Outside of Zion National Park, There's a Whole World to Explore
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Driving west last October through the stretch of southern Utah where the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau collide, I found myself reflecting on the word greater. The name Greater Zion was coined in 2019 to encourage visitors to think beyond the spectacular yet relatively small Zion National Park, which is a mere 232 square miles, compared with, say, Yellowstone's 3,472. The new designation is an implicit reminder that Zion itself is just one chunk of beauty within an excess of staggering scenery.
Following roads that wound through blazing canyons and valleys of russet-colored Navajo sandstone, I began to consider greater less as a geographical or marketing term and more as a superlative. Greater as in more beautiful, more awesome, more sublime than anywhere else.
Like so many places of natural wonder in the U.S., Greater Zion—a region of more than 2,400 square miles—saw growing numbers of visitors amid the pandemic. "Folks were cooped up and confined and looking for places to get some mental freedom again," Kevin Lewis, the area's director of tourism, told me. "They're coming to have an open-space experience."
So was I. I was traveling with Ben, my boyfriend and comparably awestruck chauffeur, from our home in Boulder, Colorado, to Under Canvas Zion, one of a collection of nine campsites near national parks around the country that seek to make roughing it a bit more glam. From there we'd take in the region by foot, on horseback, and, most adventurously, by rope and ladder.
From a distance, Under Canvas Zion looked a little culty: an encampment of white tents dotted across a hillside, nestled in a craggy valley of red rock just beyond the western border of the national park. Up close, by the glow of fairy lights and the campfires around which happy kids toasted marshmallows, it was simply idyllic.
We found our tent snugly wedged between giant red boulders, looking out across the wide valley. Inside, I reveled in the pleasure of everything being just so. Two little USB-charged lanterns cast a sweet glimmer across the honey-colored canvas walls. There were two elegant chairs, a wood-burning stove, and, best of all, a vast and plush bed in which I would sleep outrageously well for the next four nights.
That evening, before I fell asleep, I listened to spooky ululations, answered and echoing through the canyon. "Coyotes," confirmed Ben, who grew up on Colorado's Western Slope, rather than in suburban London like me. The West, suddenly, felt wild.
Had I been sleeping in a traditional tent, I would have been annoyed to wake before dawn. But here, it felt only delightful to creep out of bed and venture into a cool, dark, still faintly starry morning. After procuring coffee—mercifully, a help-yourself situation at Embers, the property's restaurant—I sat on our deck and watched the rocks flush apricot as the day broke.
Ben and I live in a place where hiking is more or less mandatory, so we were particularly excited to try something called a via ferrata, which, despite our outdoorsiness, neither of us had heard of before. The name, which is Italian, refers to cables that plot routes across rock faces. Giant steel staples cemented into the rock provide ladders.
The pastime of climbing a via ferrata gained popularity in the Italian Alps in the 1930s, when routes originally used by troops during World War I were reclaimed for recreational purposes. This allowed people to experience the kind of vistas and vertiginous thrills usually available only to seasoned climbers.
We headed to the charming Kolob General Store—a small outpost on a high, wild road—where we met our guides, Cindy Alfaro and Jared Wright of the Utah Adventure Center. Both exuded a sense of profound calm, which was helpful, given that we were about to descend a thousand-foot rock face. They were taking us on a route called Angels Leading Ledgewalk, located on a private ranch that borders the park.
I stepped into a complicated-looking harness, which fell around my hips like some avant-garde skirt made by a club-kid designer. Then we piled into a buggy that bumped down a steep dirt road to where the route began. Alfaro and Wright demonstrated how, when we reached the "anchors" along the cable, we were to unclip and reclip one carabiner, then the next. In this way, they explained, we would always be safely attached to the cliffside.
The air smelled like hot dust and cool pine trees. For a time, the canyon was soundless, except for the click-clacking of our carabiners. Unthinkably far below lay the silvery ribbon of Kolob Creek, a tributary of the Virgin River, which carved the mighty main canyon of Zion.
We paused, halfway or so along our route, to take in one of the hanging gardens, where an overhang of "weeping rock" creates a microclimate—a bright green, mossy efflorescence tucked into the side of the canyon. The occasional tree gave me pause, too: some little specimen asserting itself from the side of the rock face, flourishing against all odds.
Our route ended in a 100-foot vertical ascent that, in a mild fit of masochism, I resolved to climb without stopping. Breathless and triumphant at the top, I then followed Wright out to a terrifying overhang of rock where he encouraged me to lean back and let go.
My mind said: you are attached and cannot fall. My body, speaking even louder, said: thousand-foot drop below. Emitting a bovine noise of trepidation, I leaned back, my heart hammering, and mustered the courage to glance down at the plummeting drop and see birds sweep below me. A brief look was all I could manage.
We had arranged to meet pair of representatives from the Zion National Park Forever Project, a nonprofit philanthropic organization, at the Taylor Creek trailhead in the northern part of the park. Zachary Almaguer told me that he quit his corporate job in Texas to move to the region, a story we heard in one form or another multiple times on this trip. Almaguer was joined by his colleague Kacey Jones, a seventh-generation Utah resident. They both declared that this hike, a gentle winding trail of five miles out and back, was one of their favorites.
We took our time, making our way deeper into the finger canyon—one of the smaller slot canyons that split off from the main—until the trail culminated in the enormous bowl of a burnt-umber cave. Its walls were streaked with Abstract Expressionist blacks and off-whites: this was "desert varnish," a phenomenon caused by water passing through rock and mixing with clay, iron, and manganese.
As the dipping sun suffused the rocks, Jones said, "I think people find sanctuary here, whatever that means to them. We've seen this in different crises in the United States—the recession in 2008, 9/11. During difficult times there's a drive toward authentic experiences like this. They help us feel whole."
The great challenge for Jones and Almaguer, and everyone else who works in the park, is to find a balance between welcoming greater numbers of visitors and preserving the beauty of the place. Lewis told me he calls it "the land of endurance," but he added that the area is nonetheless ecologically sensitive.
It's also culturally sensitive. The law that established the National Park Service in 1916 focused on preserving scenery and wildlife, giving no consideration to the Indigenous peoples who'd lived in the newly protected areas for millennia. Now, there is widespread acknowledgement of the right of Southern Paiutes to pray, make offerings, and gather plants in Zion (federal law otherwise prohibits removing anything from the parks).
Zion National Park's original Southern Paiute name is Mukuntuweap, meaning "straight canyon," so called because the park follows the course of a straight line. The next morning, we were to see that straight canyon from one of the highest and best vantage points. We met Mark Wade, one half of Road Trippin' with Bob & Mark, a team of photo-bloggers with an intimate knowledge of the region.
"Some people," Wade told me, "say you get red sand in your shoes and you can never get it out." As he led us along the 3½-mile trail to Observation Point, he seemed to have an endless arsenal of stories about people dying there, which he told with remarkable equanimity. Most seemed to involve troops of ill-fated Boy Scouts.
We survived, reaching the end of the trail and the edge of the canyon around noon. Before me was the Great White Throne, a mountain of white Navajo sandstone rising more than 2,000 feet from the floor of the valley. Below was the vast main canyon of the park, through which wound the accurately named Scenic Drive. A haze over the scenery lent it all a painterly cast.
I reveled in the perspective-giving force of all this. How good it was to feel small, just a blip of human life encountering the enduring physical evidence of 2 million years.
By the time we'd hiked back to the car, however, it felt like 2 million years had passed since breakfast. We drove to Springdale, a touristy town on the edge of the park, and descended on Oscar's Café, a cheap and cheerful Mexican restaurant where every huge dish came smothered with cheese—exactly what we needed.
Back at camp, we sat outside Embers in the dusk. A young man with a profusion of facial hair approached the mic with a guitar. As our cheerful troubadour made his way through Steve Miller Band's classic "The Joker," Ben expressed skepticism over whether anyone truly had called the song's author "the gangster of love."
The music was questionable, but who cared when there was an effulgent rising moon, cool desert air, a little red wine, and two very good Impossible Burgers to be had, each with a generous pile of hot fries? The crowd skewed young and SoCal-looking, well-groomed in their high-end athleisure.
The next morning, as I ate chia pudding in the same spot, I was struck by the funny intimacy of seeing those same strangers shuffling about in pajama pants with unbrushed hair, groggy and in pursuit of coffee—a reminder that even though this whole setup was fancy enough to have chia pudding on the breakfast menu, we were still camping.
By this point I'd lost count of the number of people who'd told us, with unabashed local pride, that if it were anywhere else, Snow Canyon would be a national park. The state park, situated 50 miles or so west of Zion, counteracts the vertical drama of its more famous neighbor with the horizontal sweep of lava flows and petrified dunes.
Turning off the highway a little later that morning, we saw, shimmering slightly in the haze and looking stirringly filmic, a big silver trailer beside which four horses stood quietly with bowed heads. Ennio Morricone began to play in my head, growing only louder when we met Michael Reed of Snow Canyon Trail Rides.
Tanned and lean in blue Wranglers and a battered, wide-brimmed hat, Reed told us he couldn't even remember the first time he rode a horse. He finished up some Pringles, tossed the can back in his truck, and introduced us to our steeds. They included Teddy Wayne, "named after my wife's cousin in Tennessee," Reed said, because, like the cousin, "he's a big, gentle, easygoing guy."
The description seemed to fit all of the animals, which made their leisurely way through the landscape—all 7,400 acres of it, a kind of excess of magnificence. The soft greens of yucca and cholla cactus seemed to glow, quietly luminous, against this backdrop of ancient burnt-umber rock as Reed kept up a gentle patter about the flora, breaking only to coo to one of the horses.
We drove on to Veyo, where we found Veyo Pies, in business for 30 years and counting. In the kitchen behind the counter, glossy cherry filling was being coaxed into a waiting crust. Cherry is what we ordered, along with a big Styrofoam cup of black coffee. Outside in the hot sun, we found a picnic table and ate our slices with plastic forks. Yes, that was some good pie.
The next morning, we headed to the Water Canyon trailhead, just outside Hildale, a little north of the Arizona border. As we stepped out of the car, the air was clear, the sky was blue, and the world felt pure. We followed a trail, indicated by strips of pink fabric fluttering from branches, up the ravine of the slot canyon, scrambling and wading through cascades and pools overshadowed by mossy boulders—a route so picturesque that we felt like we were in a franchise of fantasy movies, a pair of questing hobbits.
I was some way ahead when Ben called out. I turned around and saw him standing where the narrowing rock formed a sort of slot-canyon-within-a-slot-canyon, straddling the chasm, silhouetted against the mid-morning glare. "Take a picture!" he suggested happily, but I was already reaching for my phone.
The Best of Greater Zion
St. George Regional Airport, a 45-minute drive from Zion National Park, is serviced by United, Delta, and American Airlines.
Where to Stay
Under Canvas Zion: One of Under Canvas's nine-and-counting glamping retreats situated near national parks across the country. Its handsomely-outfitted tents combine a pioneer vibe with a contemporary luxe aesthetic, from comfortable beds to high-end bath products. The desert views of red canyon walls—whether from the private deck of a guest tent or from the main tent and restaurant, Embers—are spectacular. Doubles from $359.
Where to Eat
Oscar's Café: Satisfyingly hearty Mexican food in lively Springdale—just the thing for hungry hikers. Entrées $14–$32.
River Rock Roasting Company: Located in La Verkin, this is a great spot for a sundown beer and pizza, thanks to its lovely views of the Virgin River Gorge. Entrées $10–$15.
Veyo Pies: Witness baked goods being made right behind the counter at this Veyo institution. Slices come in classic flavors like banana cream and strawberry-rhubarb.
How to See It
Snow Canyon Trail Rides: Leisurely tours on horseback through Snow Canyon State Park, a landscape of lava flows and petrified dunes.
Utah Adventure Center: For those unafraid of heights—or wishing to conquer their fear with some magnificent and vertiginous views of Kolob Canyon—this is the place to try a via ferrata, a kind of rock climbing for amateurs.
Zion National Park Forever Project: This non-profit works closely with the park, offering lectures, field classes in identifying birds and wildflowers, and Thursday treks with an expert naturalist.
Travel Advisor Dan Austin (406-671-6067; email@example.com), a member of T+L's A-List, specializes in American national parks, and can plan every aspect of a trip to theGreater Zion region.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Song of Zion.