Zion National Park merits exploration beyond main canyon

Zion National Park’s deep main canyon flanked by soaring cliffs and carved ramparts attracts millions of visitors each year. Most of them never venture beyond the scenic attractions and park facilities concentrated in Zion Canyon. Few of them realize they have experienced but a fraction of the superb scenery offered by this gem among our national parks.

Zion’s boundaries include the spectacular semidetached Kolob Canyons section, reached by a separate highway off Interstate 15 and arduous foot trails. Between the Kolob Canyons and the cliff tops of the main canyon lies a huge upland area known as the Kolob Terrace, reached by a backcountry road from near the little town of Virgin. This road climbs from about 3,500 feet to 9,000 feet.

Zion is a three-hour drive north of Las Vegas by way of Interstate 15 and Utah Route 9. Watch for the exit onto this scenic route a few miles north of St. George, Utah. The road takes you past recreation opportunities at a couple of popular state parks near Hurricane. Follow Route 9 through Hurricane to La Verkin, bearing right toward the pioneer-era communities of Virgin, Rockville and Springdale, closest to the main park entrance.

As you pass through Virgin, watch for the Kolob Terrace Road on the left. Much of this road is paved with connections of improved gravel surface. Vehicles with a little clearance are best, but four-wheel drive is not necessary. Since there are no services, start with a full fuel tank, a good spare tire and extra water. Followed all the way north, the route connects to Utah Route 14 east of Cedar City about 70 miles north of the turnoff near Virgin. Reconstruction on Route 14 following landslides last year continues through this summer. Part of the road below Cedar Breaks National Monument is closed on weekdays.

When it leaves Route 9, the Kolob Terrace Road follows the course of little North Creek through pastures and orchards up into pinyons, junipers and occasional ponderosa pines. It moves in and out of private lands, national park and national forest. The forest retreats as high stone knobs and bare domes of sandstone emerge, bringing visitors to the brink of spectacular canyons thousands of feet deep. The high reaches of the Finger Canyons of the Kolob section of Zion National Park lie within breathtaking view.

Soon the road moves away from the cliff tops, returning to wooded slopes and occasional meadows. A little more than 28 miles from Virgin, turn off the main road onto the short spur road to Lava Point, a magnificent viewpoint overlooking forested uplands fissured by deep canyons cut by myriad creeks feeding into the Virgin River. This broken wilderness is accessible only by trail.

Lava Point overlooks canyons so deep and narrow that the sun never reaches their depths. These are difficult, dangerous places best suited for well-experienced, well-equipped groups of hikers. These trails should never be attempted when rain threatens, as the danger of flash flooding is extreme. Hikers must obtain backcountry hiking permits from the National Park Service. The park service maintains a small, no-frills campground at Lava Point in a meadow surrounded by tall trees.

Retrace your route from Lava Point to the main road. Turn right and drive three miles to Kolob Reservoir, leaving the national park and entering Dixie National Forest. The reservoir attracts anglers, picnickers, campers and off-highway vehicle users. At the north end of the lake, the pavement ends. However, the route continues north another 40 miles.

As the road climbs into higher country, the forest changes to firs, spruce and stands of white-trunked quaking aspen. Zigzag fences of aspen logs border the road, fencing in private property and framing views. Summer wildflowers riot in meadows and clearings. Autumn brings glorious color to the aspens and many other kinds of trees and shrubs. Skirting high knolls, the road rejoins pavement near spectacular overlooks at the rim of Cedar Canyon. It then descends precipitously to Route 14 in the canyon below. Cedar City sits a few miles to the west where I-15 heads south 178 miles to Las Vegas.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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