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 wheelchair-accessible 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.
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 wheelchair-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. (Editorial note: As of 9-2019 a new viewing platform has been erected, but it has one step up to it. The trail also has a lot of rocks and ruts near the mid-point.)
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