After leaving Capitol Reef, we headed towards Zion. Last year, on my drive out west, I had planned to do one hike in Zion, but, in the end, I didn’t have the time. I reached Zion last year via Highway 9. That drive is a destination in and of itself. It is scenic. It can be one to fray the nerves in a couple of locations if you have an issue with heights with its steep drop-offs on both sides of the road and little shoulder and no guardrails. It winds through Escalante during this stretch, so the tendency to want to gape at the scenery does battle with the reality that veering a little too far off course could turn out badly. It is fortunate that there are plenty of turnouts. It is a slow-going drive, so by the time I got to Zion, it was getting too late in the day to stop. And then it was summer, which meant throngs of tourists winding their way through the park. Bumper-to-bumper traffic and no opportunity to even pull off for pics because all of the turnouts were occupied. It was frustrating. So, I was happy to be returning this fall. I was glad for the chance to see Zion.
We did not take Highway 9 to get there this year. We had driven a portion of that road, including the spectacular section through Escalante, on a separate day and hiked a trail along the length of a canyon to a beautiful waterfall: Lower Calf Creek Falls. I did not want to drive Knight on Highway 9. Maybe I’m a bit of a wimp, but the steep sections are very steep for his old bones and he is big enough that the outside curves with steep drop-offs would have been a bit uncomfortable. We went a different route and stayed for a few nights along the way in a campground near Kanab that was situated on a Paiute Indian Reservation against a backdrop of red rock perched at the edge of a high plain. The stay there was restful. Peaceful. Even the cats were chill and at ease. We made friends with our neighbors at the end of our stay there. It turns out that they are also full-timing it on the road with their baby and their dog. A casual greeting one afternoon turned into an hours-long conversation sitting between our two campers. The conversation was wide-ranging and easy, in spite of some differences in perspective on some big topics.
We said goodbye to our neighbors and made our way to Zion. We were staying in the National Park this time. I was fortunate to be able to string together a total of three camp spots to stay for five nights. It felt special to be staying inside the park. The campground was booked until the end of November, so scoring a spot was sheer luck. And for five nights at that. We stayed in the Watchman’s campground, with a view of the Watchman right out our door and a trail of the same name leaving from the nearby Visitor’s Center. I hiked that one the first day. It was a weekend and I wanted to avoid the crowds as much as possible for the two hikes I was really looking forward to: Observation Point and The Narrows. Zion is beautiful this time of year, without the bumper-to-bumper traffic. And we seem to be chasing fall these past two months. I continue to be amazed at the color I am seeing and realizing how wrong my preconceived notions have been about fall colors in the west, generally, and in the desert, specifically. That’s what happens, I guess, from only seeing this part of the country in summer or winter, and from making a judgment based on what I imagined this region to be without knowing it beyond two seasons. What a happy surprise at how wrong I’ve been!
I had been reading reviews and planning for two good hikes in Zion, with a couple of the smaller ones leading up to those two hikes. I knew I wanted to do the Narrows, if possible. But I toyed with the decision between Angel’s Landing and Observation Point. Angel’s Landing spoke to the side of me that likes to push my boundaries a bit. The side of me who likes the idea of doing something a little scary. I am by no means an adrenaline junkie. Not at all. But I loved the idea of a hike that would challenge my comfort with heights. I don’t mind heights too much. I like high places when I feel safe, when I have something to ground me. I am not one to want to stand on a narrow precipice with only my balance to keep me on top. But I love the view from up high. I love seeing into the distance, into infinity, and all that is between where I stand and there. All I need to feel grounded is something solid to put a hand on, to hold on to. If there were chains or ropes all the way up, I’d be good. Because there are places where the path drops off on both sides. One side might be doable. Two sides is very questionable unless there is a rope or chain. Angel’s Landing has this for at least part of the journey. I was intrigued. I wondered if I could do it without chickening out along the way. A big strike against Angel’s Landing, however, is the sheer number of people who make that climb. It can be a traffic jam in precarious positions. That did not sound like my idea of fun. It is one thing if I have to worry about my own self freaking out, and quite another if I then also have to worry about others as well.
Observation Point, on the other hand, is not supposed to be as busy and you do not get two-sided drop-offs. Just one side, with a path that is generally not too narrow. I’m good with that. Observation Point is also a longer hike by a few miles and has a view from higher up than Angel’s Landing. You look down on Angel’s Landing from Observation Point, and then all the way down the canyon. Those two facts together sold me on Observation Point. I quickly discovered upon heading out that my idea of no crowds did not meet with the reality of what I found on the trail. It was a beautiful fall day in November. It was a weekday, but I still had plenty of company. I had to exchange my idea of solitude for one of camaraderie. Let go of the notion that I’d see few people and have plenty of quiet and the perch at the end nearly to myself. If I hadn’t let go of those ideas, I’d have experienced disappointment at every turn. Sometimes it’s necessary to change your expectations and see an opportunity in a new light.
It so happens that the day I chose to head up to Observation Point was the same day that three groups of, I’d guess, fifth-graders were heading up to Observation Point. Definitely not quiet. Definitely not solitude. But I had to think how great it was that these kids were being exposed to a hike like this, that they had this opportunity. This was more than just a walk in the park. I also had to think, “what brave souls the leaders were to head up with a group of kids (I think about ten in each group) on a hike such as Observation Point. Glad someone was doing it. Glad it wasn’t me. I shared the Point with dozens of adults and all of the kids. And loads of rock squirrels who were doing their damnedest to be as cute and brave as possible to entice us humans into feeding them. Besides the view from up top, one of the most entertaining things about the hour I spent up there was listening to the kids talk about what they were seeing. And then I stayed long enough to see all the kids and several others leave, thereby giving me much more quiet and solitude for the journey down. The trek up to Observation Point was 4 miles up, with over 2000 feet in elevation gain, and then the 4 miles back down. A nice little workout for the lungs and muscles. My legs noticed that they’d worked, in a good way. I love that feeling of tired muscles, and I love being sore, even. You know you did something.
Reaching your destination
After I hiked down, I went to rent my gear for the Narrows. The river was flowing and cold, so I had to have more than just boots and hiking pants. I opted for the canyoning shoes, pants, neoprene socks, and the wooden hiking stick that all came in one package. I could not fathom needing bibs or a waterproof backpack. I’d heard at the beginning of the week that the water was generally no more than mid-calf to knee-high. Of course, the guy I talked to had taken his 6-year-old daughter on the hike and did not go the full length of the 5-mile day hike. I probably should have gone for at least the waterproof pack. On several occasions, I found myself holding my breath, hoping I’d not be in above my waist while raising my backpack as high up on my back as I could. I managed to not get it wet, but one little slip, one little misstep, would have quickly changed that.
I was on the bus heading down the canyon at 8:00 in the morning. A great time to start out. There were few of us heading out at that time, so it was the quiet and almost solitude I had been seeking the previous day. I didn’t think the Narrows would be much of a challenge. It is pretty much flat, after all. I did not count on how rocky it would be nor how high the water would really be. Both ensured that my legs turned to rubber by the end of the day, especially as I did this hike right on the heels of Observation Point, and my knees twinged from the effort of dragging legs through water. But oh, the effort was rewarding. The water was cold. I nearly bit it on more than one occasion, but somehow managed to stay upright. I had the good fortune of being just behind a guy who was from Salt Lake City but spoke with a very southern accent. He was kind enough to wait for me to catch up in order to inform me of spots he discovered were tricky. He took the plunge more than once, and I benefitted from his misfortune. He did, however, think to rent a dry bag, so all his supplies were safe. We hiked in close proximity all the way to the end of the day hike, at Hidden Falls. There is an option to hike from the top of the Narrows down, which is a 16 miler, for which you have to have a shuttle to take you to the trailhead, and you have to get a permit so you can camp halfway down. The day hike up to Hidden Falls is supposed to be 5 miles. With my watch, however, I calculated it to be 6.25 (my watch connects to my phone GPS so is fairly accurate with distance). With all the navigating back and forth across the canyon to pick my way through the challenging course, it is no surprise the hike was quite a bit longer than 5 miles in one direction.
At 5.5 miles, I was ready to give up and turn around. A hard thing for me to do. I am usually not one to give up on reaching a destination or goal (another thing that can be chalked up to stubbornness). But at 5.5 miles, it was getting later in the day, and I wanted to be sure I got back before dark, as I did not bring a headlamp. I thought I’d go just a bit further. If I didn’t see the falls by 5.75 miles, I’d turn back. But just as I reached that point, I came across a couple heading down the canyon. They informed me that the falls were “not much further…just around two or three more bends” and that they were well worth that short a distance after I’d come so far already. Of course, I had to continue. And of course, they were right. I had a nice rock to perch on, pretty little falls, and some food to put into my too empty stomach. I’d snacked along the way, but I am one of those who is always hungry when I hike, and it was way past lunchtime. The young guy I’d been following along with on the hike was already there when I arrived, and he left shortly after I got there to make his way back. I sat alone for a few minutes enjoying the feeling in my rubbery legs, the sound of the water as it flowed over ferns and rocks from a spring within the rock, and the bubbling rush of the river as it whisked by me sitting on my rock. Satisfied with the journey and glad that I did not give in to the desire to turn around before I’d reached my goal, I packed up my pack again, willed my feet and legs to hold me upright, and moving in a forward motion, making my way back the same way I came.
It is a good feeling to know you reached your destination. To feel the effort in your every fiber, the satisfaction deep to the core of you. To know as you pass others that they will be rewarded in the same way when they get there too. But also to be glad that you are on the downside of those efforts, making your way back to a comfortable couch, more food, and a nice, cold beverage…and a really good night’s sleep. When I’d left, there were few of us entering the canyon. When I approached the mile or two nearer the start, it began to get more crowded. By the time I got to the end, I felt like a person who had gone on a long journey to a far-off place, returning to find a different landscape from the one she left, feeling a spectacle for the onlookers to ogle at. A bit of an outsider with those who had no idea what the journey meant and how it alters a person inside. It can feel that way out here, sometimes, too, though there are also plenty who get it. Plenty who share in the journey, even when observing from afar. And a growing number of others who are joining in this journey, for sometimes widely different reasons. I read recently that there are now over 1 million people living on the road.
Let that sink in for a minute. 1 million people, and that number is growing. I see all the time people who are in the planning stages for jumping off into this kind of life. Simplifying. Downsizing dramatically. And preparing to be rubber trampers. I find it interesting that so many people are opting for this life on the road. I find it fascinating that people are turning to a simple life of travel. Trading in consumerist consumption for a different kind of consumption. One of the new experiences and natural spaces. One of closer relationships, with themselves, others, and the natural world. It is a re-tooling of the American Dream, it seems. It harkens back to our nomadic natures, to a time when traveling over the land was just the way humans lived and survived. There are no pre-requisites for who you have to be to live this life, just that you want it enough to make it work. There are people out here with jobs, people out here who make their own jobs on the road, people who are raising their kids and taking their pets (cats, too!). People who plan ahead for a long time to be able to do this, and those who wing it once they are out here. Retirees, middle-agers, and Millennials. It is a curious thing to watch. A curious tide to be a part of. It is one piece of a puzzle of many pieces that have the potential to fit together to create a new framework for our troubled society.