Hailing from the leafy green hills of the Midwest, Southern Utah’s arid, sunset-colored landscape is incredibly alien to me. Tall, crumbling mesas stretching into the horizon feel romantically wild in a timeless way. It’s a place where westward expansion has yet to leave its imprint on the land. Where bighorn sheep and Gila monsters roam freely. Where “the road less traveled” still outnumbers freeways.
We recently returned from our fifth visit to Utah and our second trip to Zion National Park. Back in 2012, a single image on National Geographic’s website inspired me to hike Zion’s Narrows – a 16-mile long slot canyon whose “trail” consists of the Virgin River. The trek took us two days to complete and we were completely gassed by the time we reached “Wall Street,” a famous section of the canyon where its walls soar up to 2,000 feet overhead and the slot narrows out to about 30 feet wide.
We decided to come back and day hike the last leg again, this time starting at the mouth of the river and wading against the current for roughly five miles to the turn-around point at Big Springs. We also wanted to explore a side canyon called Orderville, energy levels permitting.
But before I begin, I’d like to point out that Zion is really crowded. Up to 30,000 domestic and foreign tourists flood into the park every day and most come to do two hikes: the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. To avoid the inevitable conga line on the trails and the extreme heat of the desert’s summer sun, Luke and I made an uncharacteristic effort to be in the park before sunrise most days.
Surprisingly, we actually stuck to the plan. And thanks to said plan, we were able to see the park in the prettiest light from empty trails. By the time the crowds and sun were in full force, we were floating happily in our hotel’s saltwater pool, sipping Tecates and gazing adoringly at the park’s sandstone peaks that loomed overhead, beckoning us back the next day to discover something new.
Utah has become our favorite place to escape the sights and sounds of major civilization, often times by simply driving a short distance down a side road. This is even true in one of the most popular national parks during high season. The gems here aren’t roped off and closely guarded. They are often hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered by those willing to step off the beaten path.
To be continued…