Highlights: Zion National Park, Northgate Peaks Trail, Hop Valley Trail
Full hookups, very short and narrow sites in a nice looking park. We had to go into the office building to make phone calls
Zion National Park:
On our first day into the park we got a late start and drove in with low expectations of parking availability. Sure enough the national park's parking lot was full so we parked in the closest street lot before the park (just 0.2 miles away). $20 for the day! The first thing I asked in the visitor's center was what time the park's parking lot usually fills up. She responded by 9 AM and that the town was being overwhelmed by parking problems and started the $20 fee to help curb it. The park's parking lot is huge so on subsequent days we arrived around 9 to 9:30 and got in although there was still a waiting line at the gate. Later in the day we noticed that the first shuttle stop within the Park is a Cultural Museum that also had free parking.
The shuttle is mandatory and is actually an enjoyable way to get through the park. Becuase it was off season, we never faced a full bus. On one shuttle trip we met a nice young couple on our ride from Sinawava, the last stop within the park, to the Visitor center. They were both from Sidney Australia (he was originally from New Zealand), and were on a 6 month tour of the world. Their trip started with a wedding in Hong Kong. After the US they were planning stops in a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City, then South America and Columbia. They were amazed at Zion but said their favorite place in the southwest they saw was Joshua Tree and Palm Springs California.
The following photos are from inside the shuttle:
The shuttle has roof windows which helps seeing the peaks!
Trails and Tram stops at Zion:
Views like this are everywhere in Zion
On our first day we stopped at the Big Bend shuttle stop. This is an amazing (and my favorite) view with tall peaks on all four sides of you. We could see people on the Angels Landing trail seemingly perched on the edge of a 1,500 – 2,000 foot drop (which validated our decision not to even attempt it). The other neat sight was seeing two Condors soaring high over Angels Landing. A couple with binoculars confirmed the sighting and we pledged to bring ours on the next trip. Big Bend would definitely be my destination for a ½ hour or more rest/contemplation spot. It was cloudy when we were there but is pretty exposed so I imagine it can get hot during mid day.
Views from Big bend:
Hikers on Angels Landing trail as seen from Big Bend
The Emerald Pools trail was the only disappointment. A 0.6 mile 70 foot uphill hike to water dripping over the side of a cliff into a muddy stream was less than enthralling. Especially with the other 20-30 people standing there. The nice views along the trail made the walk enjoyable, but don't expect much of an idyllic tropical environment as the title or trail descriptions implied to me. We did see a rock squirrel – a larger and more colorful squirrel than I've ever seen. It's pretty back was a pine cone pattern of green to a reddish brown that matched the surrounding navajo sandstone. We also saw a mule deer eating just a few feet from the trail. It didn't care as people stood nearby snapping photos.
Court of the Patriarchs, which was a short but very exposed and hot trail giving closer views of the Patriarchs – which you can see from the road.
Court of the Patriarchs
Lizard along the trail
The trail to the Court of the Patriarchs
Crossing the Virgin River on the Court of the Patriarchs trail
Can't get enough photos of rocks.
Zion Lodge where we got a nice meal.
The Grotto is basically a picnic area. We stopped, looked around and got back on the tram.
Weeping Rock was a short but steep hike to a really cool alcove with water dripping over the edge. This allows you to walk behind the falling water. The views to the valley below were great.
Water drips down from indiscernible heights
Approaching the alcove
View from inside the alcove
Riverside Walk is one of the most popular trails because of the option of taking it through the river to The Narrows. We enjoyed the dry part of the trail with pretty views of the river and a spectacular sheer cliff with a small waterfall.
Water cascades off a cliff along the Riverwalk trail.
A closer look
Sandy looking at the waterfall along the Riverwalk Trail.
The Virgin River on Riverwalk Trail
The trail as well of all of Zion is within the canyon created by the Virgin River
This guy chomped on this nut for minutes while we took photos.
At the end of the Riverwalk Trail one can continue through the rocky river to the Narrows where the canyon walls close in. We people watched for a while as this was another example of too many people ill prepared or naive taking a difficult hike. About 50 people were milling around like us and in a half hour another 50 passed us to cross the river and head to the Narrows. Most were dressed appropriately in wading pants and river boots, and carrying just as necessary hiking poles rented from one of the many outfitters. Then again we saw a few 20 somethings stumbling together without any of that gear. Man and woman alike, they were tripping, balancing on one leg with arms helicoptering in the air, and banging into each other. And they had gone about 20 feet. Good luck!
These people are properly equipped as they head out across the Virgin River heading to the narrows.
They just kept coming and going
Without going further, we still had great views worth the hike.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (Rt 9):This was another recommendation for us to take this road. It is also considered one of the most beautiful in the Country. It starts off with incredibly steep switchbacks and goes through a tunnel with holes cut into the rock for windows! The tunnel is so narrow that they often stop traffic and make the tunnel one way for trailers who have to pay a fee for the use.
The other side of the tunnel is just amazing with outrageous mountainous rocks around every turn. It was so cool I wish we could have stopped at every 100 yards to take it in. I needed a 360 vision! We drove to Checkerboard Mesa which was created by layer upon layer of sand in a giant sand dune millions of years ago. This and the many many rising slickrock were calling me to get out and scramble up. Alas, we did not have the time, and there weren't all that many places to pull over. But this did create my urge to climb East Northgate Peakdescribed below.
Kolob Terrace Road:
Just 100 yards east of Zion River Campground on Rt 9 is the Kolob Terrace Road. At the junction there is a sign identifying a reservoir on the road. Curious, I looked at maps, saw that there was a lookout called Lava Point on the same road, and decided to take a ride on a cold and cloudy day to check it out.
The road itself is a highly recommended destination by itself - with wonderful views and many small pull outs for one or two cars. The road climbs steadily up onto the Kolob plateau and provides views of the tops of Zion canyon and numerous white and pink cliffs and mountains. To give a sense of the climb, one section's speed limit decreased from 20 mph to 5 mph to negotiate a switchback while hugging the side of the cliff face.
Views of Zion along Kolob Terrace Road
Kolob Terrace Road
Kolob Terrace Road
There were a couple of white knuckled sections of the road. The first and worse was a narrow two lane strip on a flat section of the mesa with canyons dropping about 300 feet on either side. In one section the mesa narrowed to an hour-glass neck with a sheer drop at the pavement edge. There was no fence, guardrail, or other obstruction preventing one from driving off to what would be certain death. Only two narrow vertical orange signs with black diagonal stripes located on the crumbling road's edge - before and after a section where the pavement disappeared beyond sight - gave any warning of danger. I had driven by them twice before even noticing them. It was there on my second pass that I noticed one a makeshift roadside memorial (a cross with flowers) at the edge which added to my imagination and despair.
Weird and unsettling, near the very extreme part of this nerve wracking section of road, Sandy and I saw a driveway heading straight down the cliff face to a farm in a green valley by a river. Both of us could only take short glimpses below as our eyes had to stay on the road ahead.
Just moments later where one of the road-side canyons ended into the side of the higher plateau, there was a large tent community. A sign identified it as Under Canvas - a tenting resort. These were large straight sided tents in a random well separated layout at the base of a plateau with southwesterly views extending to the horizon. Sandy looked it up on-line and found out it is an upscale “glamping” resort with horse back riding, a helicopter pad, yoga, canyoneering, massages, and entertainment.
Under Canvas Resort
Looking down on Under Canvas Resort from a pull off.
The other odd thing was that after driving up over 7,000 feet in elevation we would see random cattle - sometimes a lone bull in a field and one time a bull resting literally on the side of the road. Horses are pretty common too. When you drive up 20 mph twisting roads up 2,000 feet in elevation, you just don't expect to find ranches, but they were there. Beautiful setting, but I asked Sandy how long would it take for them to get a gallon of milk? She replied quickly – they'd just go across the street to the cow. Duh, oh ya.
Eventually we made it to the reservoir which, according to a brochure posted on our campground's bulletin board was suppose to offer fantastic fishing. It didn't have a drop of water in it. Oh well. We went back the way we came and stopped at Lava Point. This was a one mile easily navigable, but narrow dirt road (like you'd find in an apple orchard), ending at a campground and overlook with parking for half a dozen cars. It was a worthwhile stop and the view made a revelatory impression on me.
View of Zion from Lava Point.
View south from Lava Point looking at a section of the 48 mile long Zion Traverse Trail
This view shows how the canyons of Zion in the distance are deep below a higher plain
You can read descriptions of the local geology from the park information centers, but seeing things from this high perspective made some things clearer. Here we were on the Kolob Plateau looking down on an expanse of flat wooded land. To the southeast of us we could see this plateau being broken up into canyons. That was Zion. Beyond Zion, the land just broke away - seemingly flat and going on forever. I could relate this to the Mississippi or Amazon which end in deltas of random islands surrounded by countless dispersing tributaries. On the Kolob plateau, a tiny crack in the flats hid the Virgin River which had carved out beautiful Zion Canyon in much the same way and in a similar pattern. When you're in Zion you are looking up at all these wonderful spires and cliffs, but when on the top you are better equipped to see how it was created – easier than say the Grand Canyon which is too big to take in as a whole even when at one of the rims.
Northgate Peaks Trail:
As gorgeous as Zion is, like Bryce, I was really dismayed by the numbers of people. I mean, they are still a “must see” to marvel at the incredible magnitude and beauty of these parks, but when I think of enjoying nature, I think of relaxing, taking my time and really soaking it in within a peaceful setting – unencumbered by the clicking of cameras and chattering people. It is easier to relax and feel a part of nature when you have at least a little solitude.
After seeing all the trailheads on Kolob Terrace road, I looked them up in my travel books, and a brochure on hiking trails I got at the campground. I don't know how I had missed this area! The guide books tell you that if you want a great experience without the crowds of Zion, head up to Kolob Terrace Road – or Kolob Canyon which is a more remote part of Bryce but is currently closed.
I also learned some of the most popular and challenging hikes in this area are done by lottery and that the hardest lottery hike to get is called The Subway. It features canyoneering (via ropes) into rivers, pass waterfalls, emerald green water holes, incredible canyon walls, and even dinosaur tracks. The hike is 7 rugged miles and takes 5-9 hours.
A more reasonable hike for me was the Northgate Peaks Trail. This trail is listed as “Easy” being just 4 miles long (to an overlook and back) and nearly level – only 250' elevation change. I thought it would be a good one for the two of us. The morning of the last day of our stay was cold and very windy. Sandy wasn't all that thrilled of going, but as usual, encouraged me to go anyway.
The Lonely Planet book for Zion and Bryce provided a little more information that proved to be vital to me. It stated that you could extend your hike by continuing on an unofficial but easy to find trail at the overlook. The guide says the trail will take you to East Northgate Peak where you walk up slick-rock and follow cairns to the top. I was excited about this because ever since I first saw slick-rock, especially east of the tunnel on Rt 9 in Zion, I wanted to bushwhack and scramble over them. I figured I'd play it by ear when I got there.
When I left the campground at around 11 AM it was 60 degrees and sunny. After driving 11 miles, I got to the Northgate Peaks Trailhead's small parking area at 6,900 feet, it was 45 degrees and windy. I didn't know it was going to get windier. Luckily I had on my layers, backpack, water, donned a stocking cap, and off I went.
The trail is relatively flat with slopes so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable. But ankle twisting lava rocks are prevalent in the early parts of the trail exposed by erosion from past hikers. After a mile the trail gets sandy amid ponderosa pines. There aren't many views until the overlook at the end. The overlook is 60 feet below the trail's start, but 50 feet above a flatter plane from which the two Northgate peaks as well as North Guardian Angel stood out. In the near distance I could also make out the peaks surrounding Zion canyon. In all, a very beautiful view worth the small effort.
View from shortly after the parking lot
Lava Rocks at an early section of the trail and Ponderosa Pine - what a pretty trail!
East Northgate Peak's west side looked unclimbable without mountaineering equipment (not for me). The rest of the viewable northern side was mostly rock with strips of trees growing out of fissures in the rocks. I thought one of them might provide a route up, but it looked very steep for the last 100 feet. I didn't know if I could do it. The whole peak is only 300 feet up from the valley, which is slight, but it wasn't the height that was intimidating - it was the lack of noticeable route and steepness.
This is the overlook at the "end" of the trail. East Northgate Peak is on the left edge of the photo. All these people turned around here.
View Northwest from the overlook
On the right is West Northgate Peak - for technical climbers only!
There were a few others at the lookout and I asked one man if he could see the trail down to East Northgate. He couldn't, and it took me a bit to find it. From this point on I think I have to disagree with the ease of finding the trail described in the Lonely Planet book. The trail going down to the base of East Northgate consisted of small footholds between pieces of lava rock and I had to guess a couple times which way it went, but not too difficult. I went down 50 feet.
View of East Northgate Peak from the lookout
The view of the base of East Northgate as I hiked down from the overlook.
The base of East Northgate looking up the slickrock
East Northgate get more treed half way up. I followed the lines of trees up.
I went up the left side of East Northgate as seen from this view from the overlook
Once at the bottom, I came to a dead end of a path but easily walked through light woods to the base of the slick-rock. I could not see any sign of cairn or trail. I was excited but also cautious being alone. I told myself that I'd go a little further and if I couldn't find the trail or it proved too difficult I'd just turn around. I thought I'd get photos from however high I could get.
So I went up the most gradual part of slick-rock and followed a scrub lined fissure in the rock. After rising up 50 feet in elevation gain I hit another dead end and went back down until I could walk laterally and find a similar fissure. These cracks and trees gave better footholds than the open slickrock with some tree trunks to use as handles.
Along the way, I had to shade my eyes looking up toward the sunlight, but I still couldn't see any cairns at first. Eventually I saw a small stack of 3 or 4 flat stones, no bigger than pancakes. I found my first cairn.
The hike got continually steeper every 20 feet until I had to use my hands on the ground, rock, or tree as was available. I only saw one other cairn the rest of the way and half way up I still was not sure I was on a correct track. My path ended up being where water running down from the peaks' top eroded what earth there was - leaving loose rock and exposed tree roots to scramble over.
To add to the fun, the wind kept getting stronger and I had to put my layers back on. I guess the wind was gusting over 20 mph. A few times I wouldn't doubt it was closer to 30 mph. I also started having breathing problems with the elevation – which I hadn't experienced before. The top is at 7,135 feet. I could tell I was within feet of the top, but I started getting dizzy. I went 10 feet, stopped, took a sip or water and several heavy breaths and did that again. Repeat about 5 times and I made it to the top exhilarated.
It was really cold and windy so I snapped several photos and got set to go back down - but not before I put the camera down and marveled at the 360 view before me.
Views from the top:
The way down is loose gravel at the top. But great views!
It took me no more than 10 minutes to clamber back down. I just loved this hike. The feeling of bushwhacking, the challenge of finding a way up, and the physical effort. I've done much more physically demanding hikes, but this was the most technically challenging to me(at the time – Arches and Butler Wash had much, much tougher challenges). Add to that the fact that being alone, I knew if I ran into trouble no one would know that I was there.
When searching for elevation data for this hike I found a great website (link below) that I will be testing for other mountain hikes. It has a couple photos that are better than mine to give you a sense of the steepness and topography of this hike.
Hop Valley Trail:
I had just a little time in my afternoon to get in a mile up and back on the Hop Valley Trail on Kolob Terrace Road. The trail starts off descending from a small parking lot and levels out for miles across a flat plain. Dark skies were looming, the day was growing short, and I more realistically didn't have the legs to hustle the 6.6 miles out and back. It's too bad because this is from a trail guide: “The valley floor of Hop Valley is breathtaking with its flat sandy bottom and vertical walls rising on both sides.”As it was, I enjoyed the views. I saw a lone tree that I set as my turnaround spot.
Hop Valley Trail
Just before the entrance of the park is the very casual Whiptail Grill. We liked it so much we went twice. Nice views, really good Mexican food, outside sitting, and cold beer.
And just along the side of the road.