How the West won me – Utah and Zion National Park

How the West won me – Utah and Zion National Park

The megalithic Salt Lake Temple of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was illuminated in the night when I landed. ‘Stay clear of the polygamists,’ had been my mum’s parting words at Manchester Airport. Up to this point I didn’t even know SLC was the famous home of the Mormons; honestly I didn’t even know what a Mormon was – weren’t they playing to sell out crowds in the West End?


Kari, Livi and I had found ourselves captives of Koh Tao’s drinking and diving, Neverland bubble more than two years ago. We developed a strong bond in the liquid haze of the islands fluid interpretation of time. Livi and I eventually moved on to the far flung reaches of Asia and Kari flew back to the States. We stayed in touch, floating the idea of dive trips but nothing materialised.


Until it did…


The oily innards of engine machinery were exposed on the car that pulled up before me at the airport. Peering through a windscreen, scarred with far too many radiating cracks, I hoped that Kari wasn’t the driver; here to pick me up in a bonnet-less car.  I was nervous that after 2 years we would be awkward, tiptoeing around each other with nothing to talk about. At least I now had a conversation starter when I climbed, relieved, into her (intact) Jeep.


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In the early morning we descended from the brusque air of Utah’s mountains and onto the blistered planes of its endless deserts.


5 hours later we turned off the relentless grey concrete highway onto a snake of bitumen. I felt like we’d entered cowboy country. We meandered around mountain bases and twisted up their striated, red sides. Dust and desert stretched in every direction, ragged outcrops of rock and layered plateaus forming deep valleys which held no promise of water. This was McCarthy’s West; untamed by man’s hand; wolves and bandits actualising out of shadows cast by rocks stained with ancient blood.




Virgin and Kolob Canyon


The canvas homes of our glamp-site nestled in a patch of greenery at the back perimeter of otherwise dusty Virgin. These tents were pure luxury; indulgently soft beds, BBQ’s and fire pits and a communal barn decorated by an insane yet skilful hand – and there was even a pet goose! Scott and Ken (the owners) greeted us with wine, cheese and grapes picked from their own vines, accompanied by sordid tales of cowboys and movie stars who’ve left sticky fingerprints on Virgins history.




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We headed up into Kolob Canyon for the sunset following a trail head into the surprisingly forested desert ahead, entering ‘Zion Wilderness’. We didn’t get far before we thought better of our adventure, not wanting to risk our path finding skills in the dark.


The prehistoric spines of two steep ridges hemmed us in on each side, their porous material, the thirsty foliage and dirt soaked up most noise. Shafts of sunlight picked out golden highlighted sand particles dusted against the streaks of deep autumn russets and dried blood browns. Finding your senses so free of urban violation in that wilderness is a gift to treasure on return to town life. The monstrous scale of the emptiness echoing around the landscape, tearing at rugged edges is something unimaginable, especially for a small town girl from Gloucestershire, where all savage, untameable spirits were hunted down long ago.


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Observation Point Hike


The next day, we ventured into Zion proper, boarding the free 6am shuttle from Springdale deep into the Canyon, stopping at Weeping Rock. Angel’s Landing had been our planned route, but due to the recent storms it was closed during our visit. We began the climb for Observation Point instead; 2300ft of elevation for a magnificent view across the high, thickly forested mesa with naked, vertical sides plummeting to the luscious green trace of the Virgin River beneath.


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Echo Canyon was a lazy wander up the first set of switchback paths and past the crest of the first hill. Suddenly you are no longer atop an exposed outcrop but hemmed in by steep, blood red walls liquid with the morning’s last shadows. Fluid curves caressed into the wall by ancient waters, shepherded us along the track; that powerful stream now no more than a muddy puddle, drained by summer’s thirsty heat. My imagination was fired by the unnatural shapes, smoothed like wet clay revolving on some errant potter’s wheel; distracted finger strokes leading the malleable material astray.


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Re-emerging on the cliff face, the switch-backs were steeper and we were now racing against the sun; even in the shade the heat was becoming unbearable. We sped up, with little chatter and regular gulps of rapidly warming water. We lusted for the shade of the forested mesa above. Even at the coolest time of day our water only just lasted; so many people starting as we finished had just a small bottle of water, I could see the dehydration waiting to devour them.


A volunteer Park Ranger, fresh from loo-roll picking (In arid areas where moisture is scarce, loo roll doesn’t break down, so make sure to take it away with you!) greeted us at the top with a talk on North America’s biggest bird – the Condor. Roy gathered us around his booted feet. We looked up his bandy legs to a leathered, aged man with a cheeky glint in his eye – he didn’t look far from a bird himself!


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A rocky outcrop marked the end of the mesa with a vertical drop, perfect for the obligatory ‘legs over the edge’ shot! At this time there were only about 5 other hikers sharing the view with us. The Sun tumbled down one cliff face and brought to life the valley beneath us, the characters of individual shadows breaking free of the greater gloom. Angel’s Landing was far below us and, although I’d like to have boasted about the dangerous climb, our higher vantage point had an undeniably better view.


On the way back down, the sun had bleached Echo Canyon to coppery oranges and dusty reds, softening its beauty without diminishing it. I lingered in the shade, trying to imprint the colours and shapes upon my memory; my photography skills not even close to the task of capturing it.


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Grafton Ghost Town


Grubby and smelly, we roused the ghosts of Grafton – a polygamist settlement drowned in the late 1800’s by the Virgin’s spilling waters. My favourite film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, had been shot here; Butch’s tyre tracks long swallowed by the ground and the notes of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head’ scattered by the breeze.art3


A dusty track, ground into undulating rock and over a half collapsed earth bridge, brought us to ‘Grafton Cemetery’. Bruised headstones and weathered wooden crosses grew from the naked earth, huddled together in a fenced corral, battling time and the creatures that live in such lonely places. Each was branded with the name of the body slumbering beneath the humped earth. A squat monument, caged in with a further layer of fencing, proclaimed its cargo to have been slain by ‘Indians’. Perhaps this extra defence was necessary in the spiritual lands still ruled by Native Americans. The wooden stakes had been repaired recently, erect in crass contrast to the outer fence, a desiccated hull, rasped by the sandy wind.


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Those stubborn souls who settled for a hard life on the flood plane were yet to be forgotten; fresh flowers on the graves exposed those who visited in morning.


The skeleton of Grafton itself was another five minutes from the resting place of its inhabitants. Seeing the lush meadows, hemmed in by ancient but maintained wooden fences, you could believe the land was still worked.  Seven or so scattered houses, repainted and refurbished, gave the illusion of life; isolated but persisting. Upon inspection they were nothing but hollow carcasses, dirtied by animal droppings and dead flies massacred in clotted silk webs.


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Kari and I were the only ones around, but the depressing history of the drowned Mormon community was carried on freak draughts inside the empty homes and underfoot wood groaned to protest our trespassing. One house contained a secret loft space with a small window gaping at the sunshine. We could find no passage up from below, no matter how hard we searched. A swing shifted in the breeze outside, now hung far too high for a child to reach, we leapt up to have a go, ducking so as not to graze our scalps on the gnarled and scabbed supporting branch.


The homes have been repaired by the Grafton Heritage Partnership and the place holds an annual Grafton Reunion for the descendants of the settlers. Restoration has banished phantoms to the silted cellars and dark corners come day-break. Whilst you shouldn’t expect the thrilling, frozen-in-time drama of Bodie, the old Gold Rush town in California, I wouldn’t visit at night as our hosts had recommended!


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The Great Arch


Wine in hand, we soaked away the dust of Grafton and the morning’s aches in the pool at our camp site. Sufficiently refreshed we headed back into Zion for our final sunset in the national park.


Taking the right turn at Canyon Junction we entered an offshoot of Zion Canyon. Ahead of us, the walls rolled inward and met. An enormous arch was formed in the rock; a stable section left proud when weaker material had fallen away below. Blocked by vertical rock on three sides, it looked like the only way was back.


In the 1930’s a road had been carved out with increasingly steep switch backs up the side of the valley and then dug into the wall of the Canyon to create the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. We were about to drive right into the rock face and travel through a vein just below the wall’s surface. Occasional windows cut into the rock revealed what a thin layer separated us from the vertical drop.


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The tunnel was so curious that we passed through it 4 times! (Actually this was just because a Californian family stole our parking spot and we were obliged to carry on back through the tunnel before we could turn around again!)


A short trail whose edges were visibly gnawed at by the steep ravine, took us to a viewpoint perched atop the Great Arch. Despite there being about 20 people peering precariously over the edge, you could see nothing of them from the road below, the platform was so high!


Arriving well before sunset, we began people-watching. An adventurous couple posed for a wedding photo-shoot, the bride in sturdy hiking boots, mucky against the delicate hems of her white dress. A rather less professional, pyjama clad boy was snapping his Asian girlfriend nudging her ever closer to the cliff edge, prompting high pitched squeals of protest. The afore mentioned Californian family even hailed me with calls of ‘OAKTOWN’ upon noticing my Oakland Raiders shirt. I felt I had to let my fellow Raider Nation members off the hook for nabbing our parking space.


The sunset was dazzling – literally dazzling when as the sun sank to eye level, catching and refracting on the thick particles in the air it hazed the entire view.  Once the opposite canyon wall began to blot the excess light, the colours of the valley deepened and the view became spectacular. Except for the small black spot that marked its entrance, there was no visible sign of the tunnel only just beneath the cliff’s scarred skin. We were oblivious to the hidden roar of engines and the valley remained calm, unspoiled.


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Getting to Observation Point before any light had penetrated the shadows of night would have been tricky and a little dangerous, so I’m glad we had chance to watch twilight reclaim the land at the tail end of the day.


Monroe’s Mystic Hot Springs


The next sunrise saw us back on the highway North. A dip in the lake at Sand Hollow State Park, a gorgeous pizza at Centro Wood-Fired Pizzeria in Park City and then a long drive ahead with just one more adventure in store.


Almost half way home we pulled off Highway 15 and headed deep into the mountains towards the isolated town of Monroe.


I know you can’t trust vaguely racist, disgruntled and incredibly paranoid neighbours, but there never is any smoke without fire. And what the old lady told us of her neighbours at the Mystic Hot Springs certainly rang true with the aura of the place.


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A collection of decaying buses and trucks, overflowing with boxes of odd items and moth eaten furniture filled the spring’s car park. The building rambled into the hillside, with mostly boarded up windows and a grimy, bone dry swimming pool hidden behind a rusty, chicken wire fence – all far too big for a business running just seven bath tubs and a pool of thermal mineral water.


We had to check in with names and email addresses at the hippy shop in the front of this complex. The three or four people who greeted us and took our money seemed to be evidence of a bustling community. It definitely felt like there was much more going on behind the thick curtain drapes and plywood boards. ‘My Favourite Murder’ (our soundtrack on the road) had undeniably prepped my imagination to see signs of a sinister cult or a hide-out for murderers and molesters; but something definitely did not feel right about the building or the people.


Seven bath tubs had been set into the hill face, positioned to collect the 75°C flow of mineral water painting its orange path. The baths have been consumed by the hillside through years of calcium build up. At the highest end of town the mountain breeze cools exposed limbs whilst you contemplate the isolation of life in the settlement below. Founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, seeking isolation beyond the reach of persecution, you couldn’t help thinking that others had secretly migrated here looking for the same thing.

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I was impatient to explore the ramshackle Pioneer Town we’d seen on our way in. Whether these really were LDS pioneer homes or had been moved here by Mike (The Mystic Springs’ owner) to be refurbished as rentable cabins wasn’t very clear. Their state of decay would put anyone in their right mind off renting them; in fact they were rented to those out of their mind on meth, sourced from a mobile home across the road and recently raided by the FBI. Most had no windows and yawning holes in their wooden sides. Propped up on corner blocks, most floors had given way, as had a few of the roofs. The healthiest looking were strewn with rotten sofas and distressed beds, springs ripping through the mattress threads. The dust was thick and cloying.


I rummaged through each and every building, squeezing open the doors on rusted hinges and treading carefully on the heaving floor boards. Beneath one house was a dead cat, bleached bones exhibited through ragged clumps of rancid fur. I hoped for a glimpse of authentic pioneer life but besides some scraps of unaccountable fabric, there was nothing inside the buildings that couldn’t have been thrown in recently.


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The suspicious neighbour was monitoring our car, ready to request (at first with hostility) we that we didn’t post any of the photos we’d taken online. Her house had been robbed 6 times in the last couple of years by people who used these photos to get the layout of the property. Her view of Mike and his commune at the springs was less than complimentary; they were responsible for the ransacking of her home, regularly cutting off her water supply and poisoning the flowers she’d now given up on in her garden. They wanted her land to expand onto. It was a very plausible story.


A car pulled up alongside us. Rolling down the window, the man at the wheel silently surveyed our small gathering at the perimeter of her property. After shouting a hostile ‘hello’ that we didn’t respond to, he repeated himself then drove on. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled; neither of us wanted to be here come darkness so we made our hurried goodbyes before we could be sucked further into any conspiracies, or kidnapped by some as yet undiscovered cult. We’d caught the scent of a true American back country story and no way were we going to be the characters you shout at on screen, “Don’t go in there!”; We’d already turned tails and run.


Origonal Artwork by Aaron Lee (@aaron_illustration)


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1 thought on “How the West won me – Utah and Zion National Park”

  • Wow! I’ve had a very exciting breakfast read accompanying you on your travels. Would most love to have been in the narrow water-worn canyon – physical geography showing its sculptural power up close & personal. Beautifully evocative writing Hannah.

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