Monday, May 12, 2014

Exploring Zion National Park

Zion National Park was the launching point for our Southern Utah tour. It is the 7th most popular park in the national parks system, although I'm not quite sure why. Don't get me wrong, it's an amazing place, but I would not say it's any better than the other Utah parks we visited. All of them are spectacular.

virgin river zion

Zion has a similar feel to Yosemite. Both parks are centered around a valley (in Zion's case, a canyon floor) and both are rimmed by stunning rock walls. In park accommodations include campgrounds and a lodge. A typical visit consists of exploring the scenery along the main roads of the park, supplemented by day hikes to noteworthy features. For the adventurous traveler, there are backcountry trails which lead to the more remote, less crowded corners of the park. Unlike Yosemite, Zion restricts access for private motor vehicles. Apparently, the traffic got so bad in the past that it led to total gridlock during the high season.

The limited number of cars makes Zion a great place for bicycling. It's really the best way to explore the canyon floor. Although the free shuttle is a great service, it's hard to take in the grandeur of the park with a roof blocking your view. The unimpeded view from a bicycle is much more impressive, and the mere fact of being outside makes you feel more connected to the environment. If you stick to the canyon floor, the hills amount to no more than gradual inclines, so this is a ride that is possible for all skill levels. Many people brought their own bikes, but we rented a couple from a shop just outside the park entrance.

biking zion

There are two campgrounds on the canyon floor. One goes by reservation only, and the other is first-come, first-served. We found a site in the latter, otherwise known as South Campground. Overall, it's pretty nice, although the quality of your stay might hedge on who your neighbors are. For the most part, people are good neighbors, but the more annoying bunches never seem to be far away. We dubbed one group "Camp Obnoxious" due to their excessively loud and frequent generator use and their incessantly barking lap dogs.

Another challenge one may encounter in these campgrounds is strong winds. After a lovely first day, we settled into our tent. At about 10:30pm, a strong wind began to blow from the top of the canyon down. This wind continued non-stop until late morning. We asked a ranger about it, and she said it's a common occurrence. Apparently, the air in the canyon heats up during the day, and when the cold air of night begins to drop in, the interaction between warm and cold stirs up strong winds. Indeed, this pattern was repeated for the next three nights. Our trusty Springbar tent withstood the wind blast like a champ. Other campers weren't so lucky.

tent fail

Among the many hikes that are possible in the park, the most famous are Angels Landing and The Narrows. Angels Landing is at the peak of a large and relatively narrow rock formation that juts out into the canyon, providing sweeping views of the canyon itself. Although the hike is short at 2.5 miles one way, it is steep and unnerving for those who don't like heights.

angels landing

At the top end of the canyon is The Narrows, named for obvious reasons. This hike begins as a paved path along the Virgin River, and there is a lot of foot traffic here. Eventually, the path ends abruptly, as do the crowds, and one must wade into the river to proceed further. Here again, we rented gear in the town just outside the park entrance. The gear consisted of dry suit pants, neoprene socks, and shoes designed especially for river hiking. It made wading through the cold water a breeze and helped get us a few more miles into the canyon. Nevertheless, working against the current and stumbling along over wet, loose rocks means fatigue comes on faster than during a normal hike.

the narrows

Our visit gave us a good look at Zion's highlights, but there is a lot more to the park that we did not see. Four more national parks are in the area, and we wanted to get a glimpse of them all. So we said 'so long' to Zion and began to make our way to Bryce Canyon...

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