Bryce Canyon & Zion National Park
Our pitstop in Utah was not premeditated. We had initially thought we would do UT on the way back to Colorado this summer when I returned to Estes Park, CO, for another season of working as a rock climbing, via Ferrata and backpacking guide. But because we were so close and the weather looked good, we decided to take a detour north from the Grand Canyon and make a loop through Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks before heading back West through Nevada.
We had similar plans for Bryce Canyon as we did for the Grand Canyon just a week earlier. We wanted to try and arrive as the sun was setting over the Bryce Amphitheater. So after a few days in Kanab, UT, where we showered up, did laundry and recharged Sage, we began to make our way north towards the Paunsugaut Plateau and ancestral lands of the Puebloans, Fremont People, Anasazi, and most recently, Paiute People.
Before we left, we did not check the weather. However, the steep incline of the road and the increasing snowbank all around us sent us messages that it would be cold. Very cold. Our coldest night by far, in fact.
Nonetheless, we made it to the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater in time to enjoy the sunset and take Dottie on a short walk. We were utterly bundled up and looked something like the Michelin Man. Without mentioning it to one another at first, Whitney and I both felt as if Bryce Canyon was slightly underwhelming. I assume we are not the only ones to think that after coming straight from the Grand Canyon.
I remember feeling a bit ashamed that we were reaching a point in our trip where we could compare the beauty of National Parks as if we were purveyors of artisanal rugs. We were visiting places, one after the other, that some people can only dream of experiencing. And here we were, feeling underwhelmed. It was time for a reality check. So we adjusted our expectations and returned to a place of gratitude instead of a spoiled privilege. We soaked up the beauty of Bryce Canyon like sponges for the next two days.
The following day, I chauffeured Whitney to the trailhead for her hike and then spent a few hours in town working. I had a deadline to meet and, unfortunately, due to some miscommunication, had to rush to get the writing done. So Dot slept while I wrote, and Whitney descended into the park to enjoy a solo hike.
A few hours later, we were reunited. Whitney had a big ole smile on her face, and I felt accomplished despite having missed out. As you can imagine, Dottie was as thrilled to see Whitney a few hours later as she would be after a 3-month trip.
Before we headed down the hill to Zion, we stopped off in the Red Canyon somewhere below Bryce Canyon to go for a hike with Dottie since she wasn’t allowed in the National Park. So after a picnic lunch, we picked a trail that looked the least snowy and the sunniest, thinking that it would be warmer. It was, in fact, warmer. But at this point in the season, the lack of snow meant only one thing. MUD.
Dottie already has brown, red, and orange hues in her coat. But after this 2-mile jaunt in the Red Canyon, named after the vibrant red color of the sandstone rock that comprises the canyon, she was no longer recognizable. The orange mud in her coat made her look like Garfield, the cat. And when she would poke around in the mud with her snout, she would come back looking like Rudolph.
At the time, I was unfortunately not amused. I couldn’t quite get past the extra work that would be required of me to make sure that the pounds of mud and snow didn’t end up all over the van. However, when writing this, I find it much more humorous and am a bit annoyed with how I let the hiking conditions affect my attitude for the day. Dottie had an excellent outing, and that’s really the most important thing.
Later that evening, after some horrendous traffic driving south on highway 15 after a car accident, we made it to our campsite outside La Verkin, UT, about 30 minutes from the park entrance of Zion. Our spot was anything but flat. But because we were feeling frustrated and fed up with driving the van, we decided to deal with it for one night. So we went about our dinner, leaning somewhat aggressively to the right.
We spent 3 days in the Zion area, once the native lands of the Southern Paiute Tribes. The first day was a rest day. We loafed around the site and took naps. I took Dottie on a bike ride around the surrounding trails and then took myself on a ride. It was fantastic. I descended down to the banks of the Virgin River, where I followed a winding double-track trail (mostly used by OHVs) that took me back into La Verkin. At the mouth of the canyon, I found a series of hot springs whose sulphuric aroma was outlandishly smelly. As I descended, I found out, no doubt from the numerous signs, that the portion of the river gorge that was going to spit me out in town was all private property and that trespassing persons would be persecuted under the full extent of the law. So I peddled quickly and skedaddled out of there before someone threw a fit. I was back in the van after 15 miles or so.
On the second day in Zion, we chose to go rock climbing. As we pulled into the park, my attitude shifted drastically. The park entrance was busier than we expected, and the line for the shuttle looked bad. We had forgotten that it was President’s Day weekend. Once again, my entitled and privileged white guy’s perspective, the one where I and my plans are the most important, got the better of me. “I mean Jesus people, don’t you know I’m trying to have a scenic wilderness experience without anyone bothering me!”.
National Parks, especially the popular ones, are like museums. Gone are the days when you could show up and have a completely serene experience. You’ve got to be able to enjoy them with the understanding that other folks are going to be right there with you. Everyone deserves the chance to experience a National Park. And with the Pandemic, people are streaming into outdoor spaces looking for clean air and desperately trying to take advantage of uncertain times. Just like us.
So once I got my white privilege under control and realized there was still plenty of parking spaces and that the line for the shuttle wasn’t actually that bad, I was able to calm down. And as it turned out, it was actually quite lovely to just sit in the shuttle and stare fiendishly, mouth agape, at the massive rock walls all around us and not have to worry about keeping the van from careening down into the river on the way to where we wanted to climb.
The spot we chose to climb was perfect. Whitney and I were one of three couples there. It was quiet and secluded. The wall was south-east facing, which meant that it was already basking in the sun by the time we got there. It felt so hot that we had to strip off our puffy jackets and mid-layers.
The crag we chose is well known for its cracks. To climb cracks, you have to use special techniques depending on the size of the crack and your hand. You either hand-jam, finger-jam, or fist jam. And when it’s wider than your fist, also known as off-width, you have to get really creative. But we won’t get into the weeds.
You basically have to shove your hands, feet, and whichever other limb is available into the crack to ascend upwards. You are not gripping and pulling down on features on the wall. Instead, you are jamming your body parts into the voids in the rock to gain traction. This might sound insane, but at the right angle, and with the correct-sized crack for your hands and feet, inevitable jams feel incredibly secure and safe. Enough to hang your entire body weight from.
To boil it down, the rock was impeccable. The cracks splintered up the wall as if cut by laser beams. We had a lot of fun practicing new climbing techniques in the deliciously warm winter sunlight. But, unfortunately, we also got plenty frustrated. By the end of it, we were bruised and battered and ready to head back to the car.
Our last day in Zion was perhaps the best. We decided to ride the scenic byway. It was a 17-mile round trip ride on one of the most beautiful roads we have ever cycled. It began on a paved bike path that crisscrossed over bridges above the Virgin River and then connected with the only road in Zion. The canyon walls towered thousands of feet above us as we meandered carefully up the road, craning our necks and trying not to crash our bikes from being stupefied by the beauty of the place.
This was one of Whitney’s longest bike rides. Cycling used to cause Whitney severe pain. But not today. She just experienced the familiar sensation of tired legs after an epic ride. It was a massive accomplishment and I was proud.
After our time in the National Park, we rescued Dottie from her boredom and took her to the dog park. We made a picnic lunch and played fetch until the storm began to drop rain. Afterward, we got back on the road.
Our detour was officially over, and we were back on our route headed for Las Vegas and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.