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NateKat · Utah

Utah

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Our goal for the end of 2013 is to finish off our Epic Trip posts. Not sure we’ll succeed since there aren’t many days left in 2013, but at least we’re getting back into it after too long of a break! So here is a look back at the Zion Narrows, which we hiked in September.

Day 52-54: Zion National Park, UT (9/24-9/26)

Back in April 2011 we visited Zion and spent a whole week exploring the park.  We backpacked the East Rim to the canyon floor, climbed to the top of Angel’s landing, and explored a couple side canyons, so we felt like we got a really good overview of the whole park.  But the Narrows was closed due to flooding, leaving us eager to return during a drier season to hike the most famous part of Zion NP.  The Narrows is a beautiful portion of a slot canyon where the Virgin River has cut through the sandstone before eventually opening up to Zion Canyon. So this year, we were excited to get permits reserved for a 2 day backpack of the entire length. And we were even more excited when we got to Zion and the weather forecast and water levels were looking good! (If you are interested in doing the Narrows, check out our tips at the bottom of this post.)

Our top-down backpack started near Chamberlain’s Ranch and our campsite was #7, almost 10 miles down river.  We got a late start due to some hikers getting on the wrong shuttle, so we were a little nervous about getting to our campsite before dark, but we figured since there’s no uphill, we could keep a steady pace.

The first 3 miles were easy and mostly just required walking through cow pastures and on the banks of the river.  There were a few places you had to cross, but we were able to keep a brisk pace as long as we weren’t shuffling through the river.

 

After 4 hours and 5 miles we entered the Upper Narrows where the canyon walls start to close in and it starts feeling like a slot canyon.

 

We stopped to take an arm shot, but soon felt dirt falling on us from the cliffs above.  In fear of larger rocks falling, we ran as fast as we could in the 6 inch deep water with 30 pound backpacks.  The camera continued taking photos capturing blurry images of us running for cover.  It was just another reminder how dangerous slot canyons are as the walls are continued to be eroded.  Luckily the small dirt and rocks didn’t turn into boulders or sheets of rock.

 

At this point the river spans the canyon, but was pretty shallow and slow moving.

 

Sometimes you had to get creative and climb around log jams or down rocky side canyons to avoid deep pools.

 

The bad news is GPS doesn’t work in the canyon, but the good thing is its hard to get lost since the walls are hundreds of feet high without any exit.  We relied on the Zion Adventure Company map which has mileage, landmarks, and general campsite locations.

The “12 foot falls” is around 8.5 miles in and should take about 4.5 hours to reach according to the map.  Since there isn’t any landmarks between the Upper Narrows (~5.75 miles) and the 12 foot falls (~8.5 miles) we were relieved when we finally came around the corner to see the falls.  We were right on schedule according to the map, but that made us worried since that put us at our campsite around 6:30 pm.  The canyon gets really dark as the sun starts setting, and even at 4:30 pm, we found the canyon was getting pretty dark and our cameras were almost useless.

 

So we put our cameras away and focused on our footing in the dimming light.  If you think it’s hard to hike at twilight, try doing it in a flowing river with a rocky bottom.  We finally made it to our campsite exhausted and sore from 10 miles of wet feet and cobblestone terrain.

 

Luckily we took full camelbacks and had plenty of water to cook dinner, drink, and make breakfast.  You wouldn’t think water would be an issue considering you’re walking in it all day, but the NPS encourages hikers to go to the bathroom in the river along with the hundreds of cattle upstream.  According to the NPS you should filter out of a side creek or spring that feeds the river because the Virgin River is so contaminated. Even though we think a good quality water filter would be able to handle the bacteria, we didn’t want to take any chances, so we were glad to have plenty of water on hand.

The next morning we started just after 8:00 and were more confident since we had the entire day and only 6 miles to hike.  The first goal for the day was to find Big Springs to filter water.  After what seemed to be the longest 1.25 miles we came across a welcome sight.

Big Springs

The last 5 miles are littered with landmarks on the map for the bottom-up day hikers (since a huge majority just hike up a ways and back in a day).  The last 5 miles are also most impressive of the 16 total since the walls are most narrow there.  When we weren’t staring up at the walls we kept ourselves entertained looking for Sipping Turtle and Hiccup Springs, just a couple of the things to look for (or listen for) along the hike.

The morning sun exposed the various canyon wall layers forcing you to stop and just stare in awe.

Along with the incredible walls rising above us the water also began getting deeper as more creeks and springs fed into the river and the canyon got narrower.  There were some really deep pools probably 5+ feet, but we always tried to find a shallower route or climbed over some boulders to avoid getting too wet.  The first day we rarely went in over our knees, but the second day we had to go almost waist deep.

After 2.5 miles we made it to Wall Street, the most impressive section with massive walls and rushing water spanning wall to wall.

Yes, we are crazy enough to pack a tripod and setup our cameras in the middle of a rushing river!

This place is so incredible, there are no words to describe it.  After almost 2 months of exploring some of the most beautiful places in the western US we still found ourselves smiling ear to ear in disbelief of the view.

Right when you think you’ve seen it all there is something more incredible around the next turn.

Floating Rock- 3 miles in if you hike up from the bottom.

We made it through Wall Street around 1:30 pm, which meant it took us over 5 hours to go less than 4 miles (because we were taking so many photos and hiking in a river is slow). But we knew we had plenty of time to complete the last 2.5 miles so we decided to take a detour down Orderville Canyon.  The thing with this detour is it required us to climb a 7 foot wall, which normally wouldn’t be too hard with some team work, but this wall had a 4 foot pool of water at its base!

The water was quite chilly (60F), and even though the air temperature was close to 70F, the breeze racing through the canyon in the shade made it a chilly obstacle.  We took turns carrying the packs through the water and passing them to each other over the wall.

Of course the deepest part was right at the base of the rock where the waterfall had eroded the sandy bottom.

We definitely felt tough while people watched us wade into the cold water.  The side canyon was very secluded since only a couple of people were crazy enough to get really wet.  After 15 minutes of shivering we also questioned our detour.  Luckily we had lots of dry shirts and jackets in our packs and spent the rest of the day in our fleeces.

Orderville Canyon

After making it back over/through the obstacle to get back to the main canyon, we quickly hiked the 1.5 miles to the start of the paved Riverside Walk trail, and then finished the last mile quickly thinking about the hot dinner and warm bed waiting for us.

Hiking the Narrows was an amazing experience, and we consider it one of the top 3 things we did on our trip. We think there is something just so incredible about slot canyons in general, (like when we did Buckskin Gulch, an even longer and narrower one) but there is something about the Zion Narrows that makes it special. Maybe it is the right balance of narrowness, but still allowing sunlight in to illuminate the walls. Or maybe it’s the Virgin River flowing wall to wall with deep turquoise pools. Whatever it is, it is absolutely worth the hike. If you ever find yourself in Zion when the river flow rate is low, you should definitely try hiking up river even just a few miles. You don’t need a permit to do that, and you still get to see some of the best parts!

We couldn’t include all the photos in the post so please click on the photos in the gallery and check them out in full screen.

Details for Trip Planning

Most river or slot canyon backpacking trips require permits because the environment can’t handle being overrun by hundreds of people a day.  The Narrows permits become available a few months ahead of your planned trip dates, but are reserved quickly!  Make sure to be on the website at the correct time and day since all the campsites will be reserved within 30 minutes of availability.  But about half the permits are reserved for walk-ups the day before, so don’t despair if you can’t reserve one. The top-down backpacking is a thru-hike and requires a shuttle or two cars.  Once you have locked in the permit, make sure to reserve a shuttle.

Selecting a campsite might just come down to what’s available, but if you have a choice of sites, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is drinking water. The National Park Service encourages all hikers to urinate in the river and there is a lot of cattle upstream of the Narrows. (Yes you heard right, this is one of those rare occurrences that they want you to go in the river! And to answer your next question, WAG bags are provided for everything else 🙂 So since lots of livestock and people use the river as a bathroom, the NPS does not recommend using the Virgin river water for drinking (even with filtration and/or treatment). Instead, they recommend you use the side creeks and springs, so if you can pick a campsite near one of those water sources, you will be better off.

The next thing to consider is how to split up the 16 mile backpack over two days.  From a photography stand point our last 6 miles from campsite #7 were better than the first 10 miles.  We took 190 photos the first day (10 miles) and 433 photos the second day (6 miles).  So if you get an early shuttle, you might want to try to get close to #9 or #10 to leave a lot of time to enjoy the 2nd day. On the other hand, walking through the river was much slower than we expected, and we (and other groups that started with us) found the hiking times on the map to underestimate it. Keep in mind it will most likely take you ~8 hours to hike 10.5 miles to sites #9/10 and your feet will most likely hate you at the end of the 1st day, but that would allow you to really take your time on the second day.

Most people actually day hike the Narrows, starting at the bottom, hiking upstream and returning the way they came. If you do it this way, you can go as far as Big Springs before you have to turn back (which at 10 miles roundtrip is all you’d probably want to do in a day). We really enjoyed backpacking it and spending a night in the canyon, which allowed us to have more solitude in the morning, but day hiking is a really great option and you still get to see the best parts. So if you aren’t up to backpacking or can’t get a permit, the day hike is a great back up.

Whether you backpack or day hike, we highly recommend renting water socks, shoes, and waterproof camera cases (we got ours from ZAC).  The water didn’t get too deep so our dry bags didn’t get used, but they did provide peace of mind, and the water depth can get much deeper depending on the rain that year. We did use our trekking poles the entire time and were so glad to have them for stability since it’s often hard to see the rocky bottom of the river clearly.  If you don’t have trekking poles or don’t want to use them in sandy water, take the rental company’s wooden staff.

Ok all that being said this was an amazing trip and we recommend it as a place to visit whether you backpack top-down or day hike bottom-up.

  

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 54
  • Nights in a tent: 28
  • Miles driven: 6,672
  • Photos taken:  10,430
  • National Parks: 13
  • Miles Hiked: 182

  

On the third morning of our Utah trip we woke up before sunrise, broke down our camp at White House, and repacked our backpacks for an adventure of a lifetime: a 2 day, 21 mile backpack through Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the Southwest and rated one of the top ten most dangerous by Backpacker Magazine! We used Paria Outfitters for our shuttle to the starting trailhead (Wire Pass) since we would be ending back at White House. Within a half a mile from the trailhead we entered Wire Pass, which is a short 1 mile slot canyon that can be easily be done as a day hike, but also leads to Buckskin Gulch.

Wire Pass is a slot canyon that is only 3 feet wide in some area

When Wire Pass met with Buckskin Gulch we scoured the walls looking for know petroglyphs of big horn sheep.

I was expecting something more life size and was surprised to see how small it was

The entrance to longest (13 miles) and deepest (500 feet) slot canyon in the country quickly miniaturizes you with a massive arch and walls hundreds of feet high that are impossible to climb.

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Soon after entering the canyon we are reminded why this can also be a deadly canyon with flash floods carrying mud, rocks and trees.

This log jam is probably 20′ feet above the canyon floor marking a past water level

Because of the severe danger of flash floods we had been monitoring previous trip reports and weather reports for the surrounding area.  This year was unusually dry, normally the canyon can have several large cesspools from previous rainfall.  The cesspools are cold (since the canyon floor is so dark) and can be chest high since they take a very long time to evaporate. Apparently they get their name because animals can get trapped in the pools and die…  Luckily for us the cesspools were all dried up. We hardly had to hop over a puddle in Buckskin!

Dried mud along the trail looked like chocolate shavings…we could have just been hungry too

The canyon did not disappoint with it’s promised contoured walls, narrow path, and dramatic lighting.

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The winding slot canyon limited our view to a hundred feet sometimes and revealed incredible views around every turn. The colors and shapes were mesmerizing and almost enough to forget about the 30 pound backpacks we had been carrying for 8 miles with another 5 to go before our campsite.

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Because of the limited safe campsites and other environmental conditions the canyon is limited to 20 people per night.  Since the canyon is so winding and long we only saw a few people on the narrow trail, most of the time it felt very secluded.  We were also surprised to see some lizards considering the limited amount of light. We almost stepped on this one.

This guy was about 6″ in length.

The narrow winding sections would open up to large spaces every mile or so.  Sometimes the long hallway like sections look pretty intimidating and it was nice to walk into an area wider than your arm span.

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The open areas gave a false sense of safety since the 300-500′ shear walls would still be impossible to climb.

If you click on this photo try to spot Katharine wearing a light blue shirt at the base of the wall.  The wall continued past the picture frame for another 50 feet or so.

When entering the slot canyon again it felt like Indiana Jones entering a mysterious cave.

You really need to see the photos in full screen mode to appreciate all the detail. Check out the massive boulder wedge between the canyon walls at the top of the picture and Katharine standing underneath it!

Several miles from the campsite you reach the “rabbit hole” which is a tunnel through a large boulder jam.  It is pretty easy to pass through when it is dry.

After 13 miles, 9 hours, and 383 photos we finally reached our campsite.  There were several others there and the echos of laughter and story telling could be heard bouncing off the canyon walls.  We also chatted with our neighbor who was just 10 feet away on the high sandbar ledge.  He was a young twenty year old on a 10 week soul searching mission funded by his tax return.

Our campsite was up on the ledge behind the trees

The next day we filtered water out of the shallow Paria River and headed back to White House Campground.  The hike out was only 7.5 miles but the canyon walls disappeared after the first mile so we found ourselves walking in a river bed through the hot Utah desert.

The 21 mile, 2 day adventure was visually incredible and by far our longest backpack yet.  We definitely want to go back again sometime.

Check out the rest of the photos!

Hoodoos!

After Bryce Canyon we headed south to backpack Buckskin Gulch!  We traveled 2 hours south to White House Campground and setup camp on the desert sand in the hot sun.  We decided to drive down the road and hike a mile to some hoodoos.  It was a hot hike, but it was fun to climb on the rocks and explore the area.

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Toward sunset we headed back to camp, but we had one more stop before we could call it a night: the Nautilus!  This is a rock formation that is kept secret to avoid it being overrun by people.  It has been uniquely carved by flash floods to be like a corkscrew.  No other rocks around it are shaped in this way and you would probably walk right past it if you weren’t looking for it.

Although this water carved rock was pretty amazing in itself we had no idea what we were in for in Buckskin Gulch!

Everyone who has been to Bryce Canyon has always told us “You have to go there, it’s incredible”. And on our trip we learned they are right! You don’t really need more than a couple days to get a feel for the whole park, but it really is a unique place.

After a long drive from LA (with a short stop in Mesquite, NV to get a little sleep), we made it to Bryce and first claimed a campsite. Although we were surprised to find out that it was a national park fee-free week, the campgrounds were not too crowded so we got a nice site at our first-choice campground. Then we put our hiking shorts on, grabbed all our camera gear, and headed to Sunset point for a first look at the Hoodoos and Bryce Amphitheater.

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Bryce Canyon really seems to come out of nowhere, you can’t see anything from the road… instead you have to get right up to the rim to see it. We admired the views from Sunset Point, then walked to Sunrise Point along the rim and headed down into the canyon towards Queen’s Garden.

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We did a 6 mile figure-8 loop which gave us some great views amongst the hoodoos.  The 6 mile hike took most of the day since we were still getting used to hiking above 8,000 feet so the “photo stops” were a welcomed as we needed to catch our breath.

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Portions of the hiking trail are also shared with a horse trail.  For those of you not interested in hiking for 6 hours this could be a comfortable option.  As the sun started to set behind the canyon walls we headed up the steep switch backs to the rim of the canyon.

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Because the Bryce Amphitheater faces east sunset isn’t the best time to photograph the hoodoos.  You can see the dark shadows creeping across Thor’s Hammer, a popular photographed hoodoo.

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We then went to Bryce Point to get a better view of the entire amphitheater from above and look for potential sunrise locations. Even though the lighting wasn’t ideal, the view point was crowded with visitors trying to get a last glimpse of the unusual landscape.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunset

We decided to wake up early and beat the crowds to Bryce Point for sunrise.  Even Katharine got up before sunrise, which is a first for her on a camping trip.  There were a couple other photographers with their tripods, but most sane people aren’t willing to stand in the cold and dark setting up their tripods by headlamp.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunrise

Once the sun was above the horizon and the hoodoos lost the dramatic lighting we left the now crowded view point.  We went back to sunrise point and hiked a couple switch backs down into the canyon where we found several other photographers camped out with tripods taking photos of the glowing hoodoos.

Thor’s Hammer at Sunrise

 

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It’s always comforting when you go to a location and there are 5 other photographers with $5k+ setups; it let’s you know you’re probably on the right track.  When you take the chance and setup your gear alone and then 30 minutes later those 5 photographers show up and have to rethink their location because you’re standing in their spot, it’s priceless.

After sunrise was over, we had breakfast at our campsite and drove to the southern end of the park to check out the bristlecone pine trees which are the oldest species in the world!  The oldest tree is believed to be in the White Mountains of CA (almost 5000 years old), but the exact location is not publicized. In comparison, the oldest bristlecone pine tree at Bryce is 1,600 years young, and in our opinion looked pretty dead. (Apparently it is still growing inside, protected by the dead bark around it.)

A more lively looking bristlcone pine tree

On our way back to our camp we spotted two pronghorn antelope grazing in an open field.  They were obviously rather accustomed to humans and let us within a 100 feet, but were wary if we got any closer.

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We ended our time in Bryce by driving back up the park road stopping at most of the view points and enjoying the variety of landscapes. With this trip in mind Katharine bought a new wide angle lens, which paid off with the vast landscapes.

Bryce Canyon certainly did not disappoint; we heard several groups exclaim that they thought it was more impressive than the Grand Canyon. We aren’t sure about that, but it is definitely unique and amazing to see. Next time we’d like to visit in the winter when snow gives a little more contrast to the rock formations.

 

All week it had been calling for rain, but we had escaped up until our fifth night. Finally, the weather report came true and when we went to sleep in the tent, we could hear the rain tapping on the tent.  Around midnight, in my sleep, I brushed my arm across the top of my sleeping bag…it was soaked.  I immediately woke up and then woke up Katharine.  We scrambled for our head lamps to try to asses the damage.  My sleeping bag was pretty wet as was the floor of the tent where I was sleeping.  The water was dripping through a vent that is near the top of the door, it purpose is to let the humidity out to avoid condensation, not so funny at the moment.  We managed to re-position the vent so the water would run off, then soaked up the remaining water with dirty clothes.  Then we went back to sleep, just another night camping.  We then woke up to a funny sound, it wasn’t rain but we had heard it before (Yosemite).  It was still dark out and my eyes were still a little blurry as I sat up looking at the tent walls.  Then I heard the sound again like someone brushing the rain fly, and I realized it was snow!  The snow would build up on the tent then slide down in large sheets.  I grabbed my camera and went outside to grab some photos.

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The clouds were low in the sky blocking the surrounding mountains and the large flakes were gathering fast.

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The snow was building up on our three season tent, so I cleared the rain fly and cleared the snow from the base of the tent before it soaked our gear.  After lying in wait for about an hour for the snow to stop I went out again and took some photos of the mountains near our camp.  Keep in mind these were the same mountains seen in the first photo of the post from the previous day.

Without Snow

With Snow

Being a photographer and an adventurer it’s always funny because when everyone else is running around packing their cars, you’re there setting up your tripod snapping photos.  A Colorado couple camping nearby who were pretty hardcore by our standards, because two days earlier they were literally splitting their own firewood, were packing up.  I talked to one guy from Montana who the day before was free climbing cliffs, and he was also leaving.  We thought about it an looked around at the deserted campground and decided today would be our last day.  We took the shuttle to far end of the canyon and walked around taking photos of the red rock covered with white powder.

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When the rain and snow stopped the animals came out of the woodwork.  The interesting thing was when the snow started up again they didn’t seem to mind.

Wild Turkey Running

Curious Mule Deer

Then the snow started again blocking the view of the mountains, so we packed our things and headed up the road toward the East Rim Trail head where our trip began.  We took the road because it climbs up the mountains to a possible better view of the snow covered landscape, but then we came across something ten times better…

Big Horn Sheep!

Not only was there a herd of them, but they were close to the road.  We stopped rolled down the window and took some video and photos.  I quickly attached my 70-200mm lens and shot some beautiful shots over Katharine and through the passenger window.

Canon 40D, 140 mm, ISO 400, f/10, 1/320 seconds

It has always been my goal to take a photo of a wild animal and have its head fill the frame of the photo.  What I didn’t realize is how close you would have to be even with a decent telephoto lens.  The female sheep kept a close eye on us as their young were eating grass near by.

Canon 40D, 122 mm, ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/400 seconds

I couldn’t believe how close they were, finally I achieved my goal! To see the full effect, click on the photo to enlarge it and see the fine details (click the photo again to close).  I got a tiny glimpse into what wildlife photographers must do to capture the perfect shot.  I can’t imagine how close one has to be to a grizzly to get a similar shot, I hope it would include an 800 mm lens.

Even though they were so close it was hard to get the right background considering they are well camouflaged with the sandstone.

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I didn’t even realize their wet fur texture until I was going through my photos.  I thought it added some character to the youngsters.

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The young ones were definitely more skittish and would jump to small ledges 6 to 10 feet off the ground.  It was amazing to watch them jump from ledge to ledge.

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After a while they vanished into the cliffs but we left with the biggest smiles on our faces.  The weather wasn’t the best but that moment was unforgettable.  We then drove home, 8 hours, sharing stories about the week and how fun, scary, amazing, and memorable it was.

At the end of the 6 day trip we had clocked over 37 miles, 8,276 feet of elevation, 786 photos, and countless memories.

As you can imagine, we took a lot more photos than we can fit in the posts, so check out more photos from the trip!

 

Another day of crappy gray and cloudy weather but luckily no rain.

Mountains Surrounding Our Campsite

On our fifth day we planned to hike Hidden Canyon which is a slot canyon near Weeping Rock and where we returned from the East Rim trail.  Hidden Canyon was discovered in 1927 while rescuing a climber who fell off of the Great White Throne.

The hike is a strenuous 1.1 mile, 1,000 foot gain to the entrance of the canyon.  The hike is once again lined with chains, but after Angel’s Landing they didn’t seem necessary.

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String of Pearls, Notice the Waterfall in the Background- Nice Shot Katharine!

A string of pearls, or a series of pools, were at the entrance to the slot canyon.  Beyond this point the trail isn’t maintained and it’s up to each hiker to determine how far they hike/ climb.  During our visit, since there was so much water, there were more obstacles than usual (unless you were willing to wade! We thought it was too cold for that.)

What Isn’t Pictured is a Pool of Water Below Katharine

We climbed rocks and used fallen branches as bridges making out way into the canyon to find the free standing arch.  After almost a half mile of boulder hoping and climbing we reached this small arch, almost hidden against the steep canyon walls.

We did have someone else take this photo of us

Surprisingly only 2 photos on the entire trip were taken by someone besides us.  We continued quite a ways further until we were faced by a high wall of boulders and debris.  We also started feeling rain drops but weren’t sure if it was from the moist canyon walls or the clouds above.  We took some final photos of the canyon and headed back.

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The orange sandstone walls were impressive as usual.  It was hard to capture how massive they were when we were trapped in the canyon.

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The walls also make for a good background for portraits.

After we returned to the trail head the wind was picking up and it was drizzling on and off.  We didn’t have much more planned for the day considering the weather threw us off our original plan to backpack Kolob Canyon and our trip was threatened to be cut short by a federal government shutdown.  So we walked to Weeping Rock and stood under the waterfall as the wind blew mist into our face. In the summer, this rock is always dripping with water that seeps through the rock even when the canyon is over 100 degrees and very dry. But at this time of year, the Weeping Rock was somewhat overshadowed by the huge waterfall pouring off the cliff.

We then decided to hike a short ways to Emerald Pools.  The wind was picking up and we could see the trail passing around the backside of the waterfall but with the wind it was like an unmanned fire hose.  You could hear the screams of kids getting soaked echoing through the canyon.  We videotaped a couple groups getting soaked like they were on a amusement park ride- it was quite entertaining!  We then made a run for it ourselves and managed to get through getting to wet.  We hiked to all three pools then headed back to the shuttle.

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Because of the uncertainty with the weather and the park possibly closing we didn’t know what to expect, so we just headed to bed early.

Trip Stats (Running Total, 5 days): 37.3 miles, 8,276 feet of elevation, 652 photos

As you can imagine, we took a lot more photos than we can fit in the posts, so check out more photos from the trip!

It was a pleasant morning but gray clouds had rolled in overnight giving a gloomy feeling to the canyon.  Today we were going to attempt Angel’s Landing, which is a day hike to the top of the 1,488 foot peak overlooking the canyon.  The rock formation gets its name from some early settlers that described the peak as so remote only an angel could land on it.  Of course this became a challenge for adventurers of the time, and in 1926 a trail was carved allowing hikers to climb the rock. Now it is the most famous hike in the park. Even though a trail has been developed, the last 1/2 mile is treacherous with steep cliffs on either side.  There are chains to hold on to in some areas, but the rocks can be slippery even when dry so extra caution is required.  Every description of the trail warns hikers of the sheer drop offs, so we were excited but a little hesitant as we headed out on the trail.

We started up the switch backs and kept our eyes fixed on the top wondering where is this trail headed? And how are we possibly going to make it to the top?  There were only a few people on trail since it was still still pretty early and the tour buses hadn’t started dropping off large groups yet.  We wanted to make it up and down the rock before large crowds of unprepared tourists made the narrow trail too crowded.

View of Angel’s Landing from below

We soon were behind the rock and made our way up Walter’s Wiggles which are 21 steep but short switch backs.

Katharine headed back down Walter’s Wiggles

Once we got to the top we looked across the spine that led to Angel’s Landing.  We could spot people like ants crawling up the rocks.

The spine of Angel’s Landing

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As we started making our way to the spine, we ran into an old volunteer ranger who was coming down. We asked him for any advice and he was very supportive and encouraging. Turns out it’s his favorite hike in the park, and he’s done it 41 times!! We figured if he could do it, so could we and so we headed toward the peak with confidence.

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It started off fairly easy and there seemed to be a ledge not too far from the trail that might catch you if you fell.  But soon the ledge became shorter and we found ourselves climbing up rock faces.  We stayed close together letting others pass if needed.  Katharine didn’t like the feel of the swinging chains and chose to hold on to the rock instead.

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We became more comfortable with the insane cliff and just focused on the next step or link of chain.  We took turns in some areas letting people come down then we would head up.  Everyone was calm and respectful of each other giving each other time and space to make the climb.

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When we finally made it to the top 40 minutes later, we realized that there wasn’t really one part in particular that was the worst, nor was it as scary as we thought it might be, but it takes some mental strength to keep climbing for a full 0.5 mile.

Katharine at the top

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We managed to walk to the point and position ourselves across the ridge to have lunch.  The view was amazing but the sun remained behind the clouds and the wind started to pickup forcing us to add more layers.

The Virgin River wandering through Zion Canyon

While eating lunch, chipmunks would run around us with no  fear of humans or the cliff edge.  They were begging for food and would climb in your lap if you would let them.  Battling chipmunks and wind on a thousand foot cliff made us both nervous so we took some photos and headed down before the weather turned any worse.

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Heading back down the spine was a challenge, it was like a salmon swimming up stream…kind of.  People were now heading up the trail in large groups and not always respectfully waiting for others to pass.  The kids were the scariest because they had no fear of the edge and were rushing to get to the top.  Some parents were yelling at them to stay on the chain while others had given up trying to corral them.  There were also many people from different countries and at one point,  miscommunication caused two people to get temporarily trapped/stranded in a narrow part of the trail.

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Climbing down while looking at the ground was daunting.  It was also hard and awkward to figure out the best climbing method, do you turn toward the rock or do you slide down on your butt?  At one point I decided to video tape Katharine climbing down but then looked behind me to find a group waiting so I scurried ahead with the camera recording in one hand.  I became more comfortable climbing with one hand while filming with the other.  I haven’t had a chance to look at the video, but I hope it captures the feeling of being on the trail.

 

We made it off the treacherous section just as it started to sprinkle.  We couldn’t imagine finishing that section in the rain with all the crowds! We put on our rain jackets and headed down the switchbacks with a feeling of accomplishment.  On our way down we ran into another couple who were finishing a backpacking trip on the West Rim Trail (we did the East Rim).  This wouldn’t be so impressive except that they were backpacking with their 2 year old daughter! We can’t imagine the challenge of backpacking with a small child… we’re struggling to reduce our pack weights as it is!

When we reached the canyon floor, we headed to the famous Narrows which is normally open for hiking but was closed with the fast moving Virgin River.  We hiked a mile in on the paved trail that was open and took some photos but didn’t stay too long since it wasn’t too impressive (compared to the photos you see from deep within the canyon). We’ll definitely be back when the Narrow are open though!

.Virgin River rushing through the canyon

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Sunset at Our Campsite

Trip Stats (Running Total, 4 days): 30.3 miles, 7,076 feet of elevation, 550 of photos

As you can imagine, we took a lot more photos than we can fit in the posts, so check out more photos from the trip!

We woke up again to frigid temperatures but we knew we were hiking to lower elevations and warmer temperatures.  We didn’t have much planned except to hike 9 miles, and  2,000 feet down the mountain so we waited for the sun to warm up the tent before we crawled out of our sleeping bags.  We packed up our gear and said goodbye to the peaceful solitude.

Once again the trail was full of switch backs leading us close to the edge.  Of course this time the trail had patches of ice and snow to keep us alert.

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After descending into Echo canyon, the trail somewhat disappears as it traverses the slickrock of the canyon floor. We followed the cairns across the sandstone until we got to a split in the trail to Observation Point, a popular destination for day hikers. As we were carrying so much and pretty tired already, we decided to continue heading down to Zion Canyon, leaving Observation Point for another day.

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By this point, the trail was crowded with day hikers. As we passed them we were often greeted with looks of awe.  It’s always fun to be the one of the toughest on the trail.  Most people couldn’t believe we were carrying all our gear and had camped through two freezing nights. One person even commented on how “fresh” we looked considering our nights in the backcountry.

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As we followed a small river down the mountain it began to carve it’s way deeper into the rock creating amazing slot canyon walls.

Olympus Stylus Tough, 5mm, ISO 64, f/3.5, 1/50 seconds

It also made for some interesting water crossings.  In some areas we were wading through knee deep water.  Luckily this was our last day backpacking and we knew we could dry out our boots next to a campfire. In the summer I think this trail is almost entirely dry, but given the huge amounts of snow melt this spring, there was quite a bit of water flowing.

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We hadn’t packed water shoes/sandals because we weren’t expecting river crossings or much warm weather, but the carved sandstone walls made it all worthwhile.  We spent most of the trail looking up in awe of the shear walls surrounding us.

Canon 40D, 28mm, 200 ISO, f/5.0, 1/200 seconds

We then hiked out of Echo Canyon and looked down on the many daunting switch backs leading down to the main canyon. It was a very impressive way to enter Zion Canyon for the first time.

The small switch backs lead to Hidden Canyon, which we hiked 2 days later

When the view is this amazing, you forget about the switch backs

We hopped on the shuttle, which is the only form of transportation in and out of the main canyon during the spring and summer.  We then staked our claim to a car camping “walk-in” site.  We grabbed dinner in town (Springdale is actually a pretty cute and very convenient town right outside of the park), and then went to the local grocery store and picked up firewood and ice cream because we were so exhausted and hot from our hike.  It was quite odd to be sitting around a campfire while eating ice cream knowing the night before we slept in freezing conditions.

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It was the perfect night; ice cream, campfire, and too many stars to count. Sadly it was the last clear night of the trip.

We also had some fun with ‘light painting’ using a long exposure, 10 seconds

Trip Stats (Running Total, 3 days): 24.3 miles, 4,100 feet of elevation, 355 of photos

As you can imagine, we took a lot more photos than we can fit in the posts, so check out more photos from the trip!

We woke up on our second day exhausted after tossing and turning through the night while trying to stay warm in our sleeping bags.  The temperature dropped well below freezing but luckily it wasn’t windy, snowy or rainy.  We were headed on a 10 mile hike to Deer Trap Mountain, a view point that would give us a spectacular first view of Zion Canyon.  We had already packed our bags the night before, so we were able to hit the trail before the sun hit our tent.  The muddy trail was frozen which made it easy to traverse but we knew the hike back would be difficult.

The first part of the trail was 1.7 miles climbing 500 feet to about 6,800 feet.  At this point the sun was over head and the mud was beginning to thaw.  As we were walking down the trail we looked down and saw paw prints.  There was also some shoe prints so we assumed it was a dog, but then thought, dogs weren’t allowed on the trail.  Then we started to think if it was a dog it would have claws but these prints didn’t have claw points at the end.  Then we realized it must be a mountain lion.

Mountain Lion Tracks- Walking

Honestly the prints were smaller than I expected (only about 2 inches across), so it probably was a young cat.  But when you’re miles from any other human, mountain lion tracks of any size are not a friendly sight.  We knew mountain lions might be in the area, but sightings are very rare. Still, we were uneasy as we hiked to Deer “Trap” Mountain.

The trail took us through many different habitats we hiked up muddy creeks, through pine groves, across sand, snow, and between burned out trees.  When hiking through the burned out forest we came across what I believe to be termite mounds.

Thought to be Termite Mounds

We also saw mud trails in the shape of branches which I believe are digested deadwood from the termites.  Of course these are just guesses and stories we made up while we walked but could be true.  We also passed a deer leg… yes just the leg and it still had some flesh on it.  We also came up with some creative stories about its demise, mainly involving the mountain lion.

Soon we could see the edge of Zion Canyon and we knew we were almost there.

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As we got closer to the canyon rim, the mountain lion tracks changed from a walk to a run.  We could tell the tracks were fresh since the fine sand would have buried them with a slight breeze.

Mountain Lion Tracks- Running

At one point the tracks went one way and the trail went the other way, and that was the last we saw of the tracks or any sign of the cat.

Although we didn’t forget about the possibility of encountering the animal, we were distracted by the incredible view.  We were standing over 2,000 feet above the canyon floor looking across at massive rust colored sandstone walls.  Most people’s first view of the park is from the canyon floor looking up from a car window.  Instead, since we approached the canyon from the backside, our first view was hard-earned and unobstructed, allowing us to see the entire expanse at once.

Stitched Panorama from Katharine’s Olympus ISO 64, 7.57mm, f/4.3, 1/500 sec

Along with the amazing views were treacherous trails that came within a couple feet of the shear cliff.  We hiked a long the rim for a half mile to a final point and sat on the rocks looking toward The Great White Throne and Angels Landing.  We had lunch and looked at the map trying to identify different rock formations.

To Our Left: The Virgin River Exiting the Canyon

To Our Right: Angels Landing which we would hike 2 days later

Angels Landing is a rock formation in the middle of the canyon that doesn’t quite rise to the top rim but we’ll talk more about that on day 4.  After lunch we headed back to camp.

Burned Forest

Waiting for the Water to Boil

Freeze Dried Meals! Yum

It’s actually amazing how good they taste although hiking 10 miles does help ones appetite.

After dinner we watched the sunset and I tried to capture the glowing sage brush in the valley near our tent.

Canon 40D, ISO 100, 28-135 mm, f/5.6, 1/80 seconds

We then prepared for another night below freezing but were excited to hike down to the canyon floor on day 3.

Trip Stats (Running Total, 2 days): 15.5 miles, 2,200 feet of elevation, 217 photos

More Photos

By Katharine

Before we go through all our photos carefully and write a detailed trip report for our week in Zion National Park, we thought we’d post a few photos that represent each day. Consider it a ‘teaser’ of the posts to come!

For our first full day in the park, we backpacked up the backside of the East Rim of Zion canyon.

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On Monday we did a long day hike from our backpack camp to Deertrap Mountain, getting our first view of the stunning main canyon.

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The next day we backpacked down and across Echo canyon and then descended 2000 feet into Zion canyon.

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On Wednesday we hiked to the top of Angel’s Landing, traversing the backbone with shear cliffs on either side.

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Thursday we explored Hidden Canyon in the rain.

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Friday morning we awoke to snow falling on our tent and the surrounding sandstone cliffs.

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Just before leaving the park, we came across a small herd of bighorn sheep and Nathan got to practice his wildlife photography.

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This is just a sampling of what we got to do in Zion. The weather didn’t fully cooperate – the Zion Narrows was closed due to high flow rate of the Virgin River – but we still had an amazing time and saw some spectacular scenery. It was a perfect break from work, school, and wedding planning. Now we just have to unpack all the wet gear, finish a take-home midterm, and catch up on some wedding items.