January: that time when you lose your patience with the gray and the cold and the cold and the gray. You sit at your desk, or in your car at a red light, dreaming about being somewhere else.
We all have our favorite escapes, our favored bolt holes. The places we go when we can’t stand being where we have to be. My list includes cities; (New Orleans, San Francisco, Asheville) as well as wilderness havens (Yosemite, northern New Mexico, the mountains of western North Carolina). Most importantly I seek places where I can get far from the maddening crowd. Places which offer the solace of either anonymity and or wilderness. Places without Five Guys, Maggie Moo’s, or, God forbid, Olive Gardens; or at least somewhere which offers some reasonable escape from such soulless corporate slums.
Ideally, I crave a place where I can spend five minutes without being subjected to someone loudly braying into a cell phone; though, I’m not sure any such place exists in America any longer.
America’s national parks remain one of America’s greatest treasures; and, at the right time of year, some of America’s greatest refuges. They can be, the perfect place to regain your sanity.
At this time of year, I think a lot about Zion National Park, a place I’ve visited maybe a half dozen times in the last twenty years. Like most of the great parks, Zion is located in the great western expanses. Specifically, Zion is in southern Utah, just north of the vast and stupidly beautiful four corners region. It’s red rock country not far from St George. Utah.
As the fine folks at National Geographic note, the park is unique for many reasons “ At the intersection of three separate ecosystems, Zion has a variety of plants—more than 900 species—not found anywhere else in Utah. The 287.4-foot-long Kolob Arch, perched high on a canyon wall in the park’s backcountry, is one of the world’s largest freestanding natural arches.”
More than anything, Zion is a wild weird collection of landscapes. There are towering cliffs and mesas; small flowing rivers and streams; and wide open desert spaces. There’s a little bit of everything, consider this: According to the USPS, “Almost 12,000 years ago Zion’s first peoples, who are now almost invisible, tracked mammoth, giant sloth, and camel across southern Utah.”
See? It’s always been a weird and wild place.
The park is divided into a southern- home to Zion Canyon; and a northern section which is known as the Kolob Canyons section . Mostly people visit and frolic in the southern part of the park. There’s not nearly as much in the way of amenities in the north though it’s only 42 miles from Zion to Kolob Canyon.
At Kolob, there are no campgrounds, but there is back country hiking. And though Kolob boasts few facilities, there are some spectacular vistas and wonderful hikes.
For me, there are many reasons to go to Zion- the great hikes at both ends of the park, a beautiful Lodge, and spectacular drives through the Park, especially over Route 9 which travels south to east through the heart of the park and which contains spectacular views of the many towering rock formations and mesas which make the park so famous. But mostly Zion has always been, for me, about the Virgin River.
The Virgin, at most times of the year, is a small river which cuts through the 16 mile long Zion Canyon. It winds its way between the great sandstone walls which line the river. Those walls of Navajo Sandstone, some of which are fantastically and variously colored; have been polished marble smooth by thousands of years of flash flood and deluges; and they grow higher and higher above the river the further you hike up the canyon.
The walls not only climb in height, but they also begin to narrow above the river- thus the name of the hike into the canyon-The Narrows. As you hike up the river- and for much of the Narrows hike the river is the trail- one has the unmistakable sensation of being swallowed by the land.
Eventually the walls close, save for a small gap of sky hundreds of feet above your head. Suddenly you understand why this place is like no other.
I once fled a convention in Las Vegas in order to Hike the Narrows. It was a 350 mile drive, round trip, and I only had a single day. I drove to the Park, hiked as much of the Narrows as time would allow, and then retreated to Vegas, driving back across the desert at 100 miles an hour, stereo blaring, the desert wind flowing through the open windows. I came upon Vegas at midnight, a brilliant distant slash of light gleaming across the vast dark desert valley.
Driving back into Gomorrah, I tried to decide which conflicting feeling in my soul was more acute: the joy of being able to flee the worst city in America to walk in the hall of the Gods; or the stunning pain I felt upon being forced to leave Zion after only an 8 hour stay. It was like going to Paris for lunch.
Ultimately I decided it didn’t matter. No matter the pain, I’d pay the psychic toll any time