Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon with Virgin River in the foreground. The canyon got narrower and narrower as we ventured upriver and the sides were very steep

Zion is a national park in western Utah.  Jennifer and I visited the US in December 2021, mainly to join a photography group to capture parts of Death Valley and surrounding area in California, but to get rid of some of our jetlag we spent two days on our own in Zion first.

Zion was formed between 100 and 250 million years ago, when it was closer to the equator and closer to sea level. Water from a higher plateau to the east carried sediments of mainly sandstone but also other minerals to the lower plateau near sea level, where it formed sedimentary rocks, dominated by Navajo Sandstone.

The canyon valley had lots of vegetation and trees . Our first little walk, when arriving was here at the lower and wider part of the canyon
Our first stop looking west across the river towards the Three Patriarchs

Zion is located at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, which covers parts of Utah, Northern Arizona, and bits of Colorado and New Mexico and which I have documented extensively in my book of the Colorado Plateau (2008). 

Over time ancient seabeds turned into limestone and desert sand turned into sandstone. Iron oxide gives the sandstone its reddish colour and later periods of rain dissolved some of the iron oxide, which has stroked the captstones on top of the mountains a deep blood-red colour at certain places. See my photo of the Altar of Sacrifice at the Temple of the Virgins as an example, when it is hit by the first morning sunrays. 

And here the sun is painting all the upper mountains in its orange colour. The left mountain top with its platform is called the “West Temple” and is 7810 feet high (around 2,300 metres). Just to the right of the middle is the “Altar of Sacrifice” and was so called because of the blood red stains coming down from the top of the altar. The blood red colour is actually iron oxide that has been dissolved from the sandstone and is colouring the capstones on the mountains.

Over time this whole plateau has uplifted from near sea level so now the peaks rise as high as 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) above sea level. Rivers cut into these sedimentary cliffs and eroded them causing some large and some narrow and deep canyons. Grand Canyon is probably the most famous of them. At Zion the Virgin River has in a similar way created a canyon with steep sides rising 4,000 feet from the bottom of the canyon valley. But the formation of the canyon is geologically speaking much more recent than the formation of the mountains themselves.

Looking north along the Virgin River before sunset. The nearest mountain the right is Mount Spry at 5,820 feet
Looking south from nearly the same place as the image before with the Watchman, the tall mountain in the background shooting up 6,545 feet
Closer to sunset I captured this image from the lower bridge at Pa’rus trail looking south towards the Watchman

Jen and I stayed two days at a Zion Lodge in the canyon, the only hotel inside Zion National Park itself. The name Zion comes from a Mormon pioneer, Isaac Behunin who settled in the Zion Canyon in 1863 near the lodge, where we stayed. For Mormon pioneers, Zion meant the Kingdom of Heaven or a sanctuary or a happy, peaceful place. Zion is of course one of two hills in the ancient Jerusalem, where king David established his royal capital.

And it was for us as well a very peaceful place. We went for short hikes with Jennifer scouting photo opportunities with her iPhone and I following up with my camera, lenses and tripod (which Jen helped me carrying). We found a nice waterfall to act as foreground for the Three Patriarchs (see photo below).

The Three Patriarchs with Virgin River in the foreground. The canyon is even here so deep that the sun doesn’t shine on the lower part of the mountains until after midday.

The most interesting part of our visit was probably the hike along the upper narrow parts of Virgin River. We came to a stop, when the canyon became so narrow that any further walk would have needed us to get wet by walking in the river itself. And in December that didn’t seem so attractive!

Looking back towards a bend in the river

At the upper parts of the canyon are “the Altar and the Pulpit”, two rock or mountain formations that resemble an altar and a pulpit standing between the two canyon walls, one sunlit and the other in shade. To better see the rocks, I have a close up below to the left.

There were lots of deer in the park and had I been more alert, I would have been able to catch several images. But every time they appeared I had just set up the camera on the tripod to capture the landscape and before I had dismounted the camera and changed to a tele lens they decided to walk away. They were too blasé to bother to wait for just another photographer. But I got one although a branch was coming between me and the deer. I think Jennifer may have got some better photos on her iPhone.

The Altar and the Pulpit in between the canyon walls

7 thoughts on “Zion Canyon

  1. Great pictures! It is amazing how much of the area sits in shadow constantly. Also, I had to look twice at the Altar and the Pulpit…I thought I saw a Picasso-like face in the bigger rock!

  2. Thank you for amazing photos of greate nature and interesting text. Once I stayed 8 days rafting the Colorado River and hiking the spectacular and beautiful nature. Unfortunately without working camera…so again many thanks.

    1. Wow! Going rafting the Colorado River with all these mountains rising up vertically just beside you. Must have been magical. I followed the river, when I was out photographing the Colorado Plateau, but I was most of the time above looking down. you have seen a very different perspective, more akin to what I captured at Zion.

      Happy New Year Bo!

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