Story and photos by Dave Simeur
Every pilot needs to log an exploration flight to Zion National Park. This jewel is within easy reach of anyone in the Southwest. The hospitality of the region is world-renowned. For the beauty of mountain flying, the topography of the region is uniquely safe. The region offers lodging that blends into the high desert landscape. The dining is eclectic with specialty restaurants, coffee houses, and pastry shops. The hosts, guides, employees, and rangers welcome guests to a home they love. There really is something for everyone, a variety of activities for all ages and fitness levels.
Zion National Park was carved from the high ridges of southwestern Utah’s Kolob Plateau by the Virgin River. The plate that forms the plateau spill into flatlands dotted with safe havens and airports for the single engine airplane. As always, planning is the key, but this is a great area to experience the thrills of “mountain” flying. The opportunity to bypass long drives through the desert heat will allow you to arrive fresh and ready for adventure. The thin flora of the desert exposes strata of the rock formations. Geology enthusiasts will appreciate being able to see how all of the big pieces fit together to form the region. Aviators can sharpen pilotage and terrain association skills since the large features are so easy to recognize. Plan on flying by the park to get a bird’s eye view before you start your exploration. Pilots are reminded to remember the 2000’ National Park altitude buffer, check your VFR chart for boundaries.
This flying adventure starts by marking a route to St. George or Cedar City, Utah. Flying to St. George was described in detail in the May/June 04 issue of SW Aviator. Cedar City is another convenient destination within easy reach of Zion. Either way, the Cedar City Flight Service Station will welcome you on the radio with special Utah hospitality.
Both airports offer rental cars. While there are plenty of adventures to be had with one car, several of the best hiking routes are one-way and therefore require renting a second shuttle car. For extra fun on the 43-mile drive to the park from St. George, we communicated between the cars with handheld two-way radios (a good idea to have while hiking for safety). Monolithic towers of stone bounded the road, aptly given Biblical names by the early settlers. After checking into lodging, take time to explore the Mt. Carmel highway. This highway joins the canyon floor with the plateau above, winding through a 1.1-mile tunnel, and passes the Great Arch of Zion.
Sometimes my extreme “vacation” plans require a bit of bribery to convince my co-pilot to come along. The Desert Pearl Inn, located just outside Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, is the key to getting this trip off the planning table and into flight. In fact, during the off-season, this romantic retreat is a suitable destination on its own. In 1901, the Southern Pacific Railroad began constructing a trestle bridge across the Great Salt Lake to avoid the dangerous journey through the mountains. Years later, the old-growth redwood and spruce trestles were dismantled and used to make the doors, private decks, beams, and cabinetry of the Desert Pearl Inn. The Inn has a unique natural beauty that enhances the Zion experience. It is located beside the Virgin River, the small but powerful watercourse that nearly created Zion on its own. The freeform pool, complete with a sandstone waterfall, is the perfect way to beat the summer heat. Each room has a private patio, and the sound of the river lulls guests to sleep slowly, almost better than sleeping at home. Guests are treated to an on-site coffee shop featuring Starbucks coffee, and are within walking distance to the heart of Springdale’s great dining. More information is available by calling 888-828-0898 or visiting desertpearl.com. Many other lodging options are available, including a Lodge inside the national park (zionlodge.com).
All park visits should start with a stop at the Visitors Center. Rainstorms can produce flash floods in the canyons, so check with rangers about current conditions (nps.gov/zion). Hikers have a choice of trails that are easy, moderately strenuous, and strenuous. Some of the best scenery is accessible to persons with disabilities. Explorers have the option of fifteen-minute hikes or multi-day backcountry trips. Some trails require permits, which are available at the Zion Backcountry Office, or online at az.blm.gov/zionpermits.
Zion National Park offers traditional family fun with paved paths, breathtaking trails (no pun intended), and park shuttles. Zion is also a great place to experience the “extreme” sport of technical canyoneering through on of the many slot canyons. Zion has over 60 slot canyons that are hairline cracks in the strata of rocks. Some slot canyons are less than six feet wide, and thousands of feet deep! Slot canyons are distinct with awe-inspiring scenery, geology, and various microclimates that support a wide variety of flora and fauna.
What is technical canyoneering? It is one extreme sport that can be enjoyed by almost anyone who enjoys hiking. Rappelling, ascending ropes, swimming (with gear) through cold water, and scrambling over boulders are examples of required skills. Routes travel off-trail over slickrock so hikers must be versed in route finding and land navigation. Hikers should have self-rescue skills, since rescue is not always guaranteed. The cool stuff that you get to use (and buy) — including carabiners, figure eights, ropes, ascenders, harnesses, and webbing — is the best part of the adventure. Hikers must waterproof or protect anything that needs to stay dry. Temperatures vary in the canyons. The low humidity causes the water in the streams to act like evaporative air conditioners. Shaded from the sun, it can be nearly 30 degrees cooler in the slot than in the open parts of the canyon. Pools of water are obstacles that require swims, some greater than 50 feet. Depending on the season, the runoff from the snowmelt can be a cool 50 to 60 degrees. Consider using a dry or wet suit. All of the special gear and training on how to use it is available locally at Canyon Outfitters, 435-772-0252. They make adventure, fun, safe, and exciting.
Another option is Zion Adventure Company’s, half-day seminar for $99, zionadventures.com. “Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide” is a great source of information at canyoneeringusa.com/utah. Don’t be afraid to gear up and get out there! As a pilot, you possess the most important requisite skills, an adventurous spirit and keen decision/problem solving skills. Good luck!
Our small team journeyed through the famous “Subway” route, the lower part of the Left Fork of North Creek. The “Subway” is a keyhole shaped, inverse slot that matches its name exactly. We started early, the first group to depart the parking lot through the pine forest. This was my second trip through the canyon and my excitement grew knowing what beauty, challenge, and ultimate accomplishment lay ahead for trail companions. We descended across a wide expanse of sandstone slickrock strata embedded with ferrous pellets forced up during the upheaval that formed the region. Deeper still through geologic time, we passed blood-red rock that are sand dunes frozen in time at 45-degree angles. We descended miles into the canyon to the top of the first obstacle, a rough and tumble 500-foot scramble down into a chilly pool of snowmelt runoff. We continued through a series of swims and short rappels. Our favorite rappel started in a waterfall, and required a disconnect while floating in a pool. We continued down-canyon with more hiking, scrambling, and another waterfall rappel. The highlight of the hike was a thirty-foot rappelling descent into the “Subway.”
The strenuous hiking in Zion requires plenty of people fuel. There are several excellent restaurants in Springdale, conveniently listed in a guide found in most hotel rooms. However, it should be noted that most restaurants and businesses in Springdale are closed on Sundays. One of the best places to fuel up is the Bumbleberry Inn. They offer delicious breakfasts as well as lunch and dinner. If your particular itinerary doesn’t allow time for a leisurely French-toasted cinnamon bun (I am not making this up!) breakfast, you can always stop by the Zion Park Gift and Deli the night before your hiking adventure to pick up a made-to-order sandwich. They are experienced in serving hikers, packing each order in a Ziploc bag to keep them safe during swims. I suggest forgoing the lettuce and tomato; they don’t like the journey or heat, and attract a world of insects. These deli delights were exactly what the doctor ordered when we emerged from the Subway. We took time to warm up in the sun on a nice flat rock, drying out and enjoying the deli’s fresh fare.
One of the final bribes to help my companions’ spirits during the final portion of the hike was talk of dinner at Zion Pizza & Noodle Company, which locals affectionately call the Pizza-Noodle. This was enough to make the 1,000-foot ascent from the canyon pass quickly. In no time, we were laughing about the day’s adventure over a delicious pizza and round of local Utah microbrews. We watched the stars the night before our departure from the inn’s hot tub, soaking tired muscles, as the exertions of the day melted away. My companions smiled and said thank you to one another for an adventure that flying had put within our reach.