Some of our best travel days have started with a rented Subaru and the loose semblance of a plan.
This was true in Glacier National Park when I reserved a Corolla, but was handed the keys to a Forester. Luke and I put our newly acquired all-wheel drive capabilities to good use, bouncing along minimal maintenance roads all the way to Bowman Lake.
We knew nothing about this remote area of the park; it was simply a destination on Google Maps. What we discovered was a pristine campground favored by locals and a lake made up of one continuous sheet of glass stretching from the rocky beach, past a dark green layer of forest and into a snow-capped mountain range lining the horizon.
We also happened upon the Polebridge Mercantile, a frontier-style general store that sells camping supplies, souvenir trucker hats and world-famous huckleberry bear claws. Out back, was a mishmash of camper cabins and teepees available for rent, as well as the cutest outhouse I’ve ever used. Gingham curtains hung over a functional window, and a list of old-school “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes tacked above the roll of toilet paper.
No one told us any of this magic existed out there; we just happened upon it. The same has been true for many of the national parks we’ve visited. Stray a short distance from the beaten path and the world is your oyster. Zion was no exception.
About mid-way through our trip, we decided to leave the crowds in the canyon for the day and head into the backcountry. We drove about 30 minutes from Springdale to the Kolob Terrace Road and followed it north along the western border of the park.
Out here, the views are huge and the roads are largely empty. Occasionally, a pickup truck or two would pass and kick up some dust, but the vast majority of visitors seemed to be parked at the Left Fork Trailhead which leads to the famous “Subway.”
Under normal circumstances, we would have been tempted to hike this trail, but we didn’t have the proper permit or the legs to do it. It was supposed to be our rest day between hiking the Narrows the day before and up to Observation Point the following morning.
A short distance away, the lot for the Grapevine Trail was enticingly empty, so we decided to get out and stretch our legs on a short jaunt down to a natural spring. We followed a well-defined path for about 100 meters, then passed a sign welcoming us into the Zion Wilderness Area.
From here, the trail grew fainter as we picked our way down the side of a damn-near vertical lava flow hill. I was doing my best to avoid the prickly pear cacti squatting mid-trail, while the high-noon sun actively drilled a hole through the top of my sun hat.
Our better judgement told us to abandon the hike and seek shelter in the air-conditioned comfort of our rental Subi. However, and this is always the case, Luke and I share a relentless sense of curiosity that forced us to keep marching on.
The trail ended at a large shade tree lining the bank of a crystal clear wading pool. I wasted no time removing my shoes and becoming acquainted with the tiny minnows and canyon tree frogs who call the beautiful little desert oasis home.
Luke and I were less than a mile off the road, but we felt completely isolated from the rest of the world. I soaked my feet in the cold water, basking in the absolute silence surrounding us … until I discovered a leech on my foot.
After slogging back up the flow and blasting ourselves with a massive hit of AC, we continued on to the Lava Point Overlook near the Kolob Reservoir which gave us an incredible view into the backside of Zion Canyon.
From this distance, it looked like tiny grooves cut into the Earth. It sort of blew my mind to think about the tens of thousands of people climbing around in there, like ants in a sidewalk crack.
It was a good reminder regarding the power of perspective. Only by stepping back from a situation are we able to see its true scale.