Monday, June 17, 2019

The Youth of Zion

My approach to Zion ended up being very similar to my approach to the Grand Canyon. Instead of the more popular southern entrance, I arrived from the east, seeing some additional parts of the park and getting a quicker entry than I otherwise would have. Along the way I was listening to the very-appropriate classical piece Des Canyons aux ├ętoiles by Messiaen. My dad had turned me on to this a few months prior when we were chatting about the trip: Messiaen had also gone on a trip to Utah and been inspired by the parks there, especially Bryce and Zion, and had composed this piece to capture his own impressions. After experiencing it myself, I thought the music was wonderful, and the title particularly evocative, as so many of my own journeys had taken me from the deep embrace of canyons to the endless views near the stars.

The road from Bryce comes through Highway 9, a very pretty route that alternates between scenic high-speed sections and slow crawls through picturesque villages. Just past the eastern entrance, I parked at the East Rim Trailhead for my first hike. You can technically take this trail all the way into the main part of the park, but that would be a very long trek. I was aiming to reach an overlook of Jolley Gulch and then turning around.

I smiled when I saw the sign "Entering Zion Wilderness." Our country's top national parks have huge visitations and have to one degree or another been transformed to accommodate them, but they also sustain much larger acreage as primitive backcountry. It's a bit startling how many fewer people you find in those regions than the well-trod main parks. The wilderness areas aren't as spectacular, with once-in-a-lifetime views or completely unique features, but they exude a wide-open sense of serenity and primal energy that I never get tired of feeding on.

Two largish groups of backpackers passed me as I headed in, clearly pleased with their own adventures in the park. I felt a sense of kinship with them, though I wasn't going to be doing anything nearly as strenuous during my stay. I was now firmly in wind-down mode, looking forward to day hikes and not much else.

The gulch itself was a nice hike. In contrast to the relatively open trails in Bryce, this had a denser forest and canopy, so the views along the trail weren't especially remarkable, but the trail itself was cool, including a nice short scramble across a narrow rocky ledge - once again, I was grateful to be wearing proper boots with strong traction.

I started monitoring the time, worrying that I was spending too long on my amuse bouche hike and wouldn't be able to enjoy my entrees. But then I abruptly came to a clearing and saw the promised overlook. There's no sign or anything there, but it was clear that I was looking at Jolley Gulch. It was really cool to finally get some perspective on the land that I'd already hiked through and see it in detail. I also got my first good look at the cool hills surrounding it, with unique striated rock layers.

I walked around a bit, hopping up some mounds and along outcroppings, getting more looks at the gulch, then turned around and headed back. The trail had taken most of my remaining morning, but it was a nice, calm, peaceful introduction to Zion before reaching the main zone.

Back in the car, Highway 9 continued forward, with periodic pullouts for scenic points, including the cool Checkerboard Mesa, a large stone face cross-crossed with regular lines. A lot of people parked their cars and walked along the road, which was cool but also worrying, as there is absolutely no shoulder, rarely a trail, and lots of curves. I passed through a short tunnel, then a very long tunnel, which finally brought me into the main Zion Canyon.

It's a majestic, awesome view, and the road adds to it nicely, dramatically sweeping you down and back and forth as the landscape unfurls. And this wasn't even the main canyon! Once again many folks parked by the side to take photos and stare up at the walls. I pressed forward, hoping to get some good time in the main park.

My misadventures with parking in the Grand Canyon had made me wary of official guidance, so I headed directly into the Visitors Center parking lot despite the multiple signs warning that the lot was full. I probably spent about five minutes looking for a spot until a very kind person waved to get my attention and then pulled out of their own spot, which I gratefully occupied.

Zion has become famous for its difficult parking; if you check their Twitter feed, they report each day the time when their parking becomes full. The main part of the park is completely off-limits to private automobiles and you need to take their shuttle. They further recommend that people park in Springfield and take another shuttle into the park. In principle, I think that's a great idea. It was disappointing to later discover, though, that all of the parking in Springfield is paid; it looks like $20/day is the going rate near the entrance, and $15/day further out. Which is especially annoying since that isn't part of the park's communication, which emphasizes the free nature of the shuttle, so I suspect a lot of visitors will be surprised. Furthermore, once you actually come to the shuttle stops you'll see signs encouraging you to walk into the park and stating that the shuttle bus is often full. So... yeah, while I was fully prepared to park in town, I'm really glad that I didn't. I think this is another area that will require some careful thought and planning in the future. My immediate thinking is that Springfield derives an enormous benefit from being next to the park, driving its tourism and lodging and restaurant business, so it would be in their best interest to partner with the park and provide free parking. But there's just no financial incentive for them to do so, and obviously people are willing to (probably grudgingly) pay for parking, so I don't see them changing, and there's no way for the park service to compel them to do so. I dunno.

Hey, wasn't this post supposed to be about my hikes?!

I hopped on the shuttle bus and headed north. The buses in Zion are great, I liked them significantly more than the Grand Canyon shuttles. They're huge double buses, with a front and a rear cabin, giant windows, and a nice mix of pre-recorded messages about the park and chatty drivers who share their own personal (and interesting) thoughts and tips on the park. They also run really frequently! I think the signs say something like "You'll rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a bus," but I don't think I ever waited more than 5. There were even a few times when two buses would arrive at a stop practically back to back; unlike Muni, though, this didn't mean that the third bus would be significantly delayed. I feel like the Zion setup was a lot more conducive to hopping off and back on than in the Grand Canyon, where you would fear losing a seat on a crowded bus.

I'd been keeping tabs on the status of trails in Zion, mostly because of the Narrows but I'd also noticed that there were several other trail closures. A few of the hikes that I'd been interested in like Observation Point and Hidden Canyon were still shut. The big hike that I still wanted to do was Angel's Landing. I'd been concerned by a Twitter post several days earlier warning that the wait to do that hike was several hours long. I don't think I've ever seen a line for a hike before! Still, it sounded like a great hike so I departed the bus and hopped on the trail.

There was a slight hiccup at the very start. The map had said that there was water available at the trailhead, but none was to be found; they were doing some construction, which might have contributed to it. I'd filled up in the morning and still had a bottle and a half, so I wasn't overly concerned, but after closely monitoring my water during long desert hikes I did worry a little about it.

The trail starts off extremely easily, with a wide and paved stretch that runs along the Virgin River. You then start to gradually ascend, still with a paved surface, hugging the rocky cliff side as you go higher and start to get better views.

After a while, the switchbacks grow more pronounced. There were quite a few people on this trail, of all sorts of fitness levels, from bare-chested dudes sprinting up and down the trail to elderly folks slowly making their way up with canes and stopping at every corner. I took advantage of a few shaded nooks in the hot day, sipping some precious water and eyeing the distance left to go.

You eventually reach a nice saddle, which opens up to some great views of the canyon and has a ton of people resting on the rocks. However, this is only the beginning of the hike. Just to the right are the chains: steel cables bolted into the cliff face. To go further you need to grab onto them and hoist yourself higher and higher up the ascent.

This area definitely got congested, but there were a lot more people coming down than going up. While there are no posted signs, there's a definite etiquette at play, similar to crossing a single-lane bridge. A group of people would make their way down a section of the chains, folks at the bottom would patiently wait for them to finish, then start coming up. More people coming down would then congregate around their end until that squad had passed, then they would descend, and so on.

With all the people on the trail, this was far from the fastest hike I've taken, but honestly that was totally fine by me: it was technically challenging, even with the cables, and strenuous, and hot, and having some built-in down time helped make the overall experience easier.

I finally hauled myself up to the top, which is a lot bigger than I had imagined. I'd envisioned a peak, a small place for people to huddle around, but there's actually a very long ledge, so even with a lot of people up there it felt a lot less crowded than the climb up had been. Even better, the views were absolutely incredible, everything that I had hoped for. I kept looking back and forth: to my right, the southern entry to the park, where the tree-lined canyon walls swooped dramatically down and the landscape spread out. To the left, the northern half of the canyon, with the Virgin River bursting from the Temple of Sinawava and tall peaks glowering down at the valley far below. I also marveled at the trail below me, surprised at how far up I had come with relatively little horizontal distance to travel.

Sitting down on a rock, I munched some celebratory snacks and a delicious gulp of water, then carefully made my way down. As is often the case on steep routes, going down can be more difficult than coming up. The crowds were further thinning out now, though, and as I already knew the route, so I made good time. I also offered strategic encouragement to those making their way up - people looked really beat, as I'm sure I must have before.

Once I hit the pavement, the rest of the descent went much more quickly, and I was soon back at the shuttle bus. I back-tracked to the Zion Lodge, where I had a late-afternoon lunch in the form of a giant chicken Caesar salad. I think I ate more salads on this trip than I do in a typical year, and enjoyed them more than I normally enjoy pizza (which is a lot!).

It was late enough in the afternoon now that I could check in to my lodging, so I headed out of the park, expecting that it would be quieter in the evening. This was my second lodging splurge of the trip, Flanigan's Inn in Springfield. It's located just a few minutes' walk from the park's pedestrian entrance and is on a beautifully landscaped estate, with meandering paths around a swimming pool and mature trees, and a short rail up to a hillside meditation labyrinth (which seemed to be under construction during my stay).

The room itself was great, very modern and comfortable with plush chairs and stylish lighting, and a nice balcony overlooking the courtyard, with a little patio table and chairs. I'd also read good things about the spa at Flanigan's, so I called to see if there were any openings for a massage. They were booked for the rest of the day, but had a slot available for the next morning, which I gratefully reserved.

I walked back into the park. It felt a little odd to go through a pedestrian kiosk, which looks and is staffed just like the typical auto ones. It was after six by now, and the friendly-looking ranger just waved me in.

I got back on a shuttle bus, which was now almost completely empty. My soft goal was to get off at every stop; I ended up skipping ones that didn't have any trails or scenic viewpoints, but still hit quite a few. This late in the day the Court of the Patriarchs wasn't very photogenic, with the sun directly hovering over them, but I bet it's stunning in the morning. I had more luck with Big Bend, a crook in the Virgin River that's positioned nicely to reveal the canyon around you.

I was particularly interested in Weeping Rock, the one trail still open from that trailhead. True to its name, there's a significant volume of water that seems to gush out directly from the side of the tall, flat cliff face. Apparently, this is ancient water that seeped into clay in pre-historic times, then was crushed under heavier rocks in subsequent geological ages. The weight on top eventually forces the water out, leading to the surprising display we see today.

My trip ended at the Temple of Sinawava. If all had gone according to my original plan, I would have been walking out of this at around this time. As it was, I enjoyed the leisurely and accessible stroll up the Virgin River. The paved portion of the trail stops right at the entrance to the Narrows proper, with a cool little stone staircase descending into the river. There were several signs warning that the Narrows were closed due to the river flow level. I stared wistfully in. The Temple area itself looks really cool, two guardians keeping watch over this passageway between them, and if the stars align in the future I would like to try that walk myself.

But I had no regrets: missing the Narrows had allowed me to visit Bryce, the most beautiful park, and climb Angel's Landing, one of the most unique and interesting hikes I've done. I happily rode the shuttle back to the entrance and returned to Flanigan's, where I had a late supper on my balcony and watched the sky fade into dark.

The next morning, I was one of two people at the opening of the great and inexpensive breakfast buffet at The Spotted Dog, a restaurant on the Flanigan's property, and we chatted about our experiences at Zion and nearby parks. I cleaned up myself and my luggage, then had a fantastic massage at the Deep Canyon Spa with Drey. Over the last decade or so I've gotten in the habit of getting a massage near the end of my long vacations, and it's always a wonderful way to sort of lock in the relaxation I've been feeling, along with loosening any sore muscles I've picked up during my hikes.

Feeling refreshed and happy, I hopped back in my car and started driving towards my next - and final! - park: Rock Rock Canyon.

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