When I was last here in late spring of 1998 the Virgin River was overflowing with fast-moving murky brown water from recent heavy rains, making any attempt to hike up The Narrows an impossibility. I spent most of my time camped under the impressive gaze of The Watchman, lost in thought, writing in notebooks, relaxed in the majesty and serenity of the park. And while The Watchman, The East Temple, The Sentinel, and all the other sovereigns of Zion remain as mighty and stoic as always, everything at their feet has changed dramatically in the intervening years.
With upwards of three million visitors coming through the park annually, it had become impossible to navigate the canyon’s tiny highway. In the years after my last visit, the park disallowed private vehicles north of the Zion – Mt. Carmel highway, requiring visitors to take park-run shuttles; a smart move, but it didn’t lessen how crowded Zion still feels. Tour buses, shuttle buses, and people by the thousands flocked into the park on the first day we were there, and even though we arrived fairly early every corner of the park was humming loudly with activity.
By sheer coincidence we bumped into a friend while waiting for the shuttle to take us up the canyon; one of those great by-fate encounters that afforded a few brief moments to catch up before our shuttle pulled out. Crowded alongside dozens of day-trippers, we hopped off only a few stops up the road, deciding to enjoy the day walking next to the Virgin River on The Grotto side before meandering our way up and over both water and road for a short hike up Emerald Pool Trails. We considered hiking up to Angel’s Landing, but the number of people pouring up and down the trail, along with the noon-day sun pounding down, convinced us to continue up the canyon to Weeping Rock, and then farther north to the Temple of Sinawava in the hopes we’d be able to hike a few kilometers up The Narrows. But the walk up the river trail, and having to fight kids in strollers and other assorted groups of visitors, dampened our attitude. By the time Riverside Walk ended and we had set foot in the Virgin River at the mouth of The Narrows, endless hordes of people were flowing in and out, up and down, and coming and going from every direction, leaving us decidedly dejected about the “nature” we were experiencing.
It felt like we were at Disneyland. In fact, there really wasn’t much difference between that amusement park and this one. The Matterhorn replaced by the very real Mountain of Mystery, and throngs of park goers lining up for a ride (or a hike, as the case might be). We beat a hasty and unhappy retreat back down the canyon and to our hotel in Springdale.
The Majestic View Lodge claims to have its own brewery, but I’m unable to confirm its existence. What I can say is that the lodge’s “bar” looks and feels like an abandoned dining room at Sizzler… but with less décor and appeal. There is a physical bar with tap handles, and behind them in a display case were bottles of wine alongside, rather oddly, a cheese grater, and when our server finally decided to appear after a very long wait, I asked what vintage the cheese grater was. She seemed a bit flummoxed, possibly not understanding the context, but I was unsure if it was because of the question or due to the fact there were real live people in a bar, in Utah, wanting to be served. Utah’s draconian liquor laws required that we ordered food in order to be served alcohol (even if it’s watered down 3.2 beer), so a plate of “chips and salsa,” more plain than the room we were in, was served up in order so two beers could be poured. The price of the chips and salsa alone would be more than the cost of our beers.
All was not lost on the drink and dining front, however. We enjoyed a lovely meal later that evening at the Bit and Spur Saloon, along with a drink afterwards in their proper bar (no chips and salsa required). In the morning, we breakfasted at The Parkhouse Café before making our way up to Kolob Canyons in the park’s northwest corner en route to Cedar Breaks National Monument. While Zion is still an unbelievably beautiful place, and one that I recommend visiting, the crush of the hordes mixed with Utah’s arcane drinking laws makes me wonder if it’s going to be another decade-plus before I again return.