Sunday, May 5, 2013

Zion National Park, UT

We woke up early on our first morning at Zion, anxious to get a little closer to the high red rocks we’d been seeing rising above the campground, but wary about how much stamina Wynne would have for hiking. A morning tantrum didn’t bode well…


But she felt better after she got some food in her… well, on her at least.


During the busy months, the only way to get into the Zion canyon is on one of the parks double-length free shuttles. The town of Springdale right outside the entrance has its own free shuttle that picks up right outside the campground we were staying at and drops you at the visitor center. There, we only needed to flash our Interagency Parks Pass ($80 annually for free access into any national park or monument and discounts at BLM, National Forest and other government managed areas) and we were on our way. The hikes beginning from each shuttle stop are clearly marked and announced, and the park map includes nice descriptions including length, difficulty and exposure.


Views from the shuttle are pretty incredible…




As I mentioned in the last post, based on the recommendations from Amanda from Watsons Wander, we decided to start with the Riverside Walk, a 4 mile roundtrip out to where the canyon begins to come together for the famous Narrows hike.


First, a bit of business. Just to make things a little simpler, I wanted to make an announcement to everyone hiking in the opposite direction as us. First of all, yes, we do have a baby in a backpack carrier, and we sincerely do appreciate your interest. Honestly, your encouraging words of “Good for you” or "Start ‘em early” or even the backhanded “You are crazy” are meaningful to us. But, to save a little time, I wanted to establish some standard responses for your go-to comments when you come across Wynne riding in the backpack. 

Let’s try an example. If you feel like saying something like “Can I go next?,” you can just assume my response will be “No way, I called it.”  If you say “What a little trooper,” expect me to feign confusion and say “I’m not *that* little.” If you quip, “I wish someone would carry me up this trail,” you’ll get a “Would they have to change your diaper at the top?”

Thanks everyone for your attention and consideration. Now back to our hike…

The Riverside Walk was nice and flat for most of the way, winding into the canyons carved by the Virgin River. With a little more argument than usual, Wynne fell asleep just around her usual naptime. While we’ve been doing this parenting thing for long enough now that we don’t usually feel we need to check her breathing while she’s sleeping at night, the backpack is another story as she insists on contorting her neck and smushing her face into the most concerning positions. Unfortunately, our constant repositioning of her head and the near constant loud exclamations of “AWWW! The little fella’s SLEEPING!” echoing through the canyon resulted in a very short nap.



Along the trail are hanging gardens nurtured by spring water perpetually pressed from the sandstone cliffs.


And what look like fossilized prints of leaves.


Deeper in, the walls of the canyon begin to obscure even the midday sun.



At the end of the trail, guided groups were gearing up in dry suits with long walking poles to prepare for the journey up the river into the Narrows. After watching a few cross to the opposite bank where they could continue on a rocky sandbar, we left 90% of the hikers behind and plodded into the river after them, placing our feet solidly between the slippery rocks – particularly Ann with Wynne slowly awakening in the backpack - and bracing against the knee-high current.


I strapped Wynne on, and we made one more crossing just to see what was around the next bend. I’d given her a flat river stone to hold, and she just turned it over and over in her little hand, unconcerned with the rushing water.



Despite mushy shoes and socks filled with river water, the little extra push into the entrance of the Narrows was worth it to get a little bit away from the crowds.


Ann playing with her new neutral density filter, basically sunglasses for the camera that allow for longer exposure times creating the soft water effect.




Back on the shuttle, we made our way to the large grassy lawn in front of the Zion Canyon Lodge to hang out under the huge cottonwood tree. We commented that we might not have spent the time just lounging around like this if it weren’t for Wynne. Sure, it’s a different experience coming to a huge park like this with kids, but it ain’t all bad.



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For the next hike, we just walked across the road from the Lodge to The Grotto trailhead and the Emerald Pools hike. This one climbed a fair amount to a first pool and then more to a second and third.



Climbed, but not like, climbed, Ann.


The main attraction at the first pool was a whispy waterfall diving from the top of an overhanging cliff. 




The trail led right beneath it along a mineral-stained wall with hanging gardens.




Steep stairs and sandy switchbacks wound higher and higher toward the canyon walls, opening up sweeping views behind us.




Oh yeah, and another thing I forgot to tell you people passing us on the trail and all you judgmental blog readers. Yes, Ann does happen to be bad-ass for carrying Wynne in the backpack a lot, but we actually switch off about half and half of the time despite what the pictures tend to show. I just like taking more shots of her from behind than she does of me… Weird.



Honestly, I’m not sure the upper pools themselves were really worth it other than the views from high on the hill.




Reflection in the second pool…


Coming down, we saw deer in two different spots on the trail. Look for one in the lower left of the pic below. For Wynne, everything that walks on four legs is currently an “ee-ya” which could possibly be her version of “Gorilla.”



Back on the shuttle, we were pretty exhausted from a full day, Wynne even more so because of the short nap.


All of a sudden, she popped out of her comatose gaze to yell “Ee-ya! Ee-ya!” and point. There, high on the wall of the bus, was a small picture of a deer with a message about not feeding the animals.

Speaking of Gorilla, one of the things that was best about our campsite just outside the park was the hookups. They meant we could leave Gorilla in the trailer with the AC on at a cool 67 degrees without worrying about her getting too warm. No, dogs aren’t allowed on any (well, there’s like one) of the trails in the park. Needless to say, she was anxious for some time outside when we got home.


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Encouraged by a productive day of hiking with Wynne (yes, random sir, in fact she is quite a little trooper), we decided to stay in Zion another night so we could hit the trails again the next day. One hike we didn’t think we could pass up was Angels Landing. Its description in the park guide was filled with warnings about its exposure and how it was not recommended for kids but we figured, a) how serious could it really be and 2) we could just go as far as Scouts Lookout and make the call from there. Still as we crossed the river, the sign reporting that 6 people had died on the trail in the years since 2004 made us wonder. Even then, I couldn’t imagine it could be anything more than one or two exposed ledges and some overblown warnings. (I was wrong)



The paved trail started along the river before veering up towards a cut between two large rock faces. Only as we got closer could we see the switchbacks (in the shadows in the center of the pic below) carved into the near vertical wall that would take us up to the passage.


Looking back down.


And more great views behind us including the trail rising up from the river.


At this point, I’ll mention that while we were getting our gear together at the bottom, we noticed the battery door of our new Nikon D5100 camera hanging open. We’d consciously taken the battery out to charge it the night before, knowing that the views from this trail would be amazing. Clearly, we need a better system for making sure the battery gets put back in in the morning. So here’s where the nice camera stayed while we reached for our iPhones for documentation. Can you notice a difference? The iPhone does a passable job, but we’ve been really happy to have the “real” camera for the rest of the trip.


Of course, Wynne knew just what to do on the ascent. Scientists have no explanation for a why a sleeping baby increases in weight by 25% of its waking measurement. As usual, this sleeping posture called for breathing checks every 10 paces.


At the top of the switchbacks, the trail wound along a narrow canyon with walls sculpted by centuries of water.



Don’t worry all you haters, when it was my turn to carry Wynne,  we chose a hike with 1500 feet of vertical gain over just 2.5 miles. The second section of switchbacks is known as “Walter’s Wiggles.”



At the top, we reached Scouts Lookout, a wide plateau of rocks and sand with great views of the valley and a glimpse of the final section of the trail. While we felt comfortable taking Wynne out of the backpack, a number of the deaths on the trail had happened in this area including a 13 year old Boy Scout a few years before.


From what I could see, there was a short section with a couple steep zig zags protected by chains bolted into the rock. It looked like a couple scramble moves and you’d be through it and up to the trees visible at the top. We walked over to take a closer look and decided that even if it was possible, there was no point in bringing Wynne up there in the backpack. I plopped her down in the sand quite happy while Ann set off up the trail for her turn on top.

A note to the grandma’s, the forehead scab was the result of a mis-timed game of jumprope with Gorilla’s leash clipped to the Airstream step. While her water shoes may have been an appropriate choice for the Narrows hike the day before, I really have no idea what she was thinking wearing them today. Inappropriate.




Ann was back in 10 minutes, having gotten stuck behind a slow and unsteady woman on the first steep section and deciding that she didn’t feel great about the exposure. No problem, I thought. I’d rock climbed pretty extensively. I’d just skip over there, glide through the crux and be standing on the top in no time. It was only just a little more than half a mile after all.

As I’d thought, scrambling the first section was not really challenging, and felt very safe with the chains, but the steep drop off just a couple feet to the right side of the trail was enough to get your heart pumping. And as Ann had determined, it wasn’t as much about whether you could do it, it was whether the person in front of you - or the person coming down who made you let go of the chain while they passed - could do it.

Note that in the pics below, everything to the right of the bushes you see drops a few hundred feet into the narrow canyon at the top of the first switchbacks. The rock wall you see on the right is actually on the other side of the canyon.



In spots, the chains had worn grooves into the sandstone.


Sure enough, after a flat traverse along narrow sloping rocks with downhill traffic requiring a momentary release of the chains, I reached a landing fitting of an angel’s perch. I looked around a bit and got ready to return down to Ann and Wynne, but then I noticed the chains to my right. My eye followed those chains to the next, and the next and then my eyes panned up. My little climb had only been the warm up. The main event had been hidden by the first section and was way more exposed, climbing up the narrow ridge in the pic below.


Not much room for missteps.



After crossing the narrow saddle, the “hike” traversed around to the right on ledges only a few feet wide. At this point, I was really starting to question the Park Service allowing people up here!



It then climbed very steeply towards the top for another 20 minutes or so on very exposed terrain with high steps and a few mantle moves.


Looking back from the second section. The route basically followed the green patches in the center of the pic.


While it sloped off quickly to either side, there was a reasonably wide section at the top where people were catching their breath and taking in the view. More than one person – okay, one person and me – was attempting to update their Facebook statuses via the one bar of AT&T coverage.



iPhone panorama.



When I got back to Scouts Lookout, I found Ann, Wynne and another mom and her son similar to Wynne’s age enjoying a high altitude play group, but wondering what had taken me so long. Apparently 0.6 miles of careful foot placement while holding a chain and peering over into the abyss takes longer than walking on level ground!

Honestly, I felt confident the whole way. There were chains everywhere you would have wanted them, but the unsettling thing was seeing people huffing and puffing their way up there - perhaps too tired to be setting their feet well, - or groups of guys hopping up on top of rocks for their friends to take glory pics. If any of those people had gotten into trouble, it would have been easy for them to take a few other people out or to cause a situation on the narrow trail that could have put others in danger. Oddly, I was surprised to learn that while there have been 6 deaths on Angel’s Landing, there have been 7 on the Emerald Pools hike we did the day before. Just be careful people, and in this case particularly, read and heed the Park Service warnings.

Actually, if I’m being totally honest, the thing that was the most unsettling was seeing the numbers written in oil pen on the calves of the people who had done the Ironman Triathlon in St. George the day before jogging up this hike as a “warm down.” Hardcore.

Back down Walter’s Wiggles…


And along the narrow canyon…


And sometimes in the narrow canyon…


The way back always seems faster on these hikes, but it could be because Wynne developed an innovative way of steering her mode of transport.


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Back at the campground, we all got cleaned up, us with our 6 minute shower tokens and Wynne in the perfect bathtub floor of the shower in the trailer, complete with a hand spray for rinsing off. We’ve yet to use it – when we’re not hooked up to water, we need to conserve a little - but it’s great for her.


In the end, we were very glad we added another day in ZIon and could have added a few more if we didn’t need to keep moving east to get to Santa Fe in time to meet some friends. Plus, we’d done some exploring in Arches and Canyonlands in 2009 while riding 2-up on our BMW F800GS, including a mini-epic on the famed White Rim Trail and a funny story that followed as the trip began to unravel. As we drove out towards the famed Mt. Carmel tunnel, we talked about the fact that Zion in particular would never be a “done that” kind of place but rather one we’d look forward to coming back to again and again, revisiting some favorite places and exploring new ones.