Happy Turkey Day!
I’ve been a bit quiet of late. Part of that is the national celebration for eating one of the world’s ugliest birds. I’m telling you, PETA, we’re doing our part to make the world a cuter place. The other part was due to me taking time to poke around some lovely canyons.
I was down south, checking out some famous locations. You may have heard of things like Zion National Park, Yosemite National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park or maybe even Grand Canyon National Park. Or maybe you haven’t. Either way, I’m going to tell you about them.
So in conclusion, if you have the chance, I’d recommend checking them out.
No? Not enough? Alright, I can give a few more details.
There’s actually quite a bit I can say about these places despite only spending a day at any of them. They’re remarkable areas of scenic beauty tucked away on the Colorado Plateau. You may not be aware of this, but Canada isn’t particularly swimming in deserts (well, at least not the hot, sandy kind) so puttering through the foreign landscape was a real treat. There’s quite a variation in the land and always being within eyesight of soaring red cliffs never got old. The lack of trees, however, would sap away my sanity had the change been more permanent.
But as a vacation spot, it was very lovely.
I’m only going to prattle about Zion National Park, though. Everyone knows the Grand Canyon. Most people I know already want to see the Grand Canyon. It’s a gosh-darn World UNESCO Site so it really doesn’t need me to tell you to check it out. But just in case it does, you should check it out if you get the chance.
However, the Grand Canyon is kind of what you’d expect from all its press floating out there. That just leaves Bryce and Zion and, of the two, I’m more smitten with Zion.
It’s not that Bryce is bad. It’s quite a surprise. But I think Bryce works best as a destination the less you know about it.
So Zion it is! But what is Zion? Well, it’s this:
For me, I was looking forward to Zion because I’m a massive nerd. We have several words devoted to a little computer game called Fallout: New Vegas. It introduced me to the surrounding area of the Mojave Desert and one of its exotic locations in an expansion was a trip to Zion. Of course, it wasn’t an accurate reproduction of the area but it did include several prominent features while also capturing the feel of the park.
However, as I wasn’t wandering in on a post apocalyptic trading caravan (though I thoroughly wished I were), the approach to Zion is a bit more humble. I stayed out in St. George so had an hour drive past the grand tan Navajo Sandstone and to little Springdale. It’s certainly a touristy spot with little shops dotting its main street advertising native art or pretty rocks. There isn’t much parking save for the sides of the street, and a long line of cars heading to the park will encourage you to pull before the squat desert structures. Thankfully, the park runs a very convenient (and free!) shuttle service that covers most of the town and ends at the park entrance.
There you’ll meet some friendly park rangers who will cheerfully take your entrance fee before waving you across the rather timid and unassuming Virgin river towards the park proper. One wisely advised I grab the Park Pass which would grant access to all National Parks and Monuments throughout America for one year. This is a steal, especially if you’re going to three or more locations within a year.
But before entering, there’s one final comment to be made about the park. There’s a Zion Outfitter right at the door and you’ll probably want to check it out if you’re not a hardcore climbing enthusiast or a local. The reasons for that is the Narrows.
Zions most famous hike is through the Virgin River at the heart of the park. To take this challenge on, you’re going to really want the speciality gear that the Outfitters rents. Now, most of their offering is probably unnecessary. They have pants, water tight bags and warm jackets. Thankfully, their cheapest bundle focuses on the gear you’re least likely to own: water resistant socks and shoes. Plus you get a walking stick.
These babies were a godsend. The Virgin River carries so much silt from the canyon that it is almost always murky. So you won’t be seeing the mass of stones hiding beneath its surface. I know I would have had bruised and bloodied toes if it were not for the reinforced exterior of those hiking shoes. Plus, the grip offered by the socks and shoes are fantastic for keeping your balance while treading over the slick rocks. For me, I found the fact that the socks kept their grip even while the shoes filled with (refreshing and cooling) water also a blessing for the hike. The walking stick as well is invaluable for probing the waters as you wade across to judge the depth and avoid hidden sinkholes while also giving you an anchor for keeping yourself steady in the stream. This will run a total of $24 but it’s money very well spent if you’re looking to tackle Zion’s most desirable hike.
That said, the renters discourage taking the equipment on the other trails. And the Narrows hike is located at the end of the shuttle service (which is about forty minutes one way). So you better start early if you want to do it or try and spread your hikes out over several days instead of squeezing everything into one.
The first trail I tackled, however, was Angel’s Landing. Once you’ve set a plan and bought your pass, you are funnelled towards the bus stop which ferries the vast majority of visitors into the canyon. As I was there near the end of climbing season, I had about fifteen minutes until a bus picked me up. Though the signs for thirty and one hour wait times were still out. Once aboard, a lovely little prerecorded message gave some history of the park as I gaped at the canyon walls along the way.
Angels Landing begins at the Grotto stop. It’s easy to find since a lot of people head towards it. The trail ascends to the top of a rock formation nearly in the middle of the park. The canyon loops around it, giving a sense of being lost in the breathtaking scenery. The trail is considered difficult, though the first two miles are well paved and maintained that I’d imagine very few would struggle with it. There’s a series of switchbacks—well two, really—that oversee the five thousand and change feet to its summit. The first set are long and uncovered. When doing it in the morning, you’re going to be very exposed and warm. But the trail heads up a small ravine once you’ve climbed the first half dozen switchbacks and you get to have a bit of shelter and reprieve from the glaring sun. Trees fill the crevices in this cooler section and it’s fairly level until you get to the titular Walter’s Wiggles. These are a set of twenty-one small switchbacks that lead right to Scout’s Lookout.
For many, Scout’s Lookout is enough of Angel’s Landing to enjoy. From here you can look over either side of the rocky ridge and get the jaw-dropping views. There are washrooms and a few scattered trees to drink water and take a break. Many will call it a day here. Of course, I pushed on.
The final half-mile stretch is a nerve-wracking scramble over narrow rock with just the assistance of a metal chain from keeping you becoming another warning statistic about climbers who have fallen to their deaths at the start of this stretch. Personally, I found it was physically the hardest at the start of this stretch. There were the most people traffic jammed on the sheer rock and all the dust from their boots made to surface incredibly slick. If you get past that, things get better. At least, physically they do.
Mentally, I found this hike the hardest I’ve ever done. Most climbs were tiring but I wasn’t really afraid. Angel’s Landing, however, kept me moving slowly and purposefully. My camera bag added an unnecessary amount of shifting weight that, when combined with the high winds, kept playing images of a mortal fall for fifteen hundred feet. There is no surviving if you tumble here; the rock is sheer on either side.
It took some work but I was able to mentally ground myself and concentrate on the climb and experience itself which was the real turnaround for the hike. Once I reached the end, it was something special. The sense of accomplishment combined with the views were unparalleled. The climb down was far easier for me too. I’m not afraid of heights so I could take the time while waiting for those ascending to pass and really enjoy the canyon, watching birds drift listlessly through the air. I also found it less unnerving to pass people descending and didn’t feel like one wayward nudge would be the end.
Course, the descent from Scout’s Lookout carries the same warning towards one’s knees as any climb down from a high hike.
The real treasure of my time in Zion, though, was the Narrows. It was a hike truly unlike anything else. It takes some time to reach the trail, however. You ride out to the final stop—The Temple of Sinawava—then hike along the Riverside path for almost two miles. The Riverside is a pretty simple and relaxing hike which means it’s rather crowded since people of all ages and skill levels are heading out to at least see the Narrows. The views of Riverside are a little underwhelming since the canyon walls are closing in though you can really appreciate just how red they are.
At the trail head, however, is a small crowd of people gathered on the rocky shoreline looking up the wide Virgin towards the shadows of the Narrow’s mouth. Its beginning is a touch unassuming. I was eager to grab some pictures in the river itself for novelty reasons but the canyon is wide enough that you can walk on the opposite shoreline and wading across mostly serves to separate the river walkers from the narrow travellers.
But it’s not long until the magic happens.
The river is constantly changing, taking up the entire berth of the slot canyon or tracing out a thin ribbon amongst rocky, tree-covered shorelines. Rocks of all sizes dot the trail and there’s plenty of breaks for you to stop and grab a bite to eat or enjoy the cool atmosphere. The canyon walls soar above you and you’re in shade more often than not so you’re never warm from the hiking. Of course, there’s also no privacy so make sure you make use of those toilets back at the bus stop because there’s nothing else out here. Apparently you can pick up sani-bags in town for removing your duty should it come to that.
Course, the price is well worth the experience. It’s incredible the variety you can get in just canyon walls and the way the light plays off the stone when it does break past the corners of the earth are simply amazing. Every bend and turn was a new delight and I gleefully grabbed pictures along the way.
My journey ended at a little feature called Wall Street. This section of the hike is when the canyon is at its narrowest and you truly feel the weight and power of the sandstone around you. It’s a fantastic section that, unfortunately, was far too flooded further one. I had been warned by an exceedingly kind Australian woman that about twenty minutes past Wall Street you had to swim to continue. I checked out a side route from Wall Street which was pretty empty of travellers. Here the water gathered it large pools segmented by fallen trees and was a welcome breath of tranquility. I snapped more pictures of course before turning around and heading back.
There’s a bittersweetness to how quickly return trips always are. You’re glad it’s shorter and faster because you’re tired and sore but you’re still sad to see it come to an end. The forty minute return trip on the bus gave ample time to nap, however.
So if you happen to be out at Springdale for a day with nothing to do, may I recommend taking a peek into Zion? You can soak your feet and climb up to where angels fly.