The road trip was on. Sequoia was a fine California sendoff and we were at last out of state. We’d driven from Sequoia to Las Vegas for a shower and a night in a bed and were back on the road, bound for Zion National Park. Zion had captured our hearts three years earlier on our first road trip west, spending just 24 hours in the canyon over 4th of July weekend. We’d made plans to visit since but the government shutdown spoiled them and we were excited to get back.
Outside of Vegas we picked up some beer on the Indian reservation and crossed our fingers one of the campgrounds had an open spot. We lucked out immensely our first visit. As cars circled the campground we drove past a vacant site with a handwritten note on the reservation post. The occupants had paid up through the weekend and were called home. The site was up for grabs and we jumped on it. A neighbor said people had been driving by it for hours unaware of the gesture. This time, I backed up our hopes with a reservation at a private campground a few miles north of the park but to experience Zion, it has to be in the cradle of the canyon.
We arrived at the Springdale entrance to an expected “Campgrounds Full” sign hanging from the gatehouse. We showed our parks pass and pulled into the South Campground for an obligatory lap. The grounds were packed on this late June weekend and we were skunked. I turned down a lane I thought we hadn’t explored and came up empty again. Driving toward the exit, a volunteer in a golf cart slowed down as she approached us and without prompt said, “You guys looking for a site?”
“Yes!” I said, “Desperately.”
“I’ve got one free that’s reserved for us,” she said.
She lived in an RV site near the entrance but volunteers have a quota they can reserve for whatever reason, including graciously helping out folks like us. I thanked her emphatically. The grace of Zion juju had fallen upon us again. Grinning ear to ear, thankful we didn’t have to haul it north to our back up spot, we parked and didn’t set up camp. We threw on bathing suits, grabbed a bag of beer and took off on our bikes down the Pa’rus bike path to soak in the Virgin River.
The Pa’rus is a paved trail and is the only trail in the park open to bikes and pets. It heads from the Visitors Center, past Watchman and South Campgrounds and winds along the Virgin River for 1.7 miles. It’s not much of an adventure in comparison to Zion’s famous trails but relaxing in the river is one of the best things to do in Zion and a cruise on the Pa’rus to whichever swimming hole you choose is convenient and very fun.
It was somewhere in the 90’s and we splashed into the turquoise river with joy. We were back, back in the hole we’d bathed in three years earlier when the west was brand new to us. We’d learned and explored quite a bit in the interim but Zion was as sharp as ever. We chatted about the hikes we wanted to do while we were there, photos we hoped to snap but agreed that the best activity in Zion, especially in the summer, is getting pruney in the Virgin with some beers. We spent hours doing so until the sun fell behind The Sentinel, finally heading back to the car to set up camp.
We only had our reserved site for one night and by 7:00am I was up to find our home for the next three days. Lots of parties were picking up to leave and there were several options. I lucked out with arguably the best site in the campground. Sitting directly up from the river and bike path, the site is just feet from a wide sandy riverbank beach has a shady tree and lots of space. Zion, once again, provided generously.
We wanted to peg off a couple of the classics, including The Narrows. Zion’s Narrows has to be one of the most famous and most frequented slot canyons in the world. There is no trail through the canyon and hikers walk the riverbed, sometimes waist deep through the slim passage. With a permit, eager guests can hike the entire length of the slot canyon from Chamberlain Ranch, sixteen miles to the Temple of Sinawava. This can be broken into two days, camping at one of the few designated sites along the river. These are coveted permits and highly recommended.
Our Narrows hike was how most approach it, hiking upstream from Temple of the Sinawava as far as Big Springs (4.5 miles one way) turning back whenever one chooses, often after a section known as Wall Street (2 mi.).
We hopped the shuttle from the Visitors Center. Zion has one of the best shuttle services in the Park System and is the only motorized way to get around as most of the canyon is barred from vehicles to relieve congestion and pollution. Temple of the Sinawava is the last stop on the scenic tour.
Along the path toward the river, parties gear up with rented water shoes and staffs. Hiking staffs cannot be overlooked and are crucial to navigate the rocky riverbed. We did not rent one and natural sticks are hard to come by. There are some piles of flood debris along the shallow sandbars but they are similar to a carcass on the Serengeti, picked over by many with only refuse remaining. If you don’t rent, do not damage nearby trees. Your best bet is to find sticks propped against the stone wall, leftover by an earlier party. You’ll see many of these exchanges as some finish their hike as others begin.
Wading into the cool water was a refreshing treat as temperatures were climbing into the nineties before 10:00am. Much of the first leg is very shallow and very crowded. The river was filled, thirty yards wide with families and remained so for at least a mile if not two. After the iconic Wall Street, most tire and turn back. There are many dry banks to take a break or a snack.
Water trickles through cracks in the wall. Life seeps out of the rock where water bleeds. Tears rain from solid sandstone and gardens hang from overhead. It is an incredible display of persistence to thrive in such conditions.
Some sections of the canyon are only fifteen feet across, narrow hallways of smooth, twisting sandstone shapes, hewn over millions of years. The Navajo sandstone cliffs which form the entire canyon were once massive dunes, compacted over time to create the solid canvas the Virgin River has carved. The stages of metamorphosis this land has passed through to create such a beautiful Eden at this moment in time are vast and incredible.
We explored The Narrows, the offshoot of Orderville Canyon and up further toward Big Springs before turning back. The hike was sensationally crowded but no one minded, each person very much in their own world, wobbling for balance on the loose river stones and gazing neck-bent skyward. We arrived back to the river path, left the sticks we’d found for others and head back for camp. It was still the early afternoon and we filled a mesh bag with beers, biked back up the Pa’rus trail and sat the rest of the day away neck deep in the Virgin.
The other classic on my list was Angels Landing, another hike of notable acclaim. Known for its lofty summit ridge and dramatic views, it too gets plenty of traffic. I was up at 6:00 to beat the heat and the crowds. Another ride on the handy shuttle and I was at the Grotto Trailhead by 6:20. The West Rim trail is a concrete trail cut into the canyon wall. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 30’s, it is an impressive trail ascending the sandstone wall. The concrete blends well with the environment but is a little lame, especially on a trail with such a raw reputation.
I began shuffling up the sidewalk switchbacks as quickly as I could. They eventually bend into Refrigerator Canyon and the views in this side canyon are intimate and stunning. Soon you’re back on the side of the wall, ascending the most tightly stitched switchbacks zigzagging on top of one another known as Walters Wiggle's. Eventually the trail turns to deep sand and you smell the pit toilets, signifying you’re at Scout’s Lookout and the fun is about to begin. From this point, the route leaves the West Rim Trail and onto the sandstone.
There is no defined trail but the route is obvious and particularly exposed portions are protected with posts and chains. Even in the early morning there was a bit of a bottleneck near the spine reaching the summit. I had been running by this point and politely snuck around others and found my own way up away from the chains. Minutes later I was at the top. The view was indeed sensational and the sense of morning in the light was rejuvenating. There was a school trip of some sorts on the summit so I didn’t hang, stomping my foot on the summit marker and jogging off the top.
Angels Landing is a fantastic hike with amazing views and a couple fun class 3 moves along the way. It should be savored but I was on a mission for speed at this point. I ran as fast as I could, letting up a bit as my knees pounded through Walter’s Wiggles. Hikers heading up huffed and puffed and jeered my speed but I told them I already did the hard part. I was back down to the bus station 75 minutes after I'd left. Surely no record but even when I set out for a relaxing hike, I tend to have the most fun when I’m pushing myself to perform.
Alli had taken a trip into “town”, rather the shops just outside the entrance, looking for geodes and Birkenstocks. I got back to camp much earlier than I anticipated and cracked a warm Bud down by the river to soak my paws and wait for her return.
When Alli got back, our afternoon was obvious and we sauntered down to the river. It was routine by now but any routine like that is welcomed. We had plans to have canned raviolis that night, a dish we’d tossed around all weekend. By 4:00 we’d been in the water for hours and had downed a handful of river temperature Budweisers. We were getting hungry but it was far too hot to leave the river and cook over MSR in the direct sun. We waited.
By six we were desperate. We’d been good about food on the trip so far, our pantry box carefully planned and plentiful. We cracked another warm beer and lamented. I don’t know if it were Alli or I who suggested it but whoever it was, we were both waiting for the other to bring it up, a restaurant. We’d driven by the Spotted Dog a couple times, one of the few restaurants outside the park. It was settled, raviolis were on hold.
We walked in and were hugged and kissed tenderly, lovingly by the air conditioning. We took seat at the bar of the small bistro and I ordered a cold beer from a tap. Alli got a cocktail with ice! Dinner was fine but it tasted scrumptious. We chatted with the bartender who’d worked at Everglades National Park in a town called Flamingo I’d been to a few times and we listened to his stories of drug runners. The guy who owned the Birkenstock store was there too and it was fun to feel for a moment what living in that community is like.
We were bound for Moab in the morning and with full, cooled off bellies, we yawned back to camp. The night was completely clear and the stars radiated. By 10:00 a bit of the Milky Way hovered over canyon rim. There were more visible stars and galaxies than I’d seen in some time. Something so natural, literally, universal, has become an exotic treat for those who venture away from the artificial light. We watched shooting stars and the axis turn before falling off to sleep.
At 2:00 I woke up and poked my head out to see the Milky Way. It was raised high above the Watchman and from my sleeping bag, I grabbed one shot, which turned out to be my favorite of the weekend. Zion has a way of making one feel at total ease in a place so big. It has a nurturing energy that is evident and calming. Zion is like the bosom of a broad universe and spending time in this canyon allows us to consider that scale and our own reality a little better.