Visiting Utah's National Parks (cont'd)

Canyonlands National Park

            Canyonlands National Park is an enormous wilderness of rock, over 527 square miles, which stretches from the Glen Canyon Recreation area in the south up to and adjacent to Arches National Park.  There are three regions of the park, defined by two great canyons that have been cut by the Green and Colorado Rivers.  The confluence of these rivers defines the boundaries of the Maze, to the west; the Needles, to the east; and the Island in the Sky, to the north.  The Maze is almost inaccessible to the occasional visitor as it has no roads and requires a guide and at least four or five day’s minimum to visit.  I read the following statement about the Maze section of the park --- “From one point of view the Maze’s confusion of canyon’s is inhospitable; from another, it is an inviting refuge from civilization”.   Very appropriate! 

            The Needles region is somewhat more accessible, but it also demands hiking into the interior for five or more hours to see the unique features of that part of the park.  The region that Lila and I visited was the Island in the Sky as it is more accessible with its thirty-eight miles of paved roads.  During our previous visit to that park, we arranged for an outfitter to take us into the park via a four-wheel drive vehicle and also an airboat ride down the Colorado River.  During that visit we also drove the Schaffer Trail, which is a dirt trail deep in the park.   This time however we drove our rental vehicle on the paved roads and hiked from trails nearby. 

            We went to Grandview Point, where “…on a clear day you see forever”, but on this day the haze from the sun limited our view of the Green and Colorado River confluence (below right).  We took a two-mile hike along the rim (below left)…I know it was a rim walk because Lila was constantly reminding me to stay away from the edge.  It was relatively level, but over a rough trail.  A good beginning!  

 We then went to Upheavel Dome Overlook via a 1.5-mile hike up to the viewpoint.  Wind was blowing quite hard, but the view was magnificent.   And we also did a small hike  (.75 mile) to Mesa Arch.  That was enough for one day…we still had our challenge for the next day. 

Arches National Park

            As I mentioned, Lila and I readily completed the three mile round trip hike to Delicate Arch; Delicate Arch stands on the rim of a canyon with the snow tipped La Sal Mountains rising in the background.  Standing under the arch, which is forty-five feet high and thirty-three feet wide, both sides fall precipitously down into a canyon making it hazardous for those readily concerned with heights.  It is a truly beautiful sight and with time, erosion will certainly take its toll.  While Delicate Arch may be around for our lifetime it will certainly not be around forever.   

Arches National Park has more than 2,000-catalogued arches that vary in size and shape; the biggest arch being Landscape arch which was our next hike that day.  This trail is about 1.6 miles with some elevation gain along the hike.  Landscape arch measures over 300 feet base to base and had lost a sixty-foot long slab just over ten years ago.  So as time evolves, some arches crumble, while others are formed…the very nature of the geological process with time.  

            We met a couple from the B&B while hiking and decided to hike the next trail with them so we could park a car at one end and another at the other end.  The Park Avenue trail is a one-mile hike over a relatively rocky surface, but without much elevation change.  It is named “Park Avenue” because it is in a narrow canyon with huge formations on each side, depicting the tall buildings along New York City’s celebrated Park Avenue.  Well back to the B&B, and relaxed in the Jacuzzi, sharing stories of the day with the other guests and then to a great dinner.  

            The second day at Arches National Park, took us past rock formations such as the Great Wall, Three Gossips, Court House Towers and the Tower of Babel.  We headed directly to Balanced Rock; a short .3-mile hike around this massive rock formation balanced atop a pedestal.  The formation is spectacular and it appears to take on different perspectives from each view.    Then over to Wolfe ranch for the trailhead to the Delicate Arch overlook.  This hike takes us over a rising trail, across slip rock and to the edge of the canyon, which is directly across from Delicate Arch.  This 1.7mile hike with an elevation of 400 feet, provides an absolutely fabulous view of the park and the arch.  

            Then we hiked to Broken Arch (below) and Sand Dune Arch, the latter being a great place for children to play because of the large sand deposits.  This 1.6-mile hike had only a moderate elevation.  Finally, we hiked in the Windows section of the park, to the North Window, South Window and Turret arches.  This one-mile hike has some elevation gain and is an extremely popular trail with the visitors. 

Zion National Park

            Zion National Park is probably the one park that excites me the most…It is written that “There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles the mind…a glowing response…Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion…. in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison”.  When you are in Zion you are totally immersed into a natural canyon bounded by red rock walls that rise thousands of feet above reaching to the sky.  One cannot be in the canyon and not be awed by these monolithic temples of nature. 

            Recently Zion added a shuttle system to reduce the environmental effect of the visitors who would drive through the canyon and crowd the limited parking places.   Certainly, I believed that the shuttle would take away the flexibility and convenience of your own car.  I was wrong…the shuttle system was excellent…always there and no parking problems.  We had three whole days of hiking in the park and we would take one more hike the day we were leaving. 

            Heading east to west, highway SR9 goes directly through Zion National Park to the town of Springdale on the western side.  While you can drive SR9 through the park, you cannot drive your personal vehicle into the canyon.  But should you take SR9, you must drive through a narrow one-mile tunnel.  It is said that there are more accidents as result of driving the tunnel then there are on the trails.  In fact, it is not too bad…it is narrow...and often the tunnel is made one-way to let larger vehicles through.   

            The first morning we headed across from the lodge to the Emerald Pools trailhead.  The Emerald Pool trail leads first to a lower pool, which is lovely and then up to a middle pool, which in itself is not very exciting.  The trail to the upper pool is quite a bit more strenuous and involves getting up and over some rocky segments, but the pool is sheltered up against the red rock walls and in a wooded area.  The Emerald Pool hike is about 2.5 miles with a significant elevation change.  On the way down we picked up the Kayenta rim trail, a one mile trail leading down the canyon from the Emerald Pools to The Grotto, with beautiful views of the Virgin River.  

            Zion canyon is very warm and in summer temperatures reach over 100oF, so the time to visit the park is early spring or fall.  That afternoon we went to the visitor center to participate in a Park Ranger guided tour and lecture and later we walked into the town of Springdale to watch two big screen movies about Zion and the Southwest.  Well here was a day’s workout, so we headed back to the lodge and sat on our balcony captivated by the park’s rugged beauty, while drinking a glass of wine…not too bad, a tough life, but I figure someone has to do it.  

            The next morning, feeling invigorated from our recent triumphs on the trail we head back to The Grotto to pick up the Kayenta Trail now heading up to Angel’s Landing.  This is a hike for real hikers…well; we look pretty good with our hiking boots, trekking poles, backpack and water bottles!   The trail is five miles long with an elevation of 1488 feet and starts easy, but soon becomes quite steep.  We walk and talk and then stop and breathe, then continue again.  This cycle repeats itself many times over, but to our amazement we are making progress.  As we travel up the face of the red rock walls and into the inner canyons we rise to new heights (it may be the closest I ever get to heaven).  Finally, we reach Walter’s wiggles (below left), named after the man who designed and built this amazing switchback trail that climbs abruptly up the canyon wall.   From there it is just a short walk to Scout Landing and only another 400 feet of elevation over a distance of one-half mile to reach Angel’s Point.  Not too bad…we can do it! 

            But then Lila sees the steep climb ahead and the chain mounted up the middle of the trail.  We rest, have some trail mix, I contemplate the trail ahead…and then I tell Lila to rest there at Scout Landing.  She says “Why?”  I reply that I am going to try the rest of the trail.  Lila’s is shocked at my decision and asks me to leave my wallet and the car keys…it doesn’t seem to make any difference that we used the shuttle bus to get there.  I leave my backpack and just take one camera strapped around my waist and I head up the trail.  It seems like I am holding the chain tighter the higher I go and I am…but then I reach the crest of the first rise (below right) and in front of me I see……… 

            This very narrow trail…maybe three or four feet wide with the chain running up the middle and ground falling away precipitously by thousands of feet on each side of the trail, and the trail continuing on up to Angel’s Point.   At this instant I am holding the chain so tightly I cannot even get my camera out to take a picture.  I look and stare at this amazing and frightening site and all of a sudden it seems like I am back at work again…it just didn’t seem like it was going to be a fun day.  I could only imagine that I would get out on this trail and find myself crawling along, holding the chain and crying.  So I accept this limitation in my hiking ability and head down to Scout Landing where Lila is waiting (with my wallet and keys).   Only later did I learn that many others who have tried this trail before, even certainly more experienced hikers took three or more times until they were successful in reaching Angel’s Point. 

            Well, heading down while easier on the cardio, is definitely tougher on the feet.  Answering nature’s call is also a complex planning issue.  Remembering we are drinking water all the time and relief is a necessity.  Fortunately for men, finding a bush or rock toilet is easier than it is for the women, but search we must or else we will bust.  Arriving back at the Angel’s Point trailhead we head back to the lodge for a brief rest and then we head off to the Riverside Walk trail, an easy two-mile hike along the banks of the Virgin River.  

The Riverside Walk trail actually continues into the Virgin River and heads up river for many miles, but we stop there not wanting to drown our hiking boots.  This riparian area of the park just bordering the river is filled with lush vegetation, spring flowers just starting to bloom, water seeping through the sandstone walls that rise thousands of feet on both sides of the river.  We are told that this Navajo sandstone is especially porous and the water that we see “weeping” from these canyon walls has in fact been there for thousands of years.  Away from the river the park is a desert and is suffering from a severe drought.  

            The next morning we head over to Weeping Rock for the trailhead to Hidden Canyon…I have hiked this trail a number of times before, but Lila did not go with me. This time Lila is willing to give it a shot…so we head up the two-mile trail with an 850-foot elevation.   Steep, but doable, so off we go.  As we climb higher, the trail narrows and we then find ourselves on a ledge that keeps getting smaller (…it only falls off thousands of feet on one side).  All of a sudden Lila tells me she is not feeling very comfortable with this trail…in fact, I thought I was going to hear that declaration much sooner.  So I help Lila find a rock to sit down on this relatively narrow ledge and I keep heading up toward Hidden Canyon.  Soon the ledge narrows further and I again hold onto a chain installed to ease the fear factor during the climb.   Within about twenty minutes I reach Hidden Canyon (not too exciting…it is the climb that really gets the juices flowing) and then I start my descent to retrieve Lila and continue back down to the trailhead.  

            Later, we go to The Grotto and hike back to the lodge on an easy one-half mile trail and then we are off to the Court of the Patriarchs…a triple mount section of the canyon named after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   Since we are leaving tomorrow for Bryce, we head over to the Visitor Center to check weather conditions there for the next three days.  It will be cool with some possible precipitation.  That evening, we attend a Park Ranger lecture in the lodge on how he had spent eighteen days in the Zion backcountry during the winter.  Even with his expertise, he ran into trouble and almost died, but the pictures he presented showed a rare form of beauty that most of us will never experience. 

            The next morning we prepare to leave Zion National Park, but decide to take one last hike to the Canyon Overlook.  But first we must make our way  through the tunnel and pick up the trailhead immediately at the tunnel’s east end.  The trail is marked easy in the trail guide, moderate in the park guide and moderate to strenuous on the sign at the trailhead…so what is it really?  It became quite warm and the trail was in excess of a mile round trip through some irregular terrain.  It provided a stunning view of the canyon and I would consider the trail to be moderately difficult.

Bryce Canyon National Park

            After an easy two hour drive, we arrive at Bryce Canyon National Park…the weather is much cooler as the altitude is probably about 2,000 feet higher than at Zion.  In addition, as we enter the park we see huge smoke trails getting closer …the result of a controlled two day burn to improve the health of the park by returning nutrients to the soil.  We check into the lodge and get situated before we walk over to the canyon rim and once again we visit with the “hoodoos” of Bryce.  The Bryce lodge is the oldest original park lodge in the system, originally constructed by the railroad in the 1920s to encourage visitors to the park.  

            It never ceases to amaze me how different each park is, how its character represents a wholly different vision and experience.  Hoodoos are pillars of rock, fantastic shapes that have been left by erosion…these hoodoos cast a spell, as light from the sun reflect in different directions.  In this park, we are at the rim of the canyon and to enjoy the spell of the hoodoos we must hike down into the canyon and walk among these magnificent sculptures that nature has created.    Elevations along the different trails vary from 9,100 down to 6,500 feet and most visitors suffer until they accommodate to the higher elevations. 

            There are trails all along the 18-mile rim of the canyon, but Lila and I usually hike from the rim that is most adjacent to the park lodge.  We utilize trailheads from Sunrise Point, Sunset Point or Inspiration Point to head down into the canyon and experience the most exciting, most unusual visual sensations.  Using the Navajo trail loop and the Queens Garden trail (below) we cover about three miles through an elevation change of over 500 feet.  The first day I hiked in shorts and a short sleeve shirt, but during the next night it snowed and we awoke to a most glorious treat…observing hoodoos dressed in white.  That day was quite cool with a solid breeze blowing…and we dressed in heavy winter jackets, gloves and hat.  The sun came out the next morning and shorts were again the order of the day.

Capitol Reef National Park

            Capitol Reef National Park is different from the other parks that I have been discussing …it is not quite as popular and therefore tends to have less visitors and maintained trails.  It is nevertheless a park of astonishing beauty and “…an inspiration for poets, artists, photographers and those who seek to impose themselves in a solitude and splendor of its vastness”.   Capitol Reef gets its name from the domes that resemble the dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and the fact that the high cliffs resembled ocean reefs to the early pioneers. 

Capitol Reef reflects the impressive buckling of rock, created 65 million years ago by the very same forces that later uplifted the Colorado plateau and is today called the Waterpocket Fold.  Capitol Reef preserves the Waterpocket Fold and its eroded mixture of colorful cliffs, massive domes, stark spires, sheer monoliths, twisting canyons, attractive arches.  It would be easy to just continue to use words that would attempt to describe this indescribable splendor, but it is not possible to adequately set forth in words what only the eye can interpret most successfully.  

            At this point in our journey we have completed many hikes and we were beginning to fatigue just a little, but this park offers different opportunities to view the majesty and dignity of Mother Nature.  The paved scenic drive into the park from Highway 24 passes the pioneer community of Fruita, settled in 1880 and usually housed no more than ten families at any one time.  Today, only the orchards remain as remnants of that period in addition to some structures that served family life back then.  The 2,700 trees in the orchard are maintained by the park service and visitors can pick the fruit when they are in season.  

            The drive also takes you past many scenic points…two of which are the Grand Wash and the Capitol Gorge wash.   A wash is a narrow steep walled canyon (below left) that is subject to very dangerous flash floods that may occur many miles away.  In times of threatening weather they are a must to avoid, but in good weather they take you into a world that is radically different from the red rock hills normally seen in Capitol Reef.   The road to the Grand Wash is unpaved and terminates at the trailhead.  The one-way two and one-quarter mile trail is generally flat and is marked with cairns (a stacking of rocks that mark the trail direction), where necessary.  Sheer walls rise from the wash only fifty feet apart and often reflect the earlier presence of visitors of a past era. 

            These visitors were Indians that drew petroglyphs, that even today tell a story of their lives back then.  To reach the Capitol Gorge wash, we had to reach the end of the scenic road and then drive a two mile unpaved road to the trailhead.  The one-way one-mile hike takes us past Pioneer Wall, where we see the “graffiti” of a different time.  Names of pioneers that passed through Capitol Gorge are inscribed here with dates back to the 1880s.  Even attempting to do that today brings a $250 fine from the National Park Service.   On our last day in Capitol Reef, we hiked the Hickman Bridge, a two-mile trail to this natural bridge. 

Salt Lake City

            Well, I do not know about you, but Lila and I are getting tired…our bodies needed rest, but we did not want to leave the park area of southern Utah.  But return we must and so we planned a three-day stay in Salt Lake City to adjust to some sense of urban life.  Our hotel just borders Temple Square, the center of the Mormon religious order; we had the opportunity to visit the Temple grounds and the ancestry research center.  Unfortunately, we were not able to identify any information about our ancestors, but then we had very little data to begin with.   

            There were very little signs of the Olympic events that drew unprecedented crowds to Salt Lake City just a couple of months ago.  The site where the medals were awarded to the athletes during these Olympics was next to our hotel and today it is a parking lot.  

Reluctantly, we finalized our packing and then headed home…I was now thoroughly relaxed and eternally grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to have shared the wonderful experiences of these last eighteen days.  Our flight home was excellent and it took only two hours of uninterrupted traffic back in Washington, upon our arrival, for me to return to reality.