Zion National Park
Zion is a stunning park. If you like to get out of the car and walk, this is the one to choose in Utah. Everything is just a little larger than normal, and it takes time to appreciate. Monumental cliffs soar thousands of feet vertically from the valley floor: it may not be the deepest canyon around, but it's certainly the steepest. On top of that, there are dizzying climbs, narrow canyons, and a remote and relatively untravelled plateau of lush greenery.
Our first sight of Zion came as we arrived in the east. Checkerboard mesa is a rounded dome covered in a perfectly uniform grid of horizontal and vertical faults. So far, just another interesting geological feature. But it happens to be 1,500 feet high: and that puts it into a different class.
We spent the next day climbing Angels' Landing. The landing is a rock fin. It's about a hundred feet across at its base, and at the top, 2,000 feet above, it narrows to ten feet or less.
The walk starts pleasantly enough, with a paved stroll along something called Refrigerator Canyon. The trail then turns back to climb steeply onto the fin. It's worth recounting how the fin got its name: a passing priest took one look at it and declared that only an angel could ever get to the top. The priest had reckoned without an engineer by the name of Walter. Walter constructed the set of switchbacks now known as Walter's Wiggles, that carry one up onto the fin. The climb is now distinctly hard work, but still not particularly alarming.
As the trail works its way along the south edge of the fin, the drop starts to loom larger and larger in the bottom of your mind. Walter's assistance gradually gets reduced to a few chains nailed into the rocks, as the trail nears the top of the fin.
Then the fun starts. The chains stop just one side of the 'saddle'. This is the first time you get to see both sides of the fin at once. The trail is perfectly simple: walk across the saddle, which is between 4 and 8 feet wide all the way across. What could be simpler? The only thing is, the chains have suddenly vanished, it's rather windy, and the valley floor isn't quite far enough away on both sides to stop it from being an obviously long way.
At a personal level, it's worth mentioning that one of our few alpine starts had got us to this point ahead of everyone else on the trail. About a dozen people are standing around, wondering whether you're suppose to go further.
Eventually we venture across the saddle, hunched to keep that little bit closer to terra firma, eventually starting to breathe again after grasping the first chain on the far side of the saddle.
From there on in, it's a steep climb along the ridge. It's not strictly difficult, especially with chains on the steepest bit, but the price of the smallest mistake and the occasional accidental glance downward keep it interesting.
[Alternative view by Jan: It was absolutely terrifying; my knuckles were white from hanging on to the chains and when I got to the top I had to sit down for half and hour and stare at the horizon and above. Every time someone else arrived at the top I had to stop myself screaming at them not to go near the edge!]
Once at the top, we enjoyed the view for a long time, then looked at it for a while longer, then eventually had to go down. By now we'd been joined at the top by several assured mountaineer types, mostly Germans who lept about like mountain goats. On the way down we passed a veritable traffic jam of climbers, but we're still proud of our mental fortitude.
[More of that alternative view: Second addendum by Jan: going down was much worse. I was forced to stare down at the valley floor 1,500 foot below all the time and had to keep repeating to myself 'You will be down soon. You will be down soon.....' But then again I never was much good at rock climbing and so have little faith in my abilities to keep my footing. Not a good thing in this environment]
The alphine start had left us with an afternoon to kill, so we set of to the northwest corner of the park, known as the Kolob finger canyons. Most of the national parks are managed somewhat cunningly. One local described the process as being to manage one area as a 'sacrifice', and try to direct 99% of the tourist trade there. It turns out that the average length of visit to a national park is measured in hours, so if the millions of annual visitors always go to one place, that gets trashed, but the rest of the park (usually the bulk) remains relatively untouched for those that want to spend more time and be alone. Zion is big enough to make this work rather well.
So, the Kolob canyons. Definitely lightly patronised, we walked for around four hours along river beds and in canyons and met two people. A word about that meeting: one of the pleasures of this tour that we haven't talked about much has been the chance to talk to people. This couple hailed from California, she a retired teacher, he a retired engineer who'd worked on the design of petrol tanks for the Saturn V rocket which carried Neil Armstrong to the moon. We spent a happy hour chatting away, learned a bit more about how the last 30 years appeared from this side of the Atlantic, not to mention the joys of engineering in a situation where there's no-one to tell you how they did it last time. He had also gone round the world (mostly by boat) in 1952! This is just one of many fun meetings we've had along the way.
Anyway, back to the plot. Day two saw another entertainingly different trail, this time through the 'Narrows'. This area sits at the top of the Zion canyon. The canyon isn't that narrow: it's rarely less than twenty feet wide. However, the vertical walls rise about 1,000 feet, and it's a strange, damp little world inside. Water seeps through the rock here and there, creating hanging gardens of vibrant green, at the base of sheer cliffs that soar to where the sky peeps in from above.
The other feature of the Narrows is that the river covers the entire floor of the canyon, so most of the walk is actually more accurately a wade. Sloshing along is quite a lot of fun, and pleasantly cooling, as long as you don't lose your footing, as one poor guy did. He looked rather more refreshed than he wanted to be.
(click thumbnails for a larger picture) |
Angels' Landing from bottom... and top
Climbing Angels' Landing
The Narrows: scenery and wader
The entrance to the Narrows
We were warned...
The Checkerboard Mesa