After finishing up some business in Las Vegas it was only a few hours up I-15 to UT 9 and finally Zion National Park. Starting in March regular cars are not allowed to drive into Zion; you have to park somewhere and take the park shuttle. Sadly, a sign near the park entrance said there was no more parking available in the park itself, so I found a spot in Springdale (the town that borders the park) and walked the 1/4 mile to the visitor center. By the time I made it into the park it was already late afternoon so I decided to ride the shuttle bus all the way down Zion Canyon and do the short, easy River Walk hike just to get an overview of the place. The first thing that struck me about Zion, apart from the impossible-to-ignore red walls, is how crazy green everything is. It’s not hard to see why early Mormon settles called this place “Zion” - it really does feel like some sort of sanctuary or garden of Eden. This is especially true down along the Virgin River, where groves of cottonwoods and sun-soaked sandbanks almost force calm upon you.

Zion Canyon and the Virgin River

After a few hours walking in the park it was time to make dinner. I had hoped to spend the night at a trail head on BLM land a few miles outside of town, but arrived to find the parking lot adorned with “no camping” signs. Nuts! With the light dwindling I headed back into Springdale, found a spot on a side street (the only side street?), and just cooked on the side of the road. As I was cooking a cop drove by and dissolved all of the apprehension I had by giving me a friendly wave. Clearly they don’t mind dirtbags in Springdale! I slept in the same location, which happened to be right across from City Hall. The backdrop was a soaring wall of red sandstone, which much make governing this town a real pleasure.

Stars above Springdale Town Hall

The next morning I drove a bit into Zion and parked at the Human History Museum. Originally I did this just so Van Halen wouldn’t be obviously left in the same place day after day, but this decision turned out to have an additional benefit: When the shuttles leave the visitor center they fill up all the seats, but don’t let anyone stand. The result is that in the morning it is common to wait 2 hours to get on a shuttle! Well, at the museum (the second stop) they let passengers stand so I didn’t have to wait at all. Nice! My plan for the day was the hike up to Angels Landing because everyone said I just had to do it and it’s the most popular thing in the park etc. etc. The hike takes visitors up to the top of a big rock spire where they can catch good views up and down the canyon.

Angels Landing

The literature and hype around this hike made it sound much worse than it actually was; it’s really a rather short hike up some steep switchbacks. The last 1/2 mile or so is unique in that it traverses a narrow spine of rock and has a hand chain in some places, which is pretty cool and different, but certainly not the horror show I had been led to expect. All in all I’d say it’s probably a very pleasant trail that traverses some interesting terrain and grants you beautiful views of the valley below. The problem I encountered was its popularity. The trail was absolutely packed with people, and the last bit (with the chains) took forever due bottlenecks and crowds. I felt like I was on the fixed ropes going up Mt. Everest.

The ridge portion of Angels Landing and a line coming up the chains

Still, even the throbbing masses could not take away from the views. From the top of Angels Landing I could see up/down the canyon in both directions and once again the lush river bed was magnificent as it was flanked by walls of red sculpture. It was a view worth savoring, which I did.

Views from Angels Landing

Once I got back down it was only a short shuttle ride to the Court of the Patriarchs, a set of three prominent spires that jut out from the canyon wall and have appropriately biblical names: Abraham, Jacob, and Issac. Interestingly, the three spires most obvious from the canyon floor are not the holy triad mentioned above. In the picture below, the two left-most spires are Abraham and Issac, respectively, but the orange spire on the right is actually Mt. Moroni; Jacob is the white peak behind Moroni. Moroni is, of course, the angel who guided Joseph Smith to the ancient gold plates that were later placed in a hat with a magic stone that allowed Smith to discover and reveal the ideas that would lead to the formation of Mormonism. I’d wager that most visitors confuse Moroni with poor ol’ Jacob. I know I did until I found the one plaque that set the record straight. This is Utah, after all (and southern Utah at that); Mormon influence is everywhere.

The Patriarchs and some asshole angel

After returning from the park I headed to the Springdale library, home of free wifi and comfy chairs, to do some work. After dinner I went to the Zion Canyon Brewing Co. to see if the glorious beauty of the surrounding land translated into tasty beers. Right away I had a problem: in Utah you apparently can’t order beer without also ordering food (wha??). I had already eaten and wasn’t in the mood to spend money on food I didn’t want, but in the end I bit the carrot and ordered a side of pickled vegetables to go along with my beers, which ended up being deliciously forgettable. The bartendress overheard some dirtbag talk and told me about a super posh restaurant in town that has a FREE breakfast buffet from 6:30 to 7 every morning. This news was astounding and seemed worth the $4 I had paid for the pickled veggies.

Gobble gobble

Not surprisingly I was up very early the next morning to fill my belly with free food. Sadly, when I got to the restaurant in question they told me that the free breakfast thing was only for the month of March. So close and yet so far! Well, since I was up anyway, I repeated my trick of parking in the museum parking lot and catching an early shuttle. My goal for the day was to get to Observation Point, which had come at the recommendation of some people I met at the brewery the night before. Unlike Angels Landing this trail was sparsely populated and I was relieved to be the only one departing the shuttle at the trail head. There was a wild turkey there, though.

The map said it was about 8 miles and 5 hours round trip to the rim and back, but I figured I could do better. I busted my ass and 90 minutes later I stood at the top panting but happy, and happily alone. The whole experience of the trail was superior to Angels Landing in every way possible. The trail itself was always interesting and climbed through many different types of terrain on its way to the rim of the canyon. It began by switching up the canyon wall before heading through a slot canyon (Echo Canyon).

Slots in Echo Canyon

After crossing a creek the trail headed out of the main canyon to suddenly reveal a vast expanse of stunning Zion backcountry - imagine the Sierra backcountry, but with less ground and more air. As it continued higher in this landscape the trail became flanked by pine trees who’s intoxicating aroma filled the morning air and my grateful lungs. A return to the main canyon resulted in a few more switches that placed me on top of the rim where the trail was sandy and easy as it poked through a carpet of low scrubs. Finally I reached the overlook where I was rewarded with a view not just down the canyon, but also down onto the top of Angels Landing where I could see swarms of people who perhaps had no idea of the poor choice in trails they had made that morning. I was the only one up there and I spent almost an hour watching the sun move across the canyon, taking pictures, lying around, and just enjoying the combination of solitude and beauty that fills the soul.

Views from Observation Point
A chipmunk ponders greater things

In addition to the one human, I found quite a few animals up here on the rim. The ground was crawling with chipmunks, and just beyond reach huge ravens floated effortlessly above the warming canyon. At one point I caught a chipmunk in a momentary reprieve from the scurrying as he/she looked out over the canyon and perhaps had a fleeting understanding of the vast and wonderful world beyond its burrow and further away than its next meal.

The next day I was sore from the race up to Observation Point so, rather than tackling the canyon walls, I decided the mosey along the canyon floor. To do this I rented a bike and took advantage of a road populated only by the occasional shuttle bus. I started by riding all the way to the Temple of Sinawava (the end of the road) and then slowly making my way back while making good use of the lunch and book I had packed myself. The weather was overcast, warm, and windy; a rather strange combination, but it made decent riding weather and I enjoyed the easy riding on the mostly flat (and empty) road. It was a slow, lazy day, but sometimes that’s just what you want!

Along the Virgin River

My last day in Zion was even lazier. The only hiking I did was a short, interpretive trail just behind the visitor center. Or at least that was the plan until the trail sort of just disappeared and I found myself wandering through sand and scrubs in a small side cirque with my view of the visitor center cut off by a low ridge. I was somewhat astonished to discover that here, a few hundred yards away from the bustling entrance to the park, I found more peace and solitude than I had all week. With no people and no trails I suddenly felt right up against the wildness and solemn beauty that made this canyon so special. Perhaps it is fitting that I finally lost myself in the power of nature by becoming physically lost in a nameless wash. Zion is a great and wonderful park and many of its most alluring features are readily accessible, but this accessibility has maybe led to a dilution of the wonder you feel when standing at the base of a sheer cliff of bright red sandstone. Zion National Park contains many square miles of land that are not in Zion Canyon and I didn’t go there because they are harder to get to. When I return, however, I will seek them out with abandon.


  • All of the trails (at least the ones I was on) in Zion are paved. Even the hard ones. Weird.

  • The locals of Springdale are so over dirtbag/van/tourist people. Not that they aren’t very friendly and welcoming (which they are), but they just don’t care; they’ve seen it all.

  • Goddamn there are a lot of kids in Zion. There’s a reason Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the US, and it ain’t those snazzy clothes.

  • I was shooting the shit with the guy who rented me my bike and he was very impressed that I had heard of, let alone been to, the Valley of the Gods. I arrogantly take this as a sign that my cred goes just a bit deeper than your average dirtbag.



More amazing photos!! “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” Wallace Stegner in The Sound of Mountain Water, 1969.

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