During my recent swearing-in as a junior ranger at Zion National Park (yes, I’m 55, so what?), I promised to help protect the park, famous for its red cliff walls, sculpted rock formations and vertigo-inducing trails.
I take this vow seriously. Standing at the trailhead of the Coal Pits Wash trail in a mostly deserted section of the park that day, repeating an oath with my right hand over my heart, I thought about what those words meant.
As a travel writer, I’ve visited some incredible places. But what happens when a destination gets too much attention? Should a writer heap more attention on a busy park? It’s a problem that faces Zion, which now ranks as the fourth most visited national park in the country. More than 4.32 million tourists filed through its gates in 2018.
I call this corner of Utah the Geologic Freakshow of America. Water and wind have carved a stunning landscape that feels almost moon-like in places. But at Zion, visitors sometimes wait up to 90 minutes to shuffle onto a bus that takes them up and down an 8-mile paved road connecting the park’s most popular sites. Everyone wants to climb Angel’s Landing and wade into the Narrows, but visiting them sometimes feels more like lining up for smoked brisket at Franklin Barbecue here in Austin than exploring the great outdoors.
“Most of our trails are overrun,” Erin Whittaker, the park’s acting chief of interpretation, told me after she handed me my junior ranger badge. “That’s the hard part with this park. Really, the Scenic Drive area is the nonwilderness area, and it’s being sacrificed.”
What to do? I’m not sure about the long-term answer. But for now, check out the less-trodden parts of the park, and remember that the scenic beauty doesn’t end when you drive out the of its gates. The state parks, biking trails and communities around Saint George offer some great alternatives. Here are some tips for visiting Zion and the areas around it.
Yes, hit the national park, but don’t spend much time along Scenic Drive. Venture to lesser known areas, like the Coal Pit Wash trail. There, instead of rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other humans, you can hike alongside a dry creekbed, play hopscotch through cactus, and contemplate the geology of the cream, rust and yellow-hued canyon walls that rise like a curtain around you. The scenery might remind you of Big Bend National Park.
Go for a scenic drive on Kolub Terrace Road. You’ll get a glimpse of the more thickly forested, higher elevations of the park on this road, where you can drive your own vehicle. (The road also provides access to the famed Subway canyoneering routes, but a permit and sound technical skills are required for that.) Parking at trailheads along the route is limited, but if you time your visit for shoulder season, you can stage day hikes from the Hop Valley Trailhead, the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead or the Grapevine Trailhead.
Ride a mountain bike. Leave the park and head west. Trails crisscross the mesas and desert floor on Bureau of Land Management property around Saint George, a 50-minute drive from Zion National Park. The Bearclaw Poppy Trail, part of a network of single-track routes, unfurls like a dirt rollercoaster track. We pedaled into a small canyon, onto the desert flats and down some short, steep drops. (Beware of Clavicle Hill.) Or try the Barrel Roll and Precipice trails on the nearby Santa Clara River Reserve, which feature switchbacks, ridgelines and spectacular views. Pro tip: Bring a sandwich and break for lunch beneath a boulder at Petroglyph Park that’s covered with designs chipped by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. The park is located at 1460 Navajo Drive in Saint George. Looking for a little guidance? Arrange a trip with adventure guru Todd Goss of Paragon Adventures. For more information, go to paragonadventures.com.
Visit Snow Canyon State Park. From the petrified sand dunes, where rolling slabs of rippled creamsicle-colored sandstone will remind you of the power of wind and water, to the easy hike into Johnson Canyon to see a rock arch with a 200-foot span, this park wows just as much as it’s bigger brother. Scenes from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” both starring Robert Redford, were filmed here. Keep an eye out for the rare and elusive desert tortoise, peregrine falcons and gila monsters. For more information, go to stateparks.utah.gov/parks/snow-canyon/discover.
Go for a horseback ride. Snow Canyon Trail Rides offers guided trips into the park. Pizarro, a mellow, chestnut-colored steed, carried me comfortably alongside streaked sandstone cliffs and through black lava flows while our trail boss explained the park’s geography and shared fun facts about native plants and pointed out nests built in cactus plants by resident packrats.
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Visit the art village at Kayenta. Not far from Saint George, in the funky, blends-right-into-the-desert enclave of Kayenta, you can watch potters at work in a gallery, catch a live performance at the theater, admire hand-made jewelry and photography in galleries, and stop at the Xetava Gardens Café for a sandwich and a glass of the Royden lemonade supreme, a not-too-sweet frozen version made with vanilla, coconut and fresh mint. Keep an eye peeled for Rosie, the resident roadrunner, too. She likes to pose for photos. For more information, go to kayentautah.com.
Catch a show at Tuacahn Amphitheatre. Think of Tuacahn as a smaller version of Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver that hosts musicals, concerts and the occasional pro rodeo bull riding competition. It’s all outdoor seating, and the red rock backdrop is incorporated into performances. No show scheduled during your visit? Drop by for a backstage tour. We did and got to try on hats for an upcoming performance of “Elf,” say hi to a camel that will appear in holiday nativities and get an up-close look at some of the most magical set pieces ever created. For more information, go to tuacahn.org.
Stop by Sand Hollow State Park. Explore the sand dune-covered terrain of this 20,000-acre park in an off-highway vehicle, or rent scuba gear and check out the reservoir from below the surface. The park is headquarters for the Ironman 70.3 Saint George, which takes place here each spring.