SPRINGDALE, Utah -- Las Vegas takes a lot out of me, and I'm not talking dollars. After a four-day professional conference, and the inescapable sights of pallid gamblers in the lobby casino, chain-smoking breakfast boozers, and girlie-show ticket hawkers, my batteries were drained.
The recharge was 160 miles, away at Zion National Park. I felt my energy return as we drove west (my husband had flown in for the weekend), passing open desert and craggy rocks on our journey from wild life to wildlife.
By the time we reached tiny Springdale, the park's western gateway and a lovely place to sleep, dine, and shop, Vegas was a stale-smoke wisp of a memory.
The next morning dawned rosy pink and clear, and we were among the first bleary-eyed parkgoers to hop aboard the shuttle bus that chugs along the 6-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, where most hikes start. At 147,000 acres, Zion is huge, with several points of entry and much diversity. Rocks, woods, and rivers make it ripe for a short film instead of a snapshot. But most of its annual 2 1/2 million visitors do not take that kind of time.
Before the ban on private vehicles, which started in 2000, traffic had been bumper to bumper, with thousands of cars vying for hundreds of parking spots. Now propane-powered buses leisurely take tourists along the tight, curvy, nearly vacant road, and drivers slow to point out deer, wild turkeys, and even tiny rock climbers in the distance. Windows and roof openings are kept ajar to connect passengers with the great outdoors. Buses run every seven to 10 minutes, stopping at all hiking, viewing, and dining spots along the way. If you don't get off, the ride takes an hour to 90 minutes.
Zion has been called ''Yosemite in red" because, like its California neighbor, it boasts high-rises of rock, so tall that the early-morning sun is kept at bay for several hours. We noted to one Dutch tourist how Europeans seemed to outnumber Americans. Her response: ''You can say ooh and aah in all languages."
After polling friends familiar with Zion, we chose their hands-down favorite hike, Angels Landing. Hands-down is right. After you've walked up, up, and up an old paved path, you reach a steep and narrow ridge, where you must place your hands on the rocks for balance or grab the thick chain railing that provides climbers some physical and mental protection. The ridge takes close to an hour to ascend. To conquer what we chose to call ''Devils Landing," you need strong legs, good lungs, and the ability to look 1,000 feet straight down without heart palpitations. The payoff is a hawk's-eye 360-degree view of the canyon from almost 5,800 feet up. When you reach the knob at the top, you've climbed 1,488 feet. Because Angels Landing is the classic Zion hike, it's crowded. But it was fun to take a path that has its own refrigerator magnet.
For non-climbers, Zion has several walks and hikes rated easy to moderate, and more strenuous ones for those so inclined.
After lunch on the sprawling lawn of the Zion Lodge, we again took the shuttle, this time for an even busier spot, the gentle, paved Riverside Walk to the Narrows. (I returned on a weekday and found only a slow stream of people.) The Zion Narrows is a river canyon walk, or rather, wade, that in its entirety is a rigorous 16 miles. The current is strong, the water is cold, and the rocky bottom is difficult to navigate. But the views as the canyon narrows (we didn't get that far, but the canyon is 2,000 feet deep and only 20 to 30 feet wide in places) make this a popular hike.
Although the canyon is Zion's star, my favorite sights came the next day when we headed east along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Instead of towers, there are rock formations that look like puff pastry, ripples of water, and melting ice cream -- swirly messes of geological grandeur.
To see them, you drive through the rock inside a 1.1-mile-long tunnel so dark that builders in 1930 carved out ''windows." The only marked walk (though there are many pull-offs from which to hike) starts just east of the tunnel. Canyon Overlook Trail is a moderate hourlong hike over slick, moonscape rocks with a stellar view of the lower canyon at the end.
The next 10 or so miles are of striated, curvaceous rock formations flowing all the way down to the red-paved roller coaster road. You are not just looking up at these rocks, you are driving through them. Near the edge of the park is Checkerboard Mesa, a massive sandstone formation marked with horizontal and vertical lines.
The day after my husband took the red-eye flight home, I drove for 45 minutes to Kolob Canyons Visitors Center at the northwest entrance of Zion. There's a small visitors center that leads to moderate and strenuous trails, as well as a 5-mile scenic drive. The lack of crowds was the talk of the Taylor Creek Trail, a gentle four-hour hike that follows the fork of the creek (and crosses it often), passing two crumbling homestead cabins and ending at a fern-lined alcove. It started as a lovely wooded walk, dotted with clusters of wildflowers and turning leaves, and opened to views of big rocks. Morning light turned some a pink-orange that seemed to glow from within.
Kris Richter, a fellow hiker from Colorado who had toured crowded Zion Canyon on a Sunday, said, ''I'd have been disappointed if I'd done this one first and then went there. I was dodging people all day instead of taking in nature. But this was perfect for me. It kept looking more magnificent as we walked. I kept taking my sunglasses off thinking, is the sky really that blue? Are the rocks really that red?"
Kolob Canyons was indeed a great ending. After three days in Zion, I had erased all Vegas memories. Until, that is, I mistakenly exited near the Strip on my way to the airport. But the mental afterglow of Zion's blue skies and pink-red rocks outshone the harsh neon, and I flew home still recharged.
Zion National Park itinerary
6 p.m. Check-in
Zion Lodge, Zion National Park, 435-772-3213, 888-297-2757 www.zionlodge.com
There's much lodging in Springdale, but for the full Zion experience, stay at the park lodge. March 10 through November $133-$149, off season $80-$126.
7 p.m. Dinner
Red Rock Grill, Zion Park Lodge You can't beat the views. Appetizers $6.50-$7.75, entrees $13.50-$20.95.
8 a.m. Rock out
Zion National Park435-772-3256 www.nps.gov/zion
Pick up the free shuttle from the Zion Visitors Center or the many stops along Zion Park Boulevard in Springdale. Using the free park guide, find the walk, hike, or shuttle ride for you. $20 per vehicle, good for seven days.
Noon Lunch on the lawn
Red Rock GrillOrder a boxed lunch for the lawn or one of Zion's picnic areas. Sandwich with fruit, chips, cookie, and water, $8.
1 p.m. Water play
At Emerald Pools Trail, you'll often find at least a small waterfall. Easy hourlong round-trip hike starts from Zion Lodge. Or, take the paved Riverside Walk, following the path of the Virgin River to the head of Zion Narrows.
7 p.m. Carbo load
Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.868 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale 435-772-3815 www.zionpizzanoodle.com
For some of the best casual food in town, visit this lively spot housed in an old Mormon church. Pizza $8.95-$13.95, pasta $9.95-$10.95.
8 a.m. Wakeup call
Mean Bean Coffee House 932 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale 435-772-0654
Breakfast bagel, $4.50.
9 a.m. Morning meander
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Take the 10-mile scenic road connecting east and south entrances.
Noon The other side
Kolob Canyons Interstate 15 at exit 40 (18 miles south of Cedar City)435-586-9548
Drive or hike through the less-crowded northwest corner of the park.