Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Zion National Park

I knew it would be a cold night, sleeping in the car, so I bundled up and before I knew it, it was morning. Apparently all the sleeping in my car, coupled with my sheer exhaustion from days upon days of hiking, had allowed me to sleep undisturbed for an entire night. Having no real reason to stay I hit the road, once again alone. The sun rose in my mirrors, a familiar sight after over a week of driving west. The red and white rock moutons around me glimmered in the early light of day. 

I crossed into Utah and as I headed through it’s southern reaches a sign read, “89N closed 8:30am-11:30am.” I looked at my clock, I was about 50 miles away and had about an hour before the road closed. If I didn’t make it I would be spending the morning wandering around some small desolate town instead of enjoying the grandeur of Zion National Park. I sped up, unwilling to succumb to that somber fate. Luckily no one else was on the road at this hour and I buzzed through the desert. I reached 89N at 8:25, I was in the last group of cars allowed to pass for the morning, I smiled at this fate. I had not known about the road closure until I hit the road that morning, had I simply stopped for breakfast or awoken just a tad later I would not have made it. 

After the construction I was still a mile from the park. The landscape once again began to change I I climb higher in elevation. Snow covered the slopes around me, like the entrance to Grand Canyon, watched over by an evergreen forest. The air was cold, my thermometer read 24 degrees, but the bright sun was slowly warming the earth. As I headed down the road an enormous bird sat along the side, gnawing at a dead deer. As I drew closer the gargantuan bird took off, flying in front of my car, the birds wingspan must have been nearly nine feet. I stared in awe as he settled on a fence, waiting for me to pass so he could return to his meal. At the time I only knew I had seen a vulture, however it was later I found out it was a Californian Condor, a species that nearly became extinct in the late 80’s at one time only 22 of these magnificent animals were alive. Today, through major conservation efforts, the numbers are improving, but still just 435, only 237 of which are in the wild. 

As I entered the park the road turned red, and quickly I started to descend. I entered a tunnel which seems to go on forever, completely engulfed in darkness. As I came out the other side the landscape was amazing. Unlike The Grand Canyon where you enter above the canyon, in Zion National Park you drive down a steep winding road to the canyon floor. The walls of red rock climbed into the sky, their awesome vertical facades exposing millions of years of geologic history. The road became ever more curvaceous and steep, the canyon walls beckoning me to stare, creating quite a combination of concentration. At the canyon floor I followed a road up to the trail head. When I arrived it was still cold, barely above freezing and I decided to continue driving and allow the air to warm. The road followed the river, a swift current of cold water churring through the valley. Over millions of years this river had chewed away at the rock allowing for this temple of stone to be possible. 

A group of deer grazed on the other side of the river, unmoved by my presence as I walked along the banks. As I walked I stared up, trees clung to the steep slopes, their roots holding up patches of snow that had yet to melt. After a short walk I returned to the car and decided it was warm enough to begin my hike. I had a small breakfast and headed up the trail leading to Angel’s Landing. The route was fairly tame, but my legs were worn down from day after day of mountain hiking and the steep climb reminded my feet of ever step they had taken in the past week. 
It's a long way down.
After days of hiking the landscapes had started to blur together and as I ascended I looked around myself thinking, “why am I doing this…again!” I pressed on, unsure why I was so eager to summit yet another mountain. The trail came out to a landing, a sign read “Angel’s Landing .5 miles.” I looked at the rocky outcrop before me, this was no longer a simple trail, this was a stomach churring ascent along narrow ledges to a n awe inspiring peak. I followed the route, chains had been fastened to the mountain to provided something to hold onto. The world fell away just a foot to my right. A drop off of over a thousand feet to the valley floor below. One ill placed footing and I would fall, and fall, and fall. Six people have died making this climb, six people have awoke in the morning to go out for a simple hike, and instead fallen to their deaths. That struck me, that something so pedestrian so innocent as a hike up a mark route in a well trodden national park could end in such a way. 
That's the route to the summit. Nice cliffs, eh?
I made it to the summit and sat down, a chilly wind permeated the air. The view in front of me stretched on for miles, it was beautiful. The river below seemed peaceful from this altitude, it was difficult to imagine how such serenity had created such beauty. I sat atop the summit for a while, not eager to begin my climb down the terrifying route. 
The view from Angel's Landing
I am always petrified of going down, I have no issue going up, but down is just horrifying to me. I have never got vertigo, but on those narrow ledges trying to gradually descend I was feeling it, although I don’t prescribe it to a phobia but to a rational fear for my own safety and continued survival.

The one good thing about going down is that it’s quite and takes very little energy, and before I knew it I was back on the main trail, strolling along peacefully, trying to pretend that I didn’t just almost cry out of fear. When I reached the valley floor the day was in full swing, the parking lots filled with other visitors. I sat on my car and had lunch and decided it was too early to leave the park. I decided to take an easier hike, one which was relatively level and only about 2 miles. 

The smaller hikes get a bad rap, for some reason everyone feels that if they trek out into a national park they have to climb the highest mountain in order to get the experience. I am obviously just as much guilty of this as the next person of course. I almost always forego the easy strolls, believing that if it’s easy that it won’t be filled with wonder. How wrong those assumptions are. As I made my way up to the emerald pools I expected to see a lot of hikers, but apparently everyone else had chosen different trails because once again I was alone. The hike was easy, meandering through the forest flanked by a dripping springs. 

When I made it to the top emerald pool I found myself humbled by huge edifices that rose up all around me, a small pool sat unperturbed at the base, the sound of falling water echoing throughout the chamber. The pristine water of the pool reflected everything. I laid down and stared up at the huge sheer cliffs that surrounded me, amazed at the beauty that I had found without having to risk my life or even so much as broke a sweat.
Upper Emerald Pool

It was still early when i got back to the car, but I had hiked over 8 miles already and decided I would just enjoy the drive out. I was headed to Las Vegas, and I would probably be the only one in the city going to bed before 10pm. 

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