Zion National Park, 05/28/10-05/31/10

A few months back, Nicole’s dad (a.k.a. Jim) said he wanted to meet up with us and his son (a.k.a. Miles) over Memorial Day weekend and do some backpacking or hiking. He suggested Yosemite, but snow levels and full campgrounds sent us searching for alternatives. I researched other areas in California, where Nicole’s dad and brother both live, but eventually put forth the option of Zion National Park in Utah—if they didn’t mind flying.

Zion sandstone in black and white.

Jim enthusiastically agreed and we quickly purchased airline tickets, booked a hotel room, and reserved a rental car. Prices and flight times conspired to send us into Salt Lake City (a 5-hour-from-Zion drive) instead of Las Vegas (a 3-hour-from-Zion drive). We’d leave Seattle Thursday night and return Monday evening…

or, Seattle to Salt Lake City…as Frustratingly as Possible.

Skip ahead to Friday if you don’t want to read about buses, taxis, flight delays, flight un-delays, and a curious if not entirely unforeseen lack of a signature beer.

We’d arranged to be picked up by a friend from the airport upon our return, but decided to take the bus from West Seattle to the airport on our way out of town. King County’s Trip Planner stubbornly refused to provide a time-tested itinerary, but we settled on a one-transfer option that had us walking only a few blocks and making it to the airport an hour-and-a-half before our departure.

The first bus showed up fifteen minutes late. There was little doubt we’d already missed our second bus, and the next of that route wasn’t scheduled for another 30 minutes. After cursing all things Metro for several minutes (and secretly holding onto the hope that our bus would show) I miraculously hailed a cab—in White Center! Cabbie sped to the airport, dropped us off, and collected a healthy tip for his efforts. Phew!

We checked in and…we were informed that our flight was delayed by an hour! We wasted $30!

After Qdoba, we walked by the flight information screens en route to The Place That Serves Mac & Jack’s. Delta Flight 123 to SLC: ON-TIME! What?! We jumped on the shuttle to our terminal and went to our gate, which was…quiet.

Agents: “Oh yeah, we haven’t been able to update the board. Flight’s still delayed.”

Us: “Grrrrr.”

Back on the shuttle to the main terminal for a pint.

Me, en route: “Our luck, they’ll be out of Mac & Jack’s.”

Waiter: “We’re out of Mac & Jack’s [African Amber].”

Us: Laughter…

Nicole called her parents while we drank back-up beers. Sometime through an ill-fated game of chess versus my iPhone, my ears perked up.

Voice of a Quiet God: “Delta Flight 123 to Salt Lake City…”

Me: “Check please!”

Back on the shuttle to our terminal. Our flight had been delayed until 20:10. As we jogged towards our gate at 19:30 we heard that lovable phrase: “Final call…”

Last ones on the plane. Had I not heard the announcement, we certainly would’ve missed our plane—through no fault of our own. There may or may not have been hell to pay, but it’s all theoretical at this point.

In Salt Lake City, we picked up our rental car (which morphed from a Ford Fusion to a Jeep Compass with no charge) and made our way to the hotel. During our initial assumed-delay, Nicole had called both the hotel and her dad and arranged the hotel to pick them up from the airport and allow them to check in before us. So we arrived to find the both of them still awake and talkative. Eventually we turned off the lights and I set my alarm for 04:00.

I don’t think any of us slept more than two hours.


Though the alarm on my wristwatch didn’t go off, Nicole’s dad was wandering around the room right about that time anyway, and we managed to hit the road without a major delay. This was of the utmost importance, because we had no campground reservations. We hoped an early arrival in Zion would secure us a first-come, first-served campsite at Zion’s South Campground (~120 such sites). I did have back-up plans…

Did you know that there are places in Utah where the speed limit is 80mph? Now you do.

Sometime after the sun rose, I had my cruise control set at 86mph. In the distance, lights flashed on the right side of the road. I changed lanes, maintained speed, and passed what looked like an overturned truck. There were a few police cars at the scene.

You know where this is going.

A few minutes later I look in my rear-view mirror and see flashing lights way in the distance. I pull to the side, assuming a cop car is leaving the accident scene in a hurry. Imagine my surprise when he pulls over behind me.

My 6mph over the speed limit, when combined with the accident scene, was aggravating enough to this particular policeman that he tracked me down. Though my initial attitude wasn’t quite cordial (e.g., “86mph” is not “flying by an accident at 90mph”), after about twenty minutes we pulled away with “just” the $90 speeding ticket, instead of one compounded by the accident scene.

With cruise control adjusted downward, we set out again south toward Zion. The way our trip was going, we had no chance at getting a campsite in the park.

Some hours later, but still just before 10:00, we pulled up to the entrance gate of Zion National Park whereupon the kindly NPS employee said of the campground: “Just ten minutes ago there were about six spots left—hurry!”

And hurry we did, at least for the several hundred feet hurrying was possible beyond the Zion gate. Once in the campground, we drove through its several loops with a dozen or more cars ahead of and behind us.

There were no spots. Tension allowed a small amount of bickering to bubble to the surface. We left Zion the way we entered, driving back through Springdale along Highway 9 toward Milepost 24, where I’d read there was free camping on BLM land.

We found a great spot right on the Virgin River, and though there were no facilities (i.e., restrooms or water), the campsites were much more private than those in the park. We’d be spending most of our time in the park anyway. Our spirits lifted.

We decided that our tents and some gear would be safe left unattended, so we set up camp and drove back into Springdale, where we parked on the street and took a shuttle bus into Zion.

The shuttle bus system at the park is excellent. There are two shuttles: one that runs through Springdale (where parking is encouraged) to the Zion National Park Visitor Center, and one that runs from the Visitor Center to the end of the canyon and back. We—and thousands of others—used them a lot. You’ll get used to the recorded audio tour, which drivers interrupt from time to time to point out climbers on walls, wildlife, etc. We had a few drivers who turned it off altogether and shared their own tips and information, which was a nice change.

The Emerald Pools

It should be initially noted that Zion is beautiful. Like, really beautiful. My photos will not do it justice…

After stopping at the Visitor Center to use the restrooms and fill up our water bladders and bottles, we took the shuttle to the Zion Lodge. I thought that the popular Emerald Pools trail, which leaves from the Lodge, would be a nice easy hike for our first day—especially after the long drive and little sleep.

We grabbed a quick bite at the Lodge’s snack bar, crossed the Virgin River, and headed for Middle Emerald Pool, which we reached in about a mile. Families were resting, children were splashing, and the wind blew water which should’ve fell away below us up into our faces. It was kind of pretty, and there were (and had been) views east across the canyon.

We continued up and took a spur trail to Upper Emerald Pool. The 1/2 mile trail to the Upper Pool was somewhat steeper, and much rockier. Still, quite easy. I found the Upper Pool much more interesting than the Middle Pool. A waterfall from a sheer wall high above falls into the pool. I didn’t get a satisfactory photo of the place. It must be seen.

We left back down the trail, figuring we’d loop down and hit the Lower Emerald Pool on our way back to the trailhead. Instead, when we reached an intersection with a trail that led to The Grotto (one shuttle stop north of the Zion Lodge stop), we took it. So we missed Lower Emerald Pool. That’s okay.

Looking down Zion Canyon.

Apparently the trail from the Emerald Pools to The Grotto is called the Kayenta Trail, and is about one mile long. I highly recommend taking this little trail before or after the Emerald Pools. It’s much quieter and has some great views down the canyon.

The whole trip up to the pools from the Lodge and down to The Grotto was ~3 leisurely miles, with a few hundred feet of elevation gain and loss.

Riverside Walk

We still had plenty of time and a little energy, so we took the shuttle from The Grotto to the last shuttle stop at the north end of the canyon: the Temple of Sinawava. The Riverside Walk is about one mile of paved path alongside the Virgin River, right up until the canyon narrows into the…aptly…named…Zion Narrows.

While we were planning, we’d hoped we could hike up into the Zion Narrows, but water levels looked like they were going to be too high as our trip approached, and The Narrows were indeed closed for that very reason throughout the entire trip.

Anyway! The Riverside Walk is ~2 even leisurely-er miles than the Emerald Pools Trial. There were some beautiful wildflowers growing off the wet sheer cliffs that rose from the river, and plenty of people.

Walking along the Virgin River.

By the time we made it back to Springdale it was late afternoon. We were hungry enough to call it dinnertime. After a somewhat disappointing dinner at Oscar’s and a stop at the grocery store, we headed back to the campsite for the night. We were all very tired, and so we abandoned any plans at doing anything at all in the evening. Instead, we slept.


I again had us waking up early, this time so that I could be in line at the Visitor Center’s Backcountry Desk before it opened at 07:00. I hoped to get permits to The Subway for Sunday morning. I stood in line for about an hour before I made it to the window—and it was pretty cold that early. The others ate breakfast, prepared sandwiches, and filled our water.

Ranger at the window: “How can I help?”

Me: “I was hoping to get permits for The Subway for tomorrow…”

Ranger: “How many in your party?”

Me: “Four.”

Ranger: “I only have three available.”

Me: “Drats!”

More wasted time! At that, we jumped on the first shuttle we could that would take us to the trailhead for Angels Landing. We felt that with an early start we’d be able to avoid the large crowds on what could be the park’s most popular hike. This would be particularly important on the upper sections of the hike, where drop-offs to either side are 1200’+ and a chain is provided for extra security. Less people on the trail meant less letting go of that chain.

As an added bonus, an early start allows you to drive into Zion and park right at the Visitor Center, so you can avoid taking the Springdale shuttle.

Angels Landing

Angels Landing had been a topic of anxiety for all of us—and especially me—for weeks before the trip. Long drop-offs. Not for anyone fearful of heights or children. (Being fearful of both heights and children, I took this warning to heart.) Last section is a steep narrow ridge to the summit. Annual fatalities. I don’t know if fatalities are annual (I added that part) but they definitely happen. Since I’d had bouts of exposure-induced anxiety before, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to make it to the top. Others felt similarly. But we all agreed to do our best.

We left from the Grotto trailhead and crossed over the Virgin River. The morning was cool, and though we’d been delayed by my unsuccessful attempt at Subway permits, we still had a head start on the thousands of people still in their sleeping bags, RVs, or hotel rooms.

Angels Landing in the morning.

The trail climbs gently, but with immediacy. Angels Landing looms above. I pointed it out to Nicole, Jim, and Miles. We’re going to the top of that?! Indeed we are. Several large switchbacks are cut into the side of a cliff that leads up to a hanging canyon dubbed Refrigerator Canyon. No doubt that in the heat of the day it’s a nice respite from the sun. It’s also a nice break from elevation gain, until the infamous Walter’s Wiggles are reached—twenty-odd switchbacks, each twenty-something feet long.

Climbing out of the canyon.

The wiggles end atop the ridge that extends to Angels Landing. This area is called Scout’s Lookout and has restrooms and a trail intersection to the West Rim. It’s a great place to look at what lies ahead. And what lies below.

The ridge of Angels Landing.

Off we went, set to conquer! After the initial oh-my-god-I’m-surrounded-by-death-on-all-sides-I-must-grab-this-chain-and-grab-it-tightly moment, we all handled it very well. Sure, I was concentrating mainly on my footsteps, hand-holds, and what was immediately ahead of me—instead of looking out, down, or up—but there was time for that at the top.

Scrambling up Angels Landing.

Conditions were perfect: great weather, sunshine, a manageable amount of foot-traffic. Before too long we were at the top, thighs thankful for their forecasted and deserved rest.

Toward The Narrows.

Dork in Zion.

We ate and lounged, and though we could’ve stayed up there all day, we started our descent knowing that if we stayed any longer, we’d have to put up with hundreds and hundreds of oncoming hikers in the narrowest of sections.

Celebratory family snapshot.

High-fives at the bottom! We finished the ~5.5 miles and ~1500′ of elevation gain, successfully “summited,” and it was barely noon.

Zion Cottonwoods.

We relaxed back at the Lodge, where we noted a lunch buffet we’d investigate further the following day, and then decided to jump in the car and drive through the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel to the east side of the park.

Canyon Overlook Trail

Being somewhat tired from hiking Angels Landing, and wishing to escape the onslaught of Saturday afternoon tourists in the main canyon, the ~1 mile Canyon Overlook Trail seemed like a viable afternoon diversion.

After emerging through the tunnel, we passed by the trailhead and parked a few hundred yards up the road. Now that we were out of the canyon, the scenery changed quite dramatically. We walked along to the overlook and relaxed, some of us bathing in sunshine and some of us extending the brims of hats, rolling down our sleeves, and turning up our collars. I’ll let you guess who made up the entirety of the latter category.

On the Canyon Overlook trail.

Black and white landscape photograph.

Pine Creek Canyon from the overlook.

We went back to Springdale, looked at pottery and photography galleries, and watched a strange movie that included a Native American prankster god, lost gold, flash floods, scenery from other parks and other states, and rock climbing near-disasters. I drank an iced mocha and we fed elk and bought firewood.

Then we ate pizza, which was good.  It had something to do with Flying Monkeys, I believe.

Back at our campsite, I wrested with whether or not to return to the canyon in an attempt to photograph the sunset. I’d had grand plans before our arrival to head out and photograph sunsets, moonrises, and star trails. It was looking like I’d have the energy to do none of it. But Nicole and I drove into Zion and parked at the junction just as the best light faded. I pulled out the tripod that I’d been carrying around all trip and hadn’t yet used. So though the photos didn’t turn out well, I at least accomplished that much.

The Watchman and the Virgin River.

Again at the campsite, we roasted marshmallows and I retreated to the tent, followed closely by Nicole.  We fell asleep while Jim and Miles talked of Unidentified Flying Objects.



The Court of the Patriarchs.

On Sunday morning we went into the main canyon once again, stopping at the Court of the Patriarchs viewpoint for a snapshot before we made our way to the Weeping Rock and Hidden Canyon trail.

Hidden Canyon

The Hidden Canyon trail was more beautiful than I’d expected, and quickly turned into our favorite of the trip, alongside Angel’s Landing. At ~2.5 miles and 800′ of gain, it’s a lot of bang for its buck. We took an early detour to the Weeping Rock for some more tripod use, and then continued.

Greenery and striations on the Weeping Rock

We were alone nearly the entire way up, even with multiple photo stops. It was a very quiet and enjoyable morning.

Hiking up to Hidden Canyon.

The view from the Hidden Canyon trail toward Observation Point.

Along the way, we came up with the idea of leaving Zion that afternoon, instead of early the next morning. We’d have no time to hike on Monday anyway, and we all felt pretty accomplished with what we’d done on the trip.  And so a leisurely drive back to Salt Lake City and morning in the city sounded pretty good. Not to mention a bed and a shower.

Menu Falls

Back down at the canyon, though, it was still plenty early. We took the shuttle to the only spot we hadn’t gotten off, the Big Bend stop. I thought perhaps we could walk along the river to a secret location a shuttle driver had announced to us all earlier. He promised it’d be very quiet.

A driver on Sunday said that they’d had 37,000 visitors to the park on Saturday. 37,000! (Records are made to be broken.)

Anyway, after it became apparent this secret location couldn’t be reached from Big Bend without a road walk, we went back and got on the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, where we caught the trail along the river for our final Zion stroll.

Relaxing down by the river.

At what I believe is Menu Falls, we were indeed all alone. It was calm, cool, and quiet. The others napped while I struggled to photograph the falls with the sunlight shining through above us.

The top-secret Menu Falls.

Waiting for the photographer...

We took advantage of Zion Lodge’s buffet and then drove back to the campsite, where we threw all our gear into the car haphazardly knowing we’d now have time to do a better job at whatever hotel we ended up in.

We stopped to spend the night in Provo four hours later without another problem. There, Jim made plans to meet with a buddy from Vietnam who he’d just remembered lived in Utah. He also had just remembered his name.  They hadn’t spoken in 40 years!


Sunday in Salt Lake City we walked around the Temple Square, dropped off those bound for California, drank a few 4% beers, and waited for our flight home.

After a rough start, the trip could not have been more perfect. My only regret is that I needed to sleep! A return trip is definitely in the books. Probably when the water levels are lower and there are less people. Autumn 201_!

I must put a plug in before I sign off for Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park, which was an invaluable tool during my planning phase. Plus, he takes some excellent photos.

As always, I’ve got a few more photos at Flickr.


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