Every summer I drive through the east section of Zion National Park and see people crawling all over the slickrock on the side of the road.
Often I think about stopping to join them, but a combination of the heat and the crowds (not to mention that parking spaces are extremely limited) usually stops me. But a snowy February is a perfect time to go if you're not afraid of a little snow. Last week I was on my way back from writing a small-town feature on Orderville and decided to stop and enjoy the east side of the park. Greeting me as I passed through the east entrance was the snow-covered Checkerboard Mesa, towering above the rest of the park. Pulling over at one of the first small
turnouts, I slipped on the hiking boots I keep in my car and set off through the snow. Despite snow up past my ankles, the temperature was relatively mild and my waterproof hiking boots kept my feet dry. A light breeze blew through the trees, rustling the few remaining dead leaves which hung in rusty orange shades from gray branches. Melting snow left wet trails down the salmon-colored slickrock above me as I tried to find a way out onto the rock. But a snow-covered creek stood in my way since I was unprepared to ford it in my hiking boots and jeans. The wind was strong enough to send some darker clouds speeding northeast through the overcast sky while a yellow glow broke through the clouds in the west. With the virtual absence of traffic on the nearby road, only the sound of my feet crunching through the snow could be heard until a jet passed somewhere overhead, its roar sounding more like an eerie moan
as it echoed off the sandstone cliffs. Despite the snow cover, much of the low shrub-like plant life still managed to push its way through the snow, brightening the surroundings with its deep greens. And ponderosa pines, with their distinctive vertically striped trunks, rose from both the snow and sandstone alike. Eventually I made it back to my car and headed off in search of another place to pull over and explore. In some places the melting snow trickled down in tiny, spontaneous waterfalls at the side of the road, giving the rock a deeper, richer color. Finally I found a gently sloping area of slickrock that rose up to a massive mountainside right next to the road. I pulled up behind a car with Vermont plates and noticed its occupants trekking up the side of the mountain. So I decided to try it myself. The bottom portion has the
gentlest slope and it's actually fairly easy walking as you start out. But the wind began to pick up, occasionally blowing sand right down the face of the mountain and into my eyes. Then I heard a strange rattling sound and looked down to see a round pinecone rolling down the mountainside, passing me at a fairly quick speed on its way to the bottom. Soon the grade increased and it became a little more difficult to ascend the slickrock. At times I even had to get down and pull myself up by grabbing onto the rock above me. Looking down from the top I realized that the mountainside was a bit steeper than it looked from the bottom. By that time, Spectrum photographer Christopher Onstott arrived from Orderville where he had been shooting the photos for my story. He quickly found out that hiking along the slickrock in sneakers without tread could be treacherous. After stepping into the snow, the bottoms of his
shoes became quite slick and he nearly lost his footing a couple of times.
However, I was not doing much better in my hiking boots. Apparently all of the sand did not blow down the mountain into my face because there was enough left on the rock to slip me up in places.
We decided to descend the slickrock before either of us fell off the mountain. In order to spare our knees - and possible our overall wellbeing - we chose a zigzag descent and went fairly slow. At the bottom we discovered a creek flowing along the east side of the mountain and climbed down into the small canyon to take photographs. We found that the creek actually enters a small cave and crosses under the road. Chris eventually left and headed back to St. George while I decided to explore one more area before the sun went down. Just around the next bend I saw a large waterfall that had turned to a massive
collection of huge icicles. After slogging through the snow for a few pictures I realized it was finally becoming a little too cold for comfort and decided to call it a day. Walking back to my car along the road I noticed again how quiet it was in the park on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-February. The only sound I could hear was that of my footsteps on Zion's signature maroon pavement. Apparently you don't have to go very far off the road at this time of the year to find solitude in Zion National Park.