29 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Zion, Utah

On my visit to Utah in 2005 I spent about 2 hours at Zion National Park - nipping in on my way from Kanab to Las Vegas. I'd hiked to the Emerald Pools and loved it, but needed a lot more time to do the enormous park justice (no sh*t!). This time round I booked for us to stay 2 nights in Springdale, a small town that lies at the edge of the park, so that we had a full day and the afternoon of our arrival to explore.

We drove from Page, without stopping along the way at a few spots I'd previously hoped to visit (Buckskin Gulch Trail, for example) as it was another clear and hot day and we didn't feel like a 3-hour hike in the open desert. Sadly the Wave was out of the question (I'll have to book 4 months in advance next time or try my luck with the daily lottery in Kanab). Instead we thought that we might try renting ATV off-road vehicles at Coral Pink Sand Dune state park. I'd googled it before we set out from Page, but couldn't quite work out how to book anything, or where from. We drove close to the turn-off to the dunes, but decided that it was unlikely that we'd be able to just rock up and find an operator. We stopped in a hotel at the turn-off from the 89 to the Mount Carmel Highway road to Zion (part of the Route 9), who suggested we try at a place called the Ponderosa Lodge. We followed their instructions and headed up the pretty North Fork Road. When we got there we were disappointed - but not very surprised given that we were miles away from the dunes now - that they only ran ATV trips on the nearby land, and not down at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It was a bit of a wasted journey, but the drive was pretty, passing some fields full of beautiful soft grasses blowing gently in the wind.

We went back to the route 9 and continued on to Zion. Although I'd driven that route in 2005 none of it seemed familiar at all; I had no recollection of the impressive tunnel and huge switchbacks below it. The scenery before the tunnel was spectacular, with huge stripey white and orange cliffs, checkered white hillsides and river valleys. There were many trees and shrubs; it was a lot less deserty than where we'd come from.

We stopped a few times to admire the views, bumped into our German neighbours from the cabins at Monument Valley, and headed through the tunnel without having to wait (it can sometimes take half an hour or more). From time to time there were windows, cut out of the side of the tunnel, giving a view down into the canyon below - quite an impressive engineering feat for 1927! Once out of the tunnel there were steep cliffs above us and a series of long, steep switchbacks below us. On the cliffs we could just make out a few rock-climbers and abseilers. I remembered seeing some on my previous visit too.

Not far from the foot of the switchbacks we reached the turn-off that led north into Zion Canyon (the "good" bits of the park), where only those staying at the lodge can drive; otherwise one must use the park shuttle services. We continued on and headed out of the park to our hotel on the outskirts of Springdale down the main street, which was crammed full of gear shops, restaurants, gift shops and lodges. I chose our hotel, the Driftwood Lodge, for the promise of a decent view of the mountains from our balcony - and wasn't disappointed! Sometimes it's worth paying just a little extra.

We had a coffee on the balcony and noticed the distinctive smell of marijuana - the people in the room below us were serious smokers - they must have been lighting one joint after another! We wanted to do a quick sunset hike, so headed back up to the park, left the car at the visitor centre car-park and set off up the Watchman trail. It was a pleasant walk up a small canyon, a couple of switchbacks, before winding round into the shade, coming out at a small outcrop, with the Watchman mountain towering above us. We'd left it a little late, but got there just in time to catch the sun set behind the mountains opposite us.

We hiked back down as the sun illuminated the peaks, the dark shadows rising up the hills fast. Dead trees abound - great for silhouettes. 

When we got back to Springdale we popped in to the Zion Canyon Brewing Company pub, hoping to try some of the local brews. The woman on the door explained that they were full, there was a 20-minute wait for a table, and that under Utah law you can't drink without having food, so we'd have to wait 20 minutes even to get a drink. Seemed a bit useless, given that it was supposed to be a brew pub. Not wanting to wait we headed home and then back out for dinner later to Wildcat Willies, where we tried a flight of the local beers. Draft beer in Utah can be no stronger than 4%, although bottled stuff can be. We stuck to the draft, which was rather tasteless and watery, especially having recently drunk the delicious 8% Crank Yankee IPA! We'd bought some beers by the Sleepy Dog Brewing based in Tempe, Arizona in a supermarket in Kanab so headed home and enjoyed a couple of those on the balcony under the stars. The neighbours downstairs were still smoking dope, and the smell continued to waft up, together with their giggles.

When it got a bit chilly we headed in, but I set my tripod up with the intervalometer on to take a series of star trail shots. I programmed it to take 30 shots, each lasting 2 minutes, remembering again to take the black shot at the end to get rid of the noise. Intermittently I'd check outside to see if it was still working. I quite liked the result, except for a couple of annoying aeroplane trails across the stars. The software let me take out the frames containing the planes, which left some breaks in the trails, but I think it looks better without them.

The following morning we set off to do a hike in the Narrows - a long, narrow, windy canyon at the end of the Zion Canyon road, which involves wading through the Virgin River. The choice was between that and Angel's Landing, which would have had fantastic views, but it was way too hot and that hike involved walking along an exposed ridge with little shade. The Narrows hike sounded unique (and was in the shade, mostly) so we plumped for that. We stopped off in one of the outdoor gear shops and rented special shoes, neoprene socks and a stick - all necessities for hiking through a river, which can be thigh-deep. We took the shuttle bus from the visitor centre, on which there was a recording of information about the park, its geology, history, etc. We got out at the furthest-away stop, Temple of Sinawava, and started up the Virgin River trail - there's an easy, flat paved trail to the Narrows trailhead, along which the less adventurous walk before returning to the bus.

The atmosphere in the Narrows was fantastic. It wasn't packed, but we were rarely alone. People hiked with their kids, some kitted out in full waterproof suits. It was such good fun, which is not something I usually think about hikes. We walked along sandy or rocky beaches, then waded through sections of the river to reach other banks. On the way up the canyon we stepped carefully, trying not to get water over our knees (I was wearing hiking trousers rolled up over my knee). On the way back we couldn't care less and swished right through deeper bits - the material dried off quickly. We took a little detour up the Orderville Canyon to the east, but soon the water became deeper (boys were swimming), so we turned round and headed back up into the main canyon. Most of the hike was in the shade, but from time to time the sunlight would reach the ground giving us a warm break. Some of the rocks at the edge of the river were illuminated by reflected sun and glowed gold. Photography was challenging, with a huge dynamic range of light conditions, although mainly just pretty dark! Occasionally I'd stop and take a few shots on the lightweight tripod I was carrying, but mainly I just pushed up the ISO and hoped for the best.



We got to the end of a section that is called "Wall Street" and turned around. In the last section the water was so deep that even our underwear got wet! At that point others said that it only got deeper, so it seemed like a good place to head back. It was one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done, but it was nice to get out of the water, take off the dripping socks and shoes, dry off and put on flipflops for the pleasant walk alongside the river under the cottonwood trees. Annoyingly I left a Snickers bar on the wall when I changed my shoes - would've been a nice reward for our hard work!

We got back to the bus stop at about 4pm - we'd been hiking for about 5 and a half hours. The sun was still high in the sky as we passed the Court of the Patriarchs and the Great White Throne, one of the largest monoliths (free-standing rocks) in the world.

We stopped off at the Zion Canyon Brewpub and managed to get a table outside immediately this time. We tried a few of their beers, but again were disappointed with the lack of oomph with the 4%ers. We only had to order one item of food between us in order to get beer, so we had some disappointing fries. The waiter told us that they were licensed to sell stronger beer in bottles, but just chose not too, which again seemed strange for a brew pub. It was all a bit disappointing! We headed home to watch sunset from the balcony instead, accompanied by a couple of Wasatch Beer's Polygamy Porters we'd picked up in Kanab (just love the name and the slogans - "Why have just one?" and "Bring some home to the wives" - and in spite of being only 4% they still have a bit of flavour to them). The rocks glowed an incredible orangey-red, just like the Totem Pole and Mittens had in Monument Valley.

We wandered up to the Zion Pizza & Noodle Co, located in an old church, where we sampled some much more agreeable strong Utah bottled beers (from Epic Brewing) and ate some reasonably tasty pasta and pizza, the remains of which would be our packed lunch the following day. We had a long drive ahead of us (to Moab), so we had an early night - I didn't have the energy to try out any more star shots.

Zion is definitely a park to return to; I can see why many people say that it's their favourite national park in Utah, or even the US. We only touched the surface - there's other sections accessible from the east too. Next time I'll have to try the Angel's Landing hike, but I'll have to revisit the Narrows as it's such fun, so at least 3 days will be necessary!

Next stop: Moab

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