In the fading light of a stormy afternoon, a waterfall plunges hundreds of feet down sheer sandstone walls in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon. There's a burst of red, followed by several more.
Lightning flashes through the canyon, illuminating the rich colors of the narrow amphitheater known as the Temple of Sinawava. Thunder rolls in long and low, bouncing from the canyon floor up through my boots ― from sole to soul in an instant.
"Awesome," I say aloud. That is a word I try to avoid, but in this case it happens to be perfect. Earlier in the day, the waterfall wasn't here. It came to life only after the first storm in four months rumbled into this southwest Utah national park. My friend Tom and I had arrived in Zion during its off-season hoping for this kind of moment, the chance to experience a classic national park under its best conditions. And free of crowds.
No offense to the two million or so peak-season visitors (or, for that matter, Tom, who waits in the truck), but at Zion, the fewer the witnesses, the easier it is to bear witness.
As we drive down Zion Canyon, the Virgin River is running high, tumbling over boulders and rushing through forests of bare cottonwoods. We're the last ones on the road and we've barely seen anyone all day. No doubt the rains kept people away, but even on our first day in the park, a glorious one with big scattered clouds casting fast-moving shadows across the red rock, the park was comparatively empty.
We also have the flexibility to explore Zion Canyon in a way that is impossible seven months of the year. From April through October, private cars are prohibited in the canyon, and visitors must use park shuttles. With 11,000 daily visitors, it's hard to dispute the need for such restrictions. Or their importance to the Zion environment. ("Since the shuttles started, there have been 30 species of birds seen that hadn't been observed here in four or five decades," says Michael Plyler, a photographer and director of the Zion Canyon Field Institute.) Still, it's nice to be on our own.