PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS BURKARD
Zion National Park was founded 100 years ago this month, and throughout the last century, many of the most memorable photos of it have been taken from the edges of its canyons, including the one the park is named after, which cuts a breathtaking 15-mile swath through the reddish-tan mountains of southwestern Utah. Ask Chris Burkard, however, and the photographer will tell you that “the real beauty only reveals itself as you get deeper inside.” That’s where visitors will find an intricate network of slot canyons that weave through the park like capillaries in the earth’s circulatory system.
Those tunnel-like routes—such as The Subway, a quarter-mile stretch of the park’s Great West Canyon, seen here—are born as hairline cracks in the walls and then carved through the years by flash floods. They’re particularly alluring to rock climbers, including Burkard’s friend Christian Adam (pictured). “The unique thing about these walls is that the water has cut them into a smooth chamber, so there’s not really any way or any place that you can climb out,” Burkard says. “But it’s always fun to just see how far you can get.”
Burkard returns to The Subway regularly, not only to capture the warm light reflecting off the walls or to find a cool respite from the desert heat, but also to see the changes nature works over time. “Sometimes the floor of the canyon will be two or three feet higher than it was the year before,” he says. Every time the waters rush through, they wash away debris, handprints, and footprints, giving visitors the intimate experience of exploring what feels like untouched earth.