Zion’s Northwest Treasure: Kolob Canyons

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Zion National Park is the stunning five-mile scenic drive into Kolob Canyons. Most people either drive right by or never take the time to head to this area. It’s a shame for them, but means less crowds for us. Kolob is home to narrow parallel box canyons, called finger canyons, cutting into the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. Glorious peaks with 2,000 foot crimson cliff walls.  The word “Kolob” is from Mormon scripture meaning “residence closest to heaven.” Let’s see for ourselves!

The Colorado Plateau (Grand Canyon Trust map) encompasses 130,000 square miles of the Four Corners areas of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. There are smaller plateaus and terraces within the different regions on the Colorado Plateau, and today we are driving the Kolob Terrace of the far west region known as High Plateaus.

We will be going up about 1,100 feet from the Visitor’s Center to the end of our 5-mile drive. The roads in Zion were historically red, but in 2005 the National Park Service repaved the roads with black asphalt. Then the complaints started coming in, “What happened to the signature red roads of Zion!?” In 2008 they began returning the roads to red. How? By resurfacing using chip sealing, which is a coating that combines oil and rock chips. In this case local volcanic red cinders were used. What do you think? I love it.

There’s a shrub which is not familiar. The woody part looks like sagebrush, which does grow here, but sagebrush has very different flowers. There’s some of those red cinders around the bush.

Looking closer at the flowers, not to mention my plant book, it turns out this is a bitterbrush, sometimes called antelope or desert bitterbrush (Purshia glandulosa).  This evergreen shrub that can grow 15 feet tall. It has a deep taproot that may extend 16 feet down, an adaptation to survive drought. We have bitterbrush at home in Montana (I thought it looked familiar), but the Montana version is deciduous and has yellow flowers (Purshia tridentata). Bitterbrush is an important browsing plant for pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, moose, mountain sheep, and domestic livestock. Come September, it composes about 91 percent of the mule deer’s diet.

This is exciting! Our first sighting of the red-rock peaks. Canyons up ahead.

To the left is Horse Ranch Mountain, the highest point in all of Zion at 8,726 feet.

It is the end of April, early spring at these elevations, between 6,500 to 7,600 feet. What are the chartreuse colored trees? Let’s stop and get a closer look.

These are Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), also called a Utah white oak or the less regal name of scrub oak. They grow all over Utah, but are particularly dense in central and south Utah at elevations between 4,000 and 8,000 feet. They do well in dry foothills, just like this area, where there is less than 25″ of rain a year. It is only the new leaves and flowers that are chartreuse. The leaves will turn dark green very soon, but come autumn they will turn bright orange or red.

Along with canyons, we also see tilted landscapes. Putting movement of landscapes over millions of years into perspective is challenging, but with Zion’s amazing formations, how can we not explore geology just a bit.

Beginning about 150 million years ago (now don’t roll your eyes) during the geologic time known as the Jurassic period, the Pacific Plate began sliding under the more buoyant North American Plate. Just like the wrinkles that form  pushing a rug along the hardwood floor into a wall, this area was squeezed, gently folded, and generally uplifted over nearly 100 million years. When such compression happens gradually enough, rocks fold in on themselves rather than fracturing. When the compression happens quickly enough, rock layers do fracture and are pushed over themselves. Remember that “gradual” and “swiftly” is still measured in hundreds of thousands of years or more. However, the result is tilted landscapes.

Paria Point, standing at 6,781 feet, forms the north wall of the canyon ahead.

The hairpin turn gives us a spectacular view of our first canyon. No time to hike today, but this trail takes you through the South Fork of Taylor Creek Canyon with Paria Point on the left and Beatty Point (7,759 feet) on the right.

We have to come back and visit the slot canyon where the trail disappears.

View from just up the road at the Lee Pass Trailhead. You can see the trail, but it follows the ridge line to the right rather than going into the finger canyon straight ahead.  What is that arrowhead shaped opening left center?

Wow! Looks like an echo chamber. You can’t see from this angle, but to get to the entrance you have to cross a serious ravine  and it is steep on all other sides. Probably why it is not on any list of hikes in Kolob and may be too difficult to attempt. It is still quite spectacular even just viewing from here.

These are just breathtaking canyons.

As we get higher, we can see the  mountains that separate the canyons. The long flat top mountain to the right is Nagunt Mesa.

They call the v-shaped area a hanging valley. You can see the long dark mineral stain down the rock which indicates that occasionally a waterfall pours over the cliff after heavy storms. Finding those waterfall tracks often indicates that there is a hanging valley above.

We are at the end of the road, but there is a short trail that takes us even higher. Timber Creek Overlook Trail is only one mile round trip, but from the end of the trail the view opens letting you see south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The stairs are a nice touch, making the climb a bit easier.

There are just all kinds of flowers in bloom.  The rough wallflower, also called a prairie rocket (Erysimum capitatum), is blooming all along the trail.

The bush pea or Zion sweet pea (Lathyrus brachycalyx) grows close to the ground, creeping along forming tangled clusters of stalks and flowers.

There’s an opening in the foliage looking west. The Pine Valley Mountain range runs 35 miles north from St. George, a Utah city that borders Arizona. Elevation of the peaks, including the highest, Signal Peak, range from 6,000 to 10,365 feet. There’s still snow even in the lower elevations. Then again it did snow in the mountains yesterday. That’s what happens during spring in the high desert.

Mountain phlox (Phlox austromontana) grow low to the ground often forming large mats. The flowers are about an inch across.

Prickly pear cactus that probably won’t bloom for another few weeks. It appears to be struggling a bit in this area, but the thorns are as tough as ever.

I think we’re almost to the end. Watch your step!

Nope, bit more of a climb with Utah juniper and pinion pines lining the trail.

Now this is spectacular. Most all the finger canyons starting from the south end of the formations (right).

The sharp spires of Shuntavi Butte at the western end of Timber Top Mountain.

And of course, looking south to the Grand Canyon about 80 miles away as the crow flies. What a view!

This has been a great start to our time in Utah’s amazing canyon lands. Stay tuned for more.

Stand in awe of the glories found in your part of the world! See you soon . . .

6 thoughts on “Zion’s Northwest Treasure: Kolob Canyons

  1. Patty says:

    Definitely an area that should not be overlooked — but nice that it looked like you had it all to yourself!

  2. RShep says:

    Love the Utahan sentiment…keep our roads red! And the names of wildflowers…Prairie Rocket! Keep walking, and posting.

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