Sunday, 29 June 2014

Zion National Park

Since leaving Phoenix, we had ascended over two kilometres in altitude, but on leaving the Grand Canyon, it was our turn to descend again, losing a kilometre over the short drive to Zion National Park. We stocked up with supplies at Kanab, before entering Zion at the east entrance. At the Grand Canyon we’d bought an annual parks pass, entitling us to free entry to all national parks and monuments. The pass gave us free entry to Zion, but being too wide and too tall to pass through the Mount Carmel tunnel at the same time as oncoming traffic we were forced to pay $15 for the privilege of having a ranger temporarily halt traffic coming from the other direction.

There are few trailheads or parking spaces on the east side of the park, and so we drove west from the entrance gate, passing through both tunnels. A lot of fuss is made in the promotional material for Zion about the astonishing engineering feet in constructing the tunnel, and the unique experience of driving through such a tunnel. For anyone who has driven through the Alps, the tunnels in Zion are a major let down. The Mont Blanc tunnel, through the French Alps, is more than eight times longer than the longer of the two in Zion, and the tunnels around Lake Garda in northern Italy are certainly more than eight times more scenic (scientifically proven). Nevertheless, the scenery along the Zion Mount Carmel Highway is breathtaking, and while one can see the Grand Canyon approaching from several miles away, the dramatic canyons of Zion appear out of nowhere.

Stopping at a scenic view point, we met a guy from Colorado who was canyoneering with his two children. He who was generous enough to offer us his paid-for campsite for the night, and so we drove to the Watchman Campground where we spent the night. The Watchman Campground is booked by advance reservation only, and like the Grand Canyon, gets booked up several ahead. In the morning we moved to a shady riverside spot at the first-come-first-served South Campground; a system better suited to people like us don’t know where we’ll be in 10 minutes time and can’t book a campsite months in advance.

In the four days that we stayed at Zion, we did a lot of hiking, and enjoyed every moment. Whilst it is largely the views which make hiking elsewhere worthwhile, at Zion, the trails themselves are part of the excitement. In particular, the last half mile of the Angels Landing trail, which takes you along a narrow ridge with 1,500 feet drops on either side. Angels Landing gives you the chance to experience something which normally requires climbing experience and a lot of equipment, and it is unusual to find a park which is willing to open up such a dangerous route to the public. What is more remarkable is that the park continues to keep the trail open, despite a number of recent fatalities; this in sharp contrast to other parks which won’t let you enjoy a viewpoint without handrails, a safety harness, a working at height certificate, and a pre-prepared risk assessment and method statement report.

We also enjoyed walking The Narrows, a trail which takes you in and alongside the Virgin River, through a narrow canyon hundreds of feet high, often in waste deep water.

On our last night at the South Campground, we were able to repay the good karma we had gained on our first night, when a group of teenagers turned up with no reservation and no free campsites. The site we had parked on was huge, and we invited them to set up their tents on the other side of the pitch.

When we had done all the hiking we could manage, we drove out of the park, and headed north up the Kolob Terrace Road to a more remote part of Zion not accessible from the main roads through the park. The road climbs steadily as you head deeper into the park, leaving the red canyon walls behind and passing through notably different terrain. We enjoyed a day of gentle hiking, before driving out of the park and spending the night at Kolob Reservoir.

The tarmac section of Kolob Terrace Road ends just before the reservoir, and in the morning we continued up the dusty gravel road. The road continues to meet Utah 14, but we were short on diesel, food, and clean clothes, and so we took a chance on side road which leads more directly into the town of Cedar City. We ended up on the magnificently scenic Kanarraville Mountain Road, a narrow dirt road which winds several thousand feet down into the valley below, joining the interstate a few miles from Cedar City.

We spent an afternoon and night in Cedar City, stocking up on supplies and stealing the Wi-Fi from another generous chain store, before heading east on Utah 14, in the direction of Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon.

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