When the 19th-century Mormon pioneers came upon Zion Canyon and settled this area, they were self-consciously biblical in their outlook. Isaac Behunin, who is given credit for naming the gorge that runs through what is now a national park, declared, "A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion."
That might be taken as the forgivable excess of a creative believer until you see the majestic formations of red and white sandstone that tower over the valley. In its power to evoke awe and reverence, Zion National Park resembles what the people who built great cathedrals and temples were striving to achieve.
Not that visitors exploring the marvels of the park are obliged to behave like churchgoers. It's a place that serves as a vast playground, offering countless opportunities for recreation, whether you prefer the strenuous or the comfortable. When my wife and I visited last September, with only a couple of days to spend there, we opted for something in the middle.
On a warm, sunny afternoon, we arrived at the main entrance in Springdale, joining dozens of tourists aboard shuttle buses that stop at several main attractions. We rode to the Temple of Sinawava, where we set off on a leisurely hike on a paved trail to the Zion Narrows, where the Virgin River runs through a slot canyon whose sides are so close together that they largely block out the sky. If you want to keep going, though, you have to do a lot of hiking in the river itself, and you may need a guide and canyoneering gear. If not, Zion has plenty of other trails on dry land.
On this Sunday, in peak season, they were not the place for solitude. They drew a stream of visitors, many of them speaking European and Asian tongues, as well a couple of Aussies. Though Zion may not be well known in this country east of the Mississippi, it seems to be plenty famous abroad.
But it's easy to avoid the crowds simply by parking by the side of Utah Highway 9, which runs through the southeastern section of the park, and setting off in any direction. (Take water, a map and a compass, though getting lost would take some effort.) One day we rose early to drive in to see dawn illuminate the mighty bluffs. Once the sun was fully up, we walked down one dry creekbed shadowed by overhanging rock before taking a path under the highway and into a narrow slot with pools of water. From there we climbed up an expanse of white rock to check out some hoodoos, odd natural formations that stand alone like the ruins of a lost civilization.
Afterward, we drove back to town to catch the convenient free bus that runs through town to the visitors center, where we caught a shuttle to hike the Kayenta Trail. It crosses the Virgin River before connecting to the Upper Emerald Trail, a steep 1.6 mile-climb up sandy, rocky paths to a pool shaded by steep walls on three sides. Going down, we took the Lower Emerald Trail, a less demanding but intermittently slippery paved path that leads to the Zion Lodge, where you can get a meal, a beer or an ice cream cone.
The following morning was our last chance to explore the park, so we pulled off the highway and set off down a sandy, rock-strewn dry creekbed. As we walked, five desert bighorn sheep appeared on the rock face above us, about 75 yards away, where they kept a wary eye on us. On our way back to the car, we got an even better, though momentarily startling, treat: a herd of eight bighorn sheep came thundering down a hillside and across the creekbed in front of us.
Back in Springdale, the relaxed vibe makes it more than just a gateway to the park. It's small enough to be easy to get around without constantly hopping in and out of the car. A shuttle bus runs through town every 15 minutes from early till late, and walking also is a perfectly reasonable option. Wherever you are in town, you're in sight of three mountains: Watchman, Johnson and Allgood.
Springdale also has plenty of excellent dining options, many al fresco. MeMe's Cafe & BBQ offers a full complement of crepes and coffees as well as sandwiches and barbecue. The beef brisket was moist and tender, and my wife liked the chicken salad sandwich made with craisins, apples and grapes. The Whiptail Grill, a converted gas station with outdoor seating where the pumps used to be, had the best fish tacos I've ever eaten — made with mahi-mahi in a chipotle sauce and a salsa composed of serrano, cilantro, shredded cabbage and purple grapes. When a woman at a nearby table quizzed the waitress on what was best, I piped up to suggest them, but she replied: "I'm from Hawaii. I don't eat fish in landlocked states."
For breakfast, there is Deep Creek Coffee Co., where the roasts are dark and the blueberry scones generously sized. The Park House Cafe, a small place with an outdoor patio, sits next to a cattle ranch at the western end of town and features a sculpture of a motorcycle and rider, constructed from various metal parts.
For dinner, at Oscar's Cafe, I had a veggie quesadilla that was a gooey, flavorful mess, while my wife had a salad festooned with portobello mushrooms, pistachios and avocados. The Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. offered service even friendlier than the local norm, plus handmade crusts. Oscar's and Zion Pizza both feature ample beer lists, including Polygamy Porter from Utah's Wasatch Brewery. (The slogan: "Why have just one?") The Zion Canyon Brew Pub next to the park entrance is a good spot for a beer, a meal or both.
You could spend plenty of time just enjoying what the town has to offer. But we kept getting pulled back to the park to explore its many wonders. Isaac Behunin wouldn't have been surprised.
If you go
Getting there: The nearest major airport is in Las Vegas, a three-hour drive.
Where to stay: The Desert Pearl Inn (435-772-8888, desertpearl.com/rooms/rates.shtml) offers luxury accommodations. The Canyon Ranch Motel (866-946-6276, canyonranchmotel.com) is a charmingly old-fashioned motor court with cottages alongside a large grassy common area. The Zion Park Motel (435-772-3251, zionparkmotel.com) has budget rooms in the center of town. There also are chain motels.
Where to eat: Deep Creek Coffee Co., 435-767-0272, deepcreekcoffee.com. MeMe's Cafe & BBQ, 435-772-0114, memescafezion.com. Oscar's Cafe & Deli, 435-772-3232, cafeoscars.com. Park House Cafe, 435-772-0100, facebook.com/parkhousecafe.Whiptail Grill, 435-772-0283, facebook.com/whiptailgrill. Zion Canyon Brew Pub, 435-772-0336, facebook.com/ZionCanyonBrewPub Zion Pizza & Noodle Co., 435-772-3815, zionpizzanoodle.com.
What to do: Zion National Park: 435-772-3256, nps.gov/zion. Admission for seven consecutive days is $25 per vehicle or $12 per person without a car.
Zion Outfitter (435-772-5090, zionoutfitter.com) and Zion Adventure Co. (435-772-1001, zionadventures.com) provide equipment and guides for hiking, canyoneering, rock climbing and other adventures.
Steve Chapman is an editorial writer and columnist for The Tribune.