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ADVENTURE 28: Crowds: Yea or Nay (Zion NP)

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Saturday, 17 September 2022, Hurricane UT

"Good morning, Mr. Hanket, from the Improbable Mission Force. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to visit a park in the cross-hairs of the overcrowding epidemic, to see how the throngs of people affect the National Park experience."

Mission accepted! The ranger yesterday said that if we drove into the park by 8:30, we should have no problems parking. We joined the line at the entrance station by 8:20, and though it took more than ten minutes to get through the line, we still had a choice of spots in the (free) parking lot. So far, so good.

A final check of the weather forecast - no showers expected! - gave me the green light for The Narrows. (Bill opted out of this hike - he'd never learned to swim, and chose to stay on dry land.) Time to take the shuttle to the far end of the road.

A note on The Narrows: I had hiked the lower portion of this canyon on many earlier trips, but in the late 80s, I joined friends in hiking the entire canyon (a 16-mile, overnight journey). Weighed down with backpacks, the six of us took a shuttle to Chamberlain's Ranch above the canyon, and followed the river down. The first day began with an occasional river crossing as it flowed across the plateau, then regular wades as we dropped into the canyon.

From the time we started, to our night on a sliver of land, and through half the following day, we saw no other hikers. (After splitting into hiking pairs, Tim & I rarely saw even the other four in our group.)

Total solitude, with a canyon shrinking to 20'-30' wide, and walls soaring a thousand feet above us.

That remains one of the four most moving and challenging experiences I have had in a National Park. Unfortunately, I expected only a glimpse of that majesty today, and none of the solitude. (I dream of returning on a future trip to relive that adventure.)

The shuttle dropped us off at the Temple of Sinawava. From here, a paved trail led up the canyon as it narrowed. The trail ended in only a mile, where the canyon tightened. Further travel required getting my feet wet. I slipped off my tennis shoes in favor of kayaking shoes - the park urges closed-toe shoes, not sandals or flip-flops (though some hikers disregarded that advice) - and stepped into the water.

With much of the canyon in shade (except near noon, when the sun soars in the sky), the air and water stayed cool. My feet adjusted to the chill immediately, and I had no issue with the temperature. Luckily, the water never got higher than my knees on the way upriver - having wet clothing would make a difference.

(On my long-ago trip, one spot required me to swim a short distance. Shortly after I began shivering uncontrollably, and had to change into dry clothing from my backpack [everything wrapped in plastic bags] to ward off hypothermia.)

The shuttle driver had announced that the river was flowing at 45 CFS - "That's hard enough to feel the current, but not enough to knock you over." At this point, I viewed the crowds as a plus - I could see the paths others took crossing the river, and use it as a guideline. Often, though, I would ignore it and plot my own course. With no trail, you're free to go anywhere!

You don't stay in the river long - you find a dry shelf on the opposite side, and cross to it. Of course, you also don't stay on dry land long, as many shelves end quickly. Quickly you find the benefit of using hiking poles - it gives you stability in the river to push against the current, and to keep your balance as your feet look for purchase on the slippery, invisible rocks.

It amazed me to see the number of people - maybe a third of them? - not using poles. One couple even trudged upstream with no poles and barefoot.

People of all ages worked their way up the river - families, teenagers, seniors. The terrain danced around us - river, cliffs, trees reaching for the light, water seeping out of the stone. I chatted with a few hikers who were seeing The Narrows for the their first time. All of them expressed awe and wonder at this incredible spot.

We'd heard about the hiker who'd drowned during a flash flood here a few weeks ago. Now I could see the remains of that flood. At one bend of the river, logs and branches cluttered along the outside bend of the curve, lying where the waters had dropped them.

What power the waters contained to uproot that collection of timber!

I allotted myself over an hour to work my way upriver. At no point was I alone, constantly in sight of the crowds plying the river. I played hopscotch with several people, passing them, them passing me. I saw one middle-aged man with Polynesian features several times: he had no poles, but dragged a half-full duffel bag (with a 'New Zealand Rugby' logo on it) up-river with him. On my way back, I found out what he lugged along. He now lounged in a hammock stretched between two trees, listening to tunes on his boom box.

After 75 minutes - not enough time to reach Big Springs, a river junction - I reluctantly turned back. Time to see if I could escape the crowds! I turned on my GoPro for much of the return, capturing the adventure.

The sun had risen further, and some of the shaded sections I hiked now had light streaming in. All told, the hike exceeded my (scaled-back) expectations.

Reunited with Bill, we took the shuttle back one stop to Big Bend.

No one else debarked with us. In fact, this is the only stop on the shuttle guide which does not list a trail or attraction. A covered bus stop and a sign saying 'river access' greeted us, and little else.

We followed the sign, and quickly found ourselves out of sight of the road. The path meandered through trees and grasses along the waterway, with towering rock cliffs surrounding us. Though the trail petered out in under a mile, the scenery would make it a star in most places. Here, we had it to ourselves.

Now to shuttle stop 4, the Court of the Patriarchs. This refers to three mounts named Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob. A two-minute hike brought us to a viewpoint displaying these rocks dominating the canyon.

Most people catch the view and move on; Bill and I wandered onto the Sand Bench Trail and headed back to the river.

Unlike at Big Bend, we did see a couple of hikers here, and the trail spilled into a trail used by horse trains (and one had just arrived). Before moving on, I snapped a photo of a distinctive white flower, and asked after it at the Visitor Center. The story: Angel's Trumpet may look beautiful, but all parts of it are poisonous - and some people ingest small portions as a hallucinogen. Not gonna happen here!

That concluded our tour of the crowded Virgin River Canyon. That didn't exhaust Zion's offerings, though. A 30-mile, 45-minute drive from the Visitor Center took us through layers of red cliffs to the Kolob Terrace.

The road darted in and out of Zion's boundaries before turning east and plunging back into the park. At the trailhead, we noted a half-dozen cars. Since we did not see hikers returning on the trail, we assumed they had backpacked into the wilderness.

Another easy hike through an aspen and conifer forest awaited us -

just over four miles round-trip with only 100' elevation gain. Given the time (4:30) and the higher elevation, cooler air made for a comfortable hike. I took several photographs for a few inspigraphs I'm working on (I hope to post them soon) as we took the trail branch to the Northgate Peaks viewpoint. Fluffy clouds scudded across the blue sky, and we startled a couple of deer grazing in the meadow.

As we neared the end, the sides of the terrace fell away, revealing more of the rocky contours of the park. Far in the distance, we could make out features of Zion's main canyon.

(Intrepid hikers can take trails through the wilderness all the way to the main part of the park.) I spied one hiker who'd found a wonderful vantage point to practice this artistry (or his napping - hard to tell from a distance).

Though we did see five or six other hikers coming in as we hiked out, we never felt crowded. The mission had succeeded: even in these days of crowds, one can still find a quality experience here in Canyon Country.

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