Utah's National Parks - Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches

5th - 10th September 2008

From Mount Nebo wilderness,  the route to Zion National Park took us both a couple of hundred miles southwards and thousands of feet down in altitude.   When we set up camp in Zion, we were more concerned about the heat, camping in the desert with no electricity, rather than about keeping warm as had been the case up in the high mountains.

We'd last visited Zion eleven years earlier, almost to the day.   Despite the detour of several hundred miles to reach the south of Utah and revisit the park, we'd loved it so much the first time, there was no hesitation in returning.   

On arrival, we found that the park had changed considerably.  The first noticeable change was how busy the park seemed, whether this was actually an increase in the number of visitors or just our perception was debatable.    On the plus side, the park had introduced free shuttle buses and banned private vehicles on the winding, narrow road up the canyon to Temple of Sinawava, which had brought relative peace back to the previously congested area.  

After finding a shaded campground for Harvey, we spent the evening exploring our new neighbourhood, startling a passing fox on our way around.   

A campground ranger had advised us to take a look at some Native American pictographs etched in the rocks just across the road from our campground, adding that these were the only ones tourists were routinely told about.    When we checked them out we realised why.  Alongside the ancient drawings on the rock, tourists had added their own graffiti.   Although the Park Service had done what it could to preserve the original pictographs, it was no wonder that they liked to keep the locations of others hidden.

Ancient pictographs and not-so-ancient graffiti

From the new and impressive visitor centre adjacent to our campground, we tried out the shuttle bus for the first time the next morning, taking a guided round trip up the canyon with a park ranger to give commentary.    Although not air conditioned, the buses were kept remarkably cool by forwards-facing roof hatches all along the roof, which funneled a cooling breeze into the bus interior.    These same hatches also gave the passenger a chance to strain their neck looking upwards at the high canyon walls, giving an excellent perspective of the scale of the place.     

Hiking to the narrows.

The narrows.

Later that day, once the main heat of the day was over, we set off on the bus back to the stunning Temple of Sinawava, a huge amphitheatre created by the surrounding high cliffs, once a holy place of the Native American inhabitants.    It was from here that we started our hike.   The first mile was an easy paved walk, mostly in shade along the river.    After this it became more of a wade up the river for the next couple of miles, as we picked our way up to the narrows.   The icy cold water certainly helped us to keep cool.  The rocks in the river were slippery and, although we had our waterproof "Keen" hiking sandals to protect our feet, we were glad we'd brought along our new hiking sticks for added support.    

The sticks also gave the added advantage of being able to test the depth before placing your feet.   We saw several people discover unexpected deep holes, into which they disappeared up to their necks!     The going was slow and by the time we were making our way back, the light was fading.     We were surprised to pass several groups and individuals just setting off up the canyon as we headed back.  It wouldn't have been a trip we'd have liked to make in poor light!     On our return trip we sat for a while and watched a bat flying over the river, dining on bugs.   We were happy to make it back to the bus stop with no twisted ankles, broken bones or wet clothes!

Route from Emerald Pool to the Grotto

View up the valley at Zion

The next morning found us hiking again, early enough to avoid the worst of the heat.    We walked a trail we'd taken on our last visit, up to the Emerald Pools.     After a long hot climb up the cliffside, suddenly at the top we found a beautiful cool, shaded oasis around a pool.   Despite the heat, we were enjoying the walk and added another mile or so to our trip by hiking back a different route to the Grotto and walking back to the Zion Lodge.

We'd planned on a siesta to recover but it was so hot inside Harvey that this just wasn't possible.   We decided instead to ride the other shuttle bus route into the nearby town and back, to cool off.   We hung around a while in the air conditioned visitor centre and finally took a trip back up the canyon on the bus to the Weeping Rock.   Here a short trail led you to the cliffside which wept a curtain of icy cool drops of water.    This was rainwater absorbed into the porous rock surface high above, which after a considerable amount of time, made it to the lower part of the cliff where it "wept" out again.    It was a surreal sight and a welcome means of cooling off!

Phil cools off at the Weeping Rock

You'll have to get off the bus eventually, they stop at 11 pm!

After dinner, as the sun began to set, we took to the shuttle bus again.    We hoped both to cool off some more and also to spot some more wildlife in the twilight.    We spotted an abundance of deer and some wild turkeys.   On our way up the canyon the turkeys had been feeding but by the time we made our way down again they were settled for the night, roosted all together in a roadside tree, quite an amazing sight.   Although it couldn't be captured photographically the light from the setting sun playing on the rock walls of the canyon made it well worth the dusk trip. 
Our next stop in Utah was to revisit Bryce Canyon National Park.    We hadn't spent much time at Bryce during our previous flying tour of the area and remembered our visit as an ordeal of driving from viewpoint to viewpoint along the rim of the canyon, racing several coach loads of other tourists in order to try and find some peace.   Since our last visit, a shuttle bus had been introduced here too, although this one was optional, leaving much private traffic on the rim road.  This visit was longer and allowed us time to venture on foot down into the canyon to hike several trails and really get amongst the hoodoos.   

We set up camp, despite the disapproval of the campground range for selecting a site which would accommodate a 40 footer.   We felt if we were paying the same, why should be take a much less pleasant site, just because Harvey would fit.   Blatant Sizism!

We stayed put in our beautiful spot and set off to explore.  Once we left the crowded rim and walked down into the canyon, things became far less congested.   Probably due to the steep hike back up to the rim which came at the end of every trail!  We wandered through the amazing geological features of the Queens Garden and Navajo Trails.   The scenery was so stunning it was impossible to take a bad photograph but we filled our camera's memory card trying!

At the end of our walk we headed back up to the rim through an area known as Wall Street.    This was a narrow canyon where you headed uphill until reaching an area where switchbacks had been cut into the rock to make the walk less steep.   

Hiking the Navajo Loop

Half way up the switchbacks from Wall Street

We returned to our campground tired but with a much better sense of the feel of the canyon, having walked amongst the hoodoos.    

Tired was no excuse the next morning.   Philip was determined that Christine would see a Bryce Canyon Sunrise, as he had on our previous visit.   On that occasion he had been unable to persuade Christine or Trish, who was travelling with us, that it was worth staggering out of bed so early.  


It helped this time that we were ten minutes walk away from the rim and that the sun didn't rise until after 7 a.m.   A cup of tea was thrust into her gloved hand and Christine was dragged up to the rim. Miracle of miracles, Christine saw sunrise at Bryce for herself!   We'd started out dressed like the Michelin man with layers and layers of clothes to ward of the cold of the desert dawn.   The dramatic increase in temperature once the sun rose was impressive and we strolled back for breakfast carrying most of our wardrobe!

But its sooooooo early!

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon - yes Trish, Christine was there in person!

Showers and, more scary when standing on the rim of a canyon, thunderstorms, were forecast for the afternoon.  So, we took our next hike, the Peekaboo trail, that morning and timed our hike just right.    We just had time to step off the shuttle bus, pick up an ice cream each and wander back to our campsite before the forecast weather arrived.
We were back on the road next morning and heading north again.    We passed by Calf Creek, an area where we'd enjoyed a hike eleven years earlier.    The weather, however wasn't conducive for a repeat hike, with menacing dark clouds gathering overhead.   Sure enough by lunchtime it was pouring with rain.   

We turned eastwards through Capital Reef National Park, pressing on in view of the weather, with which we played hide and seek all the way to Moab.   Here we camped at a commercial campground ready to visit Arches National Park the following day.

Perhaps we had rock fatigue or maybe it was the combination of weather, crowds and roadworks on the narrow roads, but our visit to the Arches National Park was fairly short.   We managed to find a parking spot after the 20 mile or so drive to the Devil's Garden area.   Here we hiked to see the delicate and fragile looking Landscape Arch, a true geological marvel.    Before the rain caught us up again we had time to visit the Navajo and Pine Tree arches and spot a few native Bighorn sheep. 

Phil ponders the approaching clouds

Landscape and Pine Tree Arches

As normal, the navigator had selected our departure route from Utah from the map at random, based only on whether it might be a scenic drive.    We were undeterred by warning signs as we turned onto route 128 that it was a "steep and winding road".   The road turned out to be not in the least scary and very scenic, as it wound its way along the Colorado river canyon towards the Utah border.     Christine's selection of town at which to refuel didn't work out so well, however.    The town again selected at random, although confirmed by our GPS to have a petrol station, seemed to contain little but fallen down buildings and old cars in fields with grass growing around them!   Luckily we had enough petrol in reserve to make it to Colorado!

Unscary route 128 along the Colorado

Hmmm, the gas station is where exactly?

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