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Utah rocks!

Uncovering the mystery of Utah’s captivating Zion National Park, which is adorned with towering red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs, is worthwhile, writes Kiran Mehta
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:45 IST
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:45 IST

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‘Utah rocks,’ said my local friend, Lisa, as I mentioned my upcoming trip to Utah, USA. A bit of a science nerd, she meant this quite literally. Utah is a geologist’s dreamland, and many geosites lie within easily accessible national parks. This gorgeously rugged state in the Western USA is one of those rare places on Earth where you can see, walk and touch layers of rocks that are millions of years old. To put it in perspective — you’re walking down the same path as dinosaurs. And you can still see traces of these extinct giants. Head to ‘The Wave’, a visitor attraction that’s a speedy drive from the city of Kanab, Utah. These surreal ‘waves’ come sans water. They are rock formations — from the Jurassic age — that recreate the current of moving water, in sandstone. It results from erosion and windblown sand, and you have to see it to believe it. Walk the wave and the surrounding areas and you’ll spot the timeless dinosaur tracks, etched in stone.

But my first introduction to Utah’s great outdoors was through the iconic Zion National Park. Soaring red, white and pink cliffs, speckled in snow, catch the sunlight. They are intimidating and inviting all at once. The Mormons — the first European-American settlers of the region — arrived here in the 1800s and named the area ‘Zion’ which means ‘sanctuary’ or ‘refuge’ in ancient Hebrew. One look at the jaw-dropping scene before me and I know the name is apt.

Prior to the arrival of the Mormons, the region was inhabited by nomadic Indian groups, and was referred to as Mukuntuweap by the Southern Paiute tribes which means ‘straight canyon’. But, go back even further in time and there was no Zion to name! About 240 million years ago, this national park that consists of peaks, canyons and ravines was a nearly flat basin. Then nature set to work, furiously. Winds and rain lashed, over decades, and chipped away at the surrounding mountainous areas. The debris was carried away by the Virgin River (and her many tributaries) and deposited at the floor of the basin. The mud, sand and gravel made the basin dip, giving it a depth of over 10,000 feet, while still miraculously keeping the top layer at sea level. Along with the debris, the water also carried minerals. Over time, these minerals fused the sediments into stone. The debris had originated from different sources, and reacted differently to the process of lithification, giving birth to a range of different materials. There’s sandstone (with Navajo sandstone being most prominently visible), mudstone, limestone and shale. Each is a different colour, texture and thickness making Zion feel like many different places at once.

Nature’s work wasn’t done. Tectonic shifts caused (and are still causing) an ‘uplift’. It’s where the Earth’s crust is slowly pushed upwards. And so Zion went from near sea level to a whopping 10,000 feet above sea level. The uplift, in turn, gave the water more force. Fed by rain and melting snow, the river cut through the rock layers creating gorgeous deep and narrow canyons along its path. If you’re looking to see the very best of Zion and sense her surreal back-story, head to the Narrows. This is where we hiked a river. But first, we headed to a rental store for gear — armed with water-resistant boots, overalls and hiking poles, we stepped into the Virgin River. The water got into my boots (bear in mind, that we were specifically told that the boots aren’t water-proof — just resistant). At first, the ice-cold water felt sharp; in seconds it tingled, and then the water oddly felt warm. It reminded me of the sensation of slapping on some balm — the burns, tingles and then what ultimately feels therapeutic! 

In this zone, I tuned into the sheer wonder of what I was doing — I was hiking a river, in the narrowest part of the Zion Canyon. Water levels can fluctuate and at some spots, I was knee-deep. I was cocooned entirely by gigantic rocks, even stepping on them to make my way through the gurgling water. I saw nothing but rocks, sky and water, for miles and miles. Timid hikers can wade through this river for an hour or two (as I did). Or you can spend the entire day completing a challenging 10-mile round trip of the Narrows. Craving more adventure? Try the Angel’s Landing, a scenic trail with dizzying heights, best reserved for the experienced hiker. Make it to the top and you’ll get a bird’s eye view of mountains touching the clouds. You can also catch some spectacular views without breaking a sweat. The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive takes you right through the park and you’re surrounded by cliffs. From March to late November, access is by shuttle bus only. While in December, we could access it by driving ourselves. With every turn in the road, a new mountain appears to emerge. Come spring and you’ll be greeted by chirping birds. Time your drive with the sunset and you’ll get some envious, insta-worthy shots.

The sheer scale of Zion numbs all thought. All the little things we fret about melt away as you spend time hiking the mountains (or even just glimpsing them). As you walk the trails, you lose track of time. And yet there’s also a sense of how time changes everything — including these gigantic mountains, daunting canyons and picture-perfect arches that I see before me. Nothing is permanent and in that lies the reminder to slow down and yet make the most of every moment.

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Published 28 April 2024, 02:45 IST

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