Thursday, July 10, 2014

Zion Canyon

It was with fervent anticipation that I arrived at Zion National Park just before sunrise. I'd seen the pictures and heard the stories. Finally, I was going to experience the uniquely magnificent beauty  myself.

The main canyon is approximately fifteen miles long, but it narrows significantly after 6.2 miles - a 10K! Beyond that narrowing, well, most of the canyon floor is occupied by the North Fork of the Virgin River. More on that later.

First on my agenda was a ride up and back down the10K road through the canyon's floor. I parked just outside the mouth of the canyon near a shuttle stop. By the light of a headlamp I built the bike while the still-to-rise sun slowly poured light into the valley.

From April through October cars are not allowed in the canyon. Travel is allowed on bikes, but most people catch the shuttles at the Visitors Center or in the nearby town of Springdale. Those shuttles start running at 6 a.m. This means that my ride, an easy spin that started at 5:30, was peaceful since I had the road all to myself. As I pondered a second pass the first shuttle came by and I decided to eat the breakfast I had started before the ride. Multi-grain organic "oatmeal" topped with cinnamon and paired with organic blueberries, raspberries, and a banana. Meal in hand, I perched myself on a boulder near the river and became enraptured by the sights and sounds of the cascading water.

It was the third shuttle that I ended up climbing onto. My mission in the canyon was simple. I would ride the shuttle to access and explore every trail and venue. A pre-recorded message told of the features and history of Zion NP as we rolled along. The bus driver chimed in several times. The shuttle traveled to the Court of the Patriarchs, Zion Lodge, the Grotto, Weeping Rock, the Bend, and, at canyon's end, the Temple of Sinawava. I rode first to the Grotto where I disembarked for a hike up to Angels Landing.

Angels Landing is the most famous place in the park. At 5.4 miles roundtrip it is not a long hike, but the mostly asphalt trail travels over 1400 ft up from the canyon floor. That is as high as the observation deck at the top of the Willis (Sears) Tower. Knowing that people from two other buses were ahead of me, I hiked quickly in order to reach the top before it got crowded.

I did stop frequently to absorb the scene with my eyes and camera lens. What an incredibly beautiful place! And the trail was masterfully built. It wound around and slightly up the canyon's west wall until it reached a nook in the wall where it switchbacked nearly straight up. I was amazed at the forethought and work that were put into building that trail.

When I reached the "top" I saw this sign:

The photo on the sign is the view I had. The Landing was a little over a half mile ahead and would be reached by hiking along that knife edge ridge. "Groovy," was my thought. First, I had to walk up a sloped stone face to look into the valley. After taking several steps I found myself, mid-stride, looking at this:

Look closely at that one. The canyon floor, with the Virgin River and the roadway winding through it, are nearly 1400 ft straight down. I stepped back, wrapped my mind around the fact that I nearly walked off of that cliff, and then stepped back up to snap that photo by holding my phone about a foot from my chest. I will admit here that I am afraid of heights even though I repeatedly place myself in positions like this in order to overcome that fear.

The hike/climb out to Angels Landing was thrilling. There were several people there when I arrived and I knew that the roughly one hundred people I had passed on the trail would be contemplating the final stretch while I snacked, chatted, and took photos. Still, I made sure that I did not rush the experience. I took photos of others, watched a squirrel crawl out of my backpack, attempted to recover the Cliff Bar that it stole, and chatted with a family from Florida before making my way down a rock slope for some solitude.

There was a steady flow of nervous hikers making their way up to the Landing while I made my escape. That allowed me to squat and gander the scene some more while offering words of encouragement. An exhilarating run back down the trail launched me into a hike along the Emerald Pools Trails which I followed back to the Zion Lodge (bucket list) and then on to the rock formation called the Court of the Patriarchs. From there I hiked/jogged the lollipop shaped Sand Bench Trail which allowed me to further explore the canyon floor almost all the way out to the mouth of the canyon before returning to the Court of the Patriarchs to catch the shuttle again.

This time I rode the shuttle to The Bend where I was nearly consumed by flies while hiking along the river. Then, once again, I boarded the shuttle - this time for a trip to the Temple of Sinawava. After refilling the water bottles I followed the Riverside Walk trail until it ended at The Narrows.

The Narrows is what the narrow part of Zion Canyon is called. It is what I referred to earlier. For the next three hours I hiked in and next to the Virgin River. I also climbed a few short waterfalls to explore a side canyon called Orderville Canyon. The further I splashed up the river the fewer people I encountered, but there were hundreds of people hiking in that water near the start of the Narrows. 

Hiking in that stream with multi-hued canyon walls towering up to a thousand feet overhead was an experience I will never forget.

I left Zion Canyon late that afternoon, stopping to shower and to sample a brew at the Zion Canyon Brewery in Springdale, UT. With almost perfect timing, I gassed up and drove to Bryce Canyon where I watched and photographed the sunset. Then, in a complete surprise, I was able to finish a long, action packed day by partaking in star gazing with high powered telescopes at the Visitors Center during their Annual Astronomy Festival. 

There were, of course, other events on that day, but I'm sticking with the highlights here. My aims are to showcase some of the breathtaking American landscape that I was able to see and experience, to motivate others to do the same, and to reveal that it really doesn't have to cost a lot to do so. I kept myself on a tight budget. I could have spent less or a lot more, but I wouldn't have had any more fun. I could have seen less and sat around more, but that is not my idea of a vacation. I moved quickly, but stopped often to reflect and absorb. My path allowed me to interact with interesting people from all over the world. That day in Zion Canyon brought me many smiles which I reflected onto and into those people I met. Hopefully, my words and pictures will stir you to get out and explore in whatever way you deem appropriate.

As usual, here are some of the photos I took that day. Enjoy! ST

Zion Canyon

Abundant life along the Virgin River

The trail to Angels Landing
More of that trail . . .
And still it climbs . . .

If you know me . . .
then you know . . .
that this germaphobe . . .
never touched those chains.

A cairn garden!
My contribution
Do you see my water bottle? Silly squirrel -
I was sitting with the pack on my back!

"Please don't cut off my feet" does not work.

Looking up at the Landing path
Now do you see the people?
The Narrows - a river walk

Back in Springdale longing for the cool canyon air
Bryce Canyon NP

"We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts." - William Hazlett

Next up is another exceptionally big day on the Kaibab Trail and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

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