As one of Utah’s most popular attractions, Zion National Park is inundated with visitors from spring to fall. In fact, it’s so crowded that the powers-that-be instituted a free shuttle-bus system through Zion Canyon, in order to lessen the environmental impact. That said, Zion Canyon is only a portion of the park.
Although Zion Canyon is definitely a must-see, there are many other natural attractions near the northwest section of the park. Here you’ll find the less touristed Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park, as well as Cedar Breaks National Monument; both of which offer scenic drives dotted with wheelchair-accessible overlooks, picnic areas and visitors centers. So take some time to hop off-the-beaten-path and explore this less touristed side of Zion.
A Place to Call Home
Although it makes good sense to overnight in Zion National Park or in nearby Hurricane when you explore Zion Canyon, Cedar City is the ideal home base for a visit to the northwest section of the park. Located just 18 miles from Kolob Canyons and Cedar Breaks National Monument, this southern Utah university town offers a wide range of affordable and accessible lodging choices.
At the top of the list is the Crystal Inn (888-787-6661, www.crystalinncedar.com). This 100-room motel is located just off Interstate 15, close to a variety of casual restaurants and fast food joints. There’s level access to the front lobby, with an accessible pathway to the front desk.
Room 158 is a typical accessible room, with accessible van parking just steps from the door. There is level access to this spacious ground floor room, and ample room to maneuver a wheelchair throughout it. It’s furnished with two queen-sized beds with wheelchair access on both sides. Other access features include lowered closet rods and environmental controls, and a refrigerator and microwave within easy reach.
The bathroom features a wide doorway and a full five-foot turning radius. It’s equipped with a roll-in shower with a hand held showerhead and grab bars. A portable shower chair is available upon request. The toilet grab bars are located on the back and right walls (as seated), and the bathroom also has a roll-under sink.
A free breakfast buffet is offered every morning in Bard’s Pub, which is adjacent to the lobby, There is level access to the buffet and the upper seating area. The food selection is good, with waffles, eggs, breakfast meats, fruit, cereal and pastries. It’s a cut above your typical hotel breakfast fare.
The only downside of the property is that Room 158 is a little far from the lobby. That said, the location is probably due to the availability of nearby accessible parking. There is a level accessible pathway to the room, but if you can’t do distances, then ask for a room closer to the lobby.
All things considered, the Crystal Inn is a very pleasant, functional and clean property. And with high season rates of under $100, it’s also very easy on the wallet.
Save at least one day to explore Kolob Canyons (435-772-3256, www.nps.gov/zion/), located off Interstate 15 south of Cedar City. Just take exit 40 and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. There’s plenty of accessible parking there, with accessible restrooms inside. This is the place where you pay your entrance fee, or show your America the Beautiful Access Pass. If you don’t have the latter, then just bring proof of your disability and you can get one issued on the spot. It never expires and it’s good for free admission to all national parks and monuments. Once you’ve taken care of business, pick up a map and head out to the canyons.
The five-mile Kolob Scenic Byway runs from the Visitor Center up to Timber Creek Overlook, with plenty of turnouts and spectacular windshield views along the way. Named for the Mormon scripture meaning “residence closest to heaven”, the area is filled with soaring cliffs and red Navajo sandstone. Along the drive you’ll cross over a major fault line that gives rise to Markagunt Plateau, which features a large concentration of finger canyons. The plateau not only boasts the oldest and youngest rocks in Zion, but also the tallest peak — 8,926-foot high Horse Ranch Mountain — in the park. Take some time to stop along the way and really enjoy the grandeur of it all.
Up at Timber Creek Overlook, you’ll find accessible parking and restrooms; however the trail itself is not accessible. There is a picnic table in the middle of the parking lot; but you have to be able to step up over the curb to use it. Other picnic tables are located at the Timber Creek Overlook trailhead, but you have to be able to walk a quarter-mile uphill to use them. Still, the drive up is definitely worth it, so don’t pass up this often forgotten Zion gem.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument (435-586-9451, www.nps.gov/cebr/) is also worth a visit while you’re in the area. In fact, you can do a very nice loop tour through the Dixie National Forest in just one day.
Begin your drive by heading east on Highway 14 from Cedar City. When you reach the 17-mile marker, slow down and look for the Bristlecone Pine Trail on your right. This half-mile trail is rated as wheelchair-accessible, and it may be doable for some people depending on its condition. They have some hard winters, and most of the yearly trail damage comes from water and snow. Still it’s worth a stop, as the first portion of the trail usually has the worst damage, and you can easily see it from the parking area.
The hard-packed trail leads though a spruce forest to a ramped viewing platform perched on the rim of the Markagunt Plateau. That said there are some ruts along the trail, but not so many that you can’t dodge them. The viewing platform had a bit of storm damage when I visited, but hopefully that’s been repaired by now. Depending on the condition of the trail, and the time of year, it may be a good choice; so at least stop and have a look at it.
As you continue on, turn left on Highway 148, and follow the signs to the Cedar Breaks Visitor Center on the left. There’s plenty of accessible parking, with level access to the Visitor Center. It should also be noted that the only accessible restrooms in the park are located there. And if you’ve packed a lunch, the picnic area is located just up the road, on the right, near the campground. Make sure and take time to admire the view from Point Supreme, which is next to the Visitor Center. There is level access out to viewpoint, which features a good overview of the 2,000-foot deep natural amphitheater.
As you continue along on Highway 148 you’ll get some great windshield views of the uplift and erosion on Markagunt Plateau. It’s filled with stone spires, columns, arches and canyons. Make sure and stop in at Sunset Overlook, which has paved parking and curb-cut access up to the viewing area, as well as Chesterman Ridge which has accessible parking and paved access out to the overlook. The latter is the highest point in the park — at 10,467 feet — and offers the most expansive view.
Continue along Highway 148, then take a right on Highway 143 to Panguitch. When you hit Highway 89, turn right and head through town. If you didn’t pack a picnic lunch, Panguitch is you best — well your only — lunch option. Continue along Highway 89, then reconnect to Highway 14, and head back to Cedar City. Along the way you’ll be treated to some lovely views of Navajo Lake on your left. Take your time and stop at the turnouts along the way to take it all in. It’s a very scenic end to this Dixie National Forest drive.
If You Go
Cedar City — Brian Head Tourism Bureau