Finding Zion

mist shrouds the tops of the peaks of Zion National Park

Photograph by John Fowler


Across the canyon, a line of hikers makes their way to Angels Landing, a continuous procession of bobbing heads and backpacks touring Zion National Park’s famed overlook.

In decidedly more seclusion, a young couple begins their own jaunt up the eastern side of Zion Canyon, a map in his hand pointing them to the smaller Hidden Canyon.

The population of the park is perhaps numbering 10,000 even in early spring, but there are still remote spots to be found in this vast auburn canvas.

He checks a compass on his wrist, she the time on her phone. And then they are out of range. Cell towers forget to weave their signals around the many bends of sandstone and pinyon forest. The sound of the shuttle that runs the length of the canyon fades. There are no voices, not even the rustle of wind through the cottonwoods.

Their feet one after another to trace the trail as it winds up and around over loose dirt and man made stairs carved into the cliffside. The forest fades as the path leaves any sense of safety behind to instead cling to the side of the canyon wall. Her hands first hold tightly the chain placed along the trail to assist hikers in their efforts to not tumble to their deaths. He clings even more tightly, the slight feeling of uneasiness at the height mixing with his overwhelming fear for her safety. He watches her every footstep as she leans over the edge. His heart drums permanent dents to the inside of his chest. She smiles and points at the ants now visible across the canyon on Angels Landing.

a chain hangs from a red cliff face
A chain fastened to the side of the canyon provides a welcome respite for hikers not wishing to fall to their doom. Photograph by Nathan

People do die in Zion. Gravity still applies in national parks.

He’s certain his ribs will break at the anxiety of it all as they descend loose gravel several hundred feet or so. A pool has formed between the now tight walls of Hidden Canyon, trees as unlucky as those lost hikers float its waters, their final resting place after centuries spent living high above the canyon floor.

In the distance, two bighorn sheep are first heard, the clacking of their hooves against the stone floor trail, then seen. They are coming up the same trail the couple is now descending. A crossing of paths seems inevitable.

Suddenly a California condor’s black silhouette, maybe nine feet of wingspan, casts a shadow over the couple, diverting their attention, and as it flies out of sight so are the sheep gone.

She hesitates, he takes the lead. Whether a bighorn would prefer to ram humans off the cliff and out of its way or simply turn around from fear is uncertain, but the trail goes on and so will they.

Sunset at Zion National Park. Photograph by Rene Schwietzke
Sunset at Zion National Park. Photograph by Rene Schwietzke
grey mountains in the distance, the foreground of pinyon pines, junipers and Utah's famous red rock
Photograph by Nathan
purple and red smoke plumes above the red and silver canyon walls of Zion National Park
A forest fire smokes above Zion. Photograph by pfly

Back in the adjacent town of Springdale, the brewpubs and bicycle shops are bustling. Tourists form lines to sample the best the town has to offer from tacos to pizza to elk medallions. Park-goers rent waterproof suits to journey up the Narrows, a slot canyon that gets waist deep and as narrow as twenty feet at times.

Joshua trees wave at passing RVs and Asian families eat homemade noodle dishes from Tupperware containers. Locals smoke cigarettes behind their places of work and fit adventure seekers give them dirty looks from the corners of their eyes as they Lycra on by their pursuit of optimal health. A Mormon couple with a lovely daughter named Juniper admires local art and several rowdy young boys float the river through town yelling fart jokes and generally being prepubescent. Hippies sleep in their vans and the rest of the town’s booming population of visitors pays a small fortune for quaint hotel rooms or small RV spaces.

Meanwhile, in Hidden Canyon, desert paintbrush reaches its red petals to brush away the stark contrast of black and orange ponderosa pines against Utah’s famously blue sky.

The couple, the sheep, and that condor are all still making their way, meandering deeper into the holy silence that is Zion National Park.

an unbelievably beautiful canyon, a river running through it all, forest blanketing the lower areas
Zion Canyon wearing thick green foliage over bare sandstone. Photograph by Nathan
mountains jut skyward south of Zion National Park
Photograph by Nathan