How is it that my image of Zion before we went was so far from reality? I really have no excuse – I’ve been there. It was long ago, and I don’t think I even spent the night, but still… my general thoughts about it went something like this:
- It’s one of the many National Parks in that area of the country and similar to them
- There’s a canyon, but it’s not as striking as Bryce Canyon or as massive as the Grand Canyon
- It’s isolated, so sparsely visited and primitive
- It’s worth a day’s visit, maybe an overnight, but that’s about it
Though the broad lines of those statements have a kernel of truth in them, not a single one of them is correct.
Zion is mind-blowing; I could spend months there. Though it is indeed somewhat isolated in an area of Utah known more for renegade polygamists than any of the actual nearby towns, it’s actually the fifth most visited National Park, ahead of even Yellowstone [late edit: The 2017 numbers are in, and it was actually third, ahead of both Yosemite and Rocky Mountain]. And the town of Springdale, which abuts the southern (and main) park entrance, is nicer than any “gateway to xx park!” town I’ve seen, with good eats, cool shops, almost zero touristy chintz, and stunning 360 degree view houses perched on various rock outcroppings. I know when I glance to my right while driving and see Tacco browsing the local Zillow listings that we’re equally impressed with the real estate.
To say “there’s a canyon” is akin to visiting the Norwegian fjords and saying “there are cliffs.” Technically true, but wholly inadequate. It’s also technically true that it’s much smaller than the Grand Canyon, but in seeing it you realize how beside the point a size comparison is. I spent three days overwhelmed.
And no, it’s not really similar to any of the other National Parks in that area. It’s more like a “greatest hits” compilation of all of them. It’s now unfathomable that I was waffling on whether to bring the family to Zion.
Our drive took us northeast out of Las Vegas, through mostly uninspiring desert scenery until we reached the Virgin River Gorge in the far northwest corner of Arizona. Crossing into Utah on the upper end of the Gorge, the rocks became redder and the plateaus and peaks more dramatic. Turning off the interstate near St. George, we rejoined the Virgin River (the north fork of which is responsible for carving Zion Canyon) and followed it through the eye-popping vistas into the park.
Fall is a slow time in Zion, but it really shouldn’t be. The weather was mild, it was uncrowded, and though the Fall colors had long since peaked, plenty of color remained.
A few deer greeted us as we pulled into our campsite, and Keeper was thrilled to find that we had not only full hookups, but as solid a cellphone / internet signal as we had seen anywhere thus far. As it was a bit too late for any serious hiking, we did some low grade exploring of the area, had some dinner, and turned in fairly early after planning our upcoming few days.
Much like Yosemite, the main attraction in Zion is the canyon through the center of the park, but the expansive backcountry is riddled with rewards for the more adventurous. Unfortunately we were limited on several axes in our ability to be adventurous this visit (time, kids’ abilities, accommodations, conveyance, etc.). But also like Yosemite, the hikes within the valley/canyon are famous for good reason. The two most well-known in Zion are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. The former is a switchback intensive climb 1500′ up the canyon wall through widely varying mini-biomes, culminating in a knife edge clifftop walk to what seems like an unreachable point of rock when you see it from a distance. The last bit of trail drops off very steeply on both sides and is only as wide as two people or so in places. There are metal posts driven into the rock with chains hung between them that give you something to hold onto. Everywhere we read about it advised “CHILDREN NOT RECOMMENDED.” As it turns out we have three of those. That could be problematic.
The Narrows is sort of the opposite of Angel’s Landing, and is essentially a mostly flat hike up the river. The catch, though, is that the canyon becomes narrower and narrower, until the only way to keep hiking is IN the river. It continues this way (and becomes even narrower! Wait, I think I just realized how they came up with the name…) for more than 10 miles, and the standard way to do it is with semi-dry suits that look something like fishing waders and a long wooden walking pole for balance in the water. Needless to say, this is not something you would attempt with rain either in the sky or in the forecast, nor is it something you should put your six-year-old through. Which isn’t to say we didn’t make our best effort to do so; unfortunately you could fit two Woodsprites simultaneously into the smallest sized dry suits they had available for rent.
Nevertheless undaunted, and invigorated by the scenery, we decided we would try semi-abbreviated versions of both hikes, reasoning that we could get up to the point on Angel’s Landing at which the chains/knife edge started and stop there if it didn’t look reasonable, and that we could hike the Narrows just up to the point where you had to get your feet wet, and then maybe wade a bit further if we were feeling it. We also decided to do another hike on a side canyon which was short but led to more stunning views. It was a good compromise, we thought. Have I mentioned Keeper is acrophobic though? Yes, spiders and heights, and in the last week we had climbed more steep rocks and seen more tarantulas than in his previous 11 years combined. Nothing wrong with terrifying your kids, right?
The girls were excited to tear through their Junior Ranger challenges once we woke up the following morning, and we took a walk up the river to the Ranger Station to get that process rolling. More deer, more scenery, more fresh air.
As our visit fell on all weekdays, we did have homeschooling tasks to accomplish prior to “playing.” That’s tough. Especially in a place like this. While I know that we are not on vacation and that we can’t just run around on a rock or in a river and call it “school,” sometimes I really, really want to. Fortunately Tacco keeps me honest.
Angel’s Landing was, in a word, amazing. Yet again, I’ll defer to the pictures.
Even the lower part of the hike was better than most any hike I’ve taken, anywhere. But the top was simply beyond description. There was enough flat area for everybody to safely loll around and take in the view, but Keeper opted to lay down to get his fear of heights in check. A sign warning of the entirely obvious danger informed us that six hikers had lost their lives due to falls over the last few years, and though this was clearly meant to alarm us, all Tacco and I could think was “that’s all?!?” I was speculating that more than that had died from bee sting allergies or having a tree branch fall on their head – this place looked like people would be sliding off of it daily at a minimum.
I so wanted to keep going. Tacco, rightly concerned about her issues with vertigo, did not, but I sat and contorted my brain into about a dozen different rationalizations for taking one or more kids up to the top with me, all of which failed even the most basic risk vs. reward analyses. So in the end I took Firebolt and Woodsprite, separately, up to the part where the chains begin. It was cool. We got some pics. Next time we’ll conquer it.
And I have to give a special shout-out to Firebolt here, because she continues to surprise us. As a self-proclaimed non-risk-taker, she was the first to join me at the chains, and would’ve definitely gone to the top with me had I not reluctantly eliminated that option. She even laid down on the rock and put her head over the edge of the 1300’ cliff, and then asked me to take a video of her looking down, then looking at me with an “are you kidding me right now?” face. It seems like everything she tells us she can’t do, she then tries, and excels at it.
Later in the day we did the short Canyon Overlook Hike, which turned out to be almost as vertigo-inducing as Angel’s Landing. Keeper was not amused, particularly at this section of rickety wooden pathway bolted into the rock. He might think we’re trying to kill him.
Again though, views forever.
Our last day started with somewhat more threatening weather, which did not bode well for a hike up The Narrows. Fortunately though, the ominous clouds below dissipated before homeschooling was complete for the day, and we were able to enjoy a pre-hike riverside picnic lunch in sunshine, if not exactly warm temperatures (it was November after all).
The trail up the river to The Narrows’ beginning delivered yet another palette of Utah river/rock/trees for us to gawk at, as well as several rocks to scramble upon. This has become a favorite activity of the kids’ since Joshua Tree.
Though we easily reached the point at which wet feet (or a dry suit) became mandatory for those continuing, we opted to stop there rather than risk ruining the rest of the day by having one of the kids misstep and convert wet feet into wet everything. Did I mention it was a little chilly? Both the water and the air.
As it turned out, however, Keeper managed to check that particular block anyway on the way back. Shortly after turning around to hike back downstream, he ventured off-trail to scramble on some rocks down by the river. What 11-year-old wouldn’t, right? I know I would’ve. I could see that he was getting himself into increasingly tricky situations with smaller margins for error. Mentally noting that the current wasn’t particularly strong and there were several potential egress points, however, I didn’t bother to keep too close an eye on him. I did manage to snag a suitable “before” pic though.
Within a few minutes, I noticed several other hikers staring and pointing toward his vicinity. Quickly climbing up to get a better vantage point, I caught the tail end of his jump-gone-wrong, which was him completely submerged in the cold river and swimming toward a calm spot from which he could climb out. When a quick “are you ok?” netted a thumbs up, I smiled and watched for a few seconds before scrambling down to take pictures help my son.
Evidently what happened, a common river-rock-jumping failure mode, is that he jumped from a higher rock to a lower rock without fully strategizing how to get back to the higher rock. His attempted jump back up plastered him on the rock’s steep side without enough purchase, and he had a solid few seconds of slow backwards sliding to think about the water temperature and the fact that he’d found his not-previously-considered path of least resistance back to dry ground.
Not that he was especially hurt other than a few rock scrapes, but Keeper’s a tough kid, which is one of the many, many things I love about him. He doesn’t make a big deal out of things that aren’t. And if you see him wincing in pain or God-forbid, crying, you know he has some serious hurt going on and isn’t just embarrassed or wanting some attention. He took the whole thing in stride, even laughing about it and posing for some “after” pics.
The hike back in his soaked clothing got a little bracing when the wind kicked up or we got in the shadows, but he never complained. Good man.
So what are we taking away from Zion? Primarily a desire to come back. There’s so much to see there, particularly in the back country. More confirmation that that high desert/mountain climate very much suits us. And a deepening sense of not wanting this phase of travel to end I think.
One thing I touched on tangentially with my comment about needing to push myself (or be pushed) to get the kids to actually sit down and do their school tasks — the larger point there is this sense we’re discovering that every day is a Big Day. There are no throwaway days, they’re all huge ones, ones that we want to wring every last moment out of. And while that sounds in many ways ideal and exhilarating, which it absolutely is, we’re finding it to be a double-edged sword in that it’s a difficult pace to maintain. We find ourselves far more physically and mentally exhausted than we feel like we ought to be at times, with decreased desire to take care of the mundane life tasks (education being only one of them) that need to get accomplished, and this seems to be one of the root causes. It’s tempting to blow off math and writing and reading entirely, because holy cow, kids, look around! Zion! But when you’re doing that every day, hmm… While we know our kids are logging countless amazing experiences as we wander, we don’t want to do them a disservice by neglecting the things their peers are learning. And they need us to maintain high energy as well.
I suspect it’s something we could and likely will adapt to with more time, but in the meantime it’s a bit of a surprise. And I do wonder how the process will work in reverse when we settle back down.
Zion, though… incredible. Definitely in at least the top five of my favorite national parks, probably more like top three. Even without the benefit of distance, the kids are all saying the same.
We now turn back west and head toward Death Valley, which I’m not so sure about (then again, I wasn’t so sure about Zion either). Like Zion, I’ve been there before and my recollections tell me that it’s unique and worth seeing, but maybe not mind-blowing. We also couldn’t get a reservation at the National Park’s RV campground there for both nights we’re staying, so we’re playing it a bit by ear. Maybe not the best thing to be doing in, you know, Death Valley.
But nah, we’ve got this. Where have I heard that before?
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