Bill May: Parks an idea worth preserving

Bill May: Parks an idea worth preserving
Buck mule deer picks his way through brush near Zion Lodge. (Bill May photo)

“Would you be willing to spend a few days at Zion?”

My daughter asked me a few days before an extended Thanksgiving visit to her family’s Salt Lake City home. Since I wanted to spend time with Rachel’s family but also get in some wildlife photography, her question was basically polite but rhetorical.


Zion. The name alone resonates from its Biblical origins referring to a sacred place of refuge and I think is fitting name for a sacred place in this country’s National Park System. Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks "the best idea we ever had.”

The language was later popularized by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan in their PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and adopted by the National Park Service as “America’s Best Idea Today.”

Personally I think we suffer from a surfeit of superlatives right now, but the park system would be near the top of my and many other people’s list of best American ideas.

So the day after my arrival at their home Rachel and I joined her husband Dave and Beau (18), Georgia (10), Kingston (9) and Cassius (Gus, 7) in a rented van for the 300-plus miles to Zion. Rachel had made reservation at Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens, a place she and her family had visited before, and whose owners were clients of Rachel’s portrait business.

As commodious as the accommodations were the location topped it — with balconies facing lawns and gardens sloping to the Virgin River, the heart of the canyon, with Zion’s towering cliffs beyond. It’s a quarter-mile walk to the park entrance.

A partial list of available activities at Zion includes backpacking (permit required), bicycling, birding, photography, camping (reservations required), canyoneering (permit required), rock climbing (permit required), hiking, horseback riding, sunset and stargazing river trips and ranger-led activities.

Obviously the permits are required for some of the more adventurous (read dangerous) activities and remote areas. Some of those rock walls soar over a thousand feet nearly straight up, and the climbers look like ants from the canyon floor.

A park guide related some of the popular climbs at Zion are training forays for those preparing for the even more challenging routes in Yosemite. Yikes!

The view from my room: My daughter, Rachel Chamberlain, reads behind Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens by the Virgin River with cliffs behind.
The view from my room: My daughter, Rachel Chamberlain, reads behind Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens by the Virgin River with cliffs behind. (Bill May photo)

Once again I was impressed with how well-managed national parks are. With 4.5 million visitors per year, Zion is the third most popular national park, behind only far more accessible Smoky Mountain and Grand Canyon. While Zion encompasses 229 square miles, it’s most prominent and accessed feature is the often narrow Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to 2,640 feet deep with walls of reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone eroded by the North Fork of the Virgin River.

A fleet of propane-powered shuttle buses takes visitors to a series of nine stations of popular locations, features and activities, providing park historical and nature information along the way.

So even though there are a lot of people in a comparatively small area, wait times are usually only a few minutes and one doesn’t feel crowded — at least in the off seasons of fall through winter.

The result is this park can be enjoyed by people of all ages, and family groups with toddlers to seniors make a significant portion of visitors. So Zion is one of those rare places where the cliché “fun for the whole family” can actually be realized.

Considering the range of ages of our group, 7 to 77, we opted for the gentler activities of photography and wildlife viewing, swimming in the lodge’s heated pool and hiking several trails including “The Narrows.”

The Narrows is a “slot canyon” with walls a thousand feet high and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide. It’s one of the most popular areas with a paved, wheelchair accessible Riverside Walk for one mile from the cliff formation known as the Temple of Sinawava.


Going further involves wading upstream in the Virgin River for just a few minutes, as we did, or hiking as far as Big Spring, a strenuous, ten-mile, all-day round trip. (There’s also a “top down” route requiring a permit.)

Doing this hike “from the bottom up” allows seeing some of the most spectacular and narrowest parts of the canyon. Most people hike The Narrows in the late spring and summer when the water tends to be at its warmest and the water level drops.

Hikers in typical Zion Canyon terrain.
Hikers in typical Zion Canyon terrain. (Bill May photo)

Two other popular park areas are Angels Landing a strenuous hike upwards over a thousand feet from Zion Canyon and two areas of Kolob Canyon offering scenic drives and more strenuous hiking. The tunnels of the east entrance of Zion are a man-made feature worth viewing in their own right — if your vehicle fits.

Zion’s diverse terrains and habitats support a diversity of wildlife including up to 291 species of birds, 80 species of mammals plus fish and amphibians/reptiles. Mule deer, wild turkeys, and desert cottontail rabbits are commonly seen at Zion Lodge and throughout the park. California Condor, peregrine falcon, and desert bighorn sheep are found in some areas, and even black bear, cougar, and Mexican spotted owls are sometimes seen.

Throughout our trip I often reminisced on family trips to national and local parks including a Western tour over 15 years ago that included Arches, Bryce, south rim of the Grand Canyon and Zion. Our all time best family vacation was at Arcadia National Park in Maine.

Closer to home, Catoctin Mountain Park and adjacent Cunningham Falls State Park have been our “place of refuge” and part of our family’s fabric for over 40 years. It’s wonderful to see this tradition continue at home and in the West.

But these wondrous places also allow what one American seer describes as the greatest experience: “Seeing oneself as part of the whole.”

The national park (and local) system is one of America’s best ideas and one worth protecting and preserving.