We rode the shuttle bus through Zion Canyon, listening to the familiar pre-recorded voice track. One speaker, a member of the Southern Paiute Tribe, referred to the park as “Mukuntuweap,” which means, “straight-up earth.”
I said the word out loud a few times, lofting its vowels over my tongue. The landscape outside was slowly coming into focus through the dim morning light. Our driver occasionally interrupted the recording to point out a grazing mule deer or migrating tarantula, but it was the canyon’s steep walls that captured my attention.
They got it right the first time – “Makuntuweap” is the perfect way to describe Zion National Park. Luke and I spent most of the week exploring its slots and valleys. Now, it was time to go to the highest point in the canyon – Observation Point.
To get there, you must slog up four miles of switchbacks totaling 2,000 feet of vertical gain. It’s a there-and-back trail, so you’ve got to reverse course on the way back down, which is always harder than going up. A majority of the trail is entirely exposed to the sun. Getting an early start is imperative unless you enjoy the sensation of the sun drilling a hole through the top of your head.
The internet assured us the view from the top is worth the pain of getting there. However, if someone had pointed out the location of Observation Point to us ahead of time, we might have opted to lounge in the grass instead.
We departed the shuttle bus with an older couple. All four of us paused briefly to pay homage to a sign located at the trailhead warning hikers about the dangers of getting too cavalier near sheer drop-offs. A reversed-out stick figure, arms flailing overhead, rock crumbling beneath its feet, apparently cared too much about ‘getting the shot’ and not enough about its own safety, which we were reminded repeatedly, is our responsibility.
Luke wanted to stop and take a picture of it, but I wanted to lose the other couple, so we started our steady march upward. After completing the first series of switchbacks, the trail leveled out momentarily and led us through a narrow crack between two tall rock walls. Below us was a curvy slot canyon that was tempting to explore, but filled with standing water – a literal cess pool – so we passed.
It wasn’t long before the switchbacks started up again. The sun had just broken over the rim of the canyon and we were hustling to complete this part of the climb before it rose too high in the sky.
I walked a few paces ahead of Luke who was bogged down with heavy camera gear. After rounding a blind curve, I found myself face to snout with four bighorn sheep. They took one look at me and skittered off in separate directions. My involuntary reaction was to shout, “RAMS!” back at Luke.
“Oh man, they ran away,” I said when he caught up with me.
“That’s because you were shouting, ‘RAMS!’ at them,” said Luke, which was an excellent point.
We heard the “rams” running through the trees overhead, then watched them pop out onto the trail about 25 meters behind us. Bighorns aren’t known for having a lot of patience when it comes to tourists, so I suspected we might be the first hikers up for the day.
At last, the trail leveled out and led us through low, dense shrubbery to the large rock outcropping known as Observation Point. Two other hikers had arrived on the scene just a few minutes ahead of us. Suspiciously, they did not look like they had been sweating profusely for a couple of hours and their pressed khaki pants showed no trace of red dirt. Turns out, this couple from Tennessee had a friend drop them off at the East Rim trailhead, which gave them a shortcut to the top. (Write that down interested hikers.)
I crept as close to the edge as my nerve would allow. Everything was softened and miniaturized from the top of the canyon. A dark green ribbon of vegetation cut through the colorful canyon walls. Hikers on Angels Landing looked like worker ants. The Virgin River was barely discernible. I was getting vertigo, so I pulled myself back, lest I end up with a similar fate as the stick figure on the park’s warning sign.
For a while, we shared the rock with only a handful of people – the couple from Tennessee, a couple from Texas who were of Dutch and Australian descent, a man from Japan, and a man from California by way of New Hampshire. We were later joined by a family of brazen ground squirrels with an affinity for peanut butter pretzels. Everyone was so nice and friendly, offering to take pictures of one another along the edge and chatting about the other hikes we’ve done in the park.
Mid-morning, our rock started getting crowded and the sun was getting hot, so we hit the trail back down to the canyon floor. Once we were back on level ground, we rewarded ourselves with a fully clothed dip in the Virgin River and a well-earned lounge in the grass with a couple of three-pound ice cream cones.
Hiking Zion’s “straight-up earth” is no joke.