The last part of this 24 miles was spectacular — red cliffs and layered hills, tunnels, hairpin turns, and incredibly beautiful views. We took pictures of the remarkably scored Checkerboard Mesa, but bypassed most of the other sights, promising ourselves to stop on the way out of the park the next day.
It was about 12:30 when we took the turn that led to Zion Lodge. You're permitted to do this only if you're staying at the lodge, and even then you have to drive straight to the lodge and park. The only motorized way to get around in the canyon is to ride the free shuttle buses run by the Park Service.
Like Bryce Canyon Lodge, Zion Lodge had a four o'clock check-in time, but they let us register and move our stuff into our cabin as soon as we arrived. The desk clerks helpfully found one for us that wasn’t too far from where we could park — for, as at Bryce, baggage had to be hand-carried.
We moved in, rested a bit, and sat on our little porch to consume our extremely modest lunch, which consisted of an apple Dorothea had saved from a motel’s continental breakfast a couple of days previously, two bananas she had discreetly appropriated from the Bryce Canyon Lodge breakfast buffet, and a half dozen of the Social Tea Biscuits that are her faithful companions on all journeys. We washed this repast down with tap water, which we found to be consistently good in the national parks.
After lunch we took the shuttle to the visitor center to get information about a couple of trails that we thought we might walk the next day, and then went one stop back along the line to see a 20-minute intro film at the museum. Like the films we saw at Mesa Verde and Bryce Canyon, it was a mixture of about 10% real information (with most of the details smoothed off), 50% pretty pictures, and 40% purple prose recited ultra-slowly by men who must be unable to earn their certification until they can read anything whatsoever in the voice of Daddy telling a bedtime story to a four-year-old.
There was only one viewpoint between us and the lodge, so on our way back we got off a shuttle there and stayed a few minutes to take pictures of the "Three Patriarchs" (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from left to right, for those of you keeping score at home). We considered this enough Adventure before dinner, so we idled around our cabin until six and walked over to the lodge.
While waiting for a seat, we watched two rangers outside the window putting a cover on a can in which they had just trapped a diamondback rattlesnake. We resolved to tread carefully the next day.
The food at Zion Lodge was at least as good as at Bryce Canyon Lodge — maybe even a little better. Dorothea had a dish of chicken and portobello mushrooms and I had shrimp scampi combined with cheese tortellini. Both dishes were generously sprinkled with shredded Parmesan (the good stuff, too) which was then melted. Dorothea also ordered the salad bar and snuck me a bowl of chicken and vegetable soup from it before the main course arrived. I was very thirsty, and downed two pints of a Utah microbrew named Cutthroat Pale Ale — I believe after the trout rather than the Extreme Competitor. The Bourbon Pecan Pie we had for dessert was not exactly redolent of bourbon, but we found it delicious.
Xanterra, the company that runs the lodges at both Bryce Canyon and Zion (as well as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where we were bound next) has a number of foreign students working summer jobs in the lodges and their dining rooms. A good many of them seemed to be Thais, especially at Zion, where the hostesses and several waiters and waitresses had “Thailand” on their name tags just below their names. (American staff have their native states in this position.) They broke into radiant smiles every time they saw Dorothea, who greeted them with appropriate Thai pleasantries and the little bow called a wa, which they duly returned. They were interested to learn that our son was in their homeland, living the life of a wandering monk.
The lodge building was less quaint than the one at Bryce, having replaced an original that burned down back in the fifties or sixties. The replacement was thrown up hastily, and a later attempt was made to quaintify it retroactively. The result, it must be said, was somewhat unattractive, though the restaurant (on the second floor) was a pleasant enough room.
Our cabin was plain and simple, like the motel room at Bryce, but well furnished with good beds, plumbing that worked, and similar desiderata. Xanterra appeared to pride itself on ecological virtue. No soap or shampoo was offered, but both sink and shower had dispensers of an ecologically responsible gel that they claimed to be good for face, body, and hair. I wasn’t willing to substitute it for my deodorant soap, but I did use it at Bryce for everything above the neck, and it was fine. The piney scent seemed rather masculine to me, but that may be just another of the archaic cultural assumptions of which I’m a hopeless prisoner.
Although there was no television set in either lodging, the cabin had a fireplace. We didn’t expect to use this until Dorothea noticed that it had an off/on switch, one flick of which caused a natural-looking flame to spring up immediately. Although fed by gas, the flames weren’t the least bit blue. Three sides of the cabin had screened windows that slid open and shut easily, and the front had a little porch where you could sit without being able to see the top of the sheer canyon walls across the road, the canyon being pretty narrow at this point. We occupied only one half of the cabin (it was a “semi-detached villa”), and many others surrounded it closely, but we heard little or nothing from our neighbors.
One thing we did hear, however, was the gobbling of the wild turkeys that run fearlessly around the park and are not shy about hanging around the lodge. We watched a cock strutting along the hillside between our cabin and the staff dormitory above it. Had he puffed up and spread his tail, like the one Dorothea photographed the next morning, he would have looked exactly like a Thanksgiving cliché. (The next evening we saw a man on a nearby porch tossing food to a hen turkey who was prowling among the cabins. The poor bird — if she knew how dumb domesticated turkeys are compared to wild ones, she’d give those Cheez Doodles a wide berth.)
Before going to bed, I searched the pockets of the shirts I had worn during the past several days and turned up my little bottle of nitroglycerin pills. So my life was no longer threatened. The eraser problem, however, would have to wait a bit longer for a solution. In the meantime I discovered that the literary life could be sustained, more or less.
Three Walks in the Park
As we walked over to breakfast the next morning, a turkey cock and three hens were browsing on the lawn. Several people, including Dorothea, were trying to get pictures of the cock when he spread his tail, but he kept facing the wrong way, and I (without my camera, alas) got the best frontal view of his impressive display. But Dorothea managed to get him in her lens at last, and he is now immortalized in digits.
We found the breakfast buffet at Zion Lodge similar to the one at Bryce Canyon, and once again I went for the blintzes, but these were comparatively disappointing. Nevertheless, we breakfasted well, if not as lavishly as the day before.
After breakfast we rode the shuttle up to the end of the line, which is in a steep-sided amphitheater that the first promoters of the place, in a poetically entrepreneurial mood, had named the “Temple of Sinawava.” According to the shuttle driver, Sinawava was the “coyote god” of the Southern Paiutes, the Indian tribe whom the first Mormon settlers had found in possession of the canyon. Recalling that several southwestern Indian legends I’ve seen, collected from various tribes, include a supernatural character named Coyote, I wondered if “Sinawava” (or however it actually sounds in Southern Paiute) might be the word for the animal as well as the character.
Unlike Bryce, Zion is a true canyon, carved out by the Virgin River through layers of local sandstone. By far the thickest of these layers is one called Navajo sandstone, which in places is 2,200 feet thick. It's relatively hard and instead of eroding away at water level, it tended to shear off in big chunks when undermined. The resulting walls, 2,000 to 3,000 feet high, look smooth in some places and chiseled in others. The big chunks of cliff that fell into the streambed broke up and in time mostly eroded away, so it looks as if the earth had been split especially to let the river through.
The Temple of Sinawava was surrounded by magnificent high cliffs that only Ansel Adams, or at any rate someone with a massive view camera, could do justice to. Of course we yielded to the temptation to try anyway. But our main reason for going there was to take the one-mile Riverside Walk up the Virgin River to the point where it emerges from The Narrows. This is a 16-mile passage up the canyon, which grows ever narrower as one continues upstream. Most of the time it’s necessary to walk in the river, not beside it, and experienced hikers take at least a day to get through. Needless to say, we had no intention of attempting this. We had come to understand that one must be physically quite fit to see all there is to see in a national park. Still, we saw as much as we could manage, and were happy with what we saw.
The Riverside Walk
The Riverside Walk was lovely in spite of increasing heat and Dorothea’s experiencing some trouble with her knee. Trees grew all along the river, which ran over modest rapids, and on the cliff face beside the trail we passed several “hanging gardens.” These occur where water that has been percolating down through the massive layer of Navajo sandstone that forms most of the cliffs in Zion Canyon runs into an impermeable lower layer and moves along sideways until it trickles out of the canyon wall. Plants take advantage of the moisture to anchor themselves to the cliffside at these points, and we saw beautiful yellow and violet columbines growing in some of these gardens, as well as other flowers and a good deal of greenery.
On low-lying land across the river we saw more wild turkeys, and on our side ground squirrels (bold little beggars) were showing a lot of interest in everyone who passed. We also glimpsed a couple of mule deer, but that was from the window of the shuttle on the way there, so perhaps they shouldn’t count.
After this hike we went back to the lodge. We both felt a bit tired, and besides, it was lunchtime. We tried to get something cheap in the snack bar, but recoiled from the universally greasy offerings there and returned to the dining room, where Dorothea had a chicken Caesar salad and I had a salmonburger: a grilled salmon cake on a bun with pesto mayonnaise. This wasn’t an inexpensive lunch, but nothing in the snack bar was amazingly cheap either.
At the cabin I lay down to rest my feet and soon had to drop my book and snooze. By prior agreement, Dorothea woke me up at three after 45 minutes’ sound sleep, and I was about as ready to go hiking again as a baby to leave the comfort of the womb.
But I did anyway. We took the shuttle to Weeping Rock, or rather to the trail that leads up to it, a half-mile climb. Although it was fairly steep, we went slowly and found it quite manageable. Weeping Rock is a cliff face where one of those sideways seeps that produces the hanging gardens supplies so much water that it drips constantly across a wide rock face. The trail leads to a shelf directly under the dripping water. You could look out past the falling drops on a small valley filled with lush greenery, and the high cliffs that enclose the canyon filled the background.
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail
We had now completed our third mile of the day, but I was feeling unexpectedly bouncy when we got back to the shuttle stop, and suggested that we go back to the lodge and take the 0.6-mile trail that begins just across the river and leads to the lowest of three so-called Emerald Pools. I imagined that this would be fairly level, but it turned out to be a considerable climb, though less steep than the climb to Weeping Rock. We were getting more fatigued, and to me at least those six tenths of a mile seemed at least twice as long as the five tenths on the Weeping Rock trail.
The pool wasn’t emerald, as far as I could see — in fact, there was only a little water, plus a couple of tiny waterfalls that one could just about take a shower in. “Tiny” only describes the volume, however; they fell many feet. All around the pool and the mini-canyon that runs down from it to the Virgin River below, we could hear the amorous calls of canyon tree frogs, which a placard near the pool described as “small but noisy.” I’d like to know just how small these frogs, invisible to us, really were, because their call resembled the bleating of sheep — it was just as loud, but lower on the scale, and maintained the same pitch from beginning to end. It sounded like a much larger animal with a deep voice trying to imitate a sheep (or perhaps a turkey), but able to do so only in a monotone.
So that day we walked the three easiest trails in the park (all paved) and got quite tired in the process. No matter — we had a fair chance to see what Zion Canyon was like.
For dinner we had roast beef, which all the national park lodges seem to offer, and it was very good with baked potatoes and asparagus. I ordered a glass of Bogle merlot and made it last as long as the beef. Dorothea’s dessert was cheesecake with white chocolate and black raspberries baked in; mine was something described as cream cheesecake with layers of banana and caramel inside a dessert tortilla, served with vanilla ice cream. (So it was, with several blobs of whipped cream to fill the bowl.) It didn’t look like or taste like cheesecake, but it was good. The menu calls this Xango cheesecake — a word that has a rather Brazilian look. As to whether it really is cheesecake, that may just be marketing: cheesecake always sells.
We met another Thai busboy, who was very anxious to converse with Dorothea. He kept coming back at every opportunity, to the point that she was finding it hard to eat. Finally, one of the Thai girls we’d already met came up behind him, clapped her hand over his mouth, and pulled him away with much giggling all around.
Before going to bed, we transferred our last Bryce Canyon pictures and all of our Zion pictures to CD set #5.
After breakfast in the Lodge dining room, where we had the cold breakfast buffet (which I was delighted to find included hot oatmeal in spite of its label), we set out for Arizona and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the way out of the canyon I tried to get a picture of the Great Arch of Zion, which we had seen but hadn’t photographed on Saturday. This is not a bridge, but an arched depression in a cliff face where a huge chunk of rock has fallen out. Unfortunately the morning sun was in the wrong direction and the picture wasn't as good as I would have gotten the day before.
But after coming through the big tunnel we were able to take good pictures of the striated rocks on the other side, where, although the formations were not as imposing as Zion canyon’s sheer walls, their markings and coloration were much livelier.
This section last updated 12-13-2004