Our first day in Southern Utah at Bryce Canyon National Park was spectacular! Kevin confessed, however, that when he comes to Southern Utah he usually skips Bryce Canyon and heads straight to Zion National Park.
Skips Bryce Canyon? Could Zion National Park be that amazing that the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park pale in comparison?
I couldn’t wait to find out.
“The mountains are calling and I must go!”
– John Muir
There are two ways to enter Zion National Park. The South entrance leads through Springdale on the I-15 Highway and the East entrance leads directly into the park on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway.
Kevin explained that the East entrance is the most scenic drive and is easily accessible from Bryce Canyon National Park. In fact, it is only 72 miles (116 km) away.
I wrapped my camera strap around my hand, held it out the window and did my best to capture our drive into the park
Carving its way through Zion’s massive pink and red sandstone cliffs, the highway presented new magnificent views with each turn. Our eyes struggled take it all in!
This isn’t just a scenic drive … it is a road to another world.
Before we knew it, we were passing through the darkness of a 5,000 foot tunnel through the Great Arch. We then emerged from the tunnel with new views of the area as the highway led us down a series of switchbacks into the canyon.
If this was just the road INTO the park, what would we possibly see IN the park?
Only time could tell.
After checking-in to our hotel, we stopped for lunch, chose our first hike, and headed into the park!
We parked our car at the Zion Canyon Visitor Centre and boarded the Zion Shuttle. To limit traffic in the park during summer, access to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is restricted to shuttle buses only.
Our plan was to take the shuttle to the Zion Lodge where we would complete the four mile hike through Emerald Pools returning along the Kayenta Trail. It looked like an excellent first hike to get us started!
We crossed the road from the lodge and stopped on the bridge before heading to the trailhead. Before starting the hike, we took a moment to gaze along the river and into the canyon.
We were overcome with excitement as we appreciated the colours that filled our vision. Cliffs of red rock stood out against the greenery lining the Virgin River.
Seriously, where was all this green coming from in the middle of the desert?
Emerald Pools was a perfect hike to get us started presenting magnificant views of the canyon on our way down. With a little bit of elevation our sights went beyond the trees and we finally got to see what Zion National Park had to offer.
Beauty. Tranquility. Stillness.
It is hard to believe that such a small river is responsible for carving this canyon!
Zion National Park is located on the edge of the Colorado Plateau and over two hundred million years ago, it was a relatively flat basin.
As nearby mountains eroded, streams carried sand, gravel, and mud into the basin depositing them into layers. Over time, mineral-filled waters filtered through the layers cementing them into a combination of limestone, mudstone and sandstone. Further over time, these rock layers were uplifted to as high as 10,000 feet above sea level.
This uplift gave streams cutting force as they moved towards the sea carrying sediment and large boulders with them. Since the uplift began, the North Fork of the Virgin River has carried away thousands of feet of rock. Even today, it continues to carve its path especially during flash floods.
Overall, it was an excellent first day on the trails! Emerald Pools was a great warm-up and sneak peak into the views that were about to come. I had a feeling, however, that Angels Landing would take things to a whole new level!
That night, I barely slept.
I had an uneasiness within me about the climb ahead. While I had not researched anything about the hike, Kevin warned us that absolute attention must be paid when hiking Angels Landing. People have died.
He showed us a picture of the trail where you walk along an extremely narrow platform gripping chains with sheer cliffs on either side.
Seriously, what was I getting myself into?!
The next morning, we were up early to tackle Angels Landing. The 5.4 mile (8.7 km) trail climbs an elevation of 1488 feet (453 metres) and is one of the most famous and thrilling hikes in the national park system. It got its name in 1916 from Fredrick Fisher whose group of four were exploring Zion and upon looking up at the great monolith he declared “only an angel could land it.”
Well, I guess at least it isn’t called “Angels Departure.”
After a ride on the Zion Shuttle to the Grotto, we crossed the road to the start of the West Rim Trail leading to Angels Landing. There we passed the Angels Landing sign warning about safety on the trail, highlighting that six people have died off of its cliffs.
As if that didn’t worry me enough, Kevin passed the sign and exclaimed, “I don’t think that signs been updated. Pretty sure more than six people have died!”
I turned to stare at him… Are you serious, right now?!
As we took off on the trail we peered up to the sky and stared at the beautiful cliff we were about to tackle. Standing above all others in the valley, the peak of Angels Landing is incredible. If I make it out alive, it will become one of my proudest moments.
As I contemplated whether or not I would live another day, a small pebble caught my toe and I stumbled slightly. Kevin turned around to look at me with worry. My heart sank.
Things like that can not happen again…
After travelling through a riparian woodland of cottonwood, pinyon pines and junipers, the trail ascended up the face of Cathedral Mountain.
The path hugged the side of the mountain in a series of switchbacks. As we ascended to each new level, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the canyon!
While the path along the switchbacks was wide, I kept close to the iron-stained rock walls. I kept my head down and concentrated on each step ensuring that no mistakes or stumbles happened along the way. I needed to be ready for what was to come…
Once we finished the switchbacks, we entered Refrigerator Canyon. For the next mile, the trail took us along a gap between Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain. Well shaded, breezy and flat, it was a nice break before our next ascent, Walter’s Wiggles.
Named after the first superintendent of Zion who helped engineer the steep zigzagging section of the trail, this part of the path ascends twenty-one sharp zigzags to a scenic plateau.
We climbed steadily, periodically stopping to take in our surroundings. The incline was tough but I was thankful the path was still wide. At one point some school kids messing around, ran passed me and the boy almost tripped and knocked me. I glared at him with anger.
I was so focused on not tripping, I had not considered that someone else’s negligence could cause me to fall.
Eventually, we reached the top of Walter’s Wiggles at Scout Lookout where we received our first impressive views of Zion Canyon!
The lookout was also the official start of the Angels Landing trail!
I looked out to the trail and assured myself it wasn’t going to be too bad. Afterall, I could see the top from where I was standing. It looked like a dangerous stretch with chains but at least it looked short.
I pumped myself up! Finally, I was ready! I can do this!
As I gripped the chain, the reality of the situation hit me. One error and I would fall down the 1,200 foot cliff next me. Straight down. There would be no rolling down a hill with hope to catch myself along the way. I would die. Guaranteed.
I started to panic.
It was not the fear of heights that got me. It was the fear of myself as a clumsy and klutzy person. I am constantly spilling things, tripping, falling and walking into walls. I never realized how much I say “Whoop!” until I realized how much Kevin replies, “There it is!”
In an attempt to help, Kevin is also constantly reminding me to be careful. “Slow down there, Speedy!” he regularly calls after me.
So now was the time to be slow. Methodically slow. Literally, one foot confidently in front of the other slow. I didn’t care about the line up of people behind me. This was my life!
As I reached the platform, my emotions over took me. I looked ahead at what was to come and realized that the stretch I just finished did not lead to the end, it led to the beginning. I was no where close to the end.
I was terrified. My knees started to shake, my hands started to tremble and I started to cry. I lost it. I had pumped myself up for that last stretch only.
I had lost all my pump up! There was nothing left.
Daisy and Kevin stared at me with concern. They knew I was nervous but they didn’t see this coming. I didn’t see this coming!
Kevin hugged me and assured me that if I wanted to stay at the platform and go no further, it was fine. We would tackle it together next time.
But I didn’t want to wait until next time.
After a few moments, I calmed myself down. I can do this! Kids were doing this! Although for the record, I would NEVER bring my future kids on this hike.
Kevin put my camera in my backpack to ensure that I had no distractions along the way. I wiped away my tears, blew my nose and took a deep breath.
I can do this.
Ever so slowly, I kept my head down and concentrated on each move that I made. Daisy and Kevin made it look easy as they moved along the chains and stepped up the rocks. I was snail slow but I didn’t care. No one on the trail seemed to mind as well. Everyone respected what the person in front of them needed. Everyone recognized the intensity of the situation.
When we reached the top, the feeling of pride and satisfaction was unlike anything I have felt on a hike before. I did it. I faced my fears and tackled one of the most thrilling hikes in the world!
Then I looked up.
The view from Angels Landing is spectacular. Mind blowing. I took a seat overlooking Zion Canyon and stared out into nature. It was such an honour to enjoy this view that has been here for millions of years. It is like no where else on Earth.
Daisy called out, “Doesn’t it look like a scene from Land Before Time?”
I turned to her. That was it!
Peering off of that cliff, I felt like I got to witness what the world was like when Dinosaurs roamed the Earth millions of years ago. It looked completely untouched. Natural. Thank god for the United States government for preserving such a beautiful sight!
Once I got my camera out of my backpack, I couldn’t stop using it. I wanted to capture this moment forever! I was so thankful to get to share this moment with Daisy and Kevin too.
After a million pictures, a rest and a snack, it was time to head down.
Wait. How the hell were we going to make it down?! I had blocked this question from my mind the entire time I struggled to make it up…
Holding on for dear life, I came down the same way I went up. One foot in front of the other. This time I also resorted to sitting down and shuffling from rock to rock, whatever felt more stable.
When we finished the hike, we were all exhausted. We decided to head back to the hotel for a swim and a rest.
We had earned it!
That night Kevin took us on an off-roading adventure in search of his favourite camping spot outside of Zion National Park. The views were spectacular and it was a perfect way to end the day.
The next morning we were back in the park to get a taste of The Narrows before heading back to Salt Lake City. The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon with walls a thousand feet tall and the river only twenty to thirty feet wide in some sections. The hike involves wading in the Virgin River upstream before turning around and hiking back down to the Temple of Sinawava.
Due to a storm that had hit surrounding areas in the park the day before, there was a risk of a flash flood through The Narrows the morning we hiked. Told to proceed with extreme caution, we waded into the waters only far enough to get a feel for the experience.
And to try out our new hiking sandals!
Well, I guess you have to leave something for next time! I say that with confidence as I have no doubt we will all return back to Zion National Park. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever been!
“There are rare places on Earth that neither words or pictures can capture. When you enter Zion National Park you will experience a feeling that won’t quite fit inside your camera. Your eyes will search to take it all in, your voice will falter as you try to express the emotion. The only place you’ll truly comprehend it is in your heart. Zion will change you from the inside out. The colours will astound you. The perspective will humble you. The immensity will leave you in awe.”
Once again, well done, Utah. Well done.