Hiking Home to Zion
The Right Fork of North Creek

Water-carved walls under a cobalt-blue sky; rills and freshets and springs; the pure waters of a desert stream, falling in twin braids over fluted sandstone into a cold emerald pool. When my grandfather closes his eyes for the final time, he wants God to open them again to a scene like this.

It's January, cold as Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell, and the landscape of Zion looks more like the Khumbu icefall than the sun-kissed desert wonderland of the postcards. For some reason I'm up to my waist in the plunge pool of Double Falls, deep in the Great West Canyon of North Creek. I've slogged six miles through a frozen canyon to stand in this half-frozen pool, with two sprained ankles, tendonitis in my right knee, and a mild case of hypothermia to show for the effort. Of course, if I'm cold, wet and aching all over in a desert canyon, I must be happier than a pig in & well, you get the idea.

Sure enough, whether it's the hypothermic buzz or just the galvanic sensory overload of getting up close and personal with a desert waterfall, I find myself thinking all kinds of happy thoughts, mostly about the power of place. Particularly this place, the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park, where my Grandpa Webb wants to go when he dies. And this stream, North Creek, where he experienced the fondest moments of his life - as a young boy, swimming its pools; and as a father and husband with a young family, trying and failing to make a go of ranching its unforgiving flood plain.

The forms and landscapes of the Colorado Plateau have always fired the imagination of man, inspiring awe, belles letters and a peculiar kind of piety. As Jared Farmer writes, "George Stevens, director of The Greatest Story Ever Told, wanted a backdrop with biblical feel. He found the perfect location: Glen Canyon in southern Utah. 'Not scenery like that of the Holy Land,' remarked Charlton Heston, who played the Baptist, 'but more as the Holy Land should be, with the fingerprints of God still on it.'" The plateau's numinous qualities are reflected in the names it bears: a strange mixture of Athabascan, Uto-Aztecan and Semitic terms - names like Moab, Paunsaugunt, Agathla; mythic names for a mythically proportioned landscape, plucked directly from the holy traditions of ancient desert tribes.

Zion National Park encompasses a high desert plateau-land of vertical walls, finger canyons, and water-sculpted pinnacles and domes: sandstone palisades cut to a god-like scale. The Parrusits, a Paiute subtribe who occupied the Virgin River Valley for many centuries, held Zion in special reverence. Legend has it they considered the inner reaches of Mukuntuweap and Parunuweap canyons and the North and East forks of the Virgin too spiritually potent to farm or hunt. Nor was the majesty of this landscape lost on white explorers and settlers when they arrived in the 1860s, who paid the ultimate compliment by reaching into their religion to name what they saw. Court of the Patriarchs; Tabernacle Dome; Altar of Sacrifice: in any other place such names would be ill fitting, but here they fit.

"There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind & a glowing response," wrote Clarence Dutton, the geologist-poet who accompanied John Wesley Powell on his second survey of the Colorado Plateau. "Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion. In coming time (Zion) will, I believe, take rank with a very small number of spectacles each of which will, in its own way, be regarded as the most exquisite of its kind which the world discloses."

My grandfather first encountered Zion as a boy living in Virgin during the Great Depression. His memories of North Creek, which drains the highlands of the Kolob Plateau on Zion's western border, nourish his soul the way the blood in his veins used to nourish his strong, once muscular body, now frail and sick, ravaged by leukemia these last 15 years. He cherishes his memories of that magical ranch, which he acquired from his uncles Rube and Joad, built right along the creek under the shadow of Cougar Mountain and South Guardian Angel, and recollections of his cousins Ray and Allan, with whom he spent halcyon summer days hoeing corn, herding cows and exploring, all to themselves, the waterfalls and slots of the Right and Left forks. "I never tired of watching the changing shades and shadows of the red-black hills and sand dunes," he has written, "never tired of listening to the goodnight song of the white crowned sparrows as they settled in for the night in the wild roses. Never tired of walking the mesas, or lying on my belly, pulling fish from under rocks up on North Creek & I went to bed hungry many times & but even now, I can literally feast on the exquisiteness of a warm, star-bright evening in the never-never-land that is (Zion)." If his recollection of that time has taken on a quasi-religious quality, you can hardly blame him: He was, after all, country before country was cool, an intrepid canyoneer long before such a term existed, who encountered awesome spectacles like the Subway long before such places had even been named.

North Creek is the source of much that is good in my grandpa's life: His faith in God, his sense of manhood, his love of fishing and wild waters - the very things that will stay alive in his children and grandchildren long after he's gone to glory. If the power of a place like North Creek could have so infused his soul, then maybe it got into his blood. And if the sand of North Creek flows in my grandpa's blood, then maybe a few of those grains found their way into my blood, too.

On a midafternoon in January, the day has become mild, even warm; a sense of perpetual spring hangs in the rarefied air of the canyon's upper reaches. I make my way up the watercourse, negotiating a series of mossy boulder-falls and immense chokestone slabs. Hidden waters pour through every nook and hollow, filling the canyon with a white roar; plunge-pools shimmer and froth under glittering cascades. After a time, the canyon heads: A round amphitheater, cut out of the living rock; a clear green pool; and the spring-fed trickle of a stream, issuing out of the golden chamber of the Grand Alcove to fall like a curtain over a mound of sandstone: Barrier Falls. This is where it all begins, and where it all began, for my grandpa, and for me.

If you go:

The Right Fork of North Creek is accessed via the paved Kolob Reservoir Road, which heads north from the town of Virgin and SR 9, 14 miles (22.6 km) west of the Zion South Entrance. The parking area for the hike, a small, marked but unimproved clearing tucked into juniper forest on the right side of the road, is located 6.9 miles north of Virgin and .4 mile past the Kolob Terrace Section sign at the park boundary.

Hike .2 mile along a well-beaten path southeast to the lava cliffs overlooking North Creek. After dropping down to the watercourse, hike .5 mile north to the confluence of Left and Right forks. From there it's 5.9 miles to Barrier Falls, one way (look for the high, brushy path around Double Falls on the south side of the creek). Expect numerous stream crossings and a couple of waist-deep pools. A backcountry permit is required if you plan on camping in Right Fork. No permit is required for day hikes.

Maps: Zion National Park Topographic Map (Zion Natural History Association); The Guardian Angels.

Guidebooks: Thomas Brereton and James Dunaway, Exploring The Backcountry Of Zion National Park, Zion Natural History Association; Erik Molvar and Tamara Martin, Hiking Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks, Falcon Publishing.

Contact Information: Phone: (801) 772-3256; web site: www.nps.gov/zion.

Trailhead: 37 16.250 N , 113 deg 6.186 W; elevation 4545
Bottom of canyon entry/exit point: 37 deg 16.056 N, 113 deg 5.739 W; elevation 4147
Double Falls: 37 deg 16.839 N, 113 deg 1.435 W; elevation 4462