5/21-6/3/2022 – Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park exceeded all our expectations. We hiked over 20 miles for a total of about 4000 feet of elevation change. So, by the end of our week there our legs were trashed and our faces hurt from smiling!

Zion is definitely a hiking paradise, and considering it’s 1/5 the size of Yosemite and often receives as many if not more visitors (both parks have over 4 million visitors a year). We were concerned about the crowds, but honestly didn’t have any issue. Yes, it was busy, and maybe not as busy as it gets in the summer months, but it really wasn’t a problem like we have seen in places like West Yellowstone. Zion has a free shuttle system which keeps traffic down and takes a lot of the aggravation from trying to find parking at popular trailheads.

On our first day at the park we decided to keep it simple and park at the visitor center. We hiked the Watchman Trail which was probably my least favorite hike we did that week (probably only because as the hike went on I was increasingly feeling sick). It’s a steady uphill climb to see an eagles view of the small town of Springdale, the visitor center, etc. We met a fella from Switzerland who we adopted for the hike and had fascinating conversations comparing and contrasting our two countries. He was a journalist there and comes to the US once or twice a year to visit our National Park System. By the end I was feeling lousy – cold chills, nausea, etc. I think maybe I didn’t take my hydration seriously enough and was getting heat exhaustion or maybe having some elevation sickness.

I felt better by the next day but we decided it would be prudent to take it easy, so we skipped hiking the Narrows as originally planned. Instead, we took a motorcycle ride to the east end of the park. I am the person in our marriage who gushes about everything, while Ed is more stoic. I delight at about anything really especially when outdoors. But, to my amusement, my hard to impress husband was exclaiming several times “THIS IS AMAZING!” through our helmet intercom. It wasn’t unwarranted, it was probably the most scenic motorcycle ride of both our lives. He says this is his favorite park of all the NPS, and for him to choose a favorite anything says a lot!

Visiting the east end of the park requires going through a mile long tunnel that is small because it was built far before people had SUV’s, big trucks, big RV’s, etc. When one wants to go through, they have to stop the traffic one way and let the bigger vehicle go down the middle of the tunnel. Since we had the bike instead of the truck and might not come back that way we decided to do the short, yet rewarding hike to the Canyon Overlook.

The east end of the park has a higher elevation and has an overall different look to it. Past the Canyon overlook hike you can view the iconic Checkerboard Mesa. In our meanderings, we also were able to find the Bighorn Sheep.

We finished our day meeting a dear friend of mine and her husband. They moved to Utah about 6 years ago and I have only had an opportunity to see her one other time since then. We chatted over pizza for over two hours, and it really felt like minutes to me. So good to catch up and have a piece of home for a little bit.

The next day, we set out to see the Emerald Pools. We hit this trail in the evening after Ed was finished with his work day, and it was a great time to go. The trail was shaded that time of day and quite a bit cooler than our other hikes. It featured a small waterfall that mists you on your way up, it was quite refreshing.

There are three pools, all very noisy with canyon frogs who are in mating at this time. At home, the spring peepers are loud and one is always amazed to find it’s coming from pretty small frogs. Same goes here, except they sound like a heard of bleating sheep – much louder than the peepers back east. As you probably know by now, wildlife is one of my favorite things about hiking. Having been in the desert for months where most wildlife is nocturnal, we luckily had lots of wildlife encounters in Zion. We saw ground squirrels, chipmunks, bighorn sheep, turkey, deer, and the canyon frogs.

The last pool was quite a climb and did require some boulder scrambling, but this trail was a blast. So many beautiful things to look at! When we arrived at the top we could see what had been making all the noise.

Turn your sound up to hear them! Afterwards, we stopped in town to try a slice of their famous Bumbleberry Pie. They have a cute little fairy story that goes with it, and it was delicious! What Is a Bumbleberry? (bumbleberrygifts.com)

Every day we entered the lottery for a coveted permit to hike Angel’s Landing – arguably one of the most famous hikes in the US. It is a strenuous trek up a mountain to a narrow fin of a rock formation that leads to Angel’s Landing (5790 feet elevation)- a spot that offers 360 degree views of the park, Virgin River, etc. I traditionally haven’t been the best with heights. Since our travels have led us to hike up many mountains, I do find I am getting less sensitive to it as time has gone on. Anyway, we won! However, for the worst day of the week – both the hottest (100 degree temps) and on a day Ed worked late so lessening our time to do it.

The trail is an uphill climb all the way (1600 feet elevation gain), the most strenuous part being the switchbacks known as Walter Wiggles. Had it been cooler, or maybe offered more shade, it wouldn’t have been THAT bad. We drank our water and rested trying to ensure we would have the gas to get up the rock formation. Right before you get there you are on the top of the mountain at Scout Lookout. This is known also as “the waiting room” for many who don’t want to accompany their hiking partners the rest of the way up.

I was elated that I wasn’t afraid as I started up the formation, but was growing increasingly aware that I was pushing my physical limits in the heat. If we had attempted that an hour later the sun would have been behind the adjacent mountain. Instead it was intensely beating down on me causing me to feel faint and nauseous as I was climbing. I told Ed I was going to turn around and go back to Scout Lookout where I would wait. He wouldn’t let me go back down by myself so he followed me and we sat for a while to see if I could feel better enough to do it. With the time ticking down to the last shuttle, he reluctantly ventured back up without me. He returned having made a new friend who had also traversed with his wife staying back at Scout Lookout.

A lot of people report that the scariest thing is trying to share the chains and narrow path with a crowd of other people, but with the lottery for permits and being so late in the day most people had cleared out by the time we were up there. Ed and his hiking companion had Angel’s Landing to themselves. I wish I had been able to make the summit with him, but in the end I know I did my absolute best and I am satisfied with that. Climbing a mountain in 100 degree heat is something you have to take very seriously – there were many search and rescues happening that day in the park for that very reason.

The last day we had in the park I was determined to do the narrows – Angels Landing was Ed’s bucket list item and the Narrows was mine. I offered Ed the chance to opt out, given both our legs and energy were trashed from such a strenuous hike the day before and he had gone further than I had. I would have gone by myself with no issue – but he just doesn’t roll like that. We slept in and had a big breakfast before heading over. (At Main Street Cafe in Hurricane – everything was delicious! I highly recommend the eggs benedict!)

The narrows is a hike through a slot canyon, where you are hiking through the Virgin river for the majority of it. On the way in you are hiking against the current, so it requires a little more effort than back out. It’s somewhat technical because of the rocky riverbed and some of the small rapids. We opted to rent the boots, neoprene socks, and walking sticks from Zion Outfitters. You do not have to do that, but the boots were very nice protection from twisting an ankle or hitting your toes on the rocks.

The hike itself was nice and comfortable with plentiful shade and the cool air from the river currents. Some of the most beautiful rock columbine in the park grow here. We saw a little bit of it when we went up the Emerald pools, but there were more colors and varieties at this location.

Zion is definitely a park we will come back and visit again. Next time, hopefully some of our kids can come and enjoy it with us.

From there, we have come to stay near Panguitch, UT, a small town of about 1500 people. The drive here was beautiful, lots of pines, grass, and beautiful mountain scenery. The main attraction this week is visiting Bryce Canyon, which is a fairly small park and for most visitors a day or two would be all most people need. We just don’t move during the week due to Ed’s work schedule.

The first day we decided we needed a break from hiking. I had muscles that were sore that I am not sure I ever used before! So we drove over to Cedar City to see the new Top Gun movie. It was fantastic! The drive to and from was also very scenic as well. This is a part of a huge recreational area – it’s convenient to Escalante, Red Canyon, Kodachrome Basin State Park, and countless other beautiful areas to explore. We hadn’t seen rain since we left North Carolina, and marveled when it sprinkled a little bit on our way home.

Yesterday we visited the park and did the most recommended and iconic hike in the park – Queens Garden/Navajo Loop. Bryce Canyon National Park is like nothing you will see again in the whole world. It has the largest concentration of hoodoos anywhere, all formed from a prehistoric lake that existed in the area millions of years ago. It’s unique formations made even more unworldly by the freezing and unfreezing of moisture on the rocks causing them to crack and change over time.

The elevation here is twice what it was in Zion – about 8000 feet at the visitor center – so the weather is very cool and pleasant. It was about 60 degrees the day we did this hike, though the sun made it feel more like 70. They have a shuttle system, and the drivers provided engaging information as we drove that provided points of interest in the park as well as a lot of historical stories. We have found from park to park, the shuttle drivers all kind of have a theme. In the Grand Canyon it was lots of puns and dad jokes, in Zion there is a sign that it’s against the law to unnecessarily talk to the driver (though I didn’t find them unfriendly), but by far our preference was the tour-guide style they have here at Bryce.

One evening we headed over to Ebenezer’s Bar and Grill. They have a cowboy style dinner with a country music show every evening. Part of the attraction is we LOVED Bar J Chuckwagon when we went to Jackson Hole a few years back. Side note: I just looked up Bar J and can’t believe they are no longer operating- it was such an entertaining, funny, nostalgic show reminiscent of old variety shows (think Hee Haw). Anyway, turns out this was not anything like Bar J. They have a decent house band who play themed medleys of recent and old country music. I would say the show was less than I thought it would be but the food was better than I was expecting. Still for such a small rural area, it’s a nice night out. The highlight for me is they had a young man from Wheeling, WV playing before dinner and he did Country Roads!

The thing I found fascinating about the town that surrounds Bryce Canyon is that all the community and businesses are there as 5th generation family of Rueben (Ruby) Syrett. He built a lodge/restaurant there in 1919 that is still popular and operating (though now under a Best Western franchise). The town has been run by his decedents since then. Ebenezer is one of his decedents and sometimes comes and plays fiddle in the dinner show.

The following day we took the motorcycle out and ventured to the far end of the park. (Gas prices are pushing us to do this more and more when you can get 55 miles to the gallon versus 10 -12) Up to this point, we’d mostly done just the view points around the visitor center and the one hike. So, we drove the 18 miles out to Rainbow Point, stopping on the way back at the Natural Bridge and Inspiration Point. We did the short hike near Rainbow Point called Bristlecone loop which offered amazing views as far as you could see the horizon. It also had some awesome Bristlecone pines, some as old as 1800 years.

We are heading out for Capital Reef National Park tomorrow. This will complete our tour of the Utah’s mighty 5 national parks – Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, and Canyonland. The latter two we visited on a trip we took in 2019. Then, we are off to conquer Colorado for the next couple of months!

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