Any visitor to Zion will tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. No matter what part of the park you see, you are sure to be treated to a feast for the eyes and the soul. But one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of outdoor exploration is that 95% of tourists will follow the same well-worn paths. They generally visit the most accessible locations, snap a few photos and then follow the crowd to the next point-of-interest. If you want to find the best stuff, talk to the locals and make a turn down “the road less traveled.”
Thankfully, most Springdale insiders are happy to share their favorite hidden gems with those looking for adventure. In fact, if you are willing to veer off of the pavement with them, some will even take you there and tell you all about it! I recently found the inside info I needed under the planning tab of ZionNationalPark.com. It led me to Zion Outback Safaris where I joined a small group from California to tour a semi-remote section of the park. This group was making its first visit to Zion, spending a week at the Hummingbird Villa, a comfortably luxurious family retreat in Springdale. They said they were having a great time, had hiked several of the spectacular trails and were looking for a way to see more of the canyon that day without using their legs as their primary mode of transportation. Sitting in a safe, comfortable seat in the back of an open-sided 4-wheel drive vehicle sounded like just the ticket. They were not disappointed.
I met Dan, the Zion Safari tour guide, at the Majestic View Lodge, and after picking up the rest of the group at the Cliffrose Lodge, we headed down the canyon toward the town of Virgin. Dan was an amazing source of interesting information, telling us about the area as we headed for the dirt-road turnoff. At Virgin, we turned right toward the Kolob Terrace section of Zion. This has always been my favorite part of Zion National Park, since it climbs to the top end of Zion Canyon, up through the twisted Utah Junipers and eventually through ancient Ponderosa forests, Quaking Aspen groves and grassy, open fields. The views from there are always amazing, and though I’ve been there many times, I never tire of the drive toward Kolob. But rather than continuing on to the top of the mountain as I had done many times before, we turned left at the Smith Mesa road. Now I was seeing familiar sites from a stunningly new perspective, experiencing Zion as a wilderness. I was seeing it without crowds, signs or structures of any kind except for an occasional distant cabin or ranch house. With each mile we traveled, I grew amazed at the incredible scenes that so few people even know about, and even fewer are able to access.
All along the way, Dan told our group about the geology, history, plants and animals that make Zion unique. After about 10 miles, we stopped for a few minutes where we could take in the entire panorama, from the Kolob Canyons to our left, to the mouth of Zion Canyon above Springdale to our right. The towering sandstone cliffs in the distance looked too perfectly arranged to be natural, almost like architectural forms or a painted backdrop for a western movie. We all appreciated the chance to stretch our legs, get to know each other better and take a few pictures. Without feeling rushed, we got back in the vehicle, excited to see what was around the next bend. A few minutes later we were getting a close-up view of ancient Anasazi pictographs painted on the wall beneath an overhang. We saw a country so rugged that it would not have surprised us to have a mountain lion, a herd of elk or a desert bighorn enter the scene. Although these animals never materialized, we did see several mule deer, hawks, and other native species.
After another spectacular stop or two, we headed down the hill, completing our scenic 30+ mile loop about a mile below the Kolob turn-off where we had been two hours previous. Within 20 minutes we were back in Springdale, just in time to find a great place to eat and watch the setting sun turn the Navajo Sandstone cliffs to flaming orange. Dan dropped everyone off at their doorsteps and said goodbye. All seemed to have had a great time, experiencing some of the best that Zion has to offer and knowing that, just as Robert Frost said in his famous poem, sometimes taking the road less traveled makes all the difference.