Spring Careening - part 1

After my San Franciscan excursion, I had a mere week of work to slog through before another week of vacation would grace my schedule. This was my official “spring break,” and it lined up nicely with some friends of mine that would be traveling at the same time.

Zion National Park. Mother Nature did some darn good work up in this place.

I began by driving from my mountain home to Zion National Park, in Utah. In my head, it was a gargantuan journey – in reality it ended up being only about 6 hours. A wonderful surprise. I still managed to get out late in the afternoon, however, so I didn’t pull into the park until well after the sun had set and the waxing gibbous of the moon had high reign of the sky.

The campsite that we reserved was outside of the park boundaries on the eastern side, so I ended up driving through on the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway. Without any knowledge of the local geography or even any cell service to know what was around me, I barreled blindly into the shadowy preserve. The dark horizon in front of me had long been rising, but now I was engulfed in the blackness. The road narrowed, and began to kink and twist violently, like a snake with its head trapped under the red sandstone rock that my high beams were illuminating. And it rose. Slowly at first, skirting the hulking silhouettes of what I could only imagine were mountains, but which seemed impossibly close. Rounding the first switchback, a massive dark monolith swallowed the moon. I craned my head to see the stars framing the peak, but the sky was quickly retreating from the canyon walls around me. This was the East Temple of Zion, towering 4000 feet over the road. And it rose. The next switchback was not so gentle. I gritted my teeth and cursed softly under my breath for not driving more cautiously. My left side, separated by a meager lane for opposing traffic, hugged a cliff face. My right side was a mystery, made only deeper when my high beams dropped off the edge of the turns, mimicking my nervous stomach. I took my foot off of the gas and resolved to keep my eyes on the road in front of me, regardless of the leviathan sentinels surrounding my tiny van. And the road continued to rise.

Eventually, I made it to a tunnel. I was briefly terrified at the thought of encountering some poor, trapped fauna with nowhere to run, but my anxiety was assuaged at the thought of being hemmed in on both sides, without fear of inadvertent cliff-diving. As it turns out, this famous tunnel stretches for over a mile. Had I known this fun fact ahead of time, it would have made for a much less bewildering journey as I inched through the seemingly endless darkness.

Zion Ponderosa Ranch. The lap of luxury, camping-wise. Hot tubs and showers abound here.

Zion Ponderosa Ranch. The lap of luxury, camping-wise. Hot tubs and showers abound here.

The topography outside of the tunnel was inscrutable to my eyes, so I stepped on the gas and hoped for no more sudden turns or elevation gains. I was treated with gentle roads and zero traffic until I pulled into the campsite about an hour later. Once there, I dodged no fewer than a dozen mule deer as I rumbled across the gravel road. Fortunately, my friends were easy to find, and I was able to relax by a dying fire before retiring, anxious with anticipation for what the light would reveal.

Despite my late night, the first gentle paling of the sky in the morning brought my eyes wide open. Scrambling to find my glasses, I slid open the van’s loud door and stepped outside. While the great mountains of my night ride were not immediately visible, the Southwestern scrub and temperate air brought a smile to my lips and a deep rhythm to my breath. I took an hour or two to walk off my excitement while my friends awoke, and eventually our caravan retraced the route I took the night before.

Pulling into the park was a perfect exercise in suspense, drama, and gasp-inducing sights. The road skated through the slickrock formations and drainages that characterize the Upper East Canyon. Smooth and sweeping ripples through the rock make it look like cinnamon icing. Occasionally, a black streak would cut orthogonally through the reds and yellows, bringing a volunteer waterfall skittering across the landscape. This area is where we saw flocks of bighorn sheep contentedly munching next to the road, with kids bucking and playing as if being jerked around on a puppeteers strings. The energy that exploded from these fuzzy youngsters brought laughter from onlookers and nonplussed stares from their exhausted mothers. I was amazed that more of the juvenile sheep didn’t end up falling down the deep ditches and bluffs with their reckless cavorting.

Passing again through the bafflingly long tunnel, I was treated this time to “galleries” cut out of the Navajo Sandstone that offer glimpses to the canyon beyond. Emerging into the space beyond felt like missing the last step at the end of a staircase. The Main Canyon of Zion National Park stretched out before me, the flat cliff faces soaring plumb from the road below. All of the paved surfaces in the park are covered with a red aggregate, composed of sediment from the surrounding area. It gives the winding paths a natural look as they snake through the valley below, as if they were a mere accident of erosion - appurtenant to the geologic forces that cut the enormous chasm out of the rock before me.

What was the most awe-inspiring to me was the incredible height difference between the canyon floor and the walls on both sides. I had always seen mountains in the distance, on the horizon, or as part of the scenery. These mountains were tangible, right here in front of me! I could reach out and touch them, their faces like those of a skyscraper.

Even if you don't have time to spend days and days in Zion, I would highly recommend driving through the park. You can see the beauty and grandeur of an otherworldly place from the comfort of your own car. And while I'm usually a fan of hiking out into the remote wilderness, with solitaire and challenge contributing to the "nature experience," I have to admit that driving through Zion gave me pause and appreciation for accessibility. We saw people being pushed in wheelchairs, walking with canes, and simply riding on handicap-accessible buses through some of this county's most gorgeous scenery. It was a beautiful thing. I don't think that all parks and places should be paved and graded for the masses, but I hope that if I have limited mobility someday, I am still able to travel to these places that have come to mean so much to me.

The first day in the park was crowded. We happened to be there during free week - which is a great thing - but for someone who is trying to get the most perceived use possible out of his National Parks Annual Pass, I felt a bit cheated (I am clearly not a student of "rational choice theory" when it comes to personal economics; I much prefer falling victim to the "sunk cost fallacy"). It was also a Sunday, so we decided to hike away from the most popular areas of the park. We chose to explore the Hidden Canyon Trail, a route that rises up out of the main canyon to the entrance of a hanging canyon, which is essentially a canyon that intersects with a deeper one. Just getting to the entrance requires climbing 1000 feet, with some pretty decent exposure around some of the corners.

View from the Hidden Canyon Trail. The tall peak on the left in the foreground is Angels Landing, which we'll visit later. To the right, the smaller peak is The Organ. The white range behind it is Cathedral Mountain.

The hike was steep and beautiful, although the most fun was yet to come. Once reaching the end of the proper trail, we were greeted by the entrance to the Hidden Canyon. With the afternoon open before us, we decided to hike into the canyon to see what we could find. Our world shrank around us, the walls of the canyon folding in like a great book. We balanced over unsteady logs, scaled boulders, and traversed along the water-smoothed rock. The sun shone in above us, slowing sinking behind as we ventured further into the gorge. The trees and plants greedily drank from the trickling stream, the same water that had brought the sand beneath our feet from the top of the cliffs on either side of us. We hiked on, encountering weird sandstone formations, piles of stones, and even a freestanding arch. It was like the entire park was distilled into this little canyon in which we could climb about.

Photo courtesy of Rachael Payer.

Photo courtesy of Rachael Payer.

After some time, we decided to turn back around. We kept expecting to find some lookout or ending to the trail, but it seemed to just follow the canyon up and up forever. We stopped for some granola bars and headed back towards the sun and mountains that we had been running from the whole afternoon. Once we returned from our side excursion, we found that it wasn't nearly as late in the day as it seemed from the confines of the slot.

Back out into the main canyon - this was our view from the trail.

Once we made it back to the shuttle, we rode it all the way out of the park and into the adjoining town of Springdale. There we patronized the Zion Canyon Brew Pub before making the achingly beautiful drive back to our campsite. It's a rough life, I know.

Early evening makes for some gorgeous shadowplay.

The next day was Monday, and as such, we hoped that the most popular hike in the park would be a little less busy. Angels Landing was so named after Frederick Fisher, an explorer in 1916, saw the peak and declared that only an angel could land upon it. As it turns out, once a trail was carved into the rock leading up to it, hundreds of angels a day have been able to alight on it's heavenly prow.

Angels Landing (on the left), as seen from the valley floor. It isn't the tallest peak in the area, but it certainly is the most exposed.

With 5 fatalities officially recorded on this hike, it's nothing to take lightly. However, five deaths over the course of a 90 year existence makes this hike considerably safer than say, driving a car. The first half of the trail is steep, but benign. There are some nice views, but it doesn't start getting interesting until you hit a point known as Walter's Wiggles. It's a series of 21 switchbacks that lead to Scout Lookout, a large plateau that is separate from the monolith of Angels Landing. At this point, the chains begin. The trail becomes steep and slick enough that the park service installed chains with which one can steady themselves. They aren't strictly necessary to complete the hike, but if you have any fear of heights, they certainly offer some comfort. Just past Scout Lookout is a spot called Widow's Tree, where we saw a fair number of people leaving their significant others before walking the ridge to the landing itself.

A view of the peak, and the trail to the peak, from Widow's Tree. I don't know why it's called Widow's Tree and I don't want to know why it's called Widow's Peak. I'm not trying to be sad right now.

In rock climbing, there's a concept known as "exposure." Sometimes, you'll be on a climb that isn't terribly strenuous in terms of technical difficulty, but it requires mental fortitude to overcome the perceived danger that you're in while climbing. This danger could be real or simply a result of an overactive sense of mortality, but, like a hangnail, once you've become aware of it, it's nearly impossible to stop picking at it. Steep climbs that have sweeping, vertigo-inducing drop-offs would be climbs with high exposure. This is a good example.

My point is this: Angels Landing is one of the first hikes that has given me that same sense of being exposed. Your feet are sure and the trail is solid, but thoughts flit through your mind, unbidden and unwelcome. "What if my foot slipped here?" "I should definitely not trip right there." Craning your head over the edge of the stairway up brings your stomach into your throat. Everything is fine, and a compensatory chuckle escapes, lessening the pressure from behind your eyes, but your next breath is deeper, more deliberate. The worst part of the hike is waiting for other people to pass, although this is also a good opportunity to get out of your own head and see how others are dealing with the swirling emotional rush. You see a wide range of strategies.

Leaning out over the Landing.

The plateau at the top is incredible. Wind blows just a bit harder than you'd like it to, but the panorama on all sides quickly usurps any other neuronal activity that might be vying for attention. We probably spent the better part of an hour turning around and taking in the visual smorgasbord. It happened to be my birthday, so I cracked open a beer that I hiked up in my backpack just in time to see a Peregrine falcon soar by our perch. It was a beautiful moment. I was blessed to be there with two amazing friends, and the only thing that would have made it better is if my family and a few other select individuals were there to share the experience.

The view from the top. Pictures truly cannot do it justice.

Look at that cute little waterfall. Taken near the Emerald Pools.

After that mountaintop journey, we did a smaller hike that took us around the edges of the valley, to a group of small lakes called the Emerald Pools. Misting waterfalls cooled us as we saw the late afternoon sun cut across the canyon. Being in the shade was a welcome relief from the heat of the sun, and cast some beautiful shadows to boot. The pools themselves were tiny, but quite pretty. I'm led to believe that the water was very low at the time that we were there, which may have contributed to their diminutive size.

Hiking back from the Emerald Pools. Next time I'm bring my rock climbing gear and a partner.

That night, we had fun back at the campground, making friends with folks in the hot tubs and mixing up some delicious Bloody Marys (hint, pickled beets, y'all). It was a very satisfying birthday, one of the best that I've had. Intoxicating adrenaline rushes, overwhelming natural beauty, and giddy endorphin trips (the kind that only a budding romance can bring - hint hint) had me in delirium. I can only be thankful for the opportunities that I've been given, and grateful for the people that have made these opportunities so wonderful.

Part 2 of the spring break from the Southwest is coming soon!




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