Hiking the Utah National Parks

By Dom Nozzi

It is late at night on Wednesday, March 25th, 2015, and I’m driving my Florida adventure buddy and I from the Salt Lake International Airport south on the infamous Interstate 15 in the middle of the Salt Lake City metro area. Infamous because I-15 is what appears to be 12 lanes of superhighway in each direction (with construction suggesting the state Dept of Transportation is building even MORE lanes), and one drives for 40 to 60 miles of screaming agony and high anxiety through awful strip commercial entropy, and hostile, high-speed, randomly-lane-changing motorists – undoubtedly driving so fast in part to minimize the time they spend in such a depressing nowhere place.

Shockingly, this monster highway is filled with cars. At 10:30 pm. It appears that due to the tragedy of spending billions to require nearly all trips in this region to be forced onto this soul-crushing freeway, Salt Lake City’s signature nightmare road is now delivering 24/7 rush hour traffic.

The next morning, the day starts poorly, as our plan to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument (a place we had not heard of previously) is thwarted by the fact that access roads to the park are inexplicably closed.

Instead, Plan B finds us briefly hiking northern Zion National Park. We follow this by hiking one of the most stunning – and most scary – hikes in the National Park system: Angels Landing.

Angels Landing is a somewhat terrifying, very narrow trail. A number of times on this trail, the tread narrows to a razor-sharp 12 inches wide with 1,000-foot cliff drops on both sides. This necessitates the National Park Service installing long stretches of stainless steel chains that we are obligated to hold onto for dear life.

I am feeling a great deal of anxiety and must regularly fight the sensation of vertigo. Quite thankful for the chain.Angel's Landing hike Zion NP March 26, 2015 (41)

Views on both sides of us, as we ascend the trail, are spectacular. We soon arrive at switchbacks, which allow us to ascend a very steep section. One set of switchbacks is called Walter’s Wiggle.

Here are the photos I shot when hiking to the summit of Angels Landing.

Zion National Park, on the day we are there, is packed with tourists.

The following day promises to be epic. Today we are to hike The Narrows. For over ten years, this hike has been near the top of my bucket list, after hearing from a sister-in-law that it is a MUST hike. We have worked to figure out the gear we will need: waders? Neoprene socks? Wetsuit? Waterproof boots? Having appropriate gear turns out to be especially important, as we learn on the morning of our arrival at the shuttle access point that the water is running at an icy 41 degrees. Yikes.

I have brought along a full wetsuit. Water/boat shoes. Neoprene sox. Daypack with hydration system and food. My buddy has not brought anything appropriate from Florida, so ends up renting waterproof hiking boots and neoprene socks. He wears shorts instead of waders or wetsuit, which shocks me. And many other hikers later in the day, who repeatedly ask him if he is not numb cold. He ends the day saying he was fine.

Unlike most hikers, we opt not to use a walking stick.

Much of the many miles we hike from bottom trailhead has us in ankle-deep to calf-deep water on sand and softball-sized rocks. Periodically, we are able to walk on dry sand, as the river is a bit below normal height.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe slot canyons of The Narrows are simply stunning. Jaw dropping. I cannot stop taking photos of the sheer, wavy, colorful rock walls soaring hundreds of feet above us on both sides. The beauty is hard to describe. Unlike anything I’ve experienced previously.

Oftentimes, it seems as if we are walking in the American version of ancient Rome, as the rock walls around us reminds me of the marble walls and arcades and columns found in that ancient city.

The current in the river was rather swift, which regularly tested our balancing skills as we worked to cross it several times without a hike-ending fall into the ice water.

At one point, we take a branching slot canyon off the main canyon. The slot is much more narrow, and after a few miles we reach a shoulder-deep pond. Of a group of hikers stopped at this point, I am the only one to be able to cross the pond, because I zip up my full wetsuit and wade across. We end up turning around here and returning to the main canyon, where we stop for lunch before continuing on.

I have hiked a great many spectacular hikes around the world in my life, and yet would place this hike in my Top Three all-time best hikes.

Unfortunately, I had not really used the water/boat shoes before The Narrows, and learn – to my great dismay – that the shoes were extremely inadequate. No sturdy leather soles or other support. Just a thin layer of very pliable rubber. After several hours of walking over rocks in The Narrows, my feet are extremely painful and numb. I need to remove the shoes and walk barefoot along the paved path back to the shuttle.

Here are the photos I shot during my exploration of The Narrows.

Like the other mornings, the next morning starts out with bright blue skies and sun. Precisely the sky we want for our next destination: Bryce National Park. Spectacular rock formations. Navajo Trail and Peekaboo Trail Bryce Canyon March 28, 2015 (74)Unimaginably colorful and vibrant orange colors. Hoodoos everywhere. At the end of an incredible day of hiking the stunning canyon trails, our thirst brings us to a grocery store. I am in search of one of Utah’s trademark microbeers: Polygamy Porter (Motto on label: “Why Have Just One”). Unfortunately, they are sold out of Polygamy Porter, so I opt for something similarly amusing: 4-Play Porter. We end up at Sunset Point on the Rim Trail. Here, a large number of people have assembled with extremely expensive cameras to shoot photos of the fantastic flat light of sunset playing on the canyon formations.

Because alcohol is strictly prohibited at a national park, and because such patronizing rules never stopped us, we hit on a way to enjoy the sunset with our beer: We pour our beers into our canteens. No one suspects a thing…

Bryce is exceptionally photogenic. Here are the photos I shot while hiking Bryce Canyon.

On Sunday the 29th, we find ourselves at the Grand Staircase National Monument. We opt for a hike on the Escalante River trail.

This hike teaches me that my buddy and I have different hiking philosophies: I am here to experience the geology, which is easily enjoyed on the trail. He is here to experience the biology, so he opts to hike in the sandy river.

Grand Staircase National Monument Escalante River, March 29, 2015 (22). Natural Bridge.After a few hours, we have lost track of each other (and have neglected to agree to a plan if we are separated). I stop for a leisurely lunch at the impressive Natural Bridge along the river. Expecting to find him coming up the river when I start heading back down the river, we don’t cross each other.

I stumble upon his hiking boots, which he had taken off and planned to return to after his hike. Here I wait – knowing that he will be obligated to return to retrieve the boots.

I wait for 4.5 hours.

I give up on him and head back to the trailhead. My plan is to call emergency rescue, but just before I do, I hear a report from a few hikers that they have spotted a hiker who fits the description of my buddy. I am relieved that he is still alive.

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Escalante River.

On our way to this region, we are puzzled by our Delormes map, which shows a town named “Ruby’s Inn.” Why would a town be named after a motel?

Later that night at a restaurant, we learn why. Long ago, a family had settled in the area and established a motel called “Ruby’s Inn.” They ended up building an empire complex of restaurants, stores, gas stations, and offices – what ended up amounting to nearly a full set of town elements. We are informed that like the TV show “Bonanza, Ruby’s Inn was started by a family somewhat like the Cartwrights in the TV show. But the Ruby’s Inn family ended up being “the Cartwrights Gone Bad.”

Our last day featured relatively short hikes, but the first hike on this day is a hike for the ages. A peak experience hike. On the strong, enthusiastic advice of a Grand Staircase National Park Service ranger, we warily opt for starting the day by hiking Spooky Gulch, Peekaboo Gulch, and Dry Wash slot canyons. We are wary for two reasons. First, we are informed that the access road is up to 45 minutes of driving (each way) on a washboard dirt road. Second, we are told that the Spooky Gulch slot is often so narrow (as narrow as 10 inches) and its walls so tall that it can induce claustrophobia (hence the name of the slot).

These three relatively short trails are part of a loop (which I greatly prefer, as I dislike backtracking). We unknowingly start our hike at the Spooky Gulch entrance, as the Peekaboo entrance seems slowed by a family of parents and young children. “Unknowingly” because we are about to learn that this counterclockwise direction requires a serious test of our free climbing skills.

Spooky Gulch is otherworldly. Surreal. Spectacular in golden colors and smooth, wavy, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsunsplashed rock walls and white sandy floor. As advertised, we regularly found ourselves squeezing through slots no wider than 10 inches. Indeed, it was common for us to have to remove our backpacks to fit through, and it seemed to me that anyone even a few pounds heavier than I could not push their way through the tight gaps.

The curving, rounded walls appear to be waves of water frozen in a large pipe.

We unexpectedly arrive at a long rock chimney above us. We had not heard or read anything about it. We spend about 20 minutes closely inspecting the rock faces and evaluating whether it is possible to ascend without ropes or other climbing gear. Finally, we spot a solution. There is a very thin foothold about chest high on the wall, and a reachable hand hold that is just barely reachable above the foothold. Mike ascends slowly while I hold his backpack. After several careful minutes of free climbing, he finally shimmies his way through the chimney. I hand him both his pack and mine, and I repeat what he has done.

Clearly, our counterclockwise direction makes for a much more challenging hike through Spooky.

There were hikers going the same direction we were going, and we could see that they would CLEARLY be incapable of ascending this rather technical free climb up the chimney. We stopped and waited at the top of the chimney to listen to their voices below — so that we could hear comments about what they would do – knowing they would have to turn back.

Hikers coming clockwise would have it much easier, as they are simply needing to slowly slide DOWN the chimney.

While the dusty, bumpy access road was a tough slog of over 80 minutes of driving, the slots we experienced behind us made the demanding ride well worth it. One important benefit of the washboard access: It tends to discourage less serious hikers from using the trail…

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Spooky, Peekaboo, and Dry Wash slot canyons.

We end the day by arriving at Capitol Reef National Park – yet another national park we had not previously heard of. The name derives from the fact that the rock formations on canyon walls here appear to be coral reef formations.

Because of the lateness in the day, we take a ranger’s advice to hike the Sulfur Creek trail – a trail I had previously seen was highly rated on the Internet.

I scramble up a slightly rounded canyon wall to get large views of the horizon, while Mike remains along and in the creek. On descending back to the creek and trail, I come upon Mike carefully trying to figure out a way to get across a very slick, tricky waterfall crossing.

We spend about 30 minutes trying to decide if there is a reasonably safe way to cross. We are standing on a narrow lip on a rock wall next to the falls. To get close enough to the falls to have a Mike Byerly at Sulfur Creek waterfall, Capitol Reef NP, March 30, 2015 (60)chance to leap over would require us to somehow use very thin hand holds far above us and inch along a very steep, smooth, slippery rock face. See photo to left.

This seems to iffy to me. I propose to make a running leap over the falls (instead of using the hand hold/inching method). I am confident that my momentum and my history as an all-county triple jumper in high school will allow me to do this successfully.

But in the end, we decide it is not worth the risk. The payoff rewards in front of us on the trail are not high enough for us to take the chance. This is a historic moment, as in the past, whenever I faced a risky maneuver in the outdoors, I would always tell my companion that “if Mike was with me, I would do this.” I say this because Mike and I invariably WOULD do what it takes.

Risk never stopped us.

But this time, for the first time, it does. But we know how we can do it next time we are here. We know what we will need to be wearing for footgear and other clothing.

Our unforgettable, peak-experience week of hiking the Utah National Park concludes by our battling the 16-lane SUPERHIGHWAY SPRAWL of Salt Lake City.

After checking and turning down several hotels near our airport (due to high cost), we finally find one that is somewhat reasonably priced.

Dinner tonight (at an Applebees, which has a sign on its wall that inappropriately calls itself a “neighborhood restaurant”) is at 11:30 pm.

Latest dinner I have ever had.

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Categories: 2011-Present, Hiking, Utah | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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