Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Zion National Park: Beauty in Utah, pt. 1

by James Walker

Day 2 - Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The southern tip of Nevada isn't what I would describe as beautiful. And it's hot. Usually it's really hot and the morning of June 20th was no exception. The first night of our trip was full of anticipation, but without any real excitement. We had made good time so far, but into a city neither of us cared for and we were eager to get to sleep so we could hit the road. So there we were, really bursting at the chance to get into Utah and see something amazing, but we were stuck in Las Vegas for the night.

The drive from Las Vegas to Zion is a relatively quick 3 hours. One of the cool parts of this drive is going through that little bit of Arizona as you head into the southwestern corner of Utah. Between Mesquite, NV and St. George, UT the I-15 highway goes through a bit of a canyon or gulch and the rock is red and jagged (video). The highway runs along the Virgin River, the same river that runs through Zion National Park, which we were headed to. The river here is slow, but pretty, and sets a contrast against the hot, red rock and the blue sky. But the drive is short and soon we were in Utah, passing through the town of St. George and switching highways to head into Zion itself.

The entrance to the park is right next to the Visitor's Center, which is also right next to the primary parking lot. June is tourist season and we were advised to find parking outside the park in the neighboring city of Springdale, but we got lucky and found a spot in the parking lot. However, one thing we hadn't counted on was leaving our propane tanks in a hot car all day. We worried about this for a while, but decided to throw the tanks into a collapsible cooler with a bit of ice to keep it cool. We figured it'd be better to have cold tanks than exploding tanks! After settling that, we jumped on one of the park's free shuttles and started our tour of the park.

The views start immediately upon entering the park; even from the parking lot we could see some of the prominent features of Zion. Being able to ride a shuttle was great because neither of us had to drive and we could both enjoy poking our heads out the window without being distracted by the road. At this point we had to start thinking about what we wanted to do while here in the park.

While we (and by we, I really mean Erinn) had planned out the big parts of our trip, we hadn't planned out the specifics, so when we got to Zion we didn't have a set itinerary. The attendant at the entrance had given us a packet and a map for the park so we picked out a place that sounded nice to stop at and went from there. We decided to stop at Zion Lodge, which is around the center of the shuttle loop through Zion Canyon.

Before we got to Zion, we had been considering a more ambitious hike up to Angel's Landing. This is a 5 mile round-trip, very strenuous hike which goes up a couple thousand feet to a beautiful lookout point. It all sounded amazing before the trip, but when we stepped into the hot weather of southern Utah in June, we decided to take it a easy and opted for a hike to the Emerald Pools. This trailhead can be accessed from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and leads across the road, across a bridge over the Virgin River, and up just a bit into the walls of Zion Canyon. It's an easy hike, mostly on a paved road, and it led us to a beautiful trickling waterfall (video) that flows into the Lower Emerald Pool. We would have gone further on the trail, but it was closed for construction. The middle and upper pools look beautiful in pictures and I'm a bit bummed we couldn't see them this trip, but I'm sure we'll get there next time.

One nice surprise at Zion was that at various locations throughout the park there were "water refill stations" where you could easily pop your water bottle under a faucet and get some fresh water. We had packed lots of water, but we still went through it faster than we had anticipated and it was nice being able to fill up throughout the day.

After our trek up to the Emerald Pools we got back on the shuttle and continued our tour up the canyon. There are many stops along this route and even more hikes accessible from each stop, but we took the shuttle to the very top of the canyon and got off at the Temple of Sinewava. Here we took another easy hike on a trail called Riverside Walk which is known as the gateway to The Narrows. At this point, I think we were both drained from the heat, but we were pushing each other to go further and see more Zion. The walk to the beginning of The Narrows isn't much longer than a mile, but the sun was zapping our energy and it seemed to take quite a while, but we would hit a nice stretch of shade and remember how beautiful everything was. One of the cool features of this area were the hanging gardens along the canyon walls. Water flows constantly down the walls of the canyon and at certain points where there is an outcropping or ledge some plants will grow, creating this wet, green garden on top of hot, red rock. It's pretty and they're all over Zion, but you can see them up close here on your walk to The Narrows.

The name for The Narrows is pretty obvious; this is the top of the canyon where the walls get very close and the passage gets more and more narrow. Also, you may have seen pictures of The Narrows without knowing what it was. It's a beautiful area where the close canyon walls have been carved out by wind and water and have this very smooth, curved look. The hike through The Narrows is actually a hike through the Virgin River with you wading through water up to your stomach. It's a lot of fun, especially after hiking around in 100 degree heat all day, but we hadn't planned for getting wet so we had to turn around when the water reached our knees. I think we would have been fine getting our clothes wet, but we both had phones and cameras on us and we didn't want to risk damaging them. So there's another hike for next time and a reminder that it might be a good idea to bring a bag or something to protect your electronics from water. We had a lot of fun, though, and we treated this whole trip as a learning experience. For example, on the way back from The Narrows, I saw a bunch of long, sturdy hiking sticks leaning up against a wall that people had been using to keep their balance while wading through the river. Over time, people had collected them, used them, and left them for future adventurers of The Narrows. Note to self: be observant. Erinn and I had been using each other for balance along the slippery rocks even in the shallower areas when we could have been using some big, heavy walking sticks. At this point, we were both worn out and although it was already late afternoon, we hadn't had lunch, so we got on another shuttle and headed back to our car.

When traveling through places with a lot of tourists, it's always fun to watch people and the shuttle back to the parking lot had a lot of people to watch. One was a three year old kid sitting with his parents. They were Asian and didn't speak much English and the kid was adorable. He had a toy phone and people around him kept pulling out their cell phones, pretending to call him and he was eating up all the attention. He was happy and having a good time and he made the long ride back seem pretty short. Eventually we got to the parking lot, made some sandwiches, and drove to Cedar City where we stayed at a KOA for the night.

I think both of us were excited and exhausted from our first day. We got to our campsite relatively early and made some sausages and squash, which became a staple for dinners on our trip, and went to bed. The only bad part about the whole day was that this particular KOA was on a very busy street and it was really hard to get any sleep. Even late at night, a huge truck would drive by every thirty seconds or so and pull you out of whatever sleep you had managed to get. I love the convenience of KOAs, but they're not always so friendly to the tent crowd. But as it was, we'd had a very successful first day of our Grand Adventure and we couldn't wait for more.

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