I received some sideways glances after telling my city coworkers we planned to spend our hard earned vacation days road tripping to Utah. “Really?” “Really.” Exploring the dry playas of Death Valley, navigating the rushing waters of the Zion Virgin River Narrows, and hiking under the towering spires of Bryce Canyon make affairs of the cube seem downright comical.
The adventure began with a race through Yosemite to a favorite spot nestled between the Sierra’s eastern base and Mono Lake. Tioga Toomey’s, a rare combination of fine dining and gas station, offered us yet another outstanding alfresco meal. After dinner we navigated the now very familiar back roads to Crooked Meadow and settled into our first night on the road. Full tummies, starry skies, and the silence of Mono Basin – it was starting to feel like a vacation.
On our south-bound tour of Hwy 395, we paid a visit to Manzanar, a WWII Japanese internment camp and National Historic Site in Owens Valley. Although not much is left of the camp itself, two structures solemnly stand against a dramatic Eastern Sierra backdrop. A new museum was recently built within the original high school gymnasium and we were blown away by its quality. My nerves tingled while experiencing the eerily familiar rhetoric that “justified” the trampling of American civil rights in the name of wartime national security. A lonely white monument now stands in the cemetery and is dedicated to the Japanese Americans who died on these grounds. Manzanar isn’t necessarily a vacation “upper” but definitely worth the visit to absorb a sobering piece of American history.
Back in the trusty Subaru, we continued down Hwy 395, and within two hours had the highest and lowest points within the lower 48 states in view. Mt. Whitney towers a proud 14,495 ft. and Bad Water, Death Valley sinks -282 ft. with less than 150 miles between them.
Not surprisingly, camping in Death Valley around early September is a warm affair. Overnight lows in the mid 80s did little to temper the 100+ daytime temperatures. Fortunately, I developed my appreciation for dry, desert climates while living in Reno for a year and familiarized myself with the phrase “Well, at least it’s a dry heat”. Frankly, that doesn’t mean shit when the hot, gusty Bad Water winds make you question the choice of vacationing inside a convection oven. Even though the heat was intense, the aptly-named Furnace Creek campground offered excellent shade beneath Mesquite trees and a surprisingly comfortable duff bed. The desert further embraced us that night with a shocking number of stars and the serenade of howling coyotes just a few hundred feet from our tent. The evening was intense and magical.
The next morning we rose in the dark to capture the sun’s first rays fall on Zabriskie Point, but we were not alone. There must be something about the American Southwest that Europeans adore, because that morning we were surrounded by a gamut of Euro tourists. We were even joined by a French motorcycle gang complete with Harleys, leather, and fringe. The noticeable absence of English reminded us once again National Parks are not just us, but for the world to enjoy. After we all held hands and joined in rounds of “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” we recycled our Coke cans and zoomed onto another national err… treasure – Pahrump, Nevada.
Oddly, the international tourist scene did not follow us into the Nevada gem known as Pahrump. With many of its citizens looking like extras from Deliverance, we determined a five minute stop was longer than safely recommended and rocketed eastward. In no time, we left the billboards peddling brothels and plastic surgery behind and glimpsed the red outlines of Utah’s famous landmarks.
Zion – The Virgin River Narrows
I was completely unprepared for the grandeur of Zion National Park and no other backpacking trip has stirred my adrenaline like our hike through the Virgin River Narrows. There are two methods of hiking this area. The first option is to day hike up the river from the Temple of Sinawava into the opening between the narrow canyon walls. The second option requires taking a shuttle to the headwaters outside the park and hiking down the river and out the day hiker’s entrance. This 16-mile trail is mostly under water and between narrow 1000+ ft. vertical walls that are at times a mere 15ft. apart. Hikers accept the hazards of traveling with full packs, on a surface they can’t see, and the lurking danger of flash floods along a route with no exit. It just doesn’t seem like a safe place to go for a walk, but that’s exactly what people travel from all over the world to do and we had just arrived.
It was a crisp September morning, and the fine folks from the Zion Adventure Company had just dropped us off at Chamberlain’s Ranch – the trailhead for hiking the Virgin River Narrows from the top down. The head waters seemed gentle enough – only a few inches deep and couple feet wide. It was hard to imagine the “minimum four mandatory swims” we had heard about due to the unusually wet year. We knew we were going to get wet and the terrain would be rough, but both Matt and I decided against renting canyoneering shoes. I wore my hiking boots, Matt chose his trail runners. Both of us had carefully wrapped all of the items in our packs in tightly bound trash compactor bags and left the “expensive” cameras back in the car.
As we traveled downstream, the sandstone walls grew above us until only a narrow slice of azure sky could be seen nearly 80 stories above. The head waters also grew. As tributaries joined in, the creek swelled to a small river with a surprisingly swift and cold current. Matt and I developed a zigzag technique of crossing the river in search for areas offering steadier footing. Plant a trekking pole, follow with a foot, repeat. Full packs and rowdy terrain made for slow but steady progress.
Experiencing a slot canyon from the inside is a thrill. Over time, the water creates honeycomb pockets in the sandstone and the formations left behind are fascinating. Smooth vertical walls twisted above us and glowed with warm reflected light we had only seen on covers of adventure magazines. It felt like we were in the belly of some living creature, as if we had been swallowed and were slowly hiking our way out through the numbing waters to its mouth.
As we got the hang of navigating the “trail”, nature threw us some curve balls including thigh-high water and log jams, complete with cascading white water. Navigating solutions to each of these challenges was mentally and physically demanding. By the time we reached camp, our knees and ankles were screaming for a break and we felt sorry for the few folks that decided to take on the full length of the Narrows as a “day hike”. Campsite No. 8 proved to be king among kings in the world of backcountry homesteads; it included an actual cavern for our tent. And, since the Narrows let in so little moon light, we enjoyed the blackest night we could remember in the backcountry that evening.
Day two in the water brought some new excitement to my mental scrapbook of backpacking. Faced with a deep, serpentine segment, Matt and I tried to circumnavigate the obstacle by climbing over a large boulder. We met an unfortunate dead end and Matt backed out and prepared for our first swim. My detour was interrupted when I slipped and suddenly felt the rush of cold water spilling over my head. Since my waist belt had not been fastened, my pack floated to the surface and I was stuck underneath with arms looped through the straps. I panicked when I couldn’t touch the bottom and was being pushed forward into the large boulder. With a few fluid moves, I kicked both feet towards the boulder to halt my forward movement and shoved my trekking pole down. “Thank God!” – It reached the bottom and I could hold myself still long enough to slide out from under my pack with my free hand. I maneuvered my way to the sandbar with Matt and took some nervous deep breaths.
Already soaking wet, we placed our packs in front of us and swam the serpent. It was deep and the current was kinder than my earlier submersion. It felt like riding a gentle animal. Our packs were surprisingly buoyant and in just a few minutes we were on solid land again with water-laden gear. Our items were dry, but the nylon acted like a bucket. We were forced to carry a portion of the river with us each time we needed to swim. Fortunately, these other swims got easier with time and no other sections induced the same level of fear I had experienced earlier.
Spotting the first group of day-hikers whom had started at the bottom was an encouraging moment. Our finish line was finally approaching. The air became warmer and our hearts lighter knowing we could focus more on the amazing features of the canyon and less on our personal safety. “Wall Street” was an especially amazing section where the river banks completely disappeared and the water spanned between the towering walls like pavement between skyscrapers. All too soon the sunlight swallowed the darkness and we passed barefoot tourists playing at the Temple’s mouth. We had finally completed this unusual hike and were ready for some solid land, flip flops, and a few well deserved beers.
Zion – The West Rim Trail
After spending only one night recovering from our slot canyon adventure in the Virgin River Narrows, we were ready to tackle the plateaus. We rose early for Round Two of our backpacking tour of Zion National Park and hopped into another Zion Adventure Company shuttle to the trailhead.
We began our hike on top of the sweeping Kolob Terrace at Lava Point and enjoyed the freedom of walking on a dry path bordered by pines and aspens. As we approached the edge of the terrace we were treated to some fantastic views of the Great West Canyon, rivaled only by the views of Zion Canyon from our campsite. The surrounding plateaus resembled isolated islands from our perch. They were separated from one another by canyon walls of red-orange rock streaked with layers of geological history. When the sun set that evening, these walls created a brilliant display of color against a cool sky. The bird’s eye view seemed worlds away from the black Narrows night spent in the cave, yet the camp sites were less than six miles from one another.
The next morning, our trail took a nose dive and plummeted nearly 3000 ft. to the bottom of Zion Canyon. Our knees and ankles were still wobbly from the Narrows, but the vistas served as excellent distractions. In particular, the first glimpse of Angel’s Landing stopped us in our tracks.
Before we even left San Francisco, Matt had been singing the praises of the hike up Angel’s Landing – a short detour from our current route. From above, this monolith resembled a paper-thin tropical fish ready to swim into the center of Zion Canyon. By hiking along the spine of the narrow rock slab, hikers can reach the top and capture a once in a lifetime view of the valley floor. Matt was aware of my issue with heights and knew coaxing me into this side trip was going to take some work. He started with an irresistible grin and explained even though the sheer walls rise 1700 ft. above the valley floor, there would be safety cables. Images of Half Dome anyone? We dropped our packs, put both hands on the chain cables, and walked against the vertical sandstone face. I only lasted a few hundred feet. Grin or no grin, my adrenaline quota had been maxed on this particular trip and I was a shaking mess. Matt pushed on and I checked out his photos later. Amazing, yes, but some places are just more fun to enjoy from the comfort of a sofa.
Having backpacked the highs and lows of Zion, we were ready to explore another national park on our tour of Utah. We headed northeast and skidded into Bryce Canyon ready for some low-key car camping.
Ebenezer Bryce, an early Mormon settler for whom the park is named, described the amphitheater behind his ranch as, “A hell of a place to lose a cow”. Stand at one of the many overlooks and it’s easy to understand the “bad day at work” this scenario could create for a rancher in a place like Bryce Canyon. Collections of sherbet toned spires called “Hoodoos” give rise to redwood scaled stone forests below. The towers took over 10 million years to develop and seem close to toppling over at any moment. We decided to get a closer look and hiked down to the base to discover much of the canyon in orange filtered light.
Although colorful during the day, we discovered the real magic of Bryce begins at night. The air quality in this park is among the best in the world due to Bryce’s elevation and distance from developed land, and this set the stage for some world-class star gazing. We took advantage of an offer we received from a park ranger to look through a large telescope at the canyon’s edge after dark. A full moon had risen and we studied the topography for one area not currently on our backpacking wish list. Later that night, we grabbed our cameras and headed into the canyon for some moon-lit night photography.
Staying warm during Matt’s long exposures was tough since I just wanted to sit still and enjoy our last night of vacation doing nothing. Instead, I wandered the trails to stay warm and felt the presence of something alive around me even though we were the only two people around at 2am. Earlier in the day I had read Paiute tales describing the hoodoos as the Legend People turned to stone by the Great Coyote. I imagined the towers taking on supernatural expressions under the moon light before my imagination got the best of me and I hurried back to Matt. We sat quietly together and waited for the last click indicating the shutter had closed on his final exposure. City life was just around the corner and we wanted to drink in every minute of silence we could before returning home.
While ten days may seem like a long time on the road, we barely scratched the surface uncovering Utah’s wild side. With any luck we’ll be packing up the Suby again soon and headed east for places like Arches, Canyon Lands, and the countless other parks that couldn’t be stuffed into our first tour. Until then, our photos will have to suffice as a reminder of what waits for us when we return.
This post is part of the SierraSoul Archive. The trip took place in September, 2005 (or thereabouts).