The American Southwest Part 5: Zion National Park
The next stop on our Southwestern adventure was Zion National Park. We rolled out of Lake Powell bright and early, knowing there were limited first-come first-serve sites available within Zion.
We did have to make a quick pitstop to see some big furry beasts:
We still managed to arrive fairly early at Zion's borders. The park ranger at the entry gate said we should have luck finding a campsite, but the convoy of cars we were following made us suspect otherwise.
We drove a few miles into the heart of Zion and each bend of the road blew our minds even further into space. This is what I meant when I said this trip only got more and more epic, and why I definitely suggest traveling in this order.
The geology of the Southwest is absolutely stunning, and every stop looked drastically different. I later learned about the Grand Staircase, and how our trip was basically a slow and steady climb up these "stairs".
The nine known exposed geologic formations in Zion National Park are part of a super-sequence of rock units called the Grand Staircase. Together, these formations represent about 150 million years of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation in that part of North America.
When we arrived at the campgrounds, we were met with a "FULL" sign, and our hearts sank. It was just around 11 AM (checkout time), so we decided to hang around – just in case a spot opened up. We were here, nestled between layers of unfathomable history documented in stone, and the thought of driving back out to make camp seemed impossible.
Somehow, our luck held out. When we pulled into another camping area (which also warned, "FULL"), the too-sweet-to-be-real ranger surprised us with one remaining campsite. We were home.
We didn't have much time to revel in our victory, though. We had a four to five hour hike to start.
The hike to Angel's Landing was easily the scariest thing I've ever done. I wouldn't say I'm afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling almost 1,500 feet to my guaranteed death. For reference:
Hikers will navigate the next half-mile along a narrow sandstone isthmus with sheer cliffs on both sides. The narrow and arduous trail drops 1200' on one side and 800' on the other. Chipmunks scurry carelessly along the ridge, finding bits of shade under the few trees that have found a weakness in which to burrow their roots. The summit offers incomparable, fairytale views. Almost 1500' below, the Virgin River winds around the Organ. The Great White Throne seems only a stones throw away when standing at the end of the trail. Looking northeast across the canyon is Observation Point and to the east is Cable Mountain. Look closely to see the preserved cable-works structure on Cable Mountain. While exploring Zion in 1916, Frederick Fisher exclaimed, "only an angel could land on it," and thus the monolith was named Angels Landing.
Despite the slippery, sandy ledges that only sometimes offered a chain for support, we made it to the very top. And there we stayed for almost an hour, taking in the beauty of Zion and trying to wrap our heads around what we just accomplished.
The hike back down had my stomach in knots and my legs made of Jell-O. The only thing scarier than the uphill climb was doing it in reverse. This time, we had to look down at our footing and at the thousand-foot drops on either side. We were quick, quiet, and calculated. Or maybe I whined in fear the whole time, I don't really remember. We made brief bonds with other hikers as we ventured on: some more terrified than we were, others practically running over the ridge.
When we made it back to ground level, we tore off our sneakers and celebrated our survival with a dip in the Virgin River. I'm not a religious person, but it's hard not to compare it to some sort of baptismal rebirth.
Back at camp, we had a well-earned dinner and told stories around the picnic table. If I wasn't already feeling a bond to this Crew, that day solidified it.
The next day we hiked a portion of the Narrows, another one of Zion's most famous hikes:
The Narrows is one of the most unusual hikes on the Colorado Plateau. Hiking is done largely in the river as, for a third of the route, the river runs canyon wall to canyon wall. The walls are vertical and sheer, and often red in color. Water levels change from season to season; most hikers will wade at least waist-deep and many will swim a few short sections.
I spent a large portion of the hike trying to get sunscreen out of my eyeballs, but besides that, it was refreshing and thankfully, pretty easy. We were all still a bit wobbly from Angel's Landing, and the cold water felt good on our feet.
Unfortunately, Zion was the hardest place to maneuver a large DSLR, so I don't have a ton of photos from hiking Angel's Landing, nor was I willing to bring my camera into the river.
One rule of adventure photography: if your camera limits what you'll be seeing or doing, maybe take a mental photo and leave the camera behind this time.