I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, so I had a lot of opportunity to spend time at Yosemite. My earliest memories of the park go back to about the age of four. I climbed Half Dome for the first time around the age of eleven or twelve, and have probably climbed it close to ten times since. My family spent a lot of time in Yosemite, and I was lucky enough to introduce it to numerous friends over the years. I love Yosemite like no other place.
Which leads me to a sacrilegious statement: Zion National Park is at least as awesome. There. I said it, and I still don’t believe I can say it. It feels like I am letting an old friend down. But after two different trips to Zion, and a total of half a month or so of days in the park, I have to say that this place is amazing.
Not that the two parks are the same. Not at all. But when you compare the sheer beauty of the canyons, the variety of experiences, and the amazing views… it is hard to say that one is better than the other. The trails are incredible. You can fall to your death pretty easily off a variety of trails in both these parks – and that not only helps get you to great vistas, but it also pegs the needle on the Excite-o-meter in my book.
Sandy had to work on Friday, so I decided to hike up to Angel’s Landing again. We had done this hike about five years ago with Shelley and John Carpenter. I remembered it being quite extreme, but five years of aging has deepened my respect for heights and precarious footing. My memories didn’t do it justice. It is scary stuff – not mountain climber scary, but definitely scary for your average hiker.
The trail starts uphill very quickly, and within about twenty minutes you encounter Walter’s Wiggles – a part of the trail named after the parks first superintendent.
Walter must have really wanted people to enjoy the top of Angel’s landing, because people that set up Zion had to work pretty hard to get you up the first part of the mountain. The trail is reinforced most of the way, and there are a series of drains at every switchback to keep the water from eroding the trail. Finally you hit a spot where there just isn’t a place to put the trail, so they cut one out of the mountain.
While this part is tough going up, it is a whole ‘nuther story going down. The path is so steep that with every step going down, your toes get crammed into the front of your shoes. After a while walking downhill on a steep ramp, you long for the endless stairs of the Mist Trail in Yosemite. Hard on your knees, but much easier on your feet.
Luckily, the trail eventually takes you through a dark, cool canyon for a while, so you get a bit of a break before the last big push up to the top – which follows the top of a razorback ridge until it ends at the summit. Because the mountain is made up of mostly eroded sandstone, the trail itself can be steep, sandy and very slippery. No problem – just install some chains for people to hang on when things get a bit hairy.
Many of these areas would not be quite so alarming if it weren’t for the fact that, at certain times, you have to turn loose of the chain and move to the outside to allow for people going the opposite direction. You can get used to that until you hit a spot where there are steep drops to the canyon below on both sides.
When I got to the top, I was actually surprised to find a lot of people up there. Unlike Half Dome, in Yosemite, there really isn’t a lot of space at the top – although you can climb down to some areas below if you are feeling adventurous. For my part, the most unnerving aspect of getting to the summit were the number of people taking pictures. There were probably close to a hundred or so people in a very narrow area, many of them with their eye to a lens and not always too aware of what was going on around them. And by “around them”, I mean sometimes an eight to ten foot area with serious drops on either side. It was a bit disconcerting to make your way around someone with only twenty-four inches of rock to yourself, knowing that their entire focus (no pun intended) is on getting their picture right. They aren’t thinking about you! But, in the end, it is worth it. The view from the top is stupendous.
Well, eventually, I had to leave, and so I headed down, knowing that we would also soon have to leave Zion – which, because of its beauty, and because we had been there for a while, now felt very comfortable and homelike to us. But we had reservations at Lake Powell, so it was time to go. On Saturday, we packed up everything, hooked up the trailer and headed out the East Gate of the park. This is a lot of fun, because you have to exit out a one-mile tunnel carved through rock. And because we were towing a fairly large trailer, they hold traffic to one direction only, so you can drive down the center of the tunnel. It is a bit strange straddling the yellow line in the center, hoping that the rangers on the other end are making sure that no one else is coming the other direction.
As we exited the tunnel, I could tell that Sandy was also a bit down about leaving. Luckily there are some pretty amazing rock formations to look at while you are leaving. As we looked up along the canyon cliffs, we suddenly saw something that purged our gloom moods. We had heard that there we Big Horn Sheep in the park, but until now, we had mostly seen our share of crows, chipmunks and mule deer. As we came around a corner, we saw this guy up on the mountainside above us:
I was able to capture this footage with my iPhone, while Sandy got some great shots with a real camera. We were able to move up the road a little bit, drive off into a pull-out, grab Sandy’ telephoto lens, and wait for this big guy to come around the bend where he joined some buddies.
Well, needless to say, we were completely blown away by how the day had changed. Zion had managed to give us a proper send-off with yet another great sight to see. Blues chased away, we hopped in the car and high-fived it all the way to Page, Arizona.