On October 1, Joni, Matt and I drove west on I-70 and then to Capitol Reef National Park, a fine but highly underrated National Park. Arriving late in the afternoon, we drove a couple of miles past the visitor’s center on the scenic drive underneath the powerful red walls, west of the Waterpocket Fold. As the sun set, we did the short walk to Panorama Point where we could see across the canyon ridges to the reef. That night, we stayed just outside of the park in a slightly dilapidated motel, The Rim Rock Inn, with character and an absolutely scenic location. We ate at the restaurant, surrounded by windows so we could watch the canyon walls change color and glow with the sunset, as we ate western fare.
Utah Route 12
After breakfast in Torrey, we turned on Route 12 heading south. Immediately, the road began to climb steadily through Ponderosa Pine forests and up to tree line, where there were views, over golden stands of aspen, to the mesas of the Escalante below. After descending, just past the village of Escalante, we entered classic country of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We drove up the bone dry, hard rock canyons onto the Hogback, a dramatic stretch of road with the canyon walls dropping vertically just on either side of the road into the glowing canyons of the Escalante.
Route 12 passes by the entrance into Bryce Canyon National Park, and we drove in to do a quick hike on the Peek a Boo loop. Bryce is at the top of the Escalante Staircase, and it was a cool and bright day with a deep blue sky offsetting the jumble of bright pinks, reds, whites and yellows in the canyon. The trail was broad and easy to walk on but had the overall shape of a roller coaster down and around, up and down again, through tunnels and under vertical walls, with both single hoodoo spires and hoodoos in the thousands. We had to get to Zion that day to register for the tomorrow’s Narrows hike so I pushed the pace, and we climbed quickly by the other hikers. The pace was no problem for Joni and Matt.
The Narrows was like another world, one where you lived with your feet in water. Occasionally, there were stony banks, below water line during some part of the year, now dry, where we could sometimes walk, but for a majority of the time, we were walking in knee deep water or less. But on the second day, in the deepest section of the Narrows, we were often waist deep, chest deep a couple of times or swimming at least once, while the walls, increasingly close together, towered a thousand feet above us.
On the first day, the walls were only a few hundred feet high and the canyon was usually more open. We started hiking very early and very cold. Our hands were numb, and after starting to walk in water, so were our feet. After the sun moved higher, it grew a bit warmer and we could find some warm places in the sun. After hiking for several miles, we began counting campsites numbered one through twelve, with small yellow signs, in stands of trees just above the bank. Number 9 was our pleasant site, with a flat dirt area directly below a large curved wall, with trees above us and the river just below us. We were under a small rectangle of blue ski. We noticed that standing in front of the curve of wall amplified the constant whoosh of the river. We made sure we had warm clothes to change into and nice air pads with warm, dry bedding. No tents were needed; it had not rained in weeks and the stars in the small box above were bright during the night. (Most of the photos in this section are by Joni Watkins and Matt Umberger.)
The next day we got a later start to let things warm a bit before we started again walking in the river, but we had to go. We started into the darkest part of the canyon almost immediately with the highest and closest walls, and the deepest water. The first time we had to walk chest-deep in the cold water, it took our breath away. Dark walls climbed a thousand feet above us, close together. The scattering of people we saw with us in the river began increasing. However, at this point we were concentrating on the deep water. Looking ahead, we saw a particularly deep part ahead of us, and a couple of our fellow hikers, chest deep while a number of people watched from the rocks on the other side of the pool. We decided to avoid the congestion by going through the deeper part where we had to swim. I found out my pack floats as I pushed it with a clumsy kick for about twenty feet. A tourist on the rock videoed me with his phone while I swam. After that, we found a stony bench, underwater earlier in the year, where we sat in rare sunshine and ate lunch. From that place, the rest was hiking over river benches with growing crowds of people or walking with water just above our knees. We came to the trailhead and had to walk on a developed pathway full of human congestion to the shuttle stop where we got on a shuttle back to our car, full of people, with our clothes and packs still damp. Being in such crowding is always a bit shocking immediately after working your way for two days through a place as remote and difficult as the canyon of the Virgin River in Zion.
Zion National Park
We took a day off after each of our big hikes. We drove onto the Upper Kolob Plateau and to the Kolob Canyons area, beautiful areas in Zion where there were few people.
West Rim Trail
We moved from the bottom of Zion in the Narrows, walking in the Virgin River, to the top of Zion on the West Rim Trail, high above the canyons, a scenic and very dry trail. We could see over the great stone monuments to the haze of the distance. We rode a shuttle van to the north trailhead and arrived before sunrise. We began hiking on a good trail, while Joni ran ahead of Matt and me. The vegetation was beautiful with Ponderosa Pines and Oak trees scattered widely in an open forest. Soon we were illuminated by the sun rising to the east, and a couple of miles into the hike, began to hike along the west side of the ridge finding the views of mesas and canyons on that side. There were beehive shaped mesas and mesas with large, flat vegetated tops. We wondered if people had ever climbed them. Early on, the hiking was on gently rolling terrain but we soon descended into Potato Hollow and then climbed about 800 feet back onto the plateau. At an intersection, we followed the West Rim trail where we had more canyon views to the West from the highest part of the hike, above 7,000 from sea level. We met Joni running back towards us, and she hiked with us the rest of the time. We looped around to the southern side of the high plateau and began to have views of the main canyons of Zion with enormous mesas, big enough to have forests on the top and even on the ledges. We were far above everything, far above Angel’s Landing and beyond sight of the river over 3,000 feet below us. (The sunrise photo is by Joni Watkins.)
We had a long way down. We stopped at trail junction where there was a large opening in the autumn colored vegetation and I ate a good lunch. Joni and Matt went to a nearby spring. They had photo’d the whiteboard at the rangers desk where we got our Narrows permit. It told them where the springs were. They had a system using a Sawyer filter attached to a liter container from which they drank directly, not carrying much water and moving very light. I had my usual heavy pack full of emergency gear and plenty of water. In any case, I do better with weight on my back.
We started the descent on tilted ledges forming nice zig-zagging trails down the wall of the canyon. There was fractured concrete in places on the trail where some construction had been attempted at some historic time. The trail dropped into a canyon full of colored deciduous trees and walls of the hard but smooth sandstone. Ahead were high mounds of stone patterned with checkered vertical and horizontal lines.
We had to climb a bit to a high viewpoint above the canyon. Climbing made me realize how far I had come and how tired I was. From this level, we could see Angel’s Landing in front of us. We could see it was covered with people, from this distance like bugs. Even if we weren’t tired, there was no way in hell we were climbing that thing. We hiked to the wide pass at the bottom of the Landing where there were well constructed restrooms and where we were suddenly in a continuous crowd. From there, we climbed down a well-constructed pathway, tightly swithchbacking down the nearly vertical canyon. We wove our way around people who were climbing or going down and sometimes some really fast people wove their way around us. There were many people stopped resting. Joni said most of the people had no business doing this climb. There were people on the trail from all over the world. As we descended the temperature rose dramatically. Finishing our fifteen mile hike, before getting on the bus, we stopped to cool off in the Virgin River, so we were again damp as we sat shoulder to shoulder with tourists in the standing room only shuttle. We still had plenty of time to relax and have a beer in the nice house we were renting in La Verkin before we went out to a fancy, western-themed restaurant.