No trip to southern Utah would be complete without visits to both Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. While they share some similarities, there are some striking differences, most notably that a trip to rim of Bryce Canyon is looking down into the impressive landscape, and a trip into the main canyons of Zion is looking up at it. My late March trip to Bryce Canyon NP is mentioned in a previous post along with photos, so let’s focus on my trip to Zion, which I took several weeks ago. It’s a short drive from Kanab, Utah, where I’ve been staying during my internship and volunteer work with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, and I opted to make a mid-week trip and stay a couple of nights, so that I had one full day to explore the park.
The first time I drove through Rockville and Springdale in early April, I knew I would return to the southwest side of Zion and stay in one of those quaint little towns as a base for exploring the park. Rockville is a tiny little town of a couple hundred people, with cute little houses and B&Bs on the main tree-lined street. Springdale is a few minutes up the road and is more commercial, set right at the southern entrance to Zion, surrounded by the massive red cliffs of the area. Going in early May meant that I was catching it just at the end of the shoulder season in spring, with crowds starting to increase, but not yet at the super crowded height of the summer months. Zion is the first national park established in Utah, the most popular, and somewhat small in comparison to some of the other national parks, so I was keen to avoid the summer crowds and go a bit off-season, which turned out to be a smart plan. Another great improvement that the park has done in order to reduce both traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, is to implement a free shuttle system that is used to take visitors to each of the main destinations throughout the park. The best tip is to get up early and catch one of the first buses, take it all the way to the last stop, and work your way backwards. Less crowds on the shuttle and on the trails, and great light for photography.
Speaking of photography, don’t do like I did and forget to charge your camera battery the night before, as well as not having a spare, on your only full day in the park. About a dozen photos into my first stop and total face-palm moment of realizing that my battery was dead. Brilliant work, Schatz. Good thing for the pretty impressive camera on the iPhone, since that was all I then had to capture most of the park in my one day there until I could recharge my battery in the afternoon back in Springdale before my last hike of the day in the early evening. Zion is an odd shape, with two main areas to it — a large central area that is mostly focused on Zion Canyon, and another area to the northwest, the Kolob Canyons.
I focused on the main canyon, thus my choice of staying in Springdale, shown near the bottom on the map below, since it was easy to plan my day trip in the park from there.
I opted to stay at the Desert Pearl Inn, based on the recommendation from a friend, and it did not disappoint. I had a nice view of some of the red rock cliffs from my room and deck, as well as the pool and grounds.
I got up early, had a quick breakfast, and parked at the Visitor Center in order to catch an early shuttle. There are eight stops from the Visitor Center to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava, where I got off and did the pleasant hike along the river up to where it ends and the entrance of the infamous Narrows begins, which is literally the trail ending and then you continue by wading into the river and hiking upstream and into the slot canyons. Since that wasn’t my plan for the day, I opted to simply photograph the entrance, along with views from the trail, most of which was after my camera battery died. Let’s just celebrate that genius achievement once again — woohoo! It was lovely to be in the shadows and half-light of the canyon, with the sun just beginning to paint the tops of the red, white, and gray peaks above me, with the sound of the river echoing off the deep canyon walls. There were several sections of the trail lined on one side with tiny little waterfalls misting the surrounding rock, that provided the perfect environment for all sorts of plant life to grow, covering the rock walls like a cascade of flora, including blooming columbine.
The next shuttle stop on the way back down the canyon drive is Big Bend, giving you a good view of the back side of Angels Landing where the switchbacks take you up to the top. I didn’t get out to photograph it, deciding to continue on to the next stop called Weeping Rock. It’s a short but steep trail taking you up to a huge rock overhang that drips water all year round, thus the name. It was cool to stand under the shelter of the rock, with the dripping water coming down in front of me, and the amazing views of the canyons, including Angels Landing on the other side.
Going back down the trail I passed a few people who wanted to know if it was worth it to continue up the steep path and since it was not much further and definitely interesting enough to see, I encouraged them to continue, hoping that they would also enjoy the view and interesting feature of the park. My next stop was The Grotto, which is where most people get out to go hike the infamous Angels Landing, but it’s also a starting point for the hike to the Emerald Pools, which was my destination. Taking a moment to read the sign at the start of the hike that leads to Angels Landing, there are the usual precautions about the hike, along with the total number of deaths, which was a bit ominous. I’m not afraid of heights, and I do hope to do that hike someday, but today was not that day, so I turned left and started up the Kayenta Trail to the Emerald Pools area. I chose the lower pools, which also allowed me to do the full loop to the Zion Lodge, the next stop on the way back down the canyon road. The hike had beautiful vistas looking south down the canyon, as well as lots of flowering plants along the trail and covering the hillsides, including the prickly pear cactus with its glorious pink flowers on display.
At the end of the trail that loops back to the river, I crossed the bridge and walked over to the Zion Lodge for lunch on the patio, enjoying the view. The lodge was built in 1924, which made me smile, as that is the same year my former house was built. It was lost to a fire and had to be rebuilt quickly, losing some of its original charm, but then was redone later to restore it back to a closer version of the original lodge. After lunch, my last stop in the canyon was the super short trail up to a view that looks across to the Court of the Patriarchs, a set of peaks named after biblical figures, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the latter of which is mostly obscured by Mount Moroni in front of it. Not being a religious person, I simply enjoyed the natural wonder all around me, which is my version of a spiritual experience.
Before returning to the Visitor Center, I stopped by the Zion Human History Museum to see the displays, watch the film about the park, and take a few photos of the views, which included the West Temple and the Altar of Sacrifice, more natural structures with biblical names. I am in Utah, after all. And have yet to burst into flames for being an agnostic. So that’s a bonus. I found the history of the area to be very interesting, particularly any highlights of the Native Americans of the area, as the first true inhabitants of the land, and their relationship with nature, wildlife, and natural resources as part of their culture, art, food, and way of life. Much of the southwest is a climate of extremes — cold winters and hot summers — with rugged landscape all around.
It was now mid-afternoon and I was able to return to my hotel to recharge both my camera battery and myself for a bit, and then set out on my last hike of the day, this time with a functioning camera. I parked again at the Visitor Center, as this is the starting point to reach the beginning of The Watchman trail, and made my way along the river, across a field and then across the park road to the trailhead. I started out around 5:00 p.m. (17:00), which I later realized was probably about an hour and a half too early, given the heat of the day and the moderate difficulty of the hike, as well as the timing in order to have the optimal light for photos once I reached the lookout area at the top. It’s not that this trail is super long or a huge elevation gain, it’s that you’re starting from about 4000′ ASL. So for a person that is used to sea level like me, it’s was the most challenging of the five trails that I did that day. The hillsides and valleys on both sides of the trail were painted with wildflowers and cactus in bloom, and so I kept switching from taking photos of landscape views to macro photos of the flowers and interesting details of the landscape features. At one point along the trail, I came across a rock to the side of the trail, a bit under a large overhang, that was in the shape of a small chair, which I had to sit on for a few minutes, of course. The views of from the top were lovely, both of the very popular Watchman, as well as all the surrounding peaks, and the valleys below, with a view of the Visitor Center, the river valley, and the town of Springdale below.
On my way back down the trail, I ran into various people coming up, including a couple of groups of young guys, several of whom were bouncing up the trail like mountain goats. Ah, the energy of youth — I remember it fondly. I teased them a bit, telling them that the good news is that they only had about another 5 miles to go, and after the bit of shock on their faces faded, I confessed the joke, and that it was less than a mile and ended with nice views. All the way back down to the path along the river, which was now shaded with a bit of a cool breeze, I saw more groups just starting out, and told them that they chose their start time wisely, unlike myself, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless.
So that was my whirlwind trip to Zion, and it was just lovely. As of yesterday I finished my four weeks of volunteering at the sanctuary, and today I get on the road to begin a road trip back up to the Northwest for a quick visit to repack for summer, get my car serviced, see some friends along the way, and then head back south. Today I drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which will be my first trip there, and I’m looking forward to finally seeing it, as well. As for what’s next after this trip, I come back to southern Utah for a two week house and pet sit, and some more volunteering at the sanctuary. I’ve begun other plans, and should have more to share in the weeks and months to come!
Enjoy the journey. Every day. There are gifts in every moment if you are open to them. I’ve certainly been blessed, and continue to appreciate all of it.
One of my favorite photos of the day reminded me of the words of Norman Maclean:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.