“Why did it take us so long to visit Utah?”
It’s a question Tony & I asked one another repeatedly and incredulously during our four days roadtripping and national park hopping through the state. Each time one of us asked it, the other would shrug and guiltily mumble the word “Mormons” before hastily pointing to the next jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista in a bid to change the subject and make up for so much wasted time.
I like to think I’m a pretty open-minded person, but if I’m being totally honest, prior to planning our road trip down to Mexico, I never once considered visiting Utah during my seven-year stint living in the U.S. If you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t considered visiting it either, since the state’s close ties to Mormonism tends to overshadow nearly everything else. Before visiting Utah, the name alone conjured up images of suspiciously large families, extreme religious fundamentalism, and buttoned-up backwater cults that I admit came largely from the tv show Big Love and John Krakauer’s book chronicling the violent and destructive history of the Mormon faith, Under the Banner of Heaven.
Now that I’ve visited, however, when I think of Utah, my heart flutters and my eyes get moony. I think of prehistoric red rock canyons and fairyland hoodoos and majestic stone arches standing against a backdrop of icy blue skies and snow-capped mountains. I think of a place where the air is sweet and clean. I think of one of the prettiest places I have ever been.
Despite all of its religious associations, the bulk of our time in Utah was surprisingly (blessedly? Ha!) secular. There were a few subtle influences here and there—driving through some small towns on Sunday, most business were shut up tight; beer prices in Moab were quite high; and the beehives on the state highways are a nod to the original name given to the state by Mormon settlers, Deseret, which is an ancient word meaning “honeybee” according to the Book of Mormon—but most of them would only ping your “Mormon radar” if you were actively looking for them. And, to be perfectly frank, if you’re spending your visit focusing on the Mormon slant, I’d argue that your priorities are messed up! We were so busy being flabbergasted by the scenery that it didn’t take very long for our prejudices to melt away.
On our final day in Utah, we made our way to Zion National Park, and it was perhaps the perfect blend of what this state is really about: a showcase of its stunning scenery as well as our most overt exposure to its religious ties.
When Mormon farmers first settled here in the mid 1800s, they named the area Kolob after the heavenly place in their scripture that is the nearest earthly abode of God; though the park was renamed Zion (itself a reference to a place of peace in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon) when it was established as a National Park by the United Sates government in 1919, to this day, a northwestern section of the park is still named Kolob Canyons and one of the most famous geological formations in the park is termed “The Court of the Patriarchs”, a trio of sandstone peaks each named after figures from the old testament: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Mount Moroni (the name of an angel from the Book of Mormon) also sits amongst them.
We saw these peaks as we drove through Zion Canyon (during the winter season, traffic is light enough that they allow private vehicles through the canyon, a boon to us as it meant the dogs were able to enjoy the sights alongside us), gazing up at them in wonder and trying our best to capture their grand majesty with our tiny cameras. But truly, Zion is not one of those places even the loveliest of photos can truly do justice to. It’s so big and sweeping, from its rocks to its rivers, that a picture will only ever capture a speck of that.
Zion is a hiker’s paradise and it’s generally accepted that the best way to experience and appreciate the park is by tackling some of its trails. Alas, only one path is dog-friendly and all the others required a time investment that we didn’t feel comfortable with as they would require leaving the dogs alone in the car for hours—something we simply weren’t comfortable doing. Moreover, many of the hikes at Zion are quite challenging and are doubly so in the winter when ice and wet rock result in slippery surfaces, so many of the trails were still closed for the season. Maybe one day we’ll return and tackle some of the more famous trails, but on this go around, we were happy to do a portion of the riverside walk along the Virgin River at the end of the canyon, and then took the pups for a lunchtime stroll down the Pa’rus trail.
Here, walking this trail, we learned firsthand—much like the Mormon farmers before us —just how harsh and inhospitable the land in this area can be: Although they had to contend with poor soil and little arable land as well as flash floods, we had high temperatures and prickly cactus thorns to pluck from tender puppy paws to deal with. For a place named for peace, Zion is clearly a harsh, yet beautiful, mistress.
Still, gazing up at the towering stone walls, variegated in shades of burnt orange, blond and beige, a fortress carved by the passage of time, I was acutely aware of what those pilgrims who came before us must have felt and why they tried to make a go of it here, despite the odds. I felt the wind rustle my hair and heard the susurrus of the river, lapping over stones and rolling on and on as it has for millennia. I slipped my free hand into Tony’s, tilted my face up into the golden glow of the sun, warming us from so very high in the sky, and thought, “If ever there were a place to be close to God, even for two nonbelievers like us, this must surely be it.”
Now it’s your turn! Tell Us: Have you ever visited Utah? If so, what did you think of it? If not, what’s been holding you back? Have our photos of Zion changed your mind?