The desert doesn’t tug at my heartstrings as the mountains do. I prefer more green in my landscapes, and I’m not enamored with the heat – even the dry heat. But, every new place has a personality, surprises, and lessons to teach. With that in mind, I boarded a plane for a week in St. George, Utah, just outside of Zion National Park.
After a full night’s rest, I drove up to Kolob Canyons, the northern, far less-visited entrance to Zion National Park. I asked the park ranger at the ticket window, “If I’m lucky, what kind of wildlife will I see?” firmly believing in my luck. “Lots of birds, porcupines, and tarantulas,” she replied without skipping a beat. Porcupines? in the desert? I never would’ve guessed. I’m super excited now.
Before leaving the parking area, I looked for tarantulas. The ranger said they like to hang around here. “Under rocks?” I inquired. “No, just out in the open.” I didn’t see any. I topped off my water and headed for the Taylor Creek Trail. It’s a five-mile out and back trail along the creek, promising green trees, water, and shade. Descending the trailhead steps at 10 am, it’s a comfortable 82 degrees with a surprisingly cool breeze that will persist refreshingly into the heat of the afternoon.
Taylor Creek Trail
The trailhead sign instructs:
- Bring 2 quarts of water per person
- Turn around when you’ve finished half of your water.
- Be aware that there are 100 steps back to the parking lot; while you may be able to climb ten flights of stairs at home, the altitude (5500 feet) and heat may sap your strength.
- And general precautions about lightning, flash floods, and a simple note that mountain lions, who are “wild and dangerous,” have been seen in the park.
A lizard greets me at the bottom of the steps, reluctant to leave his place in the sun for a mere human. I gave him a wide berth so he could conserve his energy.
Cottonwoods line the meandering, shallow, rocky, red sand creek. The trail crosses back and forth across the stream many times with a gentle slope down across the water and back up each time.
It’s a relatively heavily trafficked trail (by wilderness standards, not by Zion standards. It’s the third most visited US National park), and I notice that I’m the only one wearing sandals (Teva hiking sandals). Everyone else has on hiking shoes or boots despite the thirty or so river crossings. What do they know that I don’t? Is it about the tarantulas?
Rounding a bend, I see a sheer striated rock wall rising toward the sky in all of the hues of orange; burnt umber, auburn, rust, sienna, ochre, and bronze. This land was (and is) being shaped by the Hurricane Fault.
Geologic plates push the earth upwards, creating deep clefts and ridges in the landscape at the edge of the Colorado Plateau. This geologically active area most recently resulted in a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in the area in 1992. The land is being continually transformed.
A fat, juicy green caterpillar as thick as my thumb is crawling onto the sandy path. What is a creature like that doing in the dry desert? Burying itself in the cool sand to escape the heat of the day, it turns out. I sat and watched the slow, methodically undulations of this Western Poplar Sphinx caterpillar as it buried itself. First, it used its head to sweep the sand side to side, creating a bit of a depression, and then contracted its body to worm a few millimeters into the sand and then repeat. Several hikers passed me inquiring what I was watching and then proceeding ahead with quizzical expressions.
Butterflies flock to this desert oasis on their migrations south; yellow, comma, swallowtails, monarchs.
There are short bushes with small oak leaves (I’d later learn these are Lobed Gambel Oaks) and stands of maples, too. About a mile in is a wonderfully weathered homestead cabin built in the 1930s. I stopped to peek in the windows and marvel and the skill of the builders.
I even spotted a few mushrooms and patches of wildflowers along this path. Like I said at the outset, every place has surprises and lessons to teach.
It’s more of a slow meander than a hike. The creek canyon grows narrower and steeper the farther I walk.
In two hours, I’ve gone two miles, and I’ve finished my first bottle of water. So, 0.5miles short of the end of the trail and the double-arch grotto, I turned back. It was getting hotter. Back at the parking lot at 1 pm, it’s 92 degrees.
I drove deeper into the park up the snaking Kolob Canyon road. Every pull-out has more spectacular views than the last; hanging gardens, caves, and dry waterfalls.
At the end of the road and the top of the canyon is the View Point Trail. At 6000 feet elevation, this trail is in full sun with 125 stairs, and there are no warnings at this trailhead. Out here, you’re on your own. (To be fair, the steps are on the way in and not a potential barrier to returning to the parking lot, which is a half-mile from the viewpoint and all downhill).
It’s a different ecosystem up here; sagebrush desert, cacti, Utah junipers, and occasional bristlecone pine (the world’s oldest trees) providing a bit of shade. There are scrub jays and juniper galls that look like flowers, all manner of prickly pears, and unique lichen patterns on every rock.
A raven soars past the lookout point at eye level and an unexpected swallow shot by. This vista features a 270-degree view of the Kolob Canyons, the distant Zion east entrance, and the high desert wilderness to the west, where I’m sure mountain lions safely roam.
This has been an educational and surprising wander through the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park. A thoroughly enjoyable day.
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