Utah, US: How to escape the crowds at Zion National Park

When the explorer and painter Frederick Dellenbaugh visited Zion Canyon in the summer of 1903 he captured his experience in words and on canvas. An essay, "A New Valley of Wonders", was published in Scribner's Magazine in 1904 and the artist was effusive, writing "… this immense prodigality of colour is startling, perhaps painful; it seems to the inflexible mind unwarranted, immodest, as if Nature had stripped and posed nude, unblushing before humanity".

But it was Dellenbaugh's oil paintings that, when shown at the 1904 St Louis World Fair, really drew attention. Viewers could not believe such a place existed.

The place did exist, however, and more than a century later, on a four-wheel-drive Jeep tour just outside of Zion National Park, I have my own Dellenbaugh moment. Surrounded by a landscape of mesas, with their flat tops and steep cliffs, it's a golden, otherworldly scene at sunset.

Close by, the township of Virgin near Gooseberry Mesa is host to the Red Bull Rampage, an invitation-only event in which free-riding mountain bikers find a trail down the cliffs, their canvas of sorts, in an act of derring-do. One of the 21st-century pioneers of the sport, Josh Bender, captured the spirit of the sport, declaring on one occasion, "life's too short not to go big".

We're in the land of big attractions and bumper crowds – 4.5 million in 2017 and parks closed due to vehicle congestion during holiday times – thanks to easy access to nature's wonders at Zion National Park. We've been among the holiday queues, waiting for packed shuttle buses to take visitors throughout the park from the easy Emerald Pool trails to the more challenging and sometimes treacherous Angels Landing. So I savour my quiet Dellenbaugh view just minutes outside the park, atop Wire Mesa, with just a handful of people, including our jovial driver and guide, Todd Getz.

Getz, a former pro surfer and current helicopter pilot, breaks the silence, corralling our party for a sunset photo atop the red open-top Jeep that has taken us out of the park and onto the surrounding open roads. The circuit traverses steep dirt trails and offers a different but no less thrilling chance to explore the stunning landscape and ancient terrain just outside the national park boundaries.

Strapped tight into our seats with a five-point harness, wind in our hair, we travel west from the park on State Route 9 before turning off and heading up nearly 500 metres to Hurricane Mesa. Passing the supersonic test facility once owned by the US Air Force, and its 3.6-kilometre test track which included ejection seat systems and crash test dummies (some said to be chimpanzees), we continue along Mesa Drive to Cattle Guard Lookout.

Getz tells us that it was here, at a table set with candles, that he proposed to his wife. "She said she'd have to think about it," he says of the romantic gesture.

As we survey the surrounding landscape, he tells us that "two-thirds of westerns have been filmed here including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". 

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Far beyond are the elevated slopes of the western boundary of the national park and, in the middle distance, cliffs and a corrugated landscape ripe for cowboy movie-making. Parts of Romancing the Stone and James Bond's Octopussy were also shot here.

Scattered around are stands of the squat juniper trees and the prickly pear cactus that blooms from yellow to magenta to match the iron oxide dirt .

The passing of time in years by the millions is shown in different layers and colours of rock, as a giant and ancient rainbow cake with layers of cross-bedded sandstone and its colours of salmon, red and white.

Coming off the mesa we drive east into the town of Rockville, a Mormon settlement dating back to1862 and home to a historic, single-lane Parker truss-type bridge.

Here, residents are so passionate about protecting the night sky from light pollution that there is a 60-watt limit on street lamps. There's also the Hirschi roadside produce honour-stand, started in 1977. It's said that in all its years of operation, the stand has been short by only 30¢. The shutters are closed for the evening which is disappointing as the spirit of this farming-rich region and natural wonders has taken hold. I've felt the wind in my hair and now I want to remember what it's like to taste real fruit plucked fresh from a tree; a sweet Bartlett pear or a Queen Elberta peach, perhaps. I would have even picked up half a bushel basket of pickling cucumbers from Hirschi's. After all, life's too short not to go big.

Jane Reddy was a guest of the Utah Office of Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

visitutah.com

nps.gov/zion

TOUR

A three-hour tour with Zion Jeep Tours costs from $80 an adult and $55 a child. See zionjeeptours.com

The same route can be navigated by quad bike. See Zion360tours.com

Back-country tour and helicopter flight over national park. See Zionatvjeeptours.com

DRIVE

A seven-day pass to Zion National Park in a private vehicle (up to 15 passengers) costs $35.

The annual America the Beautiful Pass costs $US80 a car and provides entry to all US National Parks.

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