Zion National Park is a place I have anticipated seeing for a very long time. I was actually heading there in the early spring of 2012 when I had my first (and thankfully minor) breakdown in The Beast. That happened at “quitin’ time” near Page Arizona and by the time I was mobile again on Monday I had only a few days to make my way back to Texas for my daughter’s spring break.
That breakdown came whirling back into my mind while talking with the manager at Mammoth Lakes Goodyear where I was stranded for a few days with a much costlier problem… on my way to Zion. “Omen?” we wondered somewhat jokingly… was I not meant to go to Zion?
Luckily I’m not in the least bit superstitious or I might have missed one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen! Zion National Park is one of those places you drive into knowing you’re about to see something amazing, but as the vista opens itself up to you and literally engulfs you, your eyes go wide and a long slow “Woooooow!” spills out of you as your jaw drops in awe.
I don’t think there’s any way to adequately describe (or even capture) Zion. The view changes with every bend in the road. It’s like finding a cave of hidden treasures, and around every turn another chest of jewels is opened (by a genie or some such thing) and handed to you. Yours… to keep forever. I guess I’m a greedy little hoarder because I couldn’t get enough!
I arrived Zion on a Sunday afternoon and settled into my campsite at the Watchman Campground near the south entrance. Soon after taking the dogs for a “potty break” we were all in the car heading deeper into the park. I quickly learned that the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only accessible by shuttle bus most of the year, and on all weekends in November. I saw what I could along the main roadway and then headed back to check out the little town of Springdale as well as the visitor’s center.
I always find it helpful to ask, whether park rangers or campground hosts, what they suggest I not miss while I’m there. (This is in addition to the research I typically do before setting out for a new destination.) I spent a fair bit of time with one particularly helpful ranger here who helped me make a list, prioritize it and even map it out. This was time well spent because there was little I’d change about how the week played out.
Much to my dismay it poured all day Monday, but I took advantage of that and made it an “office day”. I was thrilled to find the sun shining Tuesday morning and as soon as the dogs got a little morning exercise I was headed into Zion Canyon. (I should note that dogs are allowed on few if any trails throughout the national park system. In most cases it’s an understandable rule, and in the case of Zion… with many high and narrow cliff-side trails… I would not have wanted them with me.)
I drove the entire length of the canyon stopping several times to enjoy and photograph the majestic beauty, often hiking some distance to get the shot I wanted.
On the way back down the canyon I parked at “The Grotto” and combined four hikes into one, my favorite part being the Kayenta Trail which followed a ridge well above the North Fork of Virgin River.
While in the canyon I came across and visited with three different artists who were diligently painting their own visions of Zion for a big art event that was taking place there that week. I always enjoy capturing an artist in the scene they are capturing themselves. First was Steven Hill who was hard at work along the river in a less than desirable setting than I would love to have found him in. I remarked that I always envied a traditional artists ability to control the scene, contrast and lighting with the stoke of a brush, and simply leave out anything they don’t want in their image. Later I was drawn right into the beautiful scene in which Michelle Condrat was the art as well as the artist. And while visiting with her another artist, John Cogan added a new dimension.
I also drove up Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and through the remarkable mile-long tunnel that was built into this mountain in the 1920s. This windy road is a series of switchbacks up a steep mountainside, each turn bringing more into view. On the other side of the tunnel the landscape changed yet again.
Before quittin’ time I hurried back to the visitors center to secure a wilderness permit to hike “The Subway”. This is a strenuous 9-mile hike down a steep canyon, and up a river to a uniquely shaped slot canyon. When I say up a river I mean I hiked IN the river, sometimes up to my thighs, and scrambled over boulders most of the way. And I was not only lugging my usual camera, lenses and water, I was carrying a large heavy tripod with me as well.
The water was cold and the hike was tough, but the reward was witnessing another spectacular miracle of nature. Interestingly I saw no one else on the entire hike up, but ran into about a dozen people there, most with cameras. Clearly I was not the only greedy little hoarder in the park!
Since everyone was stopped there it was fairly clear we’d reached the end of the trail. Beyond there the canyon turned a bend and narrowed substantially causing the water to be much deeper. We all stood around shooting and visiting in the area The Subway was named for, but I couldn’t help wondering what was around that next bend. My curious nature took me butt deep into that chilly water to find out; Nothing! The canyon closed itself up and became a sheer cliff. I’m glad I dared to look though because wondering would have bugged me all the way back down the trail.
After that, and in order to stay warm, I set out on my return hike, forging through the river and scampering over the boulders, challenging myself to keep a good pace. I was already pretty exhausted when I reached the bottom of the steep canyon trail I still had to climb. As I stood there catching my breath and staring up the hill a young couple I met on the trail, Dane and Julieta, walked up behind me. We talked for a bit and then headed up the hill together, visiting much of the way.
I was ever so grateful for a second reward on that hike… as I was stripping off my wet boots and socks in the parking lot Julieta walked over and handed me a cold beer! It was without a doubt one of the best I have ever tasted! Cheers you two! It was wonderful to meet you, and I will be sure to look you up when I return to the Tetons!
There are two things I should mention about this hike;
In prep… I highly recommend renting a pair of water boots and some neoprene socks. Not only did they keep my feet warmer than I would have been in my hiking shoes, these boots are designed for better traction on slick rocks. If you’re carrying camera gear and tend to be in the least bit clumsy a dry bag would be a good idea as well. Zion Adventures has it all.
For safety… I know a few of you worry about my safety at times. I hope you find it comforting to know that, although I can be rather daring, I also try to be wise. In the case of extreme hikes like this, especially when wilderness permits limit the number of people I’ll see on the trail, I take precautions. I let at least a couple people know where I’m going and when they should expect to hear from me. And I provide emergency contact information so they’ll know who to call if I don’t check in. In the case of this day’s hike, since the dogs were “home alone” several miles away, I left a note on my dash next to my permit (where I knew it would be seen) stating that in case of an emergency I had two dogs in my motorhome in xx campsite in the Watchman campground.
I also time my hikes so that there are others behind me on the trail, and make a point of never being the last one out. My Lake Ozette hike was a rare occasion where that was not an option, and since it turned out to be such an extreme hike I found that a little unsettling.
Zion was SO spectacular that it doesn’t all fit in one post. In fact I had a hard time whittling it down to two, so stay turned! There’s more… and it’ll take your breath away!