry fee (good for seven days) but were assured Springdale was about 12 miles ahead.
The real shock came moments later when the reddish paved road began a series of switchbacks and we rounded a curve to see a giant cone-shaped mountain looming above the road with the most remarkable pattern etched in its face.
So distinctive, it has a name, we later learned: The Checkerboard Mesa. The horizontal grooves were carved by winds biting into the sandstone, while the vertical cracks emerged from eons of freezing and thawing.
That is the geological explanation. But it was just the beginning of a passage that seemed as if we had entered the realm of Lost Horizon or some other unimagined world.
My wife Fran said: “It feels like we’re in prehistoric times. Expecting to see dinosaurs around the next turn. It’s like being in a strange dream you can’t wake up from.”
Not a bad dream, by any means. The steep terrain towering overhead was like nothing we’d seen in other parts of Utah, or anywhere else.
The Checkerboard Mesa was the most artfully sculptured, but the unusual cross-hatching patterns on the white rock formations dominate the landscape for about 10 miles before encountering two tunnels that provide passage through the sandstone mountain to Zion Canyon, the main attraction of the park.
Turns out we had entered through the backdoor of the park on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.
Zion is the fifth-most visited national park, but many never see this most fascinating part of it. The majority of visitors come from the west off Interstate-15 and follow Highway 9 to the south entrance at Springdale.
That’s where free shuttles run Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to eight stops that provide access to an array of popular hiking trails amid towering red rock cliffs. This is the heavily trafficked area that draws 4 million tourists a year.
The east side of Zion is a much different place. This is slickrock country, the predominately white-faced formations notable for the absence or lower levels of iron oxide in the sandstone that is common elsewhere.
Once upon a time these were sand dunes that have been cemented by time and calcium carbonate. They appear the work of some supreme artist who has scored the rock in broad, sweeping strokes.
Exploring Zion Canyon was our objective. It is a special place, steeped in natural beauty and a delight for hikers with an array of trails from casual to extreme.
We spent the better part of a day there, beginning at the most distant stop at Temple of Sinawava and working back to Zion Lodge.
But while recharging at Zion Brewery, a must stop just outside the main park entrance in Springdale, we decided to retrace our drive to the east side of the park to see if it struck us as remarkable as it had the previous day on the trip into the park.
Return to Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
From this end of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, heading east on Highway 9, the first two miles is a dramatic, white-knuckled climb through a series of tight switchbacks rising to 1,200 feet above the canyon floor to the two tunnels — the longer extends 1.1 miles — that provide the portal into slickrock country.
This time we made our way deliberately back toward the east entrance, stopping at several of the turnoffs along the way.
We weren’t the only ones taken by the rare sights. At one stop we encountered a couple from California who, like us, were snapping photos in every direction. They agreed that the scenery was unlike any they’d seen.
“Are we still on this planet?” the woman mused.
Prime hiking trails
While the views from the pull-offs are terrific, there are a number of popular trails for those who want to venture away from the road. Hikers who know the area well say the east side of Zion has some of the best trails in the park.
The most traveled trail outside of Zion Canyon is Canyon Overlook Trail, which begins just east of the Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel (there is a small parking lot on the south side of the road). It’s an easy hike about a mile round-trip and offers a spectacular view into the main canyon. You might also see bighorn sheep.
Navigating the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
When it was completed in 1930, the 1.1-mile passage through the sandstone mountain was the longest tunnel of its type in the United States.
It was a marvel of engineering at the time, but has some drawbacks in these times. Those with RVs or other such oversized vehicles must pay a $15 fee to pass through while the traffic is stopped at the opposite end of the tunnel.
Any vehicle that is 7 feet 10 inches wide (including mirrors) and/or 11 feet 4 inches high or larger is required to have a tunnel permit.
Visiting the Checkerboard Mesa
The white cliffs formation with the most impressive crisscrossed pattern towers 900 feet above the road near the east entrance of Zion National Park.
Take a short hike on the trail following the drainage to the west. Continuing on a more ambitious trek up the canyon between the mesa and neighboring structure can take two hours or more.
Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep. They roam between the cliffs and canyons from Checkerboard Mesa to the tunnels.
Exploring Zion Canyon
There are numerous hiking options from the eight stops serviced by the free shuttles.
We followed the Riverside Walk trail from the Temple of Sinawava toward The Narrows. It’s a pleasant hike paralleling the river, but it tends to be congested.
Those who plan to explore The Narrows must be prepared to wade into the Virgin River, so wear appropriate footwear and carry a walking stick.
Seeking to avoid the steady stream of hikers, we found the Lower Emerald Pools trail from Zion Lodge a pleasant walk along the river, perfectly casual for the end of the day.
Perils of Angels Landing
The climb to a plateau about 1,500 feet above the canyon has become a popular challenge to show off on Instagram and other social media sites.
It is also one of the most dangerous public hikes in the United States.
It involves traversing narrow and often steep rock trails adjacent to drop-offs of 1,000 feet or more. There are chains to cling to.
A 13-year-old girl died in a fall there in February 2018 and there have been at least eight deaths since 2004.
Where to stay at Zion
The Historic Pioneer Lodge in Springdale had character and was a bit cheaper than some nearby chain hotel options. Its best attribute was the location in the heart of town a short walk to several restaurants in a picturesque setting with a backdrop of red sandstone cliffs.
It was adequate for a two-night stay while exploring Zion National Park. Main complaints were the floor could have been cleaner and parking was tight.
Where to eat in Springdale
Oscar’s Café is the spot for a hearty Mexican breakfast before a day of hiking in Zion Canyon or for dinner after the hike.
We got the day started on a rainy morning on the patio with Hank’s Horse-Shoe: Seasoned potatoes baked in a bowl and topped with cheese and bacon, ham, sausage and eggs and smothered in Hollandaise sauce.
Maybe not the healthiest choice, but it got us on our way.