Day 1: Zion Canyon
*Note that Brian and Sylvia made the pilgrimage to Zion Canyon some five years ago. During this time, Brian, then a man of a ‘certain age’, has become a man of a certain age plus five years. Therefore, a few minor dramatic liberties have been taken with the account that follows…IE, Brian has forgotten most of the exact details, and therefore it should be understood that events might actually have happened in a slightly different order than they did. But all events described did actually happen, as the photographic evidence will testify.
First morning in the canyon. We awoke to the sight of the two-thousand foot high canyon walls bathed in early morning light, looming over our modest hotel in Springdale, Utah. It was time to go exploring! We had a number of things to take in that day, for our time here was destined to be short. Continental breakfast and then canyoning…What joy!
First a word about Zion Canyon itself. Sylvia and I both consider Zion to be the best National Park in the Southwest excepting that mother of all holes in the Earth, The Grand. The reasons for this are not easily explained. I have visited (and in some cases spent considerable time) in Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns and Big Bend National Parks. I have been to all the Utah Parks save Capital Reef. There is no one particular reason why I think Zion is the best of them bar one, but rather it is for a combination of reasons. Grand Canyon has stunning vistas, Canyonlands has infinite complexity, Arches the red rock eye candy that gives the place its name, Bryce Canyon the hoodoos…and so on. Zion is the place that seems to have a little bit of everything. If you could only go one place but wanted to get some idea of what the American Southwest is all about, and that place was NOT the Grand Canyon…this would be the place I would recommend.
…Though I hastily add that much less visited Canyonlands would be a VERY close third place.
One another notable thing about Zion…It is one of the few Southwestern Parks (Guadalupe Mountains is another) that advertises itself from a distance. The massive white Navajo Sandstone domes of Zion are visible for miles throughout Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, like the basilica of some impossible cathedral.
We began our first day in Zion with a drive along the only paved road that actually goes into the canyon itself…to the looming rock amphitheater known as the Temple of Sinawava. Nowadays, you cannot even drive this road in peak season, thanks to the heavy visitation the park is now subject too…traffic forces the NPS to run shuttle buses in the crowded months, as they do at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Fortunately, we were there early enough in the season that we were in fact able to drive all the way to the end of the road. Even so, on at least one of the days we visited, people were parked up and down the road near the trail heads in such numbers that it makes me wonder if the day when shuttles will be the only traffic allowed here year-round is coming. But I digress.
Our destination for this day was the Riverside Walk…an easy trail that runs along the side of the Virgin River, which is to Zion what the Colorado is to the Grand…the ceaseless architect of all that can be seen.
The Virgin, unlike the wide and muddy Colorado, is a clear fast running mountain creek as it emerges from the canyon. We planned to walk to the spot where the famed trek known as the Narrows ends. “Narrows” refers to the stunning (but potentially dangerous) slot canyon carved by the Virgin River through native rock.
The walk down this exit point (hikers generally approach from well upstream) is, in contrast to The Narrows themselves, quite easy. Anyone can go see the exit from this fantastic place, but I would only encourage experienced hikers to attempt the Narrows themselves. The canyon is in most seasons partly flooded, and much wading (and sometimes swimming) is needed to get through. And if a flash flood should happen at an unlucky time, there is no easy escape from it.
An interesting observation from the river trail: As we began, I noted the fast rushing Virgin river on my left and mentioned to Sylvia, “Be on the lookout for a dipper!” A dipper, for those not versed in ornithology, is a small grayish bird that frequents fast moving mountains streams of the western USA. It is one of the few birds of fast moving cold water, and can often be seen flying directly into waterfalls.
…And what do we see just two minutes on the trail?
I was beside myself with ornithologic pleasure. Brian has birds on the brain.
After enjoying the Riverside Trail and taking some notes on The Narrows (for later?), we decided to go check out the famed Angels Landing and see what the fuss is all about.
Located on the tip of a high fin of slickrock high above the canyon floor, Angels Landing maybe be the best single viewpoint in North America. It lives up to its name – a place that only an Angel could think about touching down. But thanks to great trail work by the NPS, more than just angels and other winged creatures can make their way out here for the selfie to end all selfies.
But if you attempt this trail and don’t have wings, you had better be nimble or else have your guardian angel on speed dial. Because parts of it are very, very hairy. There are exposed sections on rather precariously pitched rock ledges, some of which have chains bolted to them as makeshift handrails. Here’s an excellent website with some great sample pictures…the name of the page is Hiking Shenandoah but that’s apparently not all they hike.
We decided to climb as far as we felt comfortable.
The lower section (West Rim Trail) of this hike, though steep, presents no trouble at all as it is graded and paved. I am convinced in my opinion that paved walkways are actually far WORSE to walk on than dirt and rock. They may be the preferred method of approach for sneaker clad day walkers, but no hiker wants to punish himself by walking on one, especially a ‘full figured’ hiker with ‘trick knees’. Such a hiker would be this guy…needless to say, this guy didn’t enjoy it, but it was a fairly routine approach. The craftwork put into the walkways, which are well blended in with the terrain and do prevent a lot of erosion in a delicate landscape, is admirable.
There are some very interesting small caves on the way up. The microclimate of this area traps the cool air to such an extent that it is known as Refrigerator Canyon. After the Canyon, the trails executes a number of looping switchbacks, then reaches an open area where the actual Angel’s Landing Trail comes in. Here are benches, pit toilets, and usually a whole gaggle of people hanging around. For those who don’t want to step off the graded trail, here is where the party ends. Sylvia and I chose to continue.
Just past this point, a complete and gregarious (and obviously mistaken) stranger pulled Brian aside, pointed at an odd rock formation that looked like a pedestal with broken stone eggshells hammered into it, and asked him, “Say…you look like you know what you’re talking about. What do you think this is?”
Caught in the open without his rock hunting book, Brian studied the rock in question and replied, “Maybe…fossil periwinkles?”
The man appeared satisfied with Brian’s answer, and both parted as rock brothers.
We made it to the place known as Scout’s Lookout. Here, as the name implies, is a fine lookout, and the beginning of the REALLY dicey stuff…the chains start right away, and Sylvia and I had every intention of tackling it.
Until we tried, that is. ☹ We headed out on the first steep pitch and our resolve quickly turned to dismay…alas, my ‘trick knee’ and natively poor balance, combined with Sylvia’s bad hand (she couldn’t grip the chains) thwarted us. The pitches of very smooth sandtone made me extremely nervous and neither of us was prepared for what we had to do. I’d like to tell you that it was with great reluctance that we abandoned the pursuit, but it was more like great reluctance AND relief. We turned back and spent some (not at all wasted) time on Scout’s Lookout, where I saw my first Peregrine Falcon at close range. Scout’s Lookout itself has a fantastic view.
In retrospect I deeply regret turning back, but facts are facts. We weren’t ready to tackle Angels Landing. We could see the summit ahead in the distance, a mere half mile away, and could even see hikers struggling up the last difficult pitch to the top. We made the right call, I think. But it was with a very bad taste in my mouth that I descended, empty-handed.
(Sylvia has since stated that if she had her ‘climbing gloves’ for her ‘mano malo’ she could have done the climb with no problem.)
But my disappointment did not last long. We’d done what we’d come to do, which was to scout things out. When we DO in fact make the REAL attempt at this, we’ll come physically and mentally prepared, having seen what it takes close up.
We weren’t yet ready to stop hiking, so we did some hiking along the modestly graded (and unpaved) Kayenta Trail. There are also some interesting rock formations and decent views of the river and canyon, though from a much lower vantage point.
All-in-all a good days hiking, even though we didn’t bring home the gold at Angels Landing. (Or, to be more charitable, we granted ourselves an opportunity for a FUTURE hike…and another blog post.) We had gotten a close look at two hikes that would eventually land themselves on our Bucket List. But we still had plenty to do, both in and outside of Zion Canyon.
Next…Bryce Canyon: The Bowl Full of Wonders