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A symphony in stone

The quiet beauty of autumn is unsurpassed at Utah's Zion National Park, where nature is the maestro.

October 12, 2003|Dan Blackburn | Special to The Times

Zion National Park, Utah

The late afternoon sun painted the cliffs with rich rays of red as we rolled to a stop at the booth where rangers collect a $20 entrance fee and dispense information and advice. To our right, the western face of the Watchman -- an aptly named 6,545-foot-high sandstone monolith towering above the main gateway to the park -- gleamed crimson as it rose above an expanse of golden cottonwoods.

Fall colors come late to Zion National Park. If the weather cooperates, they can extend from late October into December, especially along the lower reaches of the Virgin River. These months are, in many respects, the best time to make the daylong drive from Los Angeles to this extraordinary park in southwestern Utah.

"I had been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this remote canyon, the music of its waters, the glory of its walls," the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote of his visit to Zion. "What I had experienced was a symphony of the wilderness."

In summer the symphony can be overwhelmed by a cacophony of man-made sounds. Despite temperatures that can exceed 100, more than 300,000 visitors a month pour into the park, causing lines at the lodge and filling up canyon trails and scenic spots. In fact, Zion is so crowded then that the Park Service has a bus system visitors must use to reduce traffic.

But from fall to spring, a peaceful, leisurely atmosphere prevails. The park gets only about one-fifth the number of summer visitors. Rooms usually are plentiful and campgrounds almost empty. Lines at restaurants range from short to none. The bus system shuts down. And the park's trails are unhurried and uncrowded.

My partner, Gloria Cortes, and I visited the park for four days last November to photograph its surprisingly vibrant foliage, lured by a Zion Lodge package offering a 50% discount off summer room rates on each second night's stay. (The package is being offered again this year, Nov. 1 to 24.)

Zion Lodge was designed in the 1920s by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who also created the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park and lodges in Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks.

In 1966, Zion Lodge burned, leaving only the old stone fireplace. A new lodge was built within 100 days, making it ready for visitors but losing Underwood's Southwest- and Native American-influenced design. Today the lodge and surrounding cabins have been restored to the architect's vision. The interiors have seen some changes too.

"We have made a few adjustments, nodding to modern-day standards of comfort, convenience and safety, such as the addition of double beds instead of the original Murphy beds, which were said to be uncomfortable," said Gordon Taylor, the lodge's general manager.

We found the rooms and cabins comfortable and cozy without feeling cramped. Our room, with chairs, table and a commodious dresser, gave us more than enough space to stretch out, hang clothes and relax.

The lodge has the only restaurant in the park, and the food, particularly the house specialty of fresh trout, is tasty. If you tire of the lodge, the town of Springdale, just outside the park's main entrance, offers a range of dining and lodging choices.

The lodge, about a third of the way into scenic Zion Canyon along a road with views that demand you pull over to pause and stare, is a good base for hikes in the canyon.

As is the case with most national parks, an early stop at the visitor center was helpful. Ranger Bob Showler, a naturalist who came here in 1995 from Everglades National Park in Florida, graciously took time to chat. His enthusiasm for Zion was unrestrained.

"What I like is the extremes of elevation -- desert to aspen-fir forest and all the life zones in between," he said. "It's really cool to see a roadrunner at 4,500 feet and then golden eagles and peregrine falcons in the higher country."

After more than eight years, he remains awed by the canyon's vertical sandstone cliffs. "They make your mouth drop open," he said. "It's something you feel you won't see anywhere else."

The geologically young Zion Canyon is a textbook example of the power of erosion from wind and water.

About 240 million years ago, geologists say, this region was a sand-swept desert. Over eons, the sand dunes compacted into the sandstone that forms Zion's colorful rock formations, monoliths and canyon walls.

As the Colorado Plateau -- of which Zion and neighboring Bryce Canyon are a part -- began to rise, the Virgin River carved the magnificent canyon in the heart of the park. The plateau is still rising, and each year the river sweeps a million tons of sand and rock from its bed and deposits it in the Colorado River at Lake Mead.

All of this activity has produced some jaw-dropping stone formations.

Besides Watchman at the park entrance, there is West Temple, which rises 7,810 feet, the highest peak in the southern part of the park.

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