Adventure America USA

Exploring Zion National Park – One of our most successful excursions

Zion Angels Landing Hiking Guide

Our drive to Zion was relatively straightforward with a long stop for school and groceries in Cedar City, Utah. The library is built adjacent to a city park so after getting groceries, I hung out with Lynx. Once Lauren had finished school, I cooked ramen for lunch and then we got on our way.

We got in too late to really do too much in the park and settled into our campground which is a fairly cheap “resort” affair with a game room, small pool, and hot tub. The welcoming documents humorously note that Verizon subscribers are shit out of luck. Evidently this one tiny valley immediately outside Zion National Park is not covered by Verizon. I think this is the first time this trip it’s happened.

We wiled away much of the afternoon in the pool. I have begun to start working with Lynx in earnest again on his swimming. He seems to be right there. He has rejected his coast guard approved water wings in favor of the swim belt which has three small floats on it. He occasionally takes on water and has a coughing fit but after a 10-second count for rest, he is back at it, launching off the pool side haphazardly in a diving belly flop to doggy paddle to me before I throw him to the corner of the pool to ascend the submerged stairs. Just before we finished swimming for the day, I took off the swim belt and let him try a few jumps without it, standing by in case I had to retrieve him. He made it to safety, though never brought his head up. I’ll see how it goes tomorrow. The biggest hurdle to Lynx improving is the neediness of the boys who just can’t leave me alone when I am in the water. They are so used to having that attention. They satisfied themselves with swimming between my legs which wasn’t too much a distraction and I managed to endure 30 minutes of that without getting kicked in the groin.

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park

In the evening we had a few local-is brews including the Polygamy Porter which plays on the early Latter Day Saints practice of polygamy.

Sleep was difficult. While the temperature was not soaring today, it took a long time to cool down over the evening and our trailer never got below the low 70s all night long, even with the AC blowing. It is not a very efficient system. We must endure it for two nights here, two nights in Vegas, and then we get back into the mountains. We shouldn’t have to worry about heat for most of the rest of the trip until a few days in the Midwest in July.

Zion National Park is another segment of the “Grand Staircase” which connects the Grand Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. What was once one great big sedimentary rock plain has been uplifted by tectonic forces and chewed away by the Colorado River creating a series of steps over the course of a couple hundred miles. It’s interesting to see the different layers explained in each park, though it’s taken until now to really get a grasp on things. The Chinle formations that we saw a few weeks ago at Capitol Reef are not present here as the erosion is not as complete. A large variation of moisture, wind, and tectonic uplift means exposure of various layers varies wildly from place to place so it’s not as if you are going to be a geology expert by visiting the national parks. Still, I find it fascinating.

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park Zion National Park

Our first hike of the day was the Canyon Overlook Trail in the main part of the park. To get to the trailhead required going up a narrow set of switchbacks that unnerved Lauren and then through a narrow one-mile tunnel through the mountain that unnerved her more. Apparently, the tunnel has been shut down twice when moisture burst a hole in the wall and sent a cascade of water and muck gushing through the tunnel. It’s not raining today but the stories are the things of nightmares if one is predisposed to such paranoia.

Despite being one of the most popular hikes in the park, there are only half-a-dozen parking spots for the trail leaving one to pull off the road next to a cliff edge alongside a sign that says park only in designated areas.

We managed to find a space that was only a few hundred yards a way and proceeded up the trail which promised wonderful views… of the area on the other side of the tunnel we just came through. While the trail had no drop-offs like those in the Grand Canyon it was fairly dangerous so Lynx was in the pack. Lauren was in the lead so she wouldn’t have to see her little crotch goblins along the edge. Wolf was behind her and Bear was just in front of me. It seems like this would work but our hike was short, compliments of Bear’s elevation reaction and bad engineering.

The railings that prevent a death plunge are built for adults with 18 inches of space in between the first rung and the ground. The surface at the base of the railings is uneven, sometimes covered in slippery sand. Bear was walking along the railing with one hand on the railing and I watched in terror at the possibility that his feet might slip on loose sand and he’d go right underneath the bottom rung. Despite calmly and specifically detailing my concerns and asking him to hug the inside of the trail away from the railing, elevation Bear wasn’t having any of that bullshit logic and began flailing wildly making an uncomfortable situation infinitely worse. I wanted to continue the hike with Wolf and let Lauren take Bear back. She was uncomfortable with handling the flailing Bear so we all trudged back, me carrying Bear with his arms pinned to his sides and feet to the side so the couldn’t ding me in the groin. I marched back giving little heed to other hikers, saying “thank you” without making eye contact as they let me rush past. One person said “father of the year right there.” I have no idea if they were being sarcastic or not. From my vantage point I was a big hairy asshole with no empathy. Perhaps from their vantage point they could only see the physical stress of carrying one kid on my back and another kid in my arms. Who knows?

The Narrows Zion National Park Utah

Having missed out on what could have been a great path, I took a consolation prize of taking a few minutes to myself to check out a green pool I could see from the road. Finding my way down was difficult but it was worth it to see some beautiful slot canyons amid the pools. Coming back was even more difficult because my shoes were slick with mud and I couldn’t get back up the 45-degree incline with slippery shoes. By the time I got back, everyone was calm and ready to press on our drive for another few miles before returning to the tunnel.

The formations are amazing with a whorled and wave appearance similar to the wave hike down at Vermillion Cliffs that we were not able to do this year on the road. We arbitrarily turned around when we had seen enough and stopped periodically for more pictures. At one stop we saw what looked like a peach tree growing out of a crevice. This was confusing, because while there was agriculture in the valley before this became a national park, there as no agriculture up in the canyons. I suspect that the peach was a volunteer that grew after someone threw a moldy peach out of the window. I guess the rangers have just shrugged their shoulders at the weirdness and let it survive.

Angel's Landing Zion National Park Utah

Back through the tunnel we wanted to drive up the Canyon before realizing that it is closed to private vehicles. Free shuttles depart the visitor center every few minutes to cut down on the type of parking snarl that I mentioned on the other side of the tunnel. I knew about the shuttles but thought they were later in the season. Lauren was more upset than one would expect over this minor inconvenience. She said that she had put so much time into planning the day that she wasn’t ready for a second major change. Calmed down after a few minutes, we resolved to head out to another part of the park called Kolob Canyon that was accessible from several miles to the west via I-15. There we planned to drive as far as we could (to a recent wash out) and then hike up Taylor Creek for about one mile to an abandoned cabin.

The route to the cabin involved crossing the same creek roughly 15 times. The water was a little bit high but we managed to make most of the crossings without getting wet. Lauren was the least adept at rock hopping, so I occasionally picked up 50-to-80-pound rocks and hurled them into the stream to make better stepping stones for her. She seemed indifferent to my efforts. This was frustrating because the subsequent splashes got my shirt quite wet at times. The cabin was not particularly interesting, locked up to prevent vandalism amid numerous signs noting it was historically significant and to not mess with it. On our way back, we decided to not worry about rock hopping and just ford the creek at whatever point was the most convenient. Our return went much faster and we peeled off our wet shoes and socks and headed back to camp.

I worked with Lynx in the pool again, starting him out with three floaties and then working him down to two. I removed a second floatie and tried to put the swim belt back on him with the single floatie. He shouted “no, I don’t need a floatie” only it came out “no, no need one floatie!” Well.. I guess he’s going to swim without a floatie from now on. He proceeded to launch himself in the same haphazard manner as yesterday time and time again and only took on water a few times, no more than yesterday when he had three floaties on. I still have to keep an eye on him of course but toward the end, he was content to just belly flop into the water, take three strokes to the wall, and do it all over again. I guess Lynx can swim now.
It was much cooler on our second night and everyone was in better spirits as a result.

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park

We actually set an alarm to get up this morning which is exceedingly rare. Finding parking yesterday at around 9 AM was difficult, so we figured we would get there a little bit earlier. Lauren wanted to stop at Springdale, a small tourist town just outside the park for coffee and breakfast burritos. We went to Feel Love which made a solid chai latte but burritos not quite as good as the ones we had back at Great Basin two days ago. I guess we are on a breakfast burrito kick because she has requested I make them tomorrow for breakfast.

From the visitor center we caught the shuttle up into the canyon. There are nine stops total but we rode all the way to the end, planning on doing some hikes on the way back. At the far end the Virgin River exits a canyon called “The Narrows” which is hikeable later in the season after the snow melt has finished. For now, it is a muddy torrent and the narrows are closed. We can approach the entrance of the The Narrows on the Riverwalk. It is set well away from the river but there is evidence of the trail having been washed out on a number of occasions and the current path rests atop old foundations. Despite our separation from the river, even I am nervous about kids getting near it. At no point do I even consider taking Lynx out of the pack. Signage in the visitor center did a good job explaining exactly why a flash flood is dangerous with an image of boulders and tree trunks being pushed by the water. It reminded me of the Ron White bit about hurricanes. It’s not that the wind is blowing; it’s what the wind is blowing. It’s not that the water is flowing, it’s what the water is flowing. Admittedly mine is not as catchy but the strongest swimmer in the world is dead if he gets pinned between a tree trunk and a boulder.

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park

The canyons weep from rainwater and snowmelt that seeps through the porous sandstone until it hits an area of less porous rock forming trickling waterfalls that appear randomly on the canyon walls. The wetness, often found in overhangs provides water for various plant life referred to as hanging gardens. These were evident on the Riverwalk but even more so on the Weeping Rock trail, two stops back toward the visitor center for a short hike under an overhang where the falling water provides a pleasant mist as you walk by it. Our third hike of the morning was to the Lower Emerald Pool. There are three Emerald Pools, Lower, Middle, and Upper, but the kids were starting to drag and the lower was all that we were capable of. The pools are just places where the waterfalls of weeping rocks have carved out pools of green water. The green tint is caused by the refraction of light against the sediment that infuses the water with an olive color.

The trail that we didn’t even consider taking was the Angel’s Landing Trail, famous for the dizzying heights and somewhere between 14 and 22 deaths depending on who you ask. The lack of precise death count is because sometimes they never find a body, and sometimes when they do, it’s downstream and they don’t know exactly where you fell. A permit system that keeps the numbers down provides a more accurate account of where deaths occur. The permit is necessary for overcrowding on a trail that is less than a suburban sidewalk in width with a thousand foot drop on either side. Just watching videos from the trail put Lauren into a cold sweat. I can’t imagine she will ever do it but I’d like to. We do want to come back for the The Narrows which, as far as I can tell is 11 miles one way. It appears there is a trailhead on the far end, but we’d need someone to meet us there.

Zion Angels Landing Hiking Guide

After the Emerald Pools, I split off from Lauren and the kids for a 4.5 mile run down the hill to Springdale. Lauren was going to meet me at Zion Canyon Brew Pub just outside the park for lunch and then I was going to take the kids back to camp while she had some individual time in Springdale. I will have to add this run to my list of all time favorites. Granted, I was starting about halfway down the canyon, but the dizzying red cliffs and panoramic views were better than almost anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not someone who ranks everything in my life but off the top of my head, I would place it only behind a loop around Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone that I did back in 2013 and my rim-to-rim run at the Grand Canyon back in September. I made good time and got to the restaurant before Lauren had even gotten Lynx strapped into his high chair.

After we parted ways, I went back to camp in hopes of taking the boys swimming but the weather would not cooperate, thunderstorms in and out of the campground. We didn’t get much rain but the lightning was too close. Instead we did school for the day and watched tablets.

Lauren didn’t take as much time as I expected and I picked her up with time to head out to the last section of the park at Kolob Terrace Drive. It was an out-and-back into another section of the park. No one was in the mood for hiking so it was just a pretty drive in a light rain. Check out List of beautiful hiking trails in Zion National Park

Zion Angels Landing Hiking Guide

Back in camp for the night, we finally got a break in the rain to take the boys swimming. While Lynx is no longer in floaties, he does have a tendency to keep his head down, holding his breath until he gets to me. So now I need to back away from him, shouting for him to lift his head up and not rescuing him until he takes a breath. Ideally, I would like him to side breathe but that coordination isn’t there yet. This practice involves aspirating a little bit more pool water than the day before but not so much that I want to put the floaties back on. Bear was the first to exit the pool, then Lynx. Wolf stayed a good half hour after everyone else had left as I moved back and forth between the trailer to “supervise” according to the sign at the pool that required supervision for those under 14.

Lauren and I tag-teamed on laundry and she did a long overdue cleaning of the back of the truck which had turned into a great big tangle of discarded Go-Gurt tubes, Cheez-Its, and baby wipes. We are a classy family. It took her over an hour. As we were doing laundry, we went ahead and washed all the car seat covers as well. The truck no smells much less like a cheese factory.

Zion Angels Landing Hiking Guide

While obviously there are things left to do at Zion, we have our fill of the park for now and it is one of our most successful excursions thus far. Tomorrow, we head down to Nellis Air Force Base for two nights on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Story by Steven Specht 

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