European guidebooks call it the “German Circle.” You land in Las Vegas, rent a small motorhome and travel through southern Utah hitting all the national parks en route. Then, you circle back to the Grand Canyon and end up broke in Las Vegas. I’m here to tell you, there is an army of rented motorhomes circling our Southwest right now, often with whole families in tow. Foreign languages are as common as English in the campgrounds.
Oddly, minus Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, that’s the exact route I’d planned for my eastward leg back to the Midwest. So as I explore the five national parks strung like jewels across southern Utah, I’m in the company of a virtual United Nations.
Zion lives up to its apocryphal name. Most of the park is a deep valley carved through layers of many-hued Navajo sandstone by the Virgin River, a smallish river the color of green-tinted clay. It gushes into Zion Canyon from its contorted route through the gorge to the north. The river usually behaves, but occasionally it bursts forth with a fury that gouges stone, moves mountains of mud, and smashes full-grown cottonwoods to matchsticks. Not to mention washing out the park road and, sometimes, trapping tourists.
The towering rock walls–the highest sandstone cliffs in the world–give Zion its breathtaking grandeur. With its cascading waterfalls, stone towers, rushing river, and shady groves of cottonwoods, the place has the scent of Eden. Tribal peoples (the ancestral Puebloans and the Paiutes) called it “Mukuntuweap” (“straight canyon”); the Mormons called it Zion—a place of refuge. The scale and spirit of the place demand towering names: the Court of the Patriarchs with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Mormon saint, Moroni, thrown in; the Great White Throne; the Temple of Sinawava.
The other unique element of Zion is its all-out environmental effort. Our national parks protect and steward natural treasures, and they all try to be environmentally sensitive—that’s part of their mission. But at Zion, “we’re trying to be the greenest park in the country,” said a clerk in the bookstore. So toilets are low-flow, and the Visitor’s Center heats and cools with fancy stuff like tombe walls and water-filled baffle towers. You will not hear the sound of lawnmowers at Zion.
The part I appreciated the most? Once I parked at my campsite, I never got in my car again. In fact, cars aren’t allowed on the road into the canyon during the park’s peak months. Instead, a very efficient shuttle system runs the length of the Zion Canyon. There’s virtually no waiting; you get on and off wherever you want; and a nice recording feeds you interesting tidbits about the park on the way. Oh, and the shuttles run on propane. No congestion, no pollution, no accidents, no road rage, no parking problems. And it’s free—your tax dollars at work.
After warming up on the easier hikes for a couple days, (don’t miss the spectacular Emerald Pools), in fear and trembling, I decided to tackle Observation Point, from which I was promised the “iconic view” of the canyon. The only fly in the ointment was that there were “long dropoffs” of the “we’re not sure we’ll recover your body” variety. Also, it’s 8 miles long and rises 2100 feet.
I didn’t sleep well the night before.
In the morning, equipped with the fancy walking sticks from my kids, who are aware of my tendency to trip over my feet, I began the ascent. It was delightful, thrilling, and grueling. I staggered to the mesa at the top of the world, a little dizzy from hunger and from trying not to look over the cliff.
All kinds of people were there—grandmas, adolescents, young people, a guy dressed for the golf course. (“Oh, it’s cold up here!” he said.) There may be an obesity problem elsewhere in America, but I was surrounded by some pretty fit ordinary folks.
That night, I limped through the campground, enjoying the fragrant campfires, the hushed voices in the near dark, and the shouts of kids playing hide-and-seek in French and English. Un…deux…trois…