Empty Chains – Winter Weekend in Zion

Utah’s National Parks were the first thing I experienced in this state, and they remain one of my favorite things about living here. Last weekend we made the short drive from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park to take advantage of the unusually warm winter we are having. It was so warm that we camped on our first night there. In February. It was chilly but nothing we couldn’t handle.

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The next morning I was up for sunrise in shorts next to the Virgin River along the Pa’Rus trail shooting reflections and waiting for the sun to peek out from behind the clouds. The clouds weren’t cooperating so I got what I could before heading out. Driving up the park road was a new experience for me since I’ve only been in this park during the warmer months when the road is only open for shuttle traffic. We got to the Weeping Rock trailhead for Observation Point early enough to snag one of the dozen parking spots.

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The trail was quiet and empty as we quickly ascended the switchbacks out of the valley. The four-mile hike is challenging but offers amazing vistas as you walk along the exposed edges dropping off sharply into the canyon. Just when you think you’ve made progress you pass a sign saying there’s two miles to go. There is some reprieve after hiking another mile of steep trail when you reach a plateau with gently rolling, rocky sections until you arrive at the official overlook.

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Observation Point offers a view that rivals that of Angels Landing. You are looking straight down on that more famous overlook and on through the canyon. There are almost always people up here as well, but it never gets as crowded or as congested as the single-file climb that dominates the last half-mile of Angels Landing. There are plenty of places to sit and rest and even get some shade if you desire. We met some great people from Zion Resort on their daily exercise hike. After their workout one of the instructors, Eddie, played soothing music on glass bowls he carried to the top. They were all very friendly, excited, and open to letting us join in.

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Before descending all the way there is another trail that takes you over a small ridge and through some narrow rock walls to Hidden Canyon. Yes, there’s a sign for it, so it’s hidden only to those who choose to ignore it. This short hike is well worth it as you climb up rock steps and along a steep edge with chains to help calm your nerves and steady your footfalls. After you get into the canyon proper the trail is what you make it. There are several sections where you need to scramble over rockfalls and large boulders to continue on. The light reflects beautifully off the walls and enhances the rich colors of the rock. There is even an exposed arch formation shortly before the end of the “official” trail. The hike ends unceremoniously with a sign next to a boulder. You can continue on, but there really isn’t much more to see from what I could tell.

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After the 10+ miles of hiking on those trails it’s hard to muster up much energy for more hiking. We also found that we were no longer alone in the parking lot as we saw cars lining the main road. The parking situation at The Grotto was even worse, so we decided to see ourselves out of the park for the day. We drove through Springdale and stopped at the Grafton Ghost Town just for something to do. It was an interesting little piece of history with some well-preserved building, a schoolhouse, and a cemetery. There isn’t much to do aside from walk around and look in some windows, but it was fun. The wind was picking up considerably and getting cold so we decided to call it an early day and got a hotel in Hurricane just down the road for the night.

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After a great night of rest with the wind whipping outside all night we made our way back to Zion and set up my tripod along the river just in time to catch the morning sun hitting the tops of the rocks. It helped that I scouted it out yesterday and knew exactly how I wanted to frame my shot. I’m pretty happy with what I got. Sunrise can be tricky, but you have to keep coming back until you get what you want. As I learn repeatedly, you also need to work with what you get. It’s so much more rewarding to get something you didn’t expect than to go in with specific expectations and leave disappointed.

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Once I got my shots we headed right for The Grotto and hit the trail for Angels Landing. By the time we had ascended just a bit above the river we could see groups of people lining the trail below. Getting an early start here is a must, especially on a weekend. This trail is much shorter than Observation Point, but the views along the way are equally captivating. Along with canyon overlooks it offers views of winding slots filled with water, huge overhanging red rock, and a wonderfully winding section of 21 switchbacks called Walters Wiggles. Once you get past that you get a little break at Scout Lookout before starting the best section.

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The last half-mile of this trail is what everyone comes for. Climbing up the “hog’s back” and over the saddle is either exhilarating or terrifying depending on your desire for sheer drop-offs and small footholds. There are chains guiding you for most of the more dangerous places, and I highly recommend using them. Less than a week earlier a teenage girl fell to her death from this section. Always be aware of your skill level, and never take unnecessary risks in places like this. The chains were uncharacteristically empty for almost our whole hike up–rewards of starting early. The hike is tough and rewarding as you crest the last section and emerge atop the formation named by some of the first to see it because “only an angel could land there.” Looking up the canyon is breathtaking to say the least, watching the Virgin river continue to carve into the landscape and looking down on tiny cars coming up the road you started at. You can carefully explore the top before descending, but be prepared to wait and move aside for people making their way up those chains.

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Before leaving, we did the short hike to the mouth of the famous Narrows, watching more people than we expected step into the water with waterproof waders and big sticks they rented from an outfitter. We also checked out the Canyon Overlook trail outside the west tunnel entrance since I had never done it before. It was a nice little hike, but after seeing some of the crown jewels up close it was hard to enjoy it quite as much. There’s no shortage of things to do in this area, and as soon as it gets a little warmer we have plans to come back and keep exploring.

dm.rt

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