Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Zion 2

This is part 2 of our recent trip to Zion National Park. To read part 1, click here.

We woke early on the morning of our last full day in the park. We wanted to get an early start hiking Angel's Landing, partly because it can be a very hot hike and partly because it is no fun trying to pass crowds of people on a 2-foot-wide ledge overhanging a 1,200' drop. We took the 7:15AM shuttle from the visitor's center to the trailhead, and soon found ourselves pretty much alone. It was very quiet and luminous clouds hung over the canyon. I snapped some shots of Angel's Landing, which is the promontory at right below and to the left in the second picture.

After going up steeply for quite a ways, the trail turned into Refrigerator Canyon, where signs warn hikers to lower their voices in order to preserve the natural sounds. We heard frogs peeping and birds chirping. I took a shot looking outward, back out of the mouth of the canyon:

There is something primeval about Zion -- it reminds you of every old movie or fantasy book cover you've ever seen in which dinosaurs roamed the land.

And yet, Sarah appears to be yawning in this picture. I guess when you've seen one majestic, primeval landscape, you've seen them all.

We ascended the series of 23 switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles and came up to Scout's Lookout, where I spent about 15 minutes trying to find a place to pee that was out of sight of the handful of people sitting quietly surveying the landscape. I finally had to water the plants in a spot where any of the upward-bound hikers could have seen me if they'd turned around. When I climbed back to the trail, I realized there were vault toilets nestled up behind where we'd first climbed onto the ridge.

But we were ready to cross to Angel's Landing. As you have already read (if you saw my blog post three years ago, written after my first trip to Zion), Angel's Landing is a perch 1,500' above the canyon floor. It's reached by traversing a sandstone fin with sheer drops on either side. Carved steps and chains bolted to the rock help you get across. It is often listed as one of the best hikes in the country and even the world, but it is certainly not for small children or those with a fear of heights.

I actively enjoy heights, but looking straight down to a valley floor some thousand feet below does make my innards quiver. In an enjoyable way. The quiver factor of the climb to the top is mitigated somewhat by the fact that you're looking up most of the way, but if you were to stop and look behind you, you'd get a hint of what it will be like on the way back:

There are very few places where a stumble would lead necessarily to death, but there are a couple. It's an exhilarating hike that requires concentration and sober confidence -- those who get too shaky can become a danger to themselves and others. I'm very grateful that this amazing trail was built and that the park service continues to keep it open despite the deaths that have occurred here, not all of which were due to horseplay. (In fact, it's amazing that only a relative handful of deaths have occurred, especially considering the lack of care we witnessed in a couple of young men racing through the trail after us.)

From the trailhead, it took us an hour and a half to reach the Landing. There were a few other parties up there enjoying the lovely weather, the view and the extremely fat chipmunks crawling all over everyone and chewing open bags of snacks. Well, that wasn't quite as enjoyable. But the views were, of course, spectacular.

And here we are:

My hair looks like it's had a bad fright, itself. The views are literally breathtaking, but it's impossible to adequately capture that sense with a camera. Try holding your breath until your heart is pounding and then looking at the below:

Close-ups of people crossing the fin:

Sarah also had me take this panorama video, for your viewing pleasure:

When we finally descended, we found it useful to turn around and go backwards down some of the slopes, leading to this picture, which makes it look like Sarah is dangling suspended from the chain:

On the way back down we paused in the lovely Refrigerator Canyon. I took some shots of an intricately eroded sandstone wall as a canyon wren's strange song echoed in the cool air. (Click here to listen to the canyon wren's song.)

Afterward, we drove out to the east side of the park, where we encountered some desert bighorn sheep ewes grazing beside the road.

 well as Checkerboard Mesa, named for the distinctive pattern eroded into it:

We hiked the Canyon Overlook trail. By the time we got to the viewpoint, it had started to rain, leaving the Altar of Sacrifice and other promontories shrouded in mist:

Zion is full of weeping walls and hanging gardens, where water that has been traveling through the rock seeps out and supports plant life. At this particular weeping wall I stopped to examine this small tree growing in a tiny crevice (Sarah for scale). My fingers fit into the crevice with little room to spare. It seemed impossible for a bird to land there, so how did the seed get there?

That afternoon we had planned on going for a dip in the Virgin River, but it had turned downright cold. We huddled in the car for a while, eventually falling asleep, then as the sun set we made a groggy effort to get down to the beach and sit in the white sand in our jeans and jackets, reading books.

That night it was cold and windy as we went to bed, but I woke up at 3AM to find the air had turned warm with no hint of a breeze. And then, when we woke up at 6 to hike, it was cold and windy again. We probably should have gone hiking at 3AM. We couldn't bring ourselves to get up before the sun was. We did have time before leaving to hike the Watchman Trail, from which we watched the moon set and the rays of the rising sun sweep over the rest of the park.

And it was time to go.

On the plane ride back, we happened to be seated so as to have a view of the park.

This allowed us to see, from behind, the very peaks (the Tower of the Virgin, the Sundial, and the Altar of Sacrifice, among others) that were visible on our hike and that can be seen above in the picture where Sarah is silhouetted before them. Below, I have circled the approximate spot where I stood to take that photo, and drawn lines indicating our view.

We also got to see the Narrows:

...and many other interesting things, including this fascinating canyon that I had to look up when I got back home. I found it is Coyote Gulch, another beautiful canyon of southern Utah, which I would love to visit next. (Unfortunately, it's a wee bit more than an hour's drive from an affordable airport.)

And below is Monument Valley, which I have driven past a couple times, in the upper-right (remind yourself of what Monument Valley is here):

But before long the red rocks petered out, and we were crossing green, and then white! It was late September and already the Colorado mountains were covered in snow.

And we had to come home. Back to work and chores and traffic. But it was an adventure we will always remember, and anyway, we will be having more!

Zion 1

Here are the photos from our recent trip to Zion National Park. You may click on any photo to see a full-screen version; if you only want to see the photos and not read about the trip, just click on a photo and use your arrow keys to enjoy a slide show. Otherwise, read on.

Zion is in southwestern Utah. We flew from Denver to St. George, Utah; I'd chosen this particular adventure because the tickets were so cheap, relatively speaking. We had the good luck to have our trip scheduled for shortly before the government shutdown happened. As we enjoyed the park we were surrounded by many foreign languages and accents... there were tons of German, French, British and other tourists there. After the shutdown happened, I thought of how much it would suck to have flown to the US on your dream vacation of seeing the Grand Canyon and other famous sites and found them all closed.

We flew in a small plane, and from the window I recognized many places I had visited before. Below, at top left, is Colorado National Monument, with its deep canyons; the green, irrigated stretch of Fruita and Grand Junction is spread out to the right:

And here is the Green River on its way to join the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park:

Here is a section of Capitol Reef National Park:

We landed in St. George and I made the discovery that I had booked our rental car at the in-town location of Enterprise, not at the airport location, but we were driven into town by a kind employee. We ran some hot and annoying errands in town that took longer than they should have (getting groceries, beer and cooking fuel) and then drove to the park, just an hour away. The sun was setting by the time we got there. Since the main part of the park is in a deep canyon that runs approximately north-south, and high cliffs rise to the east and west, sunrise comes very late and sunset very early.

We took a walk along the Pa'rus trail, which parallels the Virgin River, and had good views of many of the park's memorably-named promontories. Below, a falcon and the Altar of Sacrifice:

The Watchman above the Virgin River:

As it became dark, we repaired to our campsite. There was very loud music coming from somewhere, so we wandered toward it. Soon we found we were crossing a bridge that led outside the park -- the Watchman Campground, where we had reserved our site, was just across the river from a little mall with food, lodging, gifts, an outfitter, and a movie theater. (At the time that I reserved the site a couple months before our trip, it was one of only two reservable sites left; by the time we got to the park on Thursday evening, all 280+ sites in both the Watchman and non-reservable South Campground were full.)

The blaring music was coming from a live band performing on the patio of a restaurant, approximately 50' from the park boundary, 400' from the nearest campsites (and 800' from ours, where, we found later, it was still loud enough to penetrate earplugs).

We walked into the outfitter and took a look at their canyoneering boots... I had been to Zion three years ago (and blogged about it here) and seen the people with their boots and walking sticks splashing up and down the river where the canyon narrows to become nothing but the river. I wanted to do this. I had since read about it being one of the top hikes in the country -- in fact, Zion has two hikes often included in best-of-the-US or even -world lists, and we would do the other one later -- and I had been determined to come back some time and hike the Narrows. So here we were.

We rented neoprene socks, boots and walking sticks for our use the next day. It was important to check the weather: dangerous flash floods can fill narrow canyons during storms. But our forecast was 90 degrees, sunny and 0% chance of rain, perfect for splashing through the cold river.

Outside, the band played on. Till 10 and then 11PM, long past campground quiet hour, as I mashed my earplugs deeper into my ears. That night, and the rest of our trip, we endured the noisiest campground I have ever stayed at. Part of it was a quirk of timing; the park was resurfacing the roads that summer, and work began each morning as early as 7AM. But that restaurant, my God. Even on Sunday night. It made me wonder if there had ever been conflicts between it and the park (or patrons of the park). If an individual or business is making a racket that prevents quiet enjoyment of your national park premises, is there recourse?

The moon was full overhead. After the band finally stopped, it was windy as heck, so we continued to toss and turn as the wind thrashed the tent. At times it felt like someone had come by, grasped one of the tent poles, and was purposefully shaking it. We slept little but did sleep in a bit in the morning; at 8 the tent was still shrouded in pre-dawn dark, sun behind the cliffs, and I assumed it was much earlier than it was and went back to sleep.

Despite the weather forecast, by the time we made it to the river the day was still cool. We had ridden one of the park shuttles to the last stop, and walked for 20 minutes on a path along the river. Once we were there, I imposed upon someone to take our portrait:

The special boots are not waterproof, but they are tough and provide ankle protection and good traction.

I didn't take that many shots in the Narrows, because I had my camera double-bagged in ziplocs and it was a pain to get out. Also, for most of the hike I was pretty chilly and often my fingers were cramped with cold. While it did eventually become a hot day, much of the hike is in the shade, and the water was pretty cold. But here are some photos:

While some websites had compared the Narrows hiking experience to "walking on greased bowling balls," I didn't find it that awkward -- for half or more of the time we were walking on submerged sand or dry sandbars, and the rocks weren't slippery. Maybe they're slippery earlier in the year when there's more algae? Also, we happened to be there at a time when the water was very low; while reviews described fighting the current in waist-deep water, most of the time my knees were dry, and the deepest part we encountered didn't even wet my shorts. (Granted, I am tall and I was wearing short shorts.) The current was not particularly strong. When we hiked, the river was running at about 45 cubic feet per second. The park allows hikers to enter the Narrows when it's running up to 120 cubic feet per second.

And of course it was beautiful. And crowded, for the first hour or so of our hike. The further we went, the quieter it was, and we had a couple stretches to ourselves. I really appreciated those. I found myself wishing the hike were a little more difficult so that we might not be sharing it with scores of people, but it's lovely that so many can have the experience.

We ended up hiking up the river about three hours, then turning around and coming back, but with a permit you can hike the entire Narrows. You should probably be pretty fit for that, but I would recommend an out-and-back dayhike to anyone age 12 and up. And during the warmer months you don't need to rent equipment to do it, but it did make our experience more comfortable. A package of neoprene socks, canyoneering boots, and walking stick is about $21. If you want to experience solitude you must be prepared to be cold, coming early in the morning or during the off-season. The outfitters also rent drypants and full drysuits.

A last observation about the Narrows... perhaps you've been wondering, where do people in a crowded, 20-foot-wide canyon go to the bathroom? The answer is: in one of a bare handful of secluded spots behind trees on sandbars. There really were only a few places were a person could pee and not be seen, and we did avail ourselves of these on our 6-hour trip, and found them strewn with litter and reeking of ammonia. This is an interesting problem from a park management standpoint; they really can't install porta-potties in there, and while hikers are encouraged to take solid waste disposal bags with them, there is no good way to handle all the pee. Well. I suppose I could have spared you all that, but having worked in national parks, these are the things I think about.

We returned to our campsite, where we spent the rest of the day trying to find ways to cool our beer off.

The next day we slept in and didn't hit the trail until noon or so. Since we were planning a strenuous hike for Sunday, we decided to take it easy and do some of the shorter trails, like the Emerald Pools and Kayenta trails. On one of the Emerald Pools trails, Sarah spotted some graffiti that was deeply offensive to her sensibilities -- it read, "Nick" -- and she set out to obliterate this offense, using water, sand, and pure aggression, to little effect. It was very noble of her though.

On the Kayenta trail, her hat blew off onto the edge of a cliff. Almost every popular trail in Zion is on the edge of a cliff. We did not try to get it back.

We then came upon this striking orange-headed spiny lizard... no, that's its actual name...

And, toward the end of the day, one of the many fawns to be seen in the park, grazing beside their mothers.

That day we also saw some wild turkeys, which I didn't deem sufficiently interesting to take a picture of. We did not see any tarantulas. As I discovered on my last trip to Zion, Fall is when the tarantulas come out and look for mates, and we had seen 2 of them then. I had told Sarah this and she was horrified. She did not want to discover, say, a tarantula crawling on our tent. But by the time we arrived in the park horror had been replaced by intrigue, and she very much wanted to see one. We asked park employees and fellow hikers, some of whom had seen them, but we never did, and were sad.

That night we went to one of the evening ranger programs, which are often wonderful ways to learn more about wildlife, geology, history, astronomy, et cetera. And I have mostly enjoyed these talks greatly during my many trips to national parks. However, they -- in fact, any ranger program -- can be a bit of a grab bag. Your ranger might be a veteran ranger with a Ph.D in history and 30 years of experience in the parks from which to draw spellbinding stories, or it might be a 19-year-old college student who's been a park employee for 1 month and has so little talent at presenting material you could fall asleep during their spiel on deadly flash floods. Unfortunately, our ranger that night was of the latter sort, and Sarah and I snuck out of the program after 15 minutes of painful rambling. And we didn't end up checking out any of the programs later that weekend, or indeed, anything provided by park employees at all, beyond asking one man staffing the wilderness desk to settle a bet for us.

All that said, I adore the park service and wish we'd had time to take advantage of some of the stuff going on while we were there, and I encourage everyone to do so during your visits!

There are more great photos to come. To read part 2 of our Zion trip, click here!