American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 5: Zion National Park

We checked in with the park ranger at the campsite and quickly found our spot, just near the entrance and a short walk from the restroom. Before setting up our tent, we looked around at the rock formations around us and marveled. “We get to camp here?!”

The little green Coleman. Just big enough—just.

We chose a (small) two-person Coleman tent that Daniel previously took to Big Bend National Park with some of his friends. On previous trips, we had used a Walrus tent that was at least twenty-five years old, and though it was a good tent, we found it was prone to leaking even after I resealed it. Since we expected rain and potentially snow during our stay, I decided we should use the newer, albeit smaller, tent that I hoped would keep us dry.

Our base station, complete with food and water.

After pitching the tent and positioning the truck to act as a wind block, we started on supper. We brought an abundance of canned goods, from soup to chowder to green beans to refried beans to spinach. I did most of the cooking, and my methodology was simple: open can, pour into pan, heat, and eat. Remember, I’m a Baker, not a Cook.

As evening approached and the air cooled down, we tried building a fire with some wood we brought from home. Daniel took charge and I gave tips as best I could, but we were unable to get a blaze going. I started bundling up in the cold evening air and thought of the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire”. Even the protagonist in that story had better success than we did! Did this bode ill for the rest of our trip?

Finally, dismayed but not distraught, we prepared for bed and quickly realized how small the tent was. There was enough room for each of us to lie stretched-out on either long end of the tent, and just enough room between us for our clothes bags. Otherwise, we were quite cramped.

Mule deer in our campsite.

That night was our first night sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures. We crawled into our mummy bags and zipped up. Daniel’s advice, since he’d done something similar in Big Bend, was to sleep in his day clothes. I’ll just say this: Don’t do that. Strip down completely, or do like I did and wear a base layer inside the mummy bag. You’ll stay much warmer and far more comfortable that way.

That first night’s sleep was rough. I slept like a rock, but also felt like I was sleeping on rocks. The old Therm-a-Rests we brought offered nil in the way of lower back support, and sleeping on the side wasn’t much better. I managed. Daniel didn’t.

At 5:30 AM the next morning, Daniel woke me up saying he had to go to the bathroom. I groaned as he climbed over me and outside to do his business. “Whoa!” he said in his half-wakened state as he exited the tent. “Look at the stars!”

I groggily leaned my head out of the tent and looked up. There were, indeed, innumerable stars in the early morning sky. We could even see part of the Milky Way.

So began our stay in Zion National Park. We camped four nights, three in the tent and one in my truck. The second night we decided to try truck-camping in the cab, since neither of us slept incredibly well the night before. It was warmer than the tent, for sure, but still not very comfortable. I think I slept a grand total of two hours that night; Daniel slept more like six because he’d been the one who slept two the night before.

Two hours of sleep on the Watchman Trail.

On our first morning in Zion, we woke up, made breakfast in the crisp, brisk morning air, and then geared up to go hiking. First, we visited the visitor’s center to grab maps and other park literature, as well as to speak to a ranger about trail conditions and recommended hikes. She steered us clear of the Archaeology Trail, the first trail we intended to hike, saying it was too easy and pretty boring. She also pointed us to some other nearby state parks we could check out during our four-day stay, and advised us on conditions on Angel’s Landing, which is possibly Zion’s most popular hike (for good reason, as you’ll soon see).

We were down there, once.

Our first hike was on the Watchman Trail, which wound up into the rocks overlooking the campgrounds and provided some great views of the valley and the town of Springdale to the south. It was not a hard hike, but did take about two hours to complete. The hardest part for us was having to gradually de-layer as we hiked; it was about forty-five Fahrenheit when we started and felt like sixty by the time we reached the overlook.

The view looking northwest.
The view looking southwest over the town of Springdale.

After completing the first hike, we decided to ride a shuttle bus around the park to see everything there was. This proved to be a good decision, because we learned quite a bit about the park from the pre-recorded narrations onboard the shuttle.

The waterfalls at the Lower Emerald Pools.

We stopped at Zion Lodge, which books up thirteen months in advance(!), too hike the Lower Emerald Pool trail, approximately one mile total, and paved the whole way. The trail keeps going, but due to winter weather and rockfall, the Upper Emerald Pool was off-limits. Still, Lower Emerald Pool was completely worth it.

We’re smiling because one of the prettiest girls in the world asked if we wanted our picture with the falls. Two of the handsomest guys in the world returned the favor a minute later.

We then decided to do the short Grotto Trail that walked along the bus route for about a mile from the Lodge at Stop #5 to Stop #6 [check numbers]. Daniel started getting bored during this hike, but that quickly changed once we saw two mule deer foraging just off the trail. I let him take the camera and get some close-ups, though I think the deer were a little annoyed because they showed him only their derrières.

Daniel and the deer. He’s a regular Jack Hanna.

We hopped back on the shuttle and rode the rest of the way around the park, stopping briefly at Stop #8, called Big Bend, to look around and take photos. We sat in the shadow of Angel’s Landing, looking up at the colossus that we intended to conquer the next day. As we snacked on trail mix, we heard a victorious whoop come from far above. “Someone made it to the top,” I said, explaining the trail to a couple from Pittsburgh nearby.

The Big Bend along the Zion shuttle road.

Angel’s Landing is a four-hour, five-mile trail with a fifteen-hundred-foot ascent. The first half involves climbing up a steep trail that switchbacks up the side of the rock; the second half consists primarily of scrabbling along the “backbone” of the rock formation holding on to heavy-duty chains. Seven people have fallen to their deaths since 2004. And once you get started on the last half, there aren’t too many places where you can decide to go back.

Daniel enjoying Chef Bubba’s gourmet meal after day one of adventuring.

So, the next morning, we grabbed our crampons, just in case, and boarded the shuttle for Angel’s Landing in spite of the severe weather warnings posted at the shuttle stop. Clouds covered the park and it did look a little foreboding, but we (and others) went ahead anyway.

The switchbacks at the first part of Angel’s Landing.

The hike up was indeed intense. For the first time, I felt winded at the higher elevation than I was used to. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and let the burning in our legs subside, but the easiest thing was to simply keep hiking on. Stopping too long, we felt like staying stagnant. We had to keep pressing on.

Looking down the Angel’s Landing trail, just before another switchback carried us up to the chains. We had to put the camera up for that part.

The second half, with the chains, was even more intense. In certain areas, there was only a foot or two between us and empty space, and a thousand-foot drop. It was the equivalent of a one-lane road in that we had to stop and coordinate climbing up with the folks that were climbing down; there were only so many chains to go around. It was also made worse by the wet sand, which caused many slips as our boots lost their grip and became caked with dirt. In many cases, I found it easiest to hold onto the chain and use my upper-body strength to propel myself forward and upward.

Two hours of sleep and still trucking!
The view from 1500 feet up. Note the shuttles on the road.

Finally, we reached the end of the trail, and were rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life. We stopped for at least a half hour just to take it all in, snack, and talk to fellow hikers.

She’s braver than I am.

We encountered a group of Texas A&M Aggies (not to be confused with the Utah State Aggies, whom we also saw plenty of), and they were in the process of “impressing” some midwesterners with their Texas accents. “Do you guys really speak like that?” one girl laughed. “Why, yes ma’am, we do,” an Aggie replied.

“Boy, I tell you hwhat, Bubba,” Daniel said to me in his Big Tex impersonation. That elicited laughter from some other folks nearby.

Achievement unlocked: Angel’s Landing.

After taking pictures, having other people take our picture, and taking pictures of other people, we descended Angel’s Landing. In my opinion, the descent with chains was far tougher than the ascent. With gravity propelling your body forward, it’s tough to maintain your balance, and one misstep could send you dangerously close to the edge. Nevertheless, we made it, and lived to tell the tale.

The red rocks looking towards The Narrows Trail, which we did not hike due to extremely cold water.

Exhausted in a good way, we climbed back onto the shuttle to ride to our campsite. Behind us sat a family speaking in German. Daniel elbowed me: “You should say something to them in German.” So, I turned around, smiled, and did: “Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” Do you come from Germany?

Their faces lit up and we began a conversation in a mix of German and English, before eventually defaulting to English (because Germans like to practice their English when traveling in English-speaking countries). They were taking an extended family vacation around the world, which was culminating in some RV-ing across the American Southwest. We told them we were from Texas and then learned that one of the ladies lived in San Antonio for a while during an internship in college, and she loved Texas. We talked about the differences in culture, travel, and work between our two countries and concluded that white-collar Germans have it better than we white-collar Americans do: Over a month of paid vacation every year, often with the ability to take more with job security. Man.

Clouds rolling in on us in the late afternoon. Storm’s a-comin’.

After hiking Angel’s Landing, we were tired and famished. We knew that sleeping in the truck again was not a good option, and we needed to do something to make sleeping in the tent more comfortable. We drove into Springdale and hit up one of the sporting goods stores for new Therm-a-Rests, which promised comfort and insulation for only $50 apiece. We then stopped at Sol Foods and bought a six-pack of Uinta Golden Spike to reward ourselves for conquering Angel’s Landing, and some real firewood, before heading back to our campsite.

I prepared dinner while Daniel got the fire roaring. We planned to eat, then sip beers and make s’mores. As we finished eating supper, we saw the German lady, Julia, we met on the shuttle walking with her young son. She waved and came over, then told us that her son, Jahale (whose name I hope I spelled correctly—pronounced ya-ha-la, Nordic in origin), wanted to help us build a fire. We gave him some small sticks and helped him throw them on the blaze. I asked him in German if he wanted some s’mores, but Julia told us that he didn’t like marshmallows. He then looked at his mother in surprise: “Mama, sie sprechen Deutsch?” Yes, she told him, they do speak German.

A campfire I dub “the Pard special,” even though I had a lot of input in architecting the thing.

Jahale was one of the cutest, most well-behaved three-year-olds I’d ever seen. He had light blond hair, blue eyes, and high German cheekbones. He stood safely away from the fire and was very careful when pitching sticks into the blaze. He noticed me and Daniel standing with our hands in our jean pockets (as Texans do), and he wanted to stand with his hands in his pockets, too—so Julia showed him how. I told Julia he’d be walking with a little cowboy swagger if he hung around us too long. When she told him it was time to go, he didn’t want to, and insisted on staying. “Bis fünf Minuten?” Julia asked him. Five more minutes? “Nein!” he replied in his high-pitched voice, wearing a contagious smile. “Bis hundert!” One hundred minutes!

Finally, he did get tired and wanted to go back to their RV. We wished them a good night and safe travels—they were heading down to the Grand Canyon, then on to Las Vegas—and hoped we’d see them later on. The fire was reduced to ashes by this point, and the air began to get chillier. We still hadn’t popped open the beer. “We’ll drink ’em tomorrow,” I told Daniel. “I’m ready to bed down for the night.” He agreed. We put the last of the cookware away and hit the hay. Nothing like delayed gratification.

Lying on the new Therm-a-Rest, I could already tell that it was going to be a much better night’s sleep. I replayed the hike of Angel’s Landing and the other events of the day before drifting into dreamland, only occasionally interrupted by the wind and rain that battered our tent as I stayed snug inside the mummy bag.

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