Zion National Park

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September 12th 2022
Published: September 14th 2022
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Sun, 11 September

Zion National Park. There are so many and so few words that best describe this place. It's scale and beauty is epic, imposing, surreal and captivating. It's impossible to tear your glued eyes away from the scenery, which feels very much like a movie set back drop because it's so picture perfect. The narrow canyons have towering red cliffs - rugged and sometimes sheer - rising 1km above the valley floor. It reminds me of both Yosemite and Kings Canyon merged together. There are two main canyons. The first is run by a shuttle only and has the majority of the walks. Some walks are easy or moderate and some are strenuous. You catch this from the Visitor Centre and it shuttles back and forth from stops 1 to 9. The trip itself is jaw dropping.

The other canyon has the scenic drive that switchbacks up to an impressive 1-mile tunnel opened in 1930 and this continues on towards Bryce Canyon. We'll travel that route on Tuesday.

The weather when we left home was overcast and cool with the occasional drizzle of rain. Perfect weather for walking - and that's exactly what half of America also thought as they arrived in droves. Alas, we discovered upon arrival we'd forgotten our entire chilly bag at home with the lunch supplies and extra water. Since we only had 2L of water with us, we opted to do a couple of easy walks. We caught the shuttle all the way to the end of the canyon at stop #9 and the drive itself was mesmerising. At the end of the road are two walks - the River Walk and the Narrows. The River Walk is 3.2km return and leads to a water crossing where you choose to return or continue on for another 7km through the Narrows. The Narrows gets its name from several watery slot canyons and those who wish to visit them need to be prepared to wade through waters up to chest deep and be prepared for flash floods. There was no shortage of people returning on the River Walk with their shirts, shorts, shoes and socks being totally drenched. We didn't want to forge through the water crossings so chose to turn back. Besides, we have our biggest walk tomorrow so we didn't want to push ourselves too hard. The River Walk was very scenic with cliffs on either side of a bubbling Virgin River. We saw a dear and several squirrels. By the time we started the walk, the rain and clouds had gone and it was blue sky, direct sunlight and high humidity. We were thankful for the shade of the canyon walls and the free water refill stations at each bus stop. It wasn't as good as our refrigerated water back at home, but it was better than nothing.

Afterwards, we returned to stop #5 at Zion Lodge. This is the only lodging inside the park and is surrounded 360 degrees by canyon walls. They have a delightful big grassy picnic area so we stopped here to share a sandwich and drink and take in the views. We sat there for an hour soaking up the landscapes. We think that besides Illecillewaet campground in Canada, this is potentially one of the most beautiful picnic spots we've ever had the pleasure of relaxing at. There was a cool, gentle breeze wafting over soft, vibrant green grass and large trees that provided welcome shade for weary travellers. All this contrasted against red cliffs. We'll do the same again tomorrow after our big walk.

Mon, 12 September

I did not die today. I was nervous and mildly terrified but I managed to find some mental resilience in the backlot of my mind and mustered the courage to conquer Angel's Landing. It was my idea to do the hike because why not - we're not coming back any time soon - but I wasn't expecting it to be as mentally challenging as it was, especially given I enjoy heights and the feeling of freefall.

Our hiking permit was for 9am - 12pm, so we were at the trail head on time and after checking in with the rangers, we started at 9.10am. The weather was low 20's and overcast, which we were most thankful for. The lower third of the walk twisted back and forth in switchbacks, climbing ever higher with the path hewn into the rock like precarious shelving. The views from these vantage points was very impressive and we even told a couple of older people who were struggling with walking, that if they got to ¾ of the way up the first set of switchbacks, they could get the great views and turn around. Naturally, the views from the top are always going to be better but if you’re in your 80’s and struggling to walk, something is better than nothing.

After 1km the trail turned inward to a protected canyon and we had another 1km of relatively flat path to get our breath back before the final push of even steeper switchbacks to the top of Scout’s Lookout. Another 1km later and we arrived at Scout’s Lookout. From here you have a commanding view of the valley on all sides. You watch the buses shuttle along the road beside the Virgin River, stopping at their various collection points. We saw California 2 condors fly past at eye level as they soared above the valley floor. At this point, we were 450m above the valley floor.

If you choose to turn back, this is a great point to do so and the views will have been totally worth it. However, we had a permit to continue on up to Angel’s Landing. This is a 900m long track that climbs to 600m at its summit. And it’s steep! I had seen photos of it and it was my choice to pursue the permits, but when I saw the trail in real life, I had an attack of doubt. As I surveyed the task at hand, watching people clamber on a 6ft wide strip with 500m cliff drops either side, I started second guessing my ability to do it. Almost at the point of pulling out, I asked one couple who’d just returned what it was like, and the girl cheerily responded “It’s better than I thought and I have a fear of heights.” Dwayne was giving his best pep talk and when I saw a Chinese mother in her 60’s start the climb with the rest of her family, I thought “No one has died in the past week and if she can manage it, so can I.”

With that, we scrambled to the start of the assistance chain and began the gnarly ascent. The trail consists of 4 main sections – a climb, a descent, a narrow saddle and a 2nd narrower and steeper climb. It’s mostly hard rock and with good shoes you don’t really slip, although there is also loose sand so one has to be careful nonetheless. There are chains for 90%!o(MISSING)f the terrain, but as my hands were sweating profusely, I doubt they’d be able to get a grip in the event of a slip. I kept telling myself one step at a time, make each step purposeful and don’t look down! Dwayne, on the other hand, was confidently and safely pushing up with little evidence of any nerves. He was loving the views and the hike. He was stopping every now and then for photos when it was safe to do so, and it was just as well because I didn’t get my phone out for the entire return journey. It really was more of a mental challenge than a physical one, albeit the 500m sheer cliff drops on either side! It was very bizarre that the person who loves heights was the one who was struggling.

Once we had passed the 1st rise and descent, we took a breather whilst waiting for others to descend from the 2nd ascent (there are very few passing areas!), and my quadriceps suddenly felt like jelly. My heart rate was only 158bpm but when I saw the tiny bridge that is the saddle, one realises that things are about to get a lot hairier. Gingerly I crossed the saddle with quivering legs and started the 2nd ascent, which is twice as long and steep as the 1st. I won’t lie, it was really hard trying to engage a hesitant body and disengage an active brain. We took our time and 1hr after starting, we finally arrived at the summit. The terrain was layered like rocky sandstone pancakes so we had to walk on an angle along the top and out to the tip.

But wow – the view was unbelievable! 360 degree view of the canyon in all directions, and it was magnificent. Words and pictures can’t do it justice. The scale of the cliffs and the vivid reds interlaced with occasional white tones, was indescribable. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

We found a place to sit because even though it’s sloping, it’s quite wide and people were scattered all over the place munching on snacks. Once I was seated, I breathed a sigh of relief and could finally enjoy the view. I couldn’t believe I was in the same place I’d seen on internet images. It was so surreal, almost like the scenery was a fake painted movie back drop that was going to rip at any second. It was mind blowing, breath taking, jaw dropping, humbling, imposing and overwhelming. I didn’t cry, but I thought if I let myself go, I probably could. We finally did it. I’ve done a lot of scary things in my life like sky diving and bungy jumping, but this was more nerve-racking for me than both those things. Give me a bungy cord any day.

After half an hour we decided to start the descent while it was still overcast and ahead of predicted rain at 3pm. It took just as much time and especially with my wobbly quads, each step being an exercise in not collapsing. We got safely back to Scout’s Lookout, having taken 2hrs for the 1.8km return climb, and I breathed my 2nd sigh of relief.

At this point, a girl overheard us talking and said “Are you guys Aussie?” She was from the Gold Coast and very excited to meet other Aussies because Utah isn’t very big on the Australian traveller radar, so she hadn’t heard a home accent for ages. Her name is Nikita and both she and her boyfriend work in the Caribbean on the fancy yachts for 9 months of the year, and during hurricane season from August to November, they get 3 months off. They had recently purchased an ex-Ambulance and had it renovated into a motorhome. She proudly showed the pictures of her $100K motorhome and it was very luxurious, complete with ensuite. She offered to rent it to us at mates rates if we come over again whilst they’re working in the Caribbean.

We started our descent from Scout’s Lookout through all the switchbacks, and I was most thankful for my walking sticks which were being leaned on a lot with my fainting quads. After 5hrs away, we arrived back to where it all began. I took my shoes and socks off and waded in the river up to my thighs, appreciating a bit of hydrotherapy on my feet and legs. It’s amazing how rejuvenating water feels to tired muscles.

Whilst waiting for the bus, we ran into another group we’d seen in the Valley of Fires, so we chatted with them for the duration of the shuttle ride back to the Visitor Centre car park. They are a group of 8 friends with high school and/or college kids, who holiday together every year for a couple of weeks. They rotate the organisation so one person picks the location and budget, and the group decides on the timing, and off they go doing whatever the organiser has organised. Next year they’re off to Spain and 2024 is Iceland. It’s very cool that they make time to do that and that they’re so close to all these locations and don’t have to travel for days in each direction.

We expect to potentially see them again tomorrow, as we both head to Bryce Canyon.

I’m not sure if I can say I enjoyed the climb or endured the climb, but I am stoked to have conquered it once. Whilst Dwayne would say it was about both the journey and the destination, I’d say the destination is what kept me going. The journey was mildly terrifying!

I have loved our time in Zion. It’s not a big park and 2-3 days here is enough depending on what hikes you want to do, but its size is unmatched. It’s better than the Grand Canyon because you get to be in the valley looking up rather than on the top looking down, where you lose a lot of scale. There is something divine about this place and I can see why the Mormons called it Zion. It’s a big canyon designed by a big God. My God.


15th September 2022

thanks Renae and Dwayne for doing this hike ... we won't have to now!!! What spectacular views ...

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