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Weekend Escape: Utah

Zion in Winter

Snow dresses up a red-rock wonderland's quiet season

March 02, 1997|JOHN McKINNEY | McKinney writes the Travel section's weekly Hiking column

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — From aptly named Canyon Overlook Trail, we beheld the majesty of Zion National Park, a wonderland of sculpted cliffs and deep canyons. Before us a kaleidoscope of desert colors shifted constantly with the angle of the sun.

"It's just like a birthday cake," exclaimed my Sophia, who just celebrated her 5th birthday. I applauded my budding naturalist's observation: In winter, the park does resemble a red-rock layer cake topped by snowy white frosting.

"Powerful rocks, soothing waters, very orderly," declared my wife, Cheri, bringing an Eastern consciousness to this most Western of landscapes, the result of her weekend reading--a book on feng shui.

"Still the right place," I affirmed, echoing Utah's motto, or at least the one newly posted along Interstate 15 at the state line.

Alas, Utah in general and Zion in particular proved to be anything but the right place last July when I decided to introduce my family to the splendors in the park. In short, Zion was a zoo. We watched motorists' tempers and radiators boil over as the 4,000 to 5,000 cars a day entering the park competed for 450 parking spaces in Zion Canyon. It was so hot that five minutes into our first hike my wife and daughter mutinied. Cheri and Sophia sat waist-deep in the Virgin River and refused to budge until I promised to drive them back to the swimming pool and our air-conditioned hotel room in St. George.

But that was then. Now, winter, when nature adds snowy white to Zion's palette of pastels, is a special time. Accommodations are easy to get, nature trails and scenic byways uncrowded and the pace of everyone--from rangers to raccoons--is slow and easy.

But I've forged ahead of myself. Like most of our acquaintances, you probably think that Utah is more than one time zone away from the Southland--way too far to go for a weekend. Actually, Zion National Park is another 2 1/2-hour drive past Las Vegas, about a 400-mile journey from Greater Los Angeles.

Still, there's a lot of desert to cross. And the journey seems that much longer when one member of your family likes listening to Raffi and another reads out loud about rearranging furniture and the need to eliminate clutter from our lives. Fortunately, as I grew more impatient with our eastward progress from California to Nevada to Arizona to Utah on I-15, the legal speed limit increased from 65 to 70 to 75 mph.

Choices for overnight stays on the way to Zion are Barstow (plenty of inexpensive accommodations); Baker (just a few motels); Las Vegas (take advantage of advertised specials); the mushrooming gambling stops of Stateline, Mesquite and Virgin. And finally there's St. George, Utah, only 35 miles from Zion National Park, which boasts more than 2,300 rooms.

By far the best food stop en route is the Mad Greek in Baker. Cheri and I split a Greek omelet (sausage, onions, tomatoes, feta cheese) and Sophia gobbled pancakes while looking out at the town's claim to fame, the world's tallest thermometer. We walked out stuffed for $10.

Springdale, founded by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s, is tucked at the base of soaring sandstone cliffs at the mouth of Zion Canyon. Judging by the retro-Santa Fe facade on some of the new buildings and the Taos typeface on the signs, Zion's gateway town no doubt is in transition. Some upscale subdivisions and two large motels are under construction. The town's first and only coffeehouse sells caffe e latte at big-city prices. Still, it's situated in a narrow canyon and surrounded on three sides by Zion National Park so the one-street town can't grow too much.

Springdale appears to be populated by an eclectic mix of outdoors enthusiasts, artists, ranchers, retirees and . . .

"Corporate dropouts like me--there's lots of us in this part of Utah," declared Eileen Crookes as she showed us our place for the weekend--Room 4 of her five-room Red Rock Inn. We were charmed by the tastefully appointed Southwest decor--a pine-washed bed with a carved headboard, matching armoire that hid the television and petroglyph-inspired wall hangings.

"I love it here in the cool months," Crookes continued. "Late autumn, winter, early to mid-spring. But summer is our busy season, when everybody from everywhere comes to Zion. I just can't understand why anyone's crazy enough to come to Zion in the middle of the summer when it's 110 degrees."

"Ask him," Cheri replied, pointing at me.

Following our innkeeper's instructions, we left the curtains open and awoke to a glorious sunrise view of the Watchman, the towering rock mass guarding the national park's south entrance. Enchanted, we watched the sun spotlight, then floodlight, the red-brown rock, chasing the shadows from cliff to crag to canyon floor.

Breakfast was delivered to the door in an enormous basket: muffins, scrambled eggs with veggies, yogurt, fresh fruit, orange juice, a pot of coffee.

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