Hiking the trails of Zion awakens adventurous side

The thing about our friend, Scott, is that he never gets excited — about anything. At least, it seems that way to us.

He and his partner, Donna, my husband, Jerry, and I took a road trip/hiking adventure to southern Utah in late September, and Scott had remained pretty quiet during the planning stages. So I was surprised when he stood on a precipice overlooking the magnificently eroded pink, gold and cream cliffs of Cedar Breaks National Monument and asked, “Is Bryce Canyon like this, too?”

“Yes,” I said, “but even better.”

Hikers will find brilliantly colored sandstone canyons throughout Zion National Park. The canyons were created by the action of the Virgin River, which continues to change this magnificent Utah landscape. Photo by Jerry Ondash

With that, I knew we’d captured his attention and he was maybe even excited.

Cedar Breaks is a wonder of nature, for sure; Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, where we were headed next, are all that and more.

Generally, I don’t like to go to the same place twice; life is short and my list of destinations is long. But I made an exception to my one-visit rule with Bryce Canyon. Being there, surrounded by sandstone “hoodoos” of various shades of tangerine and vermillion, is other-worldly. These thousands of sentinel-like structures can make you feel as though you’ve landed on another planet. Because of this, I was ready to be disappointed by Zion National Park.

Its topography is quite different than Bryce — not as fascinatingly bizarre — but I was to learn that it has an irresistible personality all its own.

Zion has been inhabited by humans for 8,000 years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Mormons discovered and settled this magnificent canyon with its monumental cliffs. These settlers graced the towering sandstone edifices with scriptural and ethereal names like Altar of Sacrifice, East Temple, Great White Throne and Angel’s Landing.

We arrived in Zion at midday; the thermometer registered 103. I trudged about a half-mile of our first trail, then surrendered. I walked back to the visitor center for some air-conditioning and people-watching. National park visitor centers are always a hub of activity, and it’s especially true in Zion because visitors must park here and take a free shuttle bus to access most other areas of the park. This shuttle is essential because parking spaces for the nearly 2.7 million annual visitors are inadequate.

This sign near the Angel’s Landing trailhead, keeps a running total of deaths of hikers who fall from the precarious trail since 2004. The sixth and most recent death occurred in June.

The shuttle buses feature see-through ceilings so riders can see the canyon walls that shoot straight up a few thousand feet on both sides of the single road that runs the length of the canyon. There are eight stops and each is a gateway to an attraction, a trailhead or some fantastic natural feature like the Emerald Pools or Weeping Rock.

I noticed after a few trips on the shuttle that the recorded message for riders repeatedly warned that “your safety is your responsibility” and “hike at your own risk.” I’d never heard such admonitions in a park before, but we soon learned why.

Besides the elements, which can be harsh until the end of September, there’s the trail to Angel’s Landing.
Its 2.4-mile distance belies the nature of this hike. The early part of the trail is mostly flat and follows the Virgin River through some lovely wooded areas flanked by marvelously striated canyon walls. Then it’s up, up and up again, but this is still a relatively easy part of the hike because the trail is wide and paved. Hikers also must traverse a set of 21 narrow switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles before finally reaching Lookout Point. This is where most people end their hike.

Hikers must conquer a set of 21 narrow switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles on the trail leading to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in southern Utah. Zion is the state’s first national park. Photo by Jerry Ondash

The last half-mile to Angel’s Landing is treacherous at best, and the reason for the recorded warnings in the shuttle and the sign at the trailhead. It also carries a warning as well as a running total of climber deaths. To date there have been six, the most recent in June.

Despite all this, Scott decided to go for it.

So did Jerry and I, despite knowing we’d never go all the way. Jerry got further than I, but we both turned around at points where the ground seemed to disappear.

It’s only an additional half-mile from Lookout Point to Angel’s Landing, but it daredevil hikers must negotiate extremely narrow paths and sheer drop-offs. Chains are provided for climbers who are crazy enough to keep going, but considering the half-dozen deaths, they aren’t always adequate.

School children gather for a nature class given by a park docent in one of the many bizarre settings of Bryce Canyon National Park. This odd tree is just one of many found throughout the park. The trees, which grow in unlikely places or have strange formations, are favorite subjects of photographers. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Scott made it to where angels fear to tread, and after our reunion later in the day, he presented photos and with some prodding, told us about the climb. Yes, we were a bit jealous. Well, OK, a whole lot jealous.
Lucky for us and all the other visitors to Zion, there are plenty of nature’s wonders to see without risking life and limb. Visit nps.gov/zion/index.htm.

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