SW Utah National Parks part III: Zion (Jan 4 - 8)

Friday morning we headed for Zion National Park, with accommodations booked at the Zion Lodge, inside the park. Once again Bald Eagles and Rough Legged Hawks, among others, soared overhead along Hwy 89.

At the Zion entrance (with Petey Pika)

Checkerboard Mesa
Spectacular scenery driving into Zion National Park

We once again enjoyed the spectacular drive into Zion, including the incredible 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel blasted out of the rock in the late 1920s. Shortly after passing Checkerboard Mesa, we were fortunate to spot a group of Desert Bighorn Sheep. Mike turned the car around to park closer, and we scrambled up the rocky hillside to get a better look. Surprisingly, the sheep turned and moved toward us instead of running away, stopping to check us out along the way. We were able to observe them at fairly close range for probably 15 minutes.


Desert Bighorn Sheep

Male Desert Bighorn Sheep giving us the eye

At a parking lot near the south entrance Mike spotted a hawk, which we later identified as a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk, perched in a treetop. When we stopped to observe and photograph him, a curious sequence began. First the bird started wobbling and fell backward, seemingly hanging on with just one talon. We laughed as his wings flapped and he fumbled around trying to right himself. He opened his wings preparing to take off, but one talon still appeared to be somehow stuck in the treetop branch. Finally he broke loose and flew off. We continued to laugh about these antics until Mike took a closer look at the images in our camera. Here's what we saw:

Juvenile Ferruginous Hawk with lunch

Note how the top branch is bent over!

Finally broke loose

Free at last with the top branch whipping back

Off to find a better lunch spot

We think the hawk's talon holding its catch got tangled up in the tree's branch and it didn't want to let go of it.



We spent the afternoon and sunset around the South Campground and walking along the Pa 'Rus trail at the base of The Watchman toward the bridge.

Looking high above on Bridge Mountain, massive Crawford Arch seemed tiny while American Dippers bobbed below in the Virgin River. 

A dipper on the Virgin River

Crawford Arch (156' wide) on Bridge Mountain, 1,000 ft above the canyon floor

Bridge Mountain at last light (can you spot Crawford Arch?)


Zion's iconic Watchman

Our motel room at the lodge was basic but comfortable. The setting was bucolic, nestled in against the canyon wall with deer and turkeys wandering around out front, and the convenience of being right in the Park was great. We took breakfast at the lodge restaurant every morning, the only option within the Park. We did have dinner at Oscar's Cafe in nearby Springdale a couple times, and would highly recommend it.

Our view from the Zion Lodge breakfast table

Saturday morning we went out for sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin.

Morning light on Towers of the Virgin

Later we drove up to the north end of the park planning to walk up into the Narrows. Unfortunately due to ice the trail was closed just past the Riverside Walk. With so much water flowing and seeping in the area, many other areas were closed as well.


Zion Canyon Riverside Walk


Abstract of flowing water along the Riverside Walk in Zion Canyon

Near the end of the day we drove the Kolob Terrace Road as far as it was open. Along the way we saw large numbers of waterfowl, in particular Coots that repeatedly crossed the road in front of us!

Why did the American Coot cross the road?

Mike at Kolob Terrace entrance

On the morning of January 6 Mike got out early to photograph another Towers of the Virgin sunrise.

Another Towers of the Virgin sunrise

After breakfast we drove back to the east entrance to hike the short but stunning Canyon Overlook Trail.

Susan looks over the edge at the Canyon Overlook

The view from the Canyon Overlook

Then I dropped Mike off to hike to Angels Landing, a steep hike with lots of exposure. The hike is only about 5 miles with about 1,500 ft of gain, but the strenuousness and exposure are not for the faint of heart! The first part of the hike, from the trailhead to Scout's Lookout had no exposure, but was icy in spots and steep in a few places, especially Walter's Wiggles, a set of 21 switchbacks just before the Lookout. Almost all of the route's final ascent has chains between posts for use as a handrail/guardrail.  The ascent of the narrow fin to the summit was extremely narrow in places with very steep drop-offs and this was complicated by the ice and snow. Mike was very happy to have his MICROspikes on this hike.


Mike about to start up to Angel's Landing, behind him

Looking down into Zion Canyon on the way up to Angel's Landing

View of the fin of rock, Angel's Landing; from Scout Lookout

Mike on the summit of Angel's Landing

Helpful chains along the extremely exposed Angel's Landing trail;
looking down on Big Bend

After I picked up Mike from the hike, we drove back around to the Big Bend area by Angel's Landing and parked to look for the California Condor nest Mike had learned about on his hike. Shortly we were rewarded with seeing a condor return to his nest high above in the rocks.

California Condor in its nest on the side of Angel's Landing

On Monday we took another side trip, this time to Snow Canyon State Park near St George. The Park was great! We visited a box canyon, sand dunes, crossbedding and petrified dunes and wonderful vistas all within a short distance.

Susan in Jenny's Canyon at Snow Canyon State Park

The interesting crossbedded rock at Snow Canyon State Park

We took a the Smithsonian Butte Scenic Backway home in order to get a different perspective of Zion at sunset. Most of the unpaved road was smooth, but the last couple miles descending back down into the valley would have been a challenge in a passenger vehicle, and we wouldn't take that route at all if the road was muddy.

Panoramic view looking from the Scenic Backway towards Zion (click to enlarge)

Click the Play button in the image below to enlarge the pano.




The long and winding road

Mike went back out and did some beautiful night photography that evening around the Watchman and Angel's Landing.

The Watchman by starlight

We left for home the next morning, stopping at Kolob Canyons in the northwest part of the National Park on the way. Just off of I-15, it was an easy stop and offered great views all along the 5 mile road.

A scrub jay poses with Kolob Canyon as a backdrop

Kolob Canyon view

Winter was a great time to visit Bryce, but we think we'll get more out of Zion by returning in the spring or fall. Our "next time" list for when we return to Zion and Bryce includes:

  1. Hiking off of Kolob Canyons Road including to Kolob Arch.
  2. Hiking in the main part of Zion on several trails closed in winter, including the Narrows and Emerald Pools.
  3. Going back up to Angels Landing, or at least as far up as Scout Lookout to watch for Condors.
  4. Driving Kolob Terrace Loop up to Lava Point, and looking for Condors there.
  5. Back in Bryce, hiking the Fairyland Loop.

"Tina" taking us down the road

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