Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn't been there or is in some way biased against sandstone. The park isn't technically a canyon, even though a river does run through most of it, but you get the sense that you're inside one while you're there. In general the place has a similar feeling to Yosemite National Park, except that it's more colorful and, as I said, everything is made of sandstone, not granite.
We awoke in the El Rio Lodge refreshed and ready to get an early start (we had a long day ahead of us, as we had to explore all of Zion and make it to Bryce in one shot). We drove the few miles past the entrance, parked at the visitor center, bought bagels and fruit at the coffee shop (like 3 of each if I'm not mistaken), and boarded the shuttle bus that would take us to the launching point of our first hike, the Hidden Canyon Trail. Zion National Park is one of the most modernized of the canyon lands parks, having completely redone the visitor center and added an mandatory (cars aren't allowed) shuttle bus system that runs with alarmingly frequency. Other parks have shuttle buses, but they don't seem to run often enough or have the coverage required to make them practical. At Zion this was not the case.
Anyway, the 2.2 mile round trip hike to Hidden Canyon was, as advertised, incredibly steep and a little bit tricky. In several places metal spikes had been pounded into the sandstone, with heavy chains connecting them for hikers to hold on to merely for safety. While this wasn't strictly necessary, I was happy to have some assurances against tumbling off the side of the cliff. We eventually made it all the way to the Hidden Canyon itself, which is, as the name suggests, a small side canyon that is hidden off the main gorge of the entire park. A sign stated that some rock scrambling was in order, and the trek into Hidden Canyon did not disappoint. We first climbed up the side slope, eventually getting up to a beautiful lookout point (the climb up was too rigorous to even bring the camera, however). On the way down I missed a hand hold and ended up with a finger full of cactus needles, but otherwise we escaped unharmed. Then we walked a ways back into the canyon itself, basically over a beach (remember, everything is sand stone, so everything is covered in sand). The secluded canyon was great, and we did a little more scrambling up some rocks. The sandstone was incredibly colorful, but we felt bad even walking on it, as it basically crumbled every time you touched it. Climbing up one wall I found a small clay disc with beads and shiny things embedded in it hidden behind a rock (probably put there by a little kid months or years ago). Little kid, if you're reading this, don't worry, I left your artwork undisturbed. After playing around in the canyon for what seemed like an hour, we decided it was time to head back down, as we had a few other hikes we wanted to do and it was already close to noon.
Next on the list was Weeping Rock. Basically what has happened here is the following. Water lands on top of the (soft) sandstone and flows through it, much like water seeping through soil. Eventually, however, the water hits a layer of hard rock, so hard that the water can no longer continue downward. What happens then? The water starts to move to the side like, and eventually hits the wall of the rock and seeps out onto it's surface. The appearance is that the rock is weeping, as water is falling off of it at a pretty surprising clip. We were impressed and happy we took the half mile detour to check it out. We also ran into an entire family of Steeler's fans, who were quite taken with my floppy Steelers hat.
After Weeping Rock it was back onto a shuttle bus that took us to our next hike, Riverside Walk. As the name suggests, this trail is along the river. Eventually, however, the trail stops and hikers are presented with a choice; turn back or walk in the river. Many hikers choose to follow the river upstream for many miles, eventually coming to the Narrows, a dangerous area where the river is only a few meters wide, with canyon walls towering up hundreds of feet on either side. Obviously this area is prone to flash flooding, something we'll here more about in a later installment detailing our trip to Antelope Canyon. The hikers who were continuing on up the river, be it for a few miles or all the way to the Narrows, were typically well prepared. Some wore half wetsuits, covering them up to their stomachs (the water was only 2 feet at it's deepest), or at least neoprene shoes, and almost all had walking sticks. Not me. I simply took off my shoes and waded right in, eventually making it a few hundred feet up and across to the other bank. Danielle stayed behind, choosing not to subject herself to the 50 something degree water. Then I walked, barefoot mind you, a few hundred more feet, and got back into the stream, where I asked a woman with all the aforementioned equipment "Does it get really cool really soon, or should I turn back?" She responded "No, it's pretty much the same for the next few miles" and I had my answer. Let me tell you, if you ever want to walk in 1 to 2 feet of pretty rapidly flowing 55 degree water on top of large smooth rocks, at least have the sense to bring a stick or some shoes. I almost fell 5 or 6 times, and by the time I got back my feet were not to happy with my brain.
After another short shuttle bus ride, we embarked on our final hike of the day, Emerald Pools. Once again this hike is intuitively named, as its 4 mile length takes you past not one or two, but three "pools" (cleverly named upper, middle, and lower). The pools themselves were pretty neat, with one of them forming below a carbon copy of weeping rock. They were also full of tadpoles and (presumably) mosquito larvae, so we didn't linger very long. Eventually we reached the upper pool and were greeted with a special treat. Several rock climbers were attempting a descent of the canyon wall, and were currently huddling on a ledge several hundred feet above our heads. The first climber rappelled down a rope, eventually landing on a slope across the upper pool while dozens of hikers watched with a mix of awe, curiosity, and fear. What if this dude fell? What exactly were we going to do then? He made it down safely, then tied something to the bottom of his rope which is companions eventually pulled back up to themselves. We watched the process for about 15 minutes, and eventually decided that if we'd seen one guy come down, it was fairly unlikely the second or third would look much different. We headed back down the trail, and Danielle made one of her almost daily "cool nature like discoveries" (which started with the prong horned antelope we saw at the North Rim and I'm just now remembering I forgot to write about). We saw a caterpillar, crawling along the sand, and lo and behold right behind him there were...caterpillar tracks. Have you ever seen caterpillar tracks? I doubt it. Now you have. The trip back down the trail was uneventful, and we made it to the bottom without incident.
The next thing on my schedule was a late lunch (the bagels and fruit we'd purchased hours ago were long since gone), and I picked up chicken sandwiches at the lodge (which was on the same shuttle stop as the Emerald Pools trail) while Danielle hunted for the always present Penny Smusher (these were the only souvenirs we picked up on the trip other than Christmas ornaments, something I collect). Then we loaded back up onto the shuttle bus and picked up the Highlander at the visitor center (after a quick stop inside, which assured me that, yes, it was very modern and cool and still didn't really have anything I wanted to buy inside), and drove out of the park, passing the Great Arch, Checkerboard Mesa, and through a ginormous freaking tunnel. I mean, this thing was nuts, carved right through the canyon wall, a couple miles long, with periodic 30 foot holes blown out of the wall to let in air and light. Once we got to the other side, we parked (in a very, very small lot big enough for about 8 cars) and did one last hike known as Canyon Overlook Trail. Aptly named yet again, this short (a mile or so) hike took us straight up the canyon wall to an overlook from which you could see a pretty large piece of the park. The view from the end, shown below, was truly breathtaking. It also afforded us one last chance to scramble around on some rocks, horrifying the middle aged couple who took our picture, one of whom was deathly afraid of heights. "It's safer than it looks", Danielle assured them as I was walking around on gigantic boulders seemingly inches from death (in truth I was many feet from death). "We're not so sure" was the response. On the way up we had passed this same couple at one point in the trail where it got a little narrow, and I realized the woman had been working up her courage to continue on and we'd walked past her without even breaking stride. It was, in retrospect, pretty funny.
Eventually we headed back down and packed back into the Highlander (after some good old fashioned rock pushing) for our drive to Bryce, where we were due by 6:30pm in order to get in one solid hike before dark. Would our young heros make it, or was this the end of their adventure? Tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel.