A Week in Zion

Written by Austin Cotton

There’s something about road trips. The first part has its usual banter with whoever you’re traveling with but there comes a point (I’ve found for my extroverted self it’s about hour six) when that hits a standstill. Sure you can talk about career and hobbies for a while but even with someone you know extremely well there comes a point where the silence takes over. And living in 2020, few things are rarer than silence. When it approaches there’s some unease about it, but after it arrives and the initial tension eases, there’s something calming to it. Especially in the recent season we’ve collectively found ourselves, you can try to combat all the bad news with good, but an alternative may be to find spaces to unplug completely. Obviously, we didn’t plan a trip to Zion National Park for the hours on the road but every time I end up being on a trip like this, the miles and hours tend to add to the experience unexpectedly.

As I was feeling many of the things a lot of us are feeling in this current season, a sense of claustrophobia from small apartments, the stress of transitioning to work remotely yet continuing to work at the same pace, and a strange loneliness, a break from it all was very welcome. This trip had initially been planned with Big Bend in mind, but like many things, this year COVID had other plans for us. So about a month out, we decided to shift our plans further west to Utah. One of my favorite aspects of Noel and I’s friendship is the ability to throw out the script and go off-book. So we met in Lubbock and Sunday morning headed out for our first destination: Horseshoe Bend.

Each hour the landscape slowly improved and soon after passing into Arizona, the iconic multi-colored formations were all over. We reached Horseshoe Bend, and even though I had googled the pictures beforehand, the first thing that hits you is the scale. The bend is absolutely massive and the red and orange layers of the rock-cut deep down hundreds of feet to a clear blue river that looks almost manufactured with trees and bushes sprinkling the embankments of the shores. The sky was cloud covered and rays were breaking into the canyon casting this extra layer of contrast to the area. All in all, we were off to a good start.

(Horseshoe Bend)

After stocking up at the local Wal-mart (which actually offered camping in the back of their parking lot. As a businessman I had to appreciate the ingenuity on that extra revenue stream), we headed to our campsite as the sun was setting. In typical fashion, I hadn’t done much research into where Noel had picked for us and as we took this lone road off the highway we slowly approached Lonely Rock at Lake Powell. As we got closer the road turned to sand and after some off-roading, we got to the beachhead and found a spot on the end of this long line of campers and tents. We immediately headed for the water which felt amazing and set up camp. In contrast to the red tones of Horseshoe Bend, the sand and landscape was a pure white and tan while the water was almost this cerulean shade. We cooked out of the back of the Jeep which was definitely an enjoyable first.

Jeep Kitchen

As the sun fully set, the night sky began lighting up. I’ve been off the grid before but something about being in a city for so long and seeing just a handful of stars, to something of this magnitude, where the stars are spanning over the entire night sky never gets old. Noel and I stayed up talking as we watched satellites in orbit and the fires beside us die out till it was time to call it a night. As I learned the hard way (literally), this ended up being my first and last night without a sleeping pad; I slept terribly and woke up sore but forgot about it quickly because the sun was already rising over the far side of the lake. After a morning swim and taking it in our last views, we were on to Zion.

Campsite at the Lonely Rock Lake Powell.

It quickly became apparent that we were closing in on Zion as we passed ranges that easily would have qualified their own parks in Texas. In Utah, these were just the runner-ups. After getting our park pass for the week we entered a mile-long tunnel, and when we finally came out on the other side, we were atop a hill facing two massive ridges. We drove downward on switchbacks carved into the side of the mountain taking in the size of this park. Zion knows how to make a strong opening. We were both on a high from taking it all in as we drove towards Springdale on the other side of the park. After getting our bearings and planning a rough outline, we got a quick hike in on the Watchmen trail, swam in the creek, and decided to head a little early to find the campsite.

Through this trip I found out much of Utah is public land and you can camp on land run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completely for free which for two guys looking to keep expenses low was an easy sell. We had to drive a ways out of the park but soon reached the back dirt road which slowly sloped up this hill into the sorriest most beat-up road I’ve ever driven on. Me, Noel, and everything in the back seat was getting tossed around as we ascended but when we finally got to the top, we had the place all to ourselves. There were about ten campsites all spread far enough apart by splintering backroads that we felt completely isolated when we got to our campsite. And let’s just say the ride up was well worth it.

Free campsite on BLM Land overlook Zion.

For our first full day, we headed slightly out of the park to Lamb’s Knoll to get some outdoor climbing in. I had fallen in love with climbing back in 2013 when I spent a summer as a camp counselor in Kenya and climbing on the weekends. I had been hooked for a while but the lack of places to climb as well as fellow climbers in good ole Abilene, Texas slowed my frequency so I had been looking forward to breaking back into outdoor climbing this trip. Lamb’s Knoll was a beautiful spot but the only problem is like a lot of climbing spots in Zion, it’s not necessarily for beginners. Fine for Noel, not so fine for me. We ended up getting a great day of climbing in still and besides a pretty solid lead climb fall from Noel, it was smooth sailing.

There’s something about the nonsensical nature of climbing where there’s no good explanation of why, but something draws you to it. In a fairly risk-proofed society where we’re constantly insulated, climbing is a direct rejection of that where you willingly put yourself hanging 30 to 40 feet high with just a single rope and some bolts holding you up, trusting the belayer knows what they’re doing. It teaches you a lot about yourself and builds trust with the person you’re on the other side of the rope at an accelerated pace.

Climbing at Lamb’s Knoll.

The first climb was much more technical and I was having a rougher go of it, but our second was a unique route wedged in the side of a crack in the canyon wall. You begin climbing the wall in front of you with another wall on both your left and your right that could be used to shimmy up the start. Noel and I each took about thirty minutes to climb the length of it and after both making it to the top decided to call it a day before the heat really kicked in — both of us getting a couple wins in for the day.

As opposed to a trip to NY or LA, in a national park even without an agenda, no time feels like it’s wasted. The rest of the day we took slow even calling it early to the campsite where we ate a good meal, read, and Noel played his guitar. All with the entirety of Zion as our backdrop.

The next day led us into the Narrows. One of Zion’s more iconic hikes, I had purposefully tried to not research too many of the sights beforehand so I would be seeing much of it with fresh eyes, but nothing really prepares you for walking through the Virgin River with canyon walls hundreds of feet high towering over you on either side. Noel and I walked about an hour and a half into the gorge and realized about halfway through that there was no real end to this trail. You stay on the hike as long as you’re able and it feels as though it would keep going on forever. Each turn leads to a completely different area so the single hike feels multiplied. Some parts were wide open with trees and vegetation overtaking both sides, in other parts the only way forward is through waist-high water going against the current. It was one of the most unique places I have ever been to.

Post-hike and a Thai feast, we realized because of the COVID restrictions we were running out of spots to hit within Zion. We needed to stay local as I was heading back Saturday but Noel was staying another week like the madman that he is with a separate group from A&M. Looking at the map, we settled in on heading back down to Arizona to the Grand Canyon. Just like that. Spontaneity is a bit of a lost art form in several respects. We value our weekly meetings and schedules as a society, but the rigidity also closes out potential. Obviously, there’s a bit of a balancing act to this, but we played it right and ended up adding a large highlight of our trip in the final moments.

Now if you’re like me, when you hear “Grand Canyon,” a very specific image comes to mind. Most likely it’s the quintessential desert canyon shots that I’ve seen as well. So as we drove from Zion and about an hour from the canyon came to the start of the Kaibab National Forest, we were a bit thrown off. As the elevation slowly rose, the temperature fell inversely and rain began falling. While most of the trip had been in the low 90’s we suddenly were in the mid-’40s. Fog covered the tips of the trees as we came to the head of the North Rim. We put on an extra layer as well as our rain jackets and brought our lunch to an overlook point out over the Grand Canyon.

As we ate, there were a few other people around us, and we struck up a conversation with Sparky which as far as we could tell was in fact his actual name. Sparky looked to be late 60’s with a gray handlebar mustache, beer belly, and Game of Thrones shirt — just our kind of guy. He was taking his motorcycle all over the continental U.S. passing through many spots for no longer than a day. He told us story after story of long rides and getting his laundry done in casinos on the trip. As we spoke, the storm which had subsided, rolled back in and overtook the whole of the canyon. We wished Sparky well as we split off on a narrow trail where we could overlook the expanse of the North Rim with lightning striking in the background.

Austin and Sparky waiting out a rainstorm on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Due to the rain, we spent our first night indoors within a cabin outside the park where we cooked warm chili, took aggressively long showers, and jammed to some Clairo. After breakfast, we drove back into the park for our last hike of the trip. The sky had cleared completely leaving a striking contrast between the viridescence of the ponderosa pines along the path and the pale blue of the skyline above. We descended into the North Kaibab trail which can take you to the South Rim if you continue on it. The whole hike was noteworthy but the Coconino Overlook was the highlight by far.

We took our time coming back up the trail and as we drove back to Zion we talked about how crazy it was that the Grand Canyon had been nowhere on the agenda when we had originally planned the trip but a simple decision to act on a suggestion led us there. In a way, that’s how the whole trip had come to pass in the first place. An idea to action.

Zion National Park

So here’s to taking action in a year of inaction and when immobility is even more so the norm. However it looks, to take steps in the directions you know you’re being led and break from the insulated routine you’ve found yourself. And just like hanging thirty feet off the ground, you’ll find that part of yourself that was lying dormant pulling you toward it.

2 Replies to “A Week in Zion”

  1. This makes me want to get in my car and just go!!! I may be 70 years old in the middle of a pandemic, but I’m not done yet. I am so proud of you, Noel, for being you and doing what makes you happy. We all just need to
    Breathe-Pray-Keep Walking, (or Climbing)
    Thanks for sharing this adventure. Be safe.

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