Among the Navajo sandstone: discovering the unknown in Grand Sion
By Courtney Knott | Tory Powers Pictures
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I should have known the next three days in the saddle were going to be epic when the excitement emanating from my riding partner, a seasoned Southwest Utah veteran, eclipsed mine. As a first-time visitor, Dave Steiner, a longtime Park City resident, was no stranger to the attraction of Grand Zion. His enthusiastic prophecy of a mind blown to unimaginable proportions has given way to great expectations; expectations that I was secretly afraid would lead to disappointment.
As the odometer miles increased and the miles to destination decreased, the fear of being abandoned dissipated as quickly as the sun disappeared beneath distant mountains and mesas. All that was left – an awe-inspiring cotton candy sunset – welcomed us to a world of uncharted territory on an unknown planet.
Tucked away in southwest Utah, Grand Zion is a diverse landscape that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to America’s great cycling destinations. St. George, the municipal epicenter of Greater Zion, is located 160 miles (260 km) northeast of Las Vegas and 300 miles (480 km) south of Salt Lake City. The surrounding communities are Hurricane, Ivins, Virgin, La Verkin, Springdale – each with their own unique charm, easy access to all that Grand Zion has to offer, and endless accommodation options, whether you are looking for a night or two in a hotel, or a whole month moving into an Airbnb.
With mild winters and only a short part of summer producing sweltering midday temperatures, Grand Sion is a prime cycling destination all year round. Dave and I, both coming from high mountain towns, came prepared with lots of cold weather gear, but once the early morning chill was gone, the blue skies and sun warmed our skin until the sun is setting for the night.
The Veyo loop
In May 2016, the work Washington County put into building a bike-friendly community paid off when the county was first designated in the state as a “safe-the-road community.” County”. In October, the Veyo Loop was named the county’s first official cycle route.
The first pedal strokes of our journey brought us to the outskirts of Ivins where we were greeted with nothing separating us from distant layers of jagged black basalts and red and white sandstone. The few yellow leaves left on their branches added a touch of contrast. Each pedal stroke brought a new setting of rural Utah – from relics of the old west to new churches; cattle, horses and even a bald eagle hovering over Gunlock Reservoir!
The toughest decision of the day came when we got to Veyo Pies and had to choose between lime and raspberry rhubarb. I remedied the dilemma by ordering both; Dave went wild with a generous slice of Veyo Volcano pie; and Tory, the man responsible for telling our story in photographs, completed our sampling with triple berry and coconut cream. My only regret was that I didn’t hide a few chocolate chip cookies in my swimsuit for later.
The good news is that you are driving the Veyo Buckle clockwise or counterclockwise is (almost) all the way down the pie!
The full loop (approximately 40 miles / 60 km) includes a passage on Highway 18 with potential heavy traffic, or a parallel cycle path. To pay tribute to our cycling friends who wear funny socks (sometimes no socks at all), we took a detour to Snow Canyon State Park. What a 4 mile (6.4 km) climb on the 2021 Ironman 70.3 North American Championship Ventum bike course was a fast, twisty descent for us.
Snow Canyon Parkway transforms into Red Hill Parkway and traces the northern limits of St. George with a magnificent view of the city from above.
Sion national park
We started the day with a scenic ride from Virgin to Springdale, a charming community that serves as the gateway to Zion National Park. We passed the site of the Red Bull rampage, and the iconic cartoon-like facades of the Fort Zion gift shop.
Deep Creek Coffee Company is where we landed for breakfast and were greeted with friendly faces, a pastry shop full of fresh baked goods, and a menu that didn’t make the decision easier.
The avocado toast was by far the best I have ever had! They stack a generous serving of perfectly ripe avocado on top of homemade fresh wheat bread (available gluten-free), garnish it with a homemade dukkah spice blend and a drizzle of roasted chili oil for those who want to. are looking for a kick without a drink high in caffeine. Divine.
After posing for a quick photo with the entrance sign to Zion National Park (see top of this article), we stepped through the threshold of the majestic park. Once inside there are two routes to explore: Zion Canyon Scenic Dr and Zion Mount Carmel Hwy. First, we climbed the switchbacks of the latter to the Zion Mount Carmel tunnel.
It is worth hitchhiking in the 1.8 km long tunnel (you cannot climb or walk). Just when we started to think it couldn’t be more impressive, we turned a corner to find a herd of bighorn sheep effortlessly rearing up along the steep walls of the Navajo sandstone.
Just before we got to our turn-around point, the eastern entrance to the park, Checkerboard Mesa was in sight. I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect between such a modern and trivial name attributed to the giant Navajo sandstone masterpiece formed 145-200 million years ago.
Equally impressive was Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. We were greeted into the canyon with a fall colored canopy and hiked the valley floor which mimicked the sweep forged by the Virgin River. This is a 19.3 km (12 mile) round-trip route featuring many of Zion’s iconic sites: the Patriarch’s Court, Angels Landing, Weeping Rock, and the Great White Throne.
We hiked 6 miles (9.7 km) of flickering sunshine before reaching the Sinawava Temple at the end of the road (where the Riverside Walk takes you to the narrow ones).
Any day with a looming 1,520 meter climb should start with a cinnamon bun – preferably the size of your head – from River Rock Roasting Company to The Verkin (just north of Hurricane). The cinnamon bun, a real favorite with the locals, is a must try. And an essential climb? the 15 mile (24.5 km) climb from Kolob Terrace!
Starting at La Verkin, we climbed 500ft (152m) in the first two miles (3.2km) before hitting a few false flats and steady descents into and through Virgin. At mile 6.5 (10.5km) we turned onto Kolob Terrace Road and that’s where the real fun started.
With an average score of 5.2%, we quickly found our rhythm; a rhythm which was only occasionally interrupted by some spiking efforts on sections which peaked at nearly 16%!
As we ascended from 3,000 to 8,000 feet (915 to 2,440 m), the towering formations of Zion began to appear. And just when we thought we’d been transported to Mars, the Navajo sandstone cliffs transformed into a vast, open prairie, before aspens began to dot the landscape and cover the causeway.
Before we knew it, we were passing the Kolob Market, keen to add the extra 3.6 miles (5.8 km) to the Kolob Reservoir.
During my quest for race stats, I came across local Utah athlete, a professional athlete and TJ Eisenhart, holder of the Kom Kolob Climb, Strava titled “One of the funniest climbs I have ever seen. ‘ve never done “. Any good roadie knows what this means: fun climbs make descents even more fun!
What would you like to know
- Fly in the St. George Regional Airport with daily connections from Salt Lake City on Delta, Denver on United and Phoenix on American (Dallas-Fort Worth seasonally from March).
- To drive – Greater Zion is just off Interstate 15, just 90 minutes north of Las Vegas and four hours south of Salt Lake City.
The climate (not like the rest of Utah!)
- The climate can change dramatically throughout the year and throughout the day and depending on how high you are.
- Winters are mild with peaks in the 50s or 60s (10-16 ºC), perfect for any outdoor adventure. Chilly in the evenings and early in the morning, but nothing that diapers can’t handle.
- In summer, temperatures range from the 80s-90s (27-32 ºC) with a few days reaching up to 100 ºF (38 ºC).
- Expect dry heat and be prepared with plenty of water.
The Grand Zion is the only place where the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin merge. This diverse landscape is accompanied by many types of wild and plant species. Most wildlife is elusive, but on roads, trails, and public lands, you may occasionally encounter protected desert turtles, coyotes, foxes, quails, road runners (meep meep!), leopards, snakes and canyon tree frogs.
Vegetation includes desert-adapted species such as creosote bush, narrow-leaved yucca, sand sage, blackbrush, scrub oak, and desert willow. (See other fun facts here.)
- Snow Canyon State Park – Miles of hiking and views for days (and made famous by movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with slit canyons, arches, pioneer roads, lava tubes and petrified sand dunes.
- Tuacahn Arts Center – Broadway-style shows in summer; concerts and performances in other seasons; plus a market on Saturdays.
- Quail Creek State Park – Paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, camping.
- Sand Hallow State Park – OHV (all terrain vehicle) on Sand Mountain, paddle, kayak, boating, jet ski.
- Via ferrata – Combine climbing the steep wall of the magnificent canyon walls with the safety of iron ladders and safety cables – one of the only places in this country where this is possible.
- Zion National Park after dark to observe the night sky (certified International Dark Sky Park).