Monday, September 16, 2013

Weekends Across America VIII - South Utah

'Merica... you got a pretty mouth.
Labor Day 2013 - our 4th wedding anniversary - saw us on yet another jaunt across state lines, this time to hike our way through a new corner of America's natural splendor. Southern Utah is home to two National Parks of some renown - Bryce Canyon and Zion - and we spent our 3 days there seeking out the most picturesque angles for both.

The trip officially began in Vegas - it being the closest major airport, where we spent a night in an off-the-strip hotel drinking cheap wine and watching the Discovery Channel (woo!). In the morning we hopped in our Camaro and headed northeast, leaving behind Nevada, and driving through a sliver of Arizona before ending up in Utah.

Arid yellow dunes of Nevada giving rise to scruffy napes of Arizona
driving through Arizona

Once we arrived and settled in in the adorable Driftwood Lodge, the day was dedicated to a thorough exploration of Zion National Park, or at least as much of it as can be seen in one day.

The park - all 230 square miles of cliff, river and forest - is serviced by a little town called Springdale, one of those cutesy little towns that exists primarily solely to support the immediately adjacent major attraction. Springdale consists of hotels, cafes, and souvenir shops selling geodes, and its one and only road worthy of that term - Zion Park Boulevard - hosts a constant procession of shuttles taking people to and from the Zion Visitor Center. Driving yourself to the park is not recommended. The small lots fill up by 10am, and will leave you circling in frustrated impotence until you concede to drive back to the city and get on a shuttle like everyone else.

There are tons of trails to take you to every corner of this massive park, ranging in duration from an hour to several days, and in difficulty level from - literally - a walk in the park, to death-defying vertical feats.

We started off relatively easy with a hike to the "Emerald Pools".

it may not look like it, but Zion is technically a desert. It only gets 15 inches of rainfall per year. A rainy day like the one we experiences is a precious rarity.
side note - the sound of thunder in this natural mega-amphitheater is quite deafening and blood-curdling.

going up...
going down. "Elevation changes" is the name of this game. With elevations between 4,000 and 9,000 above sea level, Zion plays host to a great diversity of flora and fauna.
At Lower Emerald Pool.

Upper Emerald Pool

After conquering the Emerald Pool trail we headed to Weeping Rock...

- before embarking on the enticingly titled "Hidden Canyon" trail. This one was labeled as "moderate" in our guides, but after an hour and a half of hoofing it uphill on treacherous, crumbly paths, we rather tended to disagree. To be fair, the amount of effort was proportionate to the payoff, as the scenery was absolutely mind-boggling.

Hidden Canyon
After that, we decided to call it quits for the day. It was also beginning to dawn on us right about that time that we may have overestimated our fitness level when we plunges boldly into this adventure, as by then we could barely walk, and both felt like our knees were about to blow their caps. It's easy to get carried away in a place like this; even as your body starts to give out, you want to keep going, afraid to miss the beauty around the next bend. Tipsy from the mountain air and the altitude, you venture on, enthralled, aware that you may physically not be able to get out of bed tomorrow, but for the moment, not giving a damn.

On the second day we drove to Bryce Canyon. 2 hours away and worlds apart from Zion, Bryce presented a whole new tableau of landscapes that seared themselves into my consciousness forever. The drive itself is so beautiful that 2 hours can easily turn to 4 if you don't stop yourself from pulling over every 5 minutes. We eventually packed away the camera, but here are some favorites from the drive:

Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon, but rather a collection of natural amphitheaters. You can read all the geological mumbo-jumbo on your way there, but you will forget it all, as well as your name, quite possibly, as soon as you see it for yourself. 

The Bryce amphitheater is like a supermodel of the natural world - you could photograph it from any angle, at any time of day, and in any weather, and it would always look stunning, have perfect make up, and make you look like the drab and mousy friend standing next to it.

We couldn't have asked for better weather to truly enjoy this place. Storm clouds rolled quickly across the sky, tearing apart at times to let a beam of sunlight flood some part of the scene, casting a spotlight on this formation or that crevice, constantly transforming the frame, like a slow symphony of light and shadow. The only thing better would have been to see it at sunrise, as the first rays make the rocks glow with an otherworldly vermillion light, like pyres of lava. Alas, we will not consent to get up at sunrise, even for such an opportunity.

Bryce Canyon is named after Ebenezer Bryce, an obscure Mormon (nee Scotsman) homesteader who was stationed here in the 1880s by the LDS church. He had no connection to the discovery of the canyon, of course - Native Americans have lived here for over 10,000 years, but he harvested timber from the canyon long enough that the other settlers started calling it Bryce's Canyon, until the government officially adopted the name of the park, immortalizing Ebenezer's short legacy, and, once again, the white man gets all the credit.

the famous Bryce hoodoos!

We took it fairly easy that day, taking a long leisurely hike along the lip of the amphitheater. There are tours to go down to the floor of the canyon, on foot and on horseback, for those with more time and better knees than us.

You can also drive to several scenic spots along the 18 mile route that runs the length of the park.

The Arch
dead trees after last winter's controlled burns.
a lonely piece of driftwood looks somewhat out of place at 9,000 feet.
 On Day 3, after a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and Ibuprofen, we went back to Zion for our final tour de force, hiking the Narrows. The Narrows is a trail that follows the Virgin river - a short, but moody and turbulent river that runs through the park - and the hikers of this particular trail must hike right along the river bed. The river is shallow - the deepest parts of the hike are chest deep - but it moves with a swift current, over rocks, boulders, and logs, and at times hikers have to cross some pretty challenging rapids.Of course, it goes without saying, that for your dedication, you are rewarded to some of the most jaw-dropping scenery... oh, probably anywhere on planet Earth.

Of course, we had to get some special gear for this hike. We rented neoprene socks and heavy duty river boots, walking sticks, and a pair of waterproof bags, in case one of us was to slip and take an unscheduled swim with our lunch, or better yet, our SLR. Loaded up with all these impressive accoutrements, and feeling like itrepid explorers, we set out upstream.

Don't forget to look up: the Narrows hike takes you along the riverbed running through a very deep gorge. Look up at any point and see hundreds of feet of sheer cliff towering above your head.

We did notice some people doing this hike in sandals, and even flip flops. I don't know who these crazy suicidal mofos think they were impressing, but I was grateful for my Darth Vader boots every step of the way.

most picturesque plein-air lunch ever.
Wall Street - the narrowest part of the hike, where cliff walls come within only 22 feet of each other.

This is one Wall Street I don't mind occupying.

This hike was a first for these two city slickers. I remember stepping into the water for the first time, the strange sensation as it rushed over my ankles, and how tentative my steps were in the beginning, treading slow and unsure, picking out footing under a veil of agitated muddy current. The space, so unfamiliar, so imposing, filled with the echoing sound of moving water - really humbled me at first. But by the end I was walking more confidently, even over-confidently, I would say, as if I'd reached some kind of understanding with the river. It felt good. Even after 2 days of being engrossed in nature, this unusual trek made me feel like I'd left everything behind for a bit.

The Narrows, like a supernova or a quasar, will make you feel, if only for a short while, that your problems are insignificant and moot, only unlike a supernova or quasar, you don't have to contend with watching it on TV. It's simply impossible to stand in witness of this miracle of nature and not feel like you're being made privy to something sacrosanct.

But seriously, people. This country is beautiful. No wonder Rick Perry was hitting on it from a hay bale back in 2011, who can blame him? Do yourselves a favor; book a plane ticket, rent a car, or hop on a bus and go explore the splendor of your vast back yard.

In conclusion...

After 5 hours of hiking, it was time to head back to Vegas. We had one more night in Sin City to recover. Ironically, our last night was not in a cheap off-the-strip hotel but in a suite at the Venetian, with a dazzling view of all the debauchery 33 floors below. I couldn't help chuckling as we passed the glamorous crowds in the lobby and came up to the concierge desk: damp, bedraggled, hauling a bunch of dirty laundry, and reeking to high heaven. It felt almost scandalous in our condition to walk into this room:

Not to worry though, we made ourselves at home soon enough. Unfortunately, we were, once again, only there to sleep, but it was an indulgent end to our beautiful little Utah adventure.

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