Zion National Park draws international (shoe) soles

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Zion National Park continues to secure a top spot in attendance among the country’s national parks while offering a variety of activities to visitors of all nationalities and ages.

The park is located in an oasis-like valley that’s carved in the red rock canyons by the winding Virgin River. It averages close to 3 million visitors a year, and attendance is projected to rise in 2014. Adventure-seekers and tourists from around the world continue to visit the park for its incredible views and to experience all the different recreational activities it offers.

For Mike Large, lead ranger and member of the Division of Interpretation and web team of Zion National Park, Zion became more than a visiting place when he fell in love with the area and relocated to work at the park in 1991.

“Like those Mormon farmers in the 1860’s, I found my Zion,” Large said, explaining his exodus from northern to southern Utah.

Large and other Zion rangers lead hikes, tours, evening programs and help at the visitor center and museum information desks.

“I love working in Zion National Park,” Large said. “Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but I get to meet some of the most amazing people in the world.”

Zion’s staff offer activities for tourists of all ages. Rangers guide families and park visitors on hikes and trails, where they can learn more about wildlife, the history of the park and the stories of its early beginnings.

To those seeking adventure and breathtaking views, Large said, “It is often said that Zion is five parks in one.”

Activities range from canyoneering, rock climbing, more than two dozen different hiking trails, swimming and relaxing in the Virgin River, biking, running, photography, guided trails and tours and camping.

Of the millions of visitors who come to Zion each year, the majority come from California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. However, Zion is literally a place for the gathering of nations.

“We estimate that 40 percent of our visitors are from foreign countries,” Large said. “The most come from Germany, England, France, Italy, Canada and increasingly China. We get lots of tour bus groups from South Korea and Japan as well.”

While the government shutdown in late 2013 left turned-away visitors angry and confused, “the park is already seeing about a 20 percent increase in attendance so far this year,” Large said.

Perhaps the most popular attractions and activities offered at the park are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.

Zion officials describe Angel’s Landing as a “strenuous” hike that is not suggested for people with a fear of heights. However, the beautiful views of the canyon offer a worthy reward for those who brave the climb. In just two and a half miles, hikers climb close to 1,500 feet. The last half mile of the hike consists of climbing up the side of the final rock structure to meet the long-awaited peak with its gorgeous views.

This final stretch makes the first two miles of switchbacks feel like child’s play as hikers hold fast to the chains that lead to the top of the rock’s peak. At some points, the difference between the hiker and the 1,500-foot drop is only a foot or two.

Hundreds ascend the peak each day, while others choose to watch those courageous and adventurous enough to climb the last half-mile stretch up the steep rock with the help of chains. Neil Rosenthal, a senior citizen who was on vacation from northern New York with his son, said the final part of the climb was “a bit too much for me to handle.”

Rosenthal had climbed the first two miles of the trail and chose to enjoy the view from a resting place labeled “Scout Lookout” as his son continued on to the trail’s end.

“I don’t have that great of balance, plus my legs aren’t what they used to be 30 years ago,” Rosenthal said. “Sometimes it takes a little humility to know when to stop.”

For those who continue on the trek, they explained the final stretch looks far more intimidating than it actually is.

“It’s really not that bad,” said Jacob Cusworth, a junior at BYU. “The view from the bottom of the chains looks a lot worse than it actually is, plus the view from the top is stunning and absolutely worth the climb.”

Large suggested climbing the trail as early as possible to beat the heat of the day. Shuttles to park attractions start transporting visitors up the canyon as early at 6:00 a.m.

The Narrows is a hike through the canyon carved by the Virgin River. Hikers meander through the slow current of the river and the cool, clear river water. This trail is perfect for adventure-seekers looking for a little less danger and strain to satisfy their needs.

There are multiple small stretches of beach that visitors can rest and eat lunch on before continuing their journey. This hike offers stunning views of the high canyon walls and water to cool one down from the beating sun.

These attractions are only two of the dozens offered at the park. Those planning their trip can visit the park’s website to learn more about the activities they’d like to do and how to best prepare in anticipation for a vacation in Zion.

Much more than an international getaway, Zion is a perfect weekend trip for Northern Utah residents and students.

“I was able to do Angel’s Landing, The Narrows and cliff jump all in one day,” said Thayne Arbon, a Utah Valley University student and Provo resident. “We drove down here just for the weekend, and it’s been amazing.”

The state of Utah and the U.S. National Park Service maintain the park’s facilities and roads and its beautiful scenery and offer a free shuttle system up and down the entire canyon.

“In a lot of our ranger-led programs we tell visitors about the story of Isaac Behunin, the Mormon farmer whose home was located near the present-day Zion Lodge in 1863,” Large said. “Behunin was a bodyguard of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and had suffered religious persecution before coming to Utah. When he settled here he felt that he had found his sanctuary, which he named Zion.”

Today, millions of visitors continue to understand why the park was named Zion. Those looking for a weekend of adventure or relaxation alike are sure to find what they’re looking for.

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