Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
by J “Kat” Loren : :
I’ve never been one for deserts, preferring lush mountains and trees, rushing rivers, waterfalls and oceans to what I perceived as arid nothingness. However, a trip to Zion National Park flooded my senses beyond expectation and revealed just how much beauty I’d been missing in my travels.
Most visitors to Zion National Park cozy into a hotel in the gateway tourist town of Springdale and day trip straight to the heart of the park. I opted for the less crowded eastern rim and stayed at the family-friendly Zion Ponderosa Ranch. But first, I ventured through Zion.
Boarding a bus at the park entrance, I cruised past the watchful eyes of the Three Apostles high among the cliffs that line this huge canyon, who hold the secrets of geology and all things creaturely that live below. These majestic rock pinnacles peer down at tourists from a height of 2,000 feet, robed in clouds or sometimes, adorned in a halo of light. Erosion has left behind a collection of domes, fins, and blocky massifs bearing the names and likenesses of cathedrals and temples, prophets and angels. I can see why Angels’ Landing got it name – it’s a mystical pinnacle where hikers can stand and view heaven and earth through the eyes of God.
Rolling through the canyon, the free bus stops at the historic Zion lodge as well as the many trail heads that lead hikers out of the valley and up the steep inclines of the limestone, sandstone, and lava cliffs with their striated colors of white, red, and black, fringed with stubby pines, cottonwood trees and long strands of waterfalls that find their way to the Virgin River that winds through the park. Peregrine falcons soar past the alert hiker while goats scramble past them up impossible, rocky paths. Most of the time, I rode along awestruck, trying to absorb the vast splendor of the park. Occasionally, I got off for a short hike then boarded another bus to return to my car.
To escape the crowd in late spring and summer, I suggest you head along the Mt Carmel Highway through the long tunnel for the Eastern Rim – especially if you want to stay at Zion Ponderosa Ranch between Zion and Bryce Canyons.
Two narrow tunnels as old as the park itself lie between the east entrance and Zion Canyon on this breathtaking 24-mile (round-trip) stretch of Highway 9. One was once the longest man-made tunnel in the world. As you travel the (1.1-mile) passage through solid rock, five arched portals along one side provide fleeting glimpses of cliffs and canyons. When you emerge you’ll find that the landscape has changed dramatically. Large vehicles require traffic control and a $15 permit, available at the park entrance, and have restricted hours of travel. This includes nearly all RVs, trailers, dual-wheel trucks, and campers.
By the way, the Canyon Overlook Trail starts from a parking area between the tunnels.
The eastern side displays Zion’s array of rugged slot canyons – a rock climber’s fantasy playground – the richest place on Earth for scrambling, rappelling, climbing, and descending. Most guides take clients out to the eastern rim for unforgettable canyoneering experiences through slot canyons smoothed round by rushing waters, revealing rich colors of red and turquoise in the sculpted sandstone and limestone.
Zion Ponderosa Ranch offers the best way to explore the landscape while staying in comfortable accommodations that range from high-end vacation homes that sleep 6-20 in stunning log homes, to cowboy cabins for small families, glamping for solos and couples, to RV parking and campgrounds for families with access to the cleanest, most spacious shower/bathroom/laundry facilities and outdoor pool I’ve ever seen in an RV park.
It is the perfect place to stay as a base camp for adventurers or a family vacation. Want to sleep in? Send the kids to the breakfast buffet in the Ranch restaurant and let them try out the zip line until you decide to join them for a horseback ride or canyoneering experience later in the day. Then rendezvous by the poolside for a little relaxation before dinner.
I opted for a little adventure and donned a helmet and rock climbing belt for a spectacular afternoon of repelling into colorful slot canyons and hiking the sandy trail along the the curvy-sculpted walls, occasionally plodding into puddles left over from evening rains.
The next day, I hiked along a trail that ended at the famous Observation Point trail peak where I joined those who hiked a few hours straight up the switchback trail along the cliff to sit and stare out over the canyon or peer a couple thousand feet below to the ant-like people hiking along the windy road. A couple in their 70s braved the hike up and I admired their tenacity while being a little ashamed of my own laziness. I shouldn’t have revealed my own journey to Observation Point as they were a bit chagrined when I said there was a road on the east rim, at the boundary of Zion Ponderosa Ranch, where you could park and start from the trail head at the top of the canyon, hike an hour along a gently rolling desert landscape to look down at the hikers struggling for breath as they neared the top.
Zion Ponderosa Ranch with its 4,000 acres of forested plateau, hosts the annual event called the Ragnar Trail Run with as many as 4,000 racers participating. During the Ragnar Trail Relays, teams of 8 (or 4-member ultra teams) run relay-style on three different single-track loops that start and finish at Ragnar Village. Teams run day and night until each member has completed all three trail loops. It’s quite a sight to see the headlamps of hundreds of late night runners streaming through the trails lined with junipers and sage.
The ranch also hosts a spring and fall Women’s Adventure Retreat that includes canyoneering, helicopter tours, spa treatments and lots of hiking, in the company of new friends who gather to swap stories by the evening campfire, watch the shooting stars and gaze in awe of the Milky Way.
Fly into Las Vegas and call OWL Shuttle (1-844-RIDE -OWL) for a 3-hour ride to Springdale or to Zion Ponderosa Ranch. If you prefer to drive yourself, rent a car at the airport or a Juicy Van that is equipped with all you need to camp inside the van or under the stars.