Wandering the West
February 27, 2008
Years ago my family pulled in to Springdale, at the gateway of Zion National Park in southwestern Utah and found ourselves bringing up the rear of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. You might not think tiny Springdale would boast a big enough Irish population to warrant a parade and green Jell-O sculpting contest, but in this decidedly different southern Utah small town it’s another excuse for a town party.
Ask a Parkite for the equivalent Park City experience in southern Utah and the answer is invariably Moab. On a spring weekend it seems as if half of Park City is there. I like Moab just fine, but when my SUV turns south it veers to Springdale more often these days.
Springdale’s citizens feel like soul mates to Park City’s. Its town council endorses the Red Rock Wilderness Bill. Its former musician mayor signed up Springdale in the "City Mayors for Peace" movement. Over time it has developed quality lodging and restaurants and, heaven forbid, there’s even a brewpub now.
Of course the main attraction is Springdale’s position as the gateway to Zion National Park, Utah’s oldest, which celebrates its centennial next year. Zion is a little like the Grand Canyon in reverse. You enter at the bottom of the canyon and look up at 2,000-foot-high cliffs and monoliths instead of entering on the rim and looking down. It is much smaller and more intimate than the Grand, but that’s its attraction. If you go down for St. Pat’s you can still take your car into the canyon, but the next week it closes to cars and opens to free park shuttles.
The use of shuttles starting in 2000 ended the traffic mayhem and pollution of 2.5 million visitors in cars and tour buses jamming the canyon floor’s seven-mile road every year. It also made it a much more attractive bicycling park. Ride bikes up the Pa’rus paved trail connecting to the scenic drive that ends at the Temple of Sinawava. From there hike to the Narrows of the Virgin River, the crack in the earth growing ever narrower as you ascend the drainage of the Virgin.
I like the short hikes that reveal the work of water shaping the red rocks. The lower and middle Emerald Pools trails lead to clear-water ponds fed by tiny springs and rivulets of water, creating lush mini-grottos in the desert. Weeping Wall is another take on the theme. In the evening the frogs croak so loud you’ll laugh at all the noise.
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The more ambitious hikes take you to the rims of Zion, up 2,000 vertical feet. Plan on the whole day for those hikes, as well as for the hike up Angel’s Landing, the dominant freestanding pinnacle rising from the upper canyon floor. Angel’s is not for the faint-hearted. You’ll climb Walter’s Wiggles, a hand-built staircase with 21 switchbacks. In other places embedded chains provide handholds where the trail narrows to just a couple feet. It is reassuring until you meet a hiker coming the other way then someone has to let go and do some close dancing to slide around the other hiker and grab the chain again.
My favorite day hike branches off Weeping Wall trail and climbs a thousand vertical feet to Hidden Canyon. Along the way you’ll run into more wiggly staircases followed by embedded chains on narrow trails that drop straight down the sides of cliffs. The reward at the top is a hanging canyon with its own cool microclimate, another crack in the earth you can hike up as far as you want. Be aware that some of the trails are inappropriate for children and that careless visitors fall to their deaths almost every year. Late-summer hikers need to be aware of flash-flood danger in the Narrows.
At the end of the day, Springdale is a great refresher. I’ve stayed at Flanigan’s Inn, the Desert Pearl, Cliffrose Lodge, Canyon Ranch, and the Zion Park Best Western all good choices. Favorite restaurants include the Bit and Spur, Flanigan’s and the Switchback Grill. There’s Zion Canyon Brewing Company serving homemade suds inside the Majestic Steakhouse and Saloon. The ultimate Zion Canyon experience might be staying in the canyon bottom at Zion National Park Lodge.
Zion, at the century mark, is a better park than a decade ago. A new green-built visitor center and a car-free canyon road, coupled with a more sophisticated Springdale make for a great combination.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Springdale: 307 miles
Insider tip: Look at St. George temperatures, deduct 5 degrees, and you’ve got Springdale’s weather