Road Trip 2019 Blog 4: Exploring Utah – Zion National Park

Utah was proving to be pretty special as a tourist destination full of character and natural wonders, having already experienced Salt Lake City, Bonneville Salt Flats and Cedar Breaks and this was compounded by our visit to Zion National Park during our stay in Cedar City.

What a place.

We had to set out reasonably early from our KOA as Zion was a couple of hours’ drive away and we really wanted to get there before the heat of the day made it difficult to move without us dehydrating in an instant.

The name Zion conjures up images of something biblical, maybe a significant city like Jerusalem or a promised land – I have since discovered it has several associations and meanings, one of them ‘mountain fortress’ – and that tied in with the links to The Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints’ presence in Salt Lake City. I also knew that Bob Marley posthumously had a song released, the lyrics of which were about him being ‘Iron like a lion in Zion’ which I have to admit, I found myself singing regularly over the course of this holiday. Anyway, digression aside, whatever it meant, with its biblical ties, the name Zion conjured up a place of majesty and awe, of mystery and power.

Mike, my husband, does all the travel planning and I literally come along for the ride. He had talked about what was there and I had seen selected images of red rock and people on top of things with amazing views but I’ve seen photos of lots of travel destinations and let me tell you, you never fully know what it is like until you are there experiencing it for yourself with your own eyes. I cannot state that enough.

It did not disappoint.

One of the gates into the park – we actually came in through the other entrance but visited this later in the day

We turned up at Zion and the car park was already filling up which is double-edged – you know that it’s going to be busy but that also means that it must be something good because lots of people are there.

It might be wise to tell you a little about exactly what Zion is. It is essentially a canyon through which the Virgin River runs. It has a road that brings you into it so that you can access its very depths, truly getting into the heart of it and being surrounded by the enormous walls while you explore it.

You cannot drive into Zion – there is a shuttle which you can hop on and off throughout the canyon so that you are able to cover all of the sights that Zion has to offer without the congestion of traffic. It’s a good idea in many ways and they run frequently but they fill up quite quickly. The road ends literally at a place called the Temple of Sinawava but the canyon continues beyond that.

We were queueing for a while. Fortunately, the park had put on some entertainment in the form of a young bearded ranger. He was standing on a box or bench or some such object and telling us all about the dangers of canyon walking due to flash flooding. Apparently, the Narrows, the first stop on our tour that day is a bottleneck: rain that has fallen further upstream will travel down the Virgin River into this part of the canyon and pass through with force, gravity being how it is, and this can occur unexpectedly, causing drowning.

Taken from the leaflet that the ranger gives you on entering and reiterated multiple times by the ranger in the shuttle queue

Not for the faint of heart, canyon walking. I have to admit I was a bit nervous but the sky was blue, the sun was hot and the shuttle was arriving and so it was time to head for the Narrows and explore this natural wonder.

The route the shuttle would follow – the Temple of Sinawava our first stop

As we headed into the canyon, it was clear that we were somewhere very special. Huge red cliffs towered either side of us as we trundled through, dwarfing us in our little bus.

The Temple of Sinawava and The Narrows

A short ride later and the majority of people spilled out at the last stop – Temple of Sinawava. There are a lot of religious references in the naming of the features of Zion which ties in with its name but, in addition, does something to contribute to the visitor a sense of the awe that this place creates. It can’t be accidental and it fits because this place is wondrous and unique.

The Temple is an amphitheatre of rock which I think means a place where the rock surrounds you on all sides. There were no graduated seats nor a stage that I noticed.

Temple of Sinawava courtesy of Science Photo Library

Making sure that we had plenty of water and sturdy shoes, we headed to Riverside Walk, a paved trail that takes you to the river where, if you dare, you can enter the Narrows and walk in the Virgin River itself. No path, no stepping stones – you navigate the river and hope for the best.

On the way, ground squirrels were keen to obtain tidbits from people as they walked past and were quite tame. Getting up close to wild creatures is always quite cool but we observed other people feeding them and continued along the river. My youngest was quite curious about them but it would appear that squirrels in Zion have a penchant for human flesh, or at least like to bite, so the information leaflet told us. Beautiful but bitey.

We steered clear.

The noise of the river was increasing and soon we emerged to where the path stops and the river begins.

There is no doubt that the canyon walls were encroaching as it was becoming more and more enclosed. We were heading into a channel and the warnings of the ranger earlier that day resonated. Hopefully, it was sunny and clear further upstream as I did not fancy a swim in the rapids that day. Nor death by drowning, to be honest.

But there was no more prevaricating – it was time to put nerves aside and get into that water and head upstream.

It’s a strange sensation, putting your shoe willingly into water. Usually, when walking, I find it is sensible to avoid the wet spots so that my walk remains comfortable and without squelching for its duration, whereas here, against all my instincts, trying to keep my feet dry would just be a hindrance to my progress. I discovered that you have to embrace the fact that your feet will be immersed. I have to say that I did resist to start but when it was inevitable that, if I wanted to stay upright, my feet would have to go under the water’s surface, that walking without shoes was not an option and that I had to accept my wet foot state, it was actually quite an enjoyable experience.

Some people had acquired special river walking shoes, amphibious in nature from somewhere and I did experience a moment of envy but, you know, my Karrimors are a good fit and are a good pair of walking shoes. The thought of doing this in a pair of shoes that would feel alien to my feet would be awful. Better to be wet-footed and sure-footed than dry-footed but wet-clothed from a tumble.

It was so worth it. Despite the vast amounts of people around, I did feel like I was doing something intrepid and a little unorthodox and it made me feel really good. And being a small being, even with my girth, between those massive cliffs was pretty cool. It felt sheltered but also intimidating, a strange mix of the safe and scary.

We continued a way up until we felt satisfied that we could conclusively state to other people that we had done some canyon walking and then headed back as there was so much more of Zion to explore. We also had to get out of this shady canyon into the heat of the sun to allow our footwear the chance to dry out if it was going to serve us well for the rest of the day.

Stomachs were grumbling and rumbling (or was that the sound of rainwater coming through a canyon?) and so we headed back to the shuttle to find a place to sit, eat and soak up the atmosphere.

Weeping Rock

We found a spot at Big Bend to eat our lunch, the next stop down on the shuttle and whilst munching a sandwich and taking in our wondrous surroundings, we wondered if we were sitting at the most scenic bus stop in the world. It certainly had to be in the top ten.

Replenished with victuals, it was now on to the Weeping Rock which had a short trail to it up a very steep incline but we were up to the task.

We were now in the heat of the day and it was really beating down, the weather having provided us with a beautiful day to explore. It was nice then to spend a few moments in the shelter of the Weeping Rock, where water trickles freely from an overhang where you can stand and gaze out at the canyon spread before you. It was cool and tranquil, mossy and moist, the perfect place to rest beneath Mother Nature’s protective rock.

The rock was pretty cool but the view down the canyon from the raised point provided another perspective of Zion that reaffirmed its beauty.

Canyon Overlook Trail

One thing that Zion is famous for is great trails and the most infamous and dangerous one is called Angel’s Landing which is, you won’t be surprised to learn, at a high point in the canyon where the views are magnificent. However, what you may be surprised to learn is that the last part of it has chains in the rock in order for you to haul yourself up over very steep terrain. People have died from climbing it which adds a rather sinister slant to the outcrop’s moniker.

The chain walk or haul up to Angel’s Landing

This was off the cards for us today. I’m not ruling it out totally in my future as life has taught me to “Never say never” but with two kids and a dodgy knee to think about too, Angel’s Landing would have to wait.

Luckily, my husband had done his research and there was a trail on the outskirts of the park that we would have to drive to in order to access which sounded like just the thing for us.

A short shuttle trip, a short truck trip and some clever parking by hubby and we were ready to trek!

Before we got to where the trail started, we took a moment to survey our surroundings. At the side of the road was a distinctive mound of rock which had the most amazing striations in it, layers of stripes that have been caused by erosion over years. It was a feature of this part of America which we were to see over and over, the rock type in Utah, Arizona and Nevada obviously being moulded this way by the elements to make the most unusual geological features.

Canyon Overlook Trail is one of the best trails that I have ever been on and I’ve hiked in the Rockies. It was relatively easy to complete which appealed especially because Utah is bloody hot but it had enough variation in the terrain to make it interesting.

Twisted trees grew out of the ruggedness of the earth, bright greens and reds. There was one part where you have to walk along a ledge which is reasonably narrow and I have to say that I did make comparisons between myself and Indiana Jones at this point, the first time ever I have done this and quite probably the last.

Nothing could have prepared me for the reward at the end of this trail. We were lucky: we were there on the perfect day with the bluest of skies providing clear visibility and the time that we had chosen to do the trail meant that it wasn’t busy so we could spend time taking photos and marvelling at the scene before us. Nature never fails to amaze me.

The end of the trail

After some contemplation time, we decided that we would try and find somewhere in Springdale to have an ice-cream and possibly some Gatorade to replenish some electrolytes and that as we had to go on the road that you can see in the above picture, we would pull in somewhere safe and see if we could place our current observation point in the landscape, to see where we had walked in this majestic landscape.

First, though, we had to find the sign for the park and take the obligatory photo for our scrapbook which features earlier in this blog.

We found where we had stood above this natural arch – heart marks the spot. Zion was pretty awesome and I would return in a heartbeat. There was still so much to explore and in one day, we had been provided with a pretty hefty taster that would stay with us long after we left.

What would the next day bring? A day of variety – Cedar City, Kolob Canyons, some pool time and Shakespeare. Yes, you read that right. Shakespeare as in Elizabethan playwright of some renown. Don’t miss Blog #5!

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