|Zion in Winter
by Jim McGee and Gary Stanley
For many of America's national parks, there’s one iconic image that has become it's symbol and signature. Zion is not so easily defined. It is at once huge and small, grand and yet cozy, awesome and yet serene. It is both a photographer’s paradise and a photographer’s greatest frustration because it's beauty is so enormous that it’s nearly impossible to capture it on film.
Zion Nation Park is a two and a half hour drive from Las Vegas airport. The directions couldn't be simpler: get on I-15 in Vegas and keep driving until you come to Utah, then look for route 9 which will take you right to the park entrance as it intersects the southern tip of Zion.
We arrived in late evening, the moon hidden behind the clouds, so we had no idea of the amazing landscape that surrounded us. The next morning we drove up into the park before sunrise and even in the feeble predawn light we were in awe of Zion's beauty. We wasted that first sunrise driving around the park uttering pithy phrases such as "Wow!", "My God!", and "We've got to shoot THAT!". Hey give us a break - we're photographers, not poets. After a couple of hours of sightseeing we finally settled down and began shooting.
Why go in the winter? It was 18 degrees as I hiked along the bank of the Virgin river looking for a way down through the rocks so I could shoot up toward the Court of the Patriarchs with the river bed in the foreground. I found a set of mule deer tracks and followed them down to the river bank. Only afterward did I notice that water had seeped up through the ice as I knelt by the river. As I hiked back out to the car I finally noticed that both my pants and my mustache were frozen solid and my fingers felt very distant from my hands. No surprise to anyone who is familiar with winter in the western mountains. But why go in such cold conditions?
To avoid the crowds. Zion is actually three national parks in one. There is the northern part of the park known as the Kolob Canyons which feature huge sweeping vistas. This is the least visited area as you have to leave the main part of Zion and drive for an hour before you can re-enter in the Kolob Canyon region. Then there is the White cliffs area. It's at a higher elevation and reached through a tunnel that puts you on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (still route 9). But the most dramatic and most visited part of the park is the scenic drive up Zion Canyon.
The red rock of the canyon was carved by the Virgin River. In places, the valley floor is only about 300 yards wide before it gives way to sheer rock faces that climb to over 2,700 feet above the valley floor. In some areas a 17mm lens just wasn't wide enough to take in the scene!
The problem is the tight, winding, two-lane scenic drive only allows for one lane of traffic in each direction. Worse, given the scenery and steep drops in some areas it's virtually guaranteed traffic will move slowly. As a result the park has had to purchase a fleet of busses that take thousands of tourists a day through the park during the summer. You can get off the bus at any number of locations and hike up trails carved into the steep cliffs to see a number of unique rock formations and attractions in the park, but during the summer its always packed - making it tough to get good images. During the winter the park is virtually empty allowing you to enjoy and capture the vastness of the scenery before your lens without Grandpa's RV and 300 tourists crowding into the frame.
We were ecstatic to see the snow for it's picture taking possibilities, but it did have it's drawbacks. The roads were a solid sheet of ice when we arrived. This wasn't such a bad thing down in the valley but it made the climb up the west side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway more than a little interesting - especially in the dark. The road is a series of steep switchbacks and turns leading to the mile long tunnel that connects you to the White Cliffs section and the eastern side of the park. The drop-offs looked steep indeed with ice under all four wheels. But somehow two days later, with clear roads, the switchbacks didn't seem quite as bad. The snow also made some of the trails treacherous and you had to be careful of your footing. At the lodge we found out there are a few people a year who find their way over the edge. Not surprising since these narrow trails were carved out of the cliffs in the 20's and 30's. Most have no railings and some are quite steep. Pick up a trail map at the visitor center and mind how they are rated. Some are a definite no-no if you have a fear of heights.
Following the Sun We got very familiar with the switchbacks and all the roads in the southern end of Zion. Because the canyon walls are so steep, sunlight reaches different parts of the park at different times of the day. So we became light chasers - traversing and re-traversing the park throughout the day while we tried to guess where the light would hit.
And oh did it hit! The deep red walls of the canyons are made of Navajo sandstone. The higher strata are made up of white sandstone that was laid down during a later geological period. When the sun hit the peaks, they would glow as if illuminated from inside. At certain times of day, and in certain parts of the canyon, peaks would be back lit by the rising or setting sun, while the adjacent cliff face, only a few hundred yards away, would reflect a warm red-toned light back onto the front face of the cliff, filling in detail, and creating a shot that you would never have thought you'd be able to get. It was like having a warm toned, 2,500 foot bounce reflector to work with!
But as dramatic as the light could be, it was fleeting. An area would suddenly be illuminated with incredible light. By the time you set up and clicked off a couple of shots the light would already be changing, ebbing, and then disappear. This was especially true right at sunrise and sunset where low light angles and steep cliffs conspired to make the light truly momentary.
Even in winter there is an abundance of wildlife in Zion. We constantly came across mule deer sign and at one point they strolled by within 30 yards of where we were standing. They are obviously used to people and we were able to approach quite close without upsetting them. The wild turkeys were even more at ease with people. A flock of them blocked the road one morning and when I lowered the car window for a better look most of the flock ran up to the window looking for a handout! Not only were they not bothered by the car - we had to get out and shoo them out of the road so we could get by.
Small mammals such as jackrabbits and porcupines can be seen throughout the park as were red tailed hawks and ravens. But we didn't see some of the park's more elusive residents. Coyotes were heard on the buttes above us on two occasions and we saw lots of tracks but never got a look at the coyotes themselves. Mountain lions, elk, and bighorn sheep also call the park home but you're unlikely to see them unless you have time to hike into the back country.
Where did the Town Go?
The town of Springdale sits right outside the gates of the park. Springdale has many small shops and restaurants and exploring them would be a great way to spend the evening - except that almost all of them are closed in the winter months. You'll find that except for a few hotels and even fewer restaurants the town pretty much shuts down during the winter. A pleasant exception was the Majestic View restaurant where we feasted nightly on beef and buffalo washed down with cold beer and stories of the day relived.
A Ghost Town
The next morning at sunrise our lenses were pointed toward the old church as the sun was rising. Coyotes howled on the butte behind us, and looking across the snow at the few remaining lonely homes, you had to wonder why these folks ever moved out here.
The Grafton cemetery about a mile away was a testament to a hard life in these mountains where settlers perished from disease and Indian attacks, and they died young. I was struck looking at the grave stones by how many belonged to children.
As we worked the area an old pickup came rattling down the road. The two old boys inside were ranchers and they explained to us that some local folks were gradually fixing up the old ghost town to preserve it. We'd noticed there were flowers on graves up in the cemetery and when we asked about descendants of the Grafton settlers still living in the area, the driver pointed at his passenger and informed us that his grandmother had been born in the house we were photographing.
Unfortunately we only had a few days in Zion, but we haven't stopped talking about it since we returned. It's gone from being on the short list of places we wanted to visit to being on the short list of places we want to return to.
If you'd like to go to Zion, summer is the busiest time and as a result, the worst time for photographers. In the spring the valley is covered with wild flowers and in the fall the bright foliage against the dark red rocks can be striking. During spring and fall you'll have mild weather and some crowds - but nothing like the hordes of summer. Check out the Zion Web National Park Web site for dates when the scenic drive is open to traffic or call 435-772-3256 for park information.