Saturday, January 3, 2015

Road Trip Part IV: Zion National Park

Our next destination was Zion National Park and as we drove in the lesser visited East Entrance, this is what we saw.

My immediate reaction was "oh Zion, how could I have lived over 50 years, traveled the world extensively, and never set foot in you before???  You are absolutely, stunningly beautiful.  I am in love!"

We arrived in the park only to discover that all of the campgrounds were full.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we found a campground located just a few miles outside the park which was part of Zion Mountain Ranch.  Zion Mountain Ranch has thousands of acres of pristine views, a herd of buffalo and dozens of horses which abutted our campsite.

This picture from
This photo of the buffalo at Zion Mountain Ranch is from Google images

In fact, our campsite was far nicer than any of those in the actual park itself.

The following morning we awoke early to tackle the Zion Narrows, a slot canyon hike in the Virgin River that has been on my "life list" for decades.  Zion Narrows is a 16 mile long canyon hike and is probably one of the most famous hikes in the world.   Despite the fact we were in the river early, the trail was already crowded.  Fortunately for us, some hikers we met earlier in Bryce Canyon told us about a turn-off several miles up the Virgin River which was just as beautiful, but had almost no visitors.  To get into this side canyon, hikers needed to wade into chest deep, frigid water and scale a bunch of boulders.  Needless to say, that kept most people away. 

Once we were in the side canyon, we only saw a handful of people and the scenery was just as spectacular.  

Despite the fact the main trail had hundreds of other hikers, it was still stunning.  We spent most of the day exploring the Narrows.  

When, not if, we return, I would like to backpack the entire canyon and camp out along the way.  This time we did an out and back hike, but it's possible to get a backcountry permit and camp along the canyon.  

The following day, we climbed Angels Landing, another one of Zion's most famous hikes.  Angels landing is a 5 mile (roundtrip) hike up a well maintained trail full of steep switchbacks.


The last 1/2 mile of the hike is on a very exposed, rock fin that drops off thousands of feet in both directions.  Once on the fin, hikers pull themselves up the rocks with heavy chains that are bolted in.  Mikaela is not a fan of heights, so she opted to wait for us at the base of the fin, but kudos to her for making it that far.


The summit was spectacular, with red mountains and green valleys as far as the eye could see.

That night, Kristi and I splurged and went out for dinner at Zion Mountain Ranch's restaurant located in an old, log cabin.  (The kids thought it was cool that we left them to cook their own meal at the campsite.)  It turns out, the ranch has a huge organic garden which provides the produce the restaurant uses.  We both ordered a delicious roasted vegetable salad and we sat there, looking at the herd of buffalo, sipping a glass of wine and chatting about how incredibly lucky we were to have had such a fantastic time in such a beautiful place. 

p.s.  I found this website to be full of great info about Zion:

Road Trip Part III -- Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

After leaving Dixie National Forest, we drove for a few scenic hours to Bryce Canyon National Park.  Bryce has long been on my list of parks I wanted to visit.  In fact, I once had a dentist whose first name was Kanyon.  He told me his parents named him that because he was conceived in Bryce back in their "hippie days."  I loved that story and it sort of added to the allure.  Bryce Canyon certainly didn't disappoint.

Despite the fact we didn't have reservations, we managed to score a terrific campsite right inside the park.

One of the first things we did, was participate in a ranger led hike along the Rim trail to learn about the park's geology, particularly the formation of hoodoos.  Hoodoos are rock spires located all over the park and are formed as a result of erosion.  It turns out, Bryce is cold most of the year and in fact, has 180-200 days of frost.  These spires are formed when water seeps into the rock and freezes.  Naturally, it expands which causes erosion.  The wind also helps speed things along. 

We enjoyed climbing all over the hoodoos.

Connor caught this baby horny toad, which I was tempted to keep.  It was absolutely adorable!

We took several hikes in Bryce, but by far, the coolest thing we did was a 13 mile night hike lit only by the full moon.  We intentionally picked a trail that sees few visitors and we lucked into having the place all to ourselves. 

We began the hike a little before sunset and never once had to turn on our headlamps.  The trail was magical.  We had so much fun taking in this adventure together.

Several times we stopped to rest and saw shooting stars!  Even better, when we reached the Rim Trail at the end, there were two astronomers who had excellent quality telescopes set up.  We were able to view the rings around Saturn--VERY COOL and the moon, which was so bright, it almost hurt to look at.

The next day, we headed to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which consists of 1.9 million acres of preserved desert wilderness.  There are no paved roads in this park, very little water, services are almost non-existent and four wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended.  Puh-shah--Scarlett, my minivan felt up to the task, so off we went.  She's not one to let bumpy, rutted dirt roads or stream crossings stop her!

Now I have to be honest and say that Kristi and I had to sell the kids on this hike.  After all, they were up a good portion of the previous night hiking 13 miles.  So I told them that is was going to be a spectacular, relatively short, flat, 3 mile hike through a narrow slot canyon.  (I bet you know where this story is going...)

Smiles at the start
And that's what it started off to be.  When we began the hike, it was new and fresh...beautiful and fun, with lots of scrambling.  However, I failed to take two things into account.  A slot canyon with no water has a ton of sand, which makes hiking more strenuous than usual.

The second and more significant issue was we missed the not very well marked exit and continued hiking for miles...and miles before we realized that we weren't exactly lost, but we were going to have to do a lot of backtracking.  Oh, and we were about out of water, nobody knew where we were, and it was going to be dark in an hour or two.  It was one of those lessons in what NOT to do when out hiking. 

Kaity was very happy to hear the news that we had to turn around and walk several miles back to the exit and then another 3 miles to the car--NOT.

Thankfully, Kristi, Kaity and my kids were total troopers.  We eventually found the exit and lucked out seeing a Ford Explorer driving past us.  I chased after it, flagged it down and begged the photographer inside to drive me to my van.  He generously obliged and by the time we exited the park, it was pitch dark and 9:00 at night.  The next big challenge was finding someplace to eat in the middle of nowhere.  Let's just say when we finally found a diner at almost 10:00 pm, the waitress asked Mikaela if she wanted french fries, mashed potatoes or a baked potato with her meal, and she replied, YES!  We all still laugh at that.  In fact, we still laugh about the hike.  I always tell my kids, it's the misadventures you'll remember and laugh about all your lives.  Sometimes, you just need a good mishap to turn the mundane into extraordinary.

Road Trip Part II--Cedar Breaks National Monument and Dixie National Forest

Sorry I haven't posted in months.  Between teaching full-time at Virginia Commonwealth University, homeschooling Connor and Mikaela and doing about a gazillion other things, I haven't had much free time.  That said, I really want to capture this remarkable adventure we had, so here goes.

My friend Kristi and her daughter Kaity flew into Las Vegas and we picked them up and immediately headed out for Dixie National Forest in Utah.  Several hours later, we set up camp at a rustic National Forest Service campground called Cedar Canyon.

First up on our agenda was visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument.  Cedar Breaks is located at 10,000 feet above sea level and consists of a beautiful canyon/amphitheater that is over 1/2 mile deep.  I had read that Cedar Breaks was a scaled down version of Bryce Canyon, but without the crowds.  It was gorgeous!

Cedar Breaks National Monument is also one of the darkest sky locations in all of North America.  Every summer, they host dark sky events, but unfortunately, we were there before they were scheduled (which is not until July).  

We hiked the Rim Trail, which was only a few miles long, but it still managed to get our heart rates up, given the fact we came from sea level and the hike started at 10,000 feet.  Cedar Breaks is also known for it's bristlecone pine trees, one of which is more than 1,600 years old!  We hiked to that tree as well.  It's hard to believe that several of those trees were over 1,000 years old.

When we got back to the campground, we met a man who told us about a hiking trail called the Virgin Rim Trail which was located a few miles up the road.  The kids wanted to chill out at the campsite, so Kristi and I decided to go check it out.  Thank God we did!  This trail was so gorgeous, I literally can't stop thinking about it. 

The trail was a bit difficult to find, especially since the trail head sign was knocked over.

 Imagine a picture perfect Aspen forest,

with a floor comprised of acres and acres of blooming bluebells as far as you can see.


Then add a perfectly groomed single track trail flanked by a bunch of other wildflowers

and spectacular rock formations, and you get the idea.   The Virgin Rim trail is 32 miles long and runs from Cedar Mountain to Zion National Park.  I fully intend to go back in the not too distant future and backpack the entire trail.


We loved this trail so much, we brought the kids back next day to hike it with us.


We even managed to find a spring along the way.

As an interesting aside, when Kristi got home from UT, she also raved about the Virgin Rim Trail--so much so that her husband surprised her with this beautiful painting done by a Utah artist for her birthday.

While we were in Dixie National Forest, we also came across a huge lava flow near Navajo Lake that beckoned for us to explore it. These lava flows run for miles and reportedly are the result of an eruption which took place sometime around 1050 A.D.  Nothing like bringing geology to life.

Next up, Bryce Canyon National Park.