We woke in our Meadow View Cabin at Zion Mountain Ranch to a beautiful, sunny day. The Ranch is all cabins: Meadow View and Buffalo Vista. Ours was across the street from the office, restaurant and gift shop, in a neat little row overlooking, yes, the meadow. The restaurant, the Buffalo Grill, overlooks the horse corral and the Ranch’s very own herd of buffalo. A mare and her foal were in a separate corral. The foal nursed while we ate breakfast in the beautiful, windowed dining room. As if on cue, the buffalo herd came in to water just as we sat down to breakfast, settling in just beyond the fence, 30 feet from our window. Several chickens roamed the yard, pecking as they went. A large brown labrador retriever wandered nearby, pausing to rest in the shade.
The breakfast was delicious. We enjoyed fresh-squeezed orange juice, blueberry and banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, and a Croque Madame. The service was terrific. Our waitress was gracious and helpful. The chef came out to speak with us himself when he decided to start a fresh batch of hash browns for us and thought it might take an extra few minutes.
Well-rested and well-fed, we headed into Zion National Park. We recalled having heard that you couldn’t drive around the Park, and this is essentially true. The Park is large, but largely inaccessible by vehicle of any kind. The Zion Canyon area runs from the south entrance to the Park directly north. This area is accessible by vehicle. In 2000, the Park began running free shuttle buses up and down the Zion Canyon area and began to prohibit cars from driving the route. This practice has reduced traffic, of course, and the Park hopes that this has been better for the Park’s overall ecological health. The shuttle buses run every 7-10 minutes. The full round-trip takes about 80 minutes, but you are welcome to get on and off whenever you like. We were pleased to hear that the last shuttle bus left the end of the line at 10:30 pm. We figured that should accommodate our late lifestyle. We commented that perhaps we should write a book: The National Parks between Noon & Ten: A How-To Guide for Late-Night Families.
The East Entrance to the Park is at the canyon rim. For about 12 miles, you drive switch-back after switch-back to get down to the canyon floor, where the Visitors Center lies. What a spectacular drive! While most of the drive offers a view of the canyon as you descend, part of it is a 1.1 mile tunnel, completed in 1930. At that time, it was the longest tunnel ever built. You can imagine the effort involved in blasting through to create it. The tunnel even includes several windows out to the canyon walls. The tunnel is pitch-black, with only reflectors (and our headlights) to help guide the way through.
Arriving at the Visitors Center, we had a slightly different agenda today. Over the past week or so, we had become increasingly concerned about Haley’s leg. She had what may have been a bug bite or a splinter, some sort of red bump on her right leg, that was looking worse and worse. It was clearly infected and not getting better. We had tried some Neosporin, but it wasn’t doing the job. The previous night, I had researched our possibilities for medical care in this rural area. We had decided to begin with First Aid at the Park, in case they might be able to quickly help us get the care Haley needed. One of the Park Rangers called in an EMT. We waited for a bit until she arrived, but unfortunately, she did not think she had anything she could offer to Haley and suggested that we go to a medical clinic just outside the Park. Fortunately, it was outside in the western direction, which didn’t involve returning to the rim of the canyon. I had identified this the night before and knew that by coming into the Park, we would also be heading in the direction of this medical clinic, in case the Park sent us there.
Zion Medical Clinic, on Lion Blvd in Springdale, lies less than a mile to the west of Zion National Park. It sits behind the post office and next to the library, just beyond Zion Adventure Company, which runs rafting trips and ATV rides and other fun activities. The Clinic is in a permanently installed trailer, and is open 5 days a week in the summertime, but only 2-3 days a week in the winter. The Clinic is staffed by a physician’s assistant, Michael McMahan and his receptionist/assistant. We were so impressed by the care we received. Mike is laid back and funny. He is an excellent communicator, explaining everything he did as he went along. He spoke directly with Haley, explaining when something would hurt and when it wouldn’t. He ended up doing a little mini-surgery on Haley’s leg, lancing the wound, draining it, and dressing it. We left after about 30 minutes with a prescription for an oral anti-biotic that will hopefully kick the infection. Mike was conservative in his approach to treating Haley. He gave us options and offered his opinion and advice. He gave us specific instructions about how to help Haley’s leg heal. If you ever need medical care near Zion National Park, go to Zion Medical Clinic. They will serve you well.
While Haley and I got her leg treated, Hal and the boys scouted lunch spots and checked out the little town of Springdale. It is a sweet little town of cafes and restaurants and cabins and spas. If Zion Mountain Ranch weren’t such a wonderful place to be, I would consider staying in Springdale. We stopped at Cafe Soleil for lunch. A fancy coffee, continental breakfast, and casual lunch place, we enjoyed wraps, deli sandwiches, and even a grilled cheese. I had the most amazing High Mountain Huckleberry Soda by Jackson Hole Soda. If you ever have the opportunity to, have one. You’ve never tasted anything like it. Heaven in a bottle.
By now, it was about 4:00 pm and we headed back in to the Park. I’ve mentioned that we’re pretty laid back about our travels. We weren’t phased at all by our late arrival. In fact, as we pulled in and there were plenty of parking spots, Hal quipped that 4:08 was the perfect time to arrive at a national park; the parking lot was emptying, leaving us plenty of spots near the Visitors Center.
We figured out where to get the shuttle bus and hopped on as quickly as we could. We ended up taking the bus all the way to the end and then back to the Visitors Center, arriving about 9:00 pm. In those five hours, we got on and off the bus a few times: once or twice just to check out the canyon, once to go to the Museum and watch a 22 minute movie about how the canyon was created, and once to hike a trail up to some waterfalls and pools.
The Lower Emerald Pools Trail was paved. To my great pleasure, we found some Golden Columbine up near the falls. The landscape is fascinating in Zion Canyon. As the movie says, a “river runs through it.” Millions of years ago, there were sandstone cliffs that the Virgin River gradually wore away.
Today, the banks of the river are sandy, even seeming like a beach in some places. Cacti grow in the sandy areas, while pine forests grow further up. We were quite surprised to see two rattlesnakes very close to the trails we were hiking, one down near the river. We got a few good photos and retrieved the children’s shoes from nearby one rattlesnake while they waded in the river.
Zion was originally settled by Mormons. Zion is a Hebrew word meaning “dry place” or “barren place” and was the name given to the fortress that sat on the location that eventually became Jerusalem. Zion has come to mean a place of security and tranquility, inside the fortress walls. It has also become a name for Jerusalem itself, as well as the People of Israel. The Mormon settlers chose the name for this area well. It is a dry place of refuge and tranquility. It has both the barren qualities of the desert, and also the peaceful qualities of a river valley. The faith of these settlers is evident in many of the names they gave to the land forms. These three peaks are together called the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Other areas are called Cathedral Mountain, the Great White Throne, Tabernacle Dome, East & West Temples, the Altar of Sacrifice, and the Pulpit.
The Mormons who originally came to the area were looking for good farming land. Some settled in the river valley, farming the land near the river. With the sandy soil and the harsh weather, they did not find farming to be particularly successful in the area. They clearly appreciated the beauty, though, and the name they gave to the area was eventually adopted when the Teddy Roosevelt made it a national park.
My mother reminded me the other day of something I’d been meaning to mention about national parks. “America’s Best Idea,” they are called. I imagine there are a number of features that emanate from land being named as a national park. There are two issues in particular that have struck me. One is public access, and the other is what I’ll call preservation. I recall as a child with extended family in both Chicago and Michigan, driving around the east side of Lake Michigan, trying to get a glimpse of the lake. With a grateful hat tip to those friends and family who own lake or ocean-front property and share it with us, it is a wonderful thing for those of us who may never own beachfront land to have the opportunity to get to it without trespassing on someone’s property. It makes me grateful for Warren Dunes and ocean access on the Jersey Shore, as well as for National Parks. They sit on some of the most beautiful land in the country and anyone can go there. That is a good thing.
We have been struck on this trip that by setting aside National Parks, this land has been protected and preserved so that industry and other development has been held at bay. We have driven through areas with similar terrain, just outside of national parks. Smokestacks and run-down gas stations and row after row of shops clutter these areas, distracting from the mountains and the rock formations, and driving away the wildlife. National Parks have preserved some of the beauty in our country that our need to make a living would likely have consumed gradually over the years. Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt and all who worked to preserve this beautiful land. You did a good thing.
A little river mishap led to a very wet 9 year old, which changed our plans a bit. We did some clothes-drying with the power dryers in the bathroom and then got back on the bus to finish out our bus ride. The sun was setting as we made the return trip to the Visitors Center. We saw a number of mule deer, about 20 turkey, and even a little gray fox as we finished out our day in the Park.
Familiar with Springdale now, and recognizing that we might not get back to the Ranch before the dining room closed for dinner, we headed back to a restaurant we had noticed that only served breakfast and dinner: the Spotted Dog Cafe. The Cafe was still hopping at 9:30 pm and we enjoyed a quiet meal with amazing desserts: home-made chocolate mousse and panna cotta with fresh strawberries and a balsamic dressing. Oh my! Do stop in at the Spotted Dog and Cafe Soleil if you are ever in Springdale. Both are excellent restaurants.
With Springdale on the west side of the Park and Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side, we needed to head all the way back through the Park and up the canyon to get home for the night. We discovered something interesting: you don’t need to pay to get into the Park at night. I’m not sure when this starts, but we breezed through the guard station without showing our pass. And what a drive this was at night. Pitch-black, windy, narrow roads made for quite a ride. I think I averaged about 25 mph the entire 12 miles, spending most of the time going 20 mph up the switchbacks. Having driven these cliffs in the daytime, it was something to round these tight curves, looking out in the blackness and knowing how far below the canyon floor lay.
We settled in to our cabin at Zion Mountain Ranch, exhausted from a full day and glad to have taken care of Haley’s leg, which was beginning to feel much better.