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Zion National Park, UT

Oasis in the High DesertBy Frank Swanson

During Zion National Park's long hot summer, whiptail lizards seek shade beneath boulders as soaring red cliffs bake in the sun. Yuccas, cactuses and hardy, gnarled pinyon pines offer a hint of green in a landscape dominated by the browns and tans of barren earth. There's no mistaking it; this is a dry country, and it's no wonder why. Perched at the edge of the semiarid Colorado Plateau where it meets the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, the park receives a mere 15 inches of rain on average each year. While you could say that water shapes the character of any desert by its absence, that truism doesn't come close to describing Zion. Perhaps more than anything else, it's water's undeniable presence here that makes Zion one of the national park system's most stunning jewels and among its top things to see.

In Zion Canyon—the park's central feature and most popular destination—the desert gives way to a narrow corridor of lush vegetation bordering the meandering North Fork of the Virgin River, a haven for cottonwood, boxelder, maple and willow trees. Rain and meltwater percolating through sandstone seep from the canyon's sheer rock walls at Weeping Rock and Emerald Pools, nourishing hanging gardens and trickling into pools lined with wildflowers and maidenhair ferns.

With so many elevations, exposed plateaus and sheltered niches creating a multitude of habitats, Zion National Park is home to more than 800 plant species, which according to the National Park Service is more variety than anywhere else in Utah. There also are 75 species of mammals, more than 30 species of reptiles and amphibians and nearly 300 species of birds. And you won't find the moisture-loving Zion snail outside the park's boundaries.

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No other experience captures the stark contrast between Zion Canyon's damp microenvironments and the surrounding desert than a hike through the Narrows, where the canyon constricts into a rock-strewn defile just a few feet across. Shaded by vertical walls a thousand feet or more high, the Narrows remain cool even on the hottest summer day and the Virgin River, through which hikers exploring the Narrows must wade, can be downright chilly. Rangers repeatedly remind visitors that flash floods here and elsewhere in the park are a danger during storms even when the rain is falling miles away.

Zion's weeping rock walls, fern-lined pools, abundant flora and fauna and cold, clear streams are not even the most dramatic evidence of water's presence here. Hike up to any one of many scenic overlooks and behold what millions of years' worth of flowing water created: the canyon itself. Formed at the bottom of ancient seas and lakes, the multihued sandstone has been beautifully eroded into the breathtaking chasm you see today. What's more, flash floods and periodic rock slides prove that the work is ongoing. Like a sculptor who can never be content with what he has carved, water in Zion Canyon continues to make and remake this exquisite, natural work of art.

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Zion National Park, UT

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