It’s almost July! That means we are halfway through the centennial celebration year for our nation’s park system.
Want a perfect travel tip for every generation? Use the centennial year to join the trek, discovering or reintroducing yourself to the national parks…and perhaps you can share the adventure with your children, grandchildren, and friends. Nothing can compete with the artistry that you will see in these awesome lands (no acrylic paints needed).
We have recently returned from a two-week vacation exploring the national parks of Colorado and Utah. The Rocky Mountain region, straddling the Continental Divide, is rich with mountain vistas, hoodoos, monoliths, sandstone cliffs and arches, meadows, rivers, lakes, and fossils. From Denver to Las Vegas, every day of our trip was filled with beauty, history, and geological wonders.
Zion National Park was a particular favorite of ours. The diversity of the landscape within the park kept our interest while we were there. Every day we hiked…which for us (grandparents of five…and almost six…grandchildren) means that we walked along designated trails maintained by the National Park Service. Our hikes were 4-8 miles long…just one foot in front of the other whether we were at the base of cliffs named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Court of the Patriarchs; refreshing ourselves in the waterfall mist and coolness at the Lower Emerald Pool; or watching a wild turkey and listening to the rapids of the Virgin River.
We took advantage of the park’s free shuttle that runs on a regular loop from the lodge to the Visitors Center and trailheads. The drivers were friendly and knowledgeable. At times, they would slow down to point out wildlife or other special features that we might have otherwise overlooked. Not having to dodge traffic in the park was one of the reasons we enjoyed Zion. We thought the shuttle service was efficient and easy, and the drivers were good ambassadors for the park.
The Visitors Center has interesting displays about the park’s history and geology, plus a short movie. It also has trail information, restrooms, and a souvenir store. The park rangers helped us find trails that suited our abilities and gave us tidbits of information to make our hiking more enjoyable. The first day we arrived at Zion Park Lodge, we boarded the shuttle to go to the Visitors Center. With our National Park “Passport” in hand (these are available at any national park Visitors Center or online at www.nps.gov) we added the Zion National Park stamp to our collection.
Zion has a variety of trails, from easy to strenuous. Forest trails. Water trails. There are trails with flowering cacti or refreshing pools. And, of course, there is the trail to Angels Landing…but more about that, later.
The trail through the Court of the Patriarchs is short and not too difficult. Part of it is a shared path used by horses. The day we took the trail, it wasn’t particularly messy and there was plenty of space to step off of the trail to bypass any debris the horses may have dropped. By the time the trail intersects with the Lower Emerald Pools Trail, the path is paved and used only by pedestrians.
For us, the Lower Emerald Pools Trail was moderately strenuous. It was steep in some places. We found ourselves asking passersby about the remaining distance to the Lower Pool…our need to have some hopefulness. The snowpack over the winter was better than it had been in recent years so, when we finally arrived at the Lower Pool, we were cooled by the mist from a waterfall that split the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. It was refreshing. It was also a point where we realized that we needed to turn back toward the lodge for lunch and some rest.
After our break, we took the Kayenta Trail (the Grotto) from the lodge to the shuttle stop at the opposite trailhead. We had been wrestling with the idea of hiking to the top of Angels Landing but we, both, doubted that we would try. The hike to Angels Landing is strenuous and long (approximately 5 miles round trip), and we had already hiked 4 miles before lunch. So we left our water bottles at the lodge and headed out for an easy hike in the Grotto. Not a good decision! Here’s a key travel tip: don’t go hiking without water!
Angels Landing is accessed by the West Rim trailhead. The entry point we used was across the street from the shuttle stop in the Grotto. Just as we arrived at the shuttle stop, the skies began to look menacing, like a summer storm was about to hit. Hikers much more experienced than we told us that the hike to Angels Landing is too dangerous when the trail is wet. So we waited for an hour, watching the storm clouds circle around to the opposite end of the park without dropping any rain in the area around us. Once we saw others heading toward the West Rim Trail, we decided to join them, walking one foot in front of the other…up the trail to Walters Wiggles (21 severely pitched switchbacks), then to Scout Lookout, and finally to Angels Landing.
The change in elevation on this hike was almost 1,500 feet. Parts of the paved trail are scored (vertical cuts in the concrete) to encourage traction and prevent falls. There are long drop-offs. The park information says that this is not a trail for young children or anyone fearful of heights. It’s also not recommended that you take this hike without water (lesson learned!). The last half-mile section is a route along a steep, narrow ridge to the summit, with heavy gauge chains to aid your balance for part of the journey. But you’re on your own (we were on our hands and knees) once the chains end. Some of the difficulty is dodging the hikers coming from the opposite direction…everyone with self-preservation top of mind. The hiker traffic helps to make the trip to and from the summit terrifying (remember, we are Boomers and this was not in our comfort zone). Once at the summit…hanging on to the first tree trunk that we could reach…proud to have accomplished such a feat…Angels Landing was glorious.
Truthfully, neither of us can say that the views of Zion Valley and the Virgin River from the summit were any more spectacular than those at Scout Lookout. Maybe that’s because we never got off our knees. Or maybe adrenaline and vertigo clouded the moment. We’ll never know. Regardless, all of our pictures were taken at Scout Landing and those are spectacular enough for our photo book.
On the return hike, we admired the young adults who were taking the trail. While they may have shared their teen-idol music with us as they passed by, they seemed to have a respect for this place that was uplifting. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Did we hum their songs for a little while after they were gone? Perhaps!
We also saw young families with grade school-aged children who were being encouraged up the trail. We don’t know how far they went. Some were near Walters Wiggles…quite high on the trail. If asked, we would encourage parents to read the park rangers’ recommendation that this trail, to its end (and maybe, even, to Scout Lookout) is too strenuous for young children.
As for we two Boomers, quiet congratulations were due when we returned, slowly, to the lodge for some much deserved rest. Our sense of accomplishment on this day is, now, another one of our national park memories…like the memories from our childhood, when family vacations in the national parks were annual events.
We hope you go and play in the parks during 100th year...or sometime in the near future. Just remember to grab your National Park Passport and your water bottle!
June 30, 2016