Utah Trip Part 2: In which we become true canyon connoisseurs

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 Bryce Canyon

The weather was cool and breezy when we drove into Bryce Canyon National Park, and residual snow drifts lay in patches of shade along the roadside. I was wearing my trusty estate-sale flannel and an old t-shirt, but I wasn’t cold; the weather felt at odds with the surroundings.

Bryce Canyon (which is not actually a canyon, if you want to get technical) cuts through a more-than-20-mile stretch of Utah ground. The reason Bryce is not a canyon is the method of erosion. True canyons are cut into the ground by the flow of a central stream or river. Bryce, however, was formed by headward erosion, in which the flow of water over a plain and into a depression causes the rim of the depression to recede backwards. One way to think of this is to imagine you’re digging a hole on the beach—as the wave reaches the edge of the hole you dug, it will destabilize the edge, causing it to move back.

 

Bryce Canyon from one of the roadside lookout points

Bryce Canyon from one of the roadside lookout points

The national park is pretty much a driving tour with pullouts at viewpoints that overlook different amphitheaters. We thought about hiking a snow-covered trail paralleled the rim, but it was too muddy and slushy to go far without snow boots. Just looking across the park from the viewpoints was more than enough, though. Rippled, layered columns of red rock called hoodoos lined the canyon like teeth, and snow lay nestled in shadows. It looked so innocent, you’d never guess at its potential as a fierce agent of erosion.

As we drove out, the lure of sparkling snow proved too much for our inner Texan children and we pulled over on the roadside next to a glittering white clearing. We meant to stay for ten minutes, but an hour later we were still there making snow angels, wading knee-deep through fluffy drifts, and throwing snowballs into the air and swiping them into little flurries as they fell.

At some point one of us kicked a drift of snow, and found the crunch it made satisfying and cathartic—perfect for letting our pent-up frustrations from the trip.

“No tomato basil soup!” yelled Evelyn. “Ugh!”

“Being sick!” Eileen added

“Blisters!”

Write here…

Write here…

“Expensive gas!”

“Homework over spring break!”

At 6:30 p.m. we climbed back into the car, soaked to the skin with melted snow and eyes filled with tears of laughter.

 

Zion National Park

By the time we pulled into our Days Inn in Hurricane, Utah, it was dark outside and the nighttime cold was starting to grip us. We had bought little cans of colorful bean salad in Moab, and we ate them with Wheat Thins as we finished up our homework, then passed out.

When the sun rose the next morning, we left our hotel for the park with two huge bottles of water and backpacks full of snacks and sunscreen and joined a queue of cars winding into the valley that is Zion National Park.

Zion made me feel small the same way flying in airplanes makes me feel small. The park is set up the same way Yosemite is—the visitor’s center is at the mouth of a huge valley, and hikes in the interior either involve trekking alongside the Virgin River in the middle or climbing steep trails up the sides of the canyon.

 

The squiggly part of West Rim trail leading up to Angels Landing

The squiggly part of West Rim trail leading up to Angels Landing

The sun in the valley beat down intensely on one side of the cliffs, but in the shadow of the rocks the shade was deep and cool. We started hiking at 12 when the sun was high in the sky, and we weren’t even a quarter of the way up before we had stripped off all our layers and were stopping every five minutes for water breaks.

Angels Landing is a viewpoint at the top of a gargantuan ridge of rock. The trail up to the top starts out hard and only gets harder. For the first two miles you follow a paved path that wiggles and winds as it ascends almost 1,000 feet, and then levels off at Scout Lookout, where you can see far out over the canyon. Some people stop there, content to take in the view from this safe and accessible resting place. For the more adventurous hikers, however, Scout Lookout is only halfway. From there the trail is no longer paved, but follows a series of narrow ledges up the ridge of the rocky cliff. For most of the way there are chains to hold on to, and drops of over 1000 feet on one side or both sides.

Hikers at Angels Landing weren’t like other hikers I’ve seen—there were people of all types, in all sorts of clothes. Some looked like average college kids like us, hiking the trail for the view and the thrill. Others seemed more like they were doing it because they had something to prove, either to themselves or to the world. Everyone talked to each other and helped one another up the harder parts. Because some parts of the trail were only wide enough for one person, there were several bottleneck spots where we stopped and waited for people going the opposite direction to pass.

 

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The mood was happy and upbeat, and almost everyone we encountered on the way up offered us encouragement and incentive to finish the hike. And when we finished finally, we were so glad we did. The view was amazing, and the top was a paradise of tired but euphoric hikers snacking, taking photos, or just looking out at tiny buses the size of tic-tacs traversing the park roads and the river twisting across the valley floor.

The sun was setting behind the cliff walls by the time we finally finished climbing down to the trailhead again. Wherever the sun hit, the walls were a beautiful red-gold, and the yellow and green trees by the river glowed in the light. Our bodies felt loose and tired, and we were so happy as we drove back into town for dinner. Juicy Portobello burgers and golden, foamy beer had never tasted so good.

 

Rock spiraea clinging to the cliff walls at Zion

Rock spiraea clinging to the cliff walls at Zion

Budding trees lining the banks of the Virgin River

Budding trees lining the banks of the Virgin River

Post-Angels Landing

Post-Angels Landing

Galls?

Galls?

Aboard one of the shuttles through the park

Aboard one of the shuttles through the park

A waterfall at Upper Emerald Pool (another Zion trail we hiked)

A waterfall at Upper Emerald Pool (another Zion trail we hiked)

Orange water at Upper Emerald Pool

Orange water at Upper Emerald Pool

Six feet, 1500 feet above the ground

Six feet, 1500 feet above the ground

 

 

Utah Trip Part 1: In which we storm out of a restaurant and hike ten miles through red rocks

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Driving through New Mexico

We stumbled into a restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico the way a lost traveler crawls to an oasis in the desert. It felt like we had been driving for several days and nights. In reality it had been about 6 hours, but New Mexico has a way of stretching time so that you feel like you’ve been there an eternity.

The restaurant was a promising oasis. A live band played in the corner, and the menu boasted several vegetarian options. Warm yellow light glowed from the windows.

The cashier looked on as we debated the relative merits of ordering a bowl of tomato basil soup or a sandwich with pesto. We decided on half of each.

“We’ll have the veggie Panini and the tomato basil soup.”

“Oh, sorry, we can’t make that sandwich.”

We reconvened, deciding finally on another sandwich with the coveted pesto.

“We’ll have the Mediterranean melt, and a cup of soup.”

“Oh, are you looking for something with the pesto? That’s what we’re out of.”

Again we put our heads together. If we couldn’t have pesto at least we could still have the soup, and then just settle for a salad. Again, we stepped up to order. The cashier smirked at us from behind the register.

“Okay, we’ll have the tomato basil soup and a Caesar salad.”

“We can only make the house salad, is that okay?”

It was okay with us. We just wanted food as soon as possible.

“Sure, we’ll have the house salad and tomato basil soup.”

“We’re actually out of the tomato basil soup.”

We walked out.

 

Arches National Park

Finally, twenty minutes past midnight, we pulled into our tiny campsite and got ready for bed as fast as we could. Right before we went to sleep, we heard a knock at the door. A voice came through the window.

“It’s okay, it’s just the girl next door.”

Her name was Jay, and she just wanted to know the wifi password but she stayed and talked for a while. She recommended us a trail to hike the next day, and told us about her experiences at the park.

“I came here last year,” she said. “I was tent camping, and I meant to stay two weeks but I ended up staying five.”

Somehow having five spare weeks to spend in a national park didn’t mesh with our perception of adult life. What did this woman do for a living? We resolved to talk to her and find out the next day when it wasn’t 1:00 a.m. and we weren’t dog-tired. We didn’t see her again the next day, though.

We woke up at 8 the next morning and got ready for the day hike Jay had suggested.

Landscape Arch from the trail

Landscape Arch from the trail

We had been on the trail for maybe ten minutes when we came upon Landscape Arch, which definitely looks like it should not be standing. The sign near it described the last flaking event, where a huge chunk of the bottom of the arch fell, leaving it thinner and more improbable-looking than ever. Probably the holes in the sandstone had become saturated with water, the sign said, and the added weight caused the massive flake to crash to the ground. The flake story made me think about how someday the entire arch will collapse, and grateful that I got to see it.

After Landscape Arch the trail began to live up to it’s “difficult” rating; we scaled a huge fin of rock which jutted from the ground to a dizzying height, then followed stacked cairns along a narrow ridge and out over Fin Canyon. Beyond the canyon there was a wide grassland and the sugarcoated ridge of a mountain range. Little crispy dried flowers grew from tufts of white leaves on the sandy ground, and gnarled cedars twisted towards the sun with less and less success the higher up in elevation they grew.

When our comments on the landscape became increasingly food-related (i.e. “Wow, don’t those fins look like loaves of bread?”) we stopped under a pine tree and ate our avocado cheese sandwiches before continuing on our hike.

The trail led us past two more arches, each carved into the rock in improbable ways. Double O Arch was two holes in one huge slab of rock, both of which framed the landscape beyond. The last arch we saw on the way back was called Private Arch, and we had to trek back half a mile from the main trail, but it was so worth it. It hid behind two other fins, nestled in a nook that blocked all sound, even birds. It was so quiet that I could hear the hum that creeps in when there is nothing else to hear.

 

The upper arch in Double O Arch

The upper arch in Double O Arch

We finished the 7-mile hike at 4 p.m. and took a quick water break before our last adventure of the day. We were rested up by 5, and as the sun sank behind the mountains, we climbed up to Utah’s poster child, the Delicate Arch. Its lopsided shape adorns license plates, postcards, and pretty much every kitschy travel mug Utah offers, and we were appropriately excited.

The hike up to the arch was a strenuous uphill trek, made harder by the fading light, but the steady stream of people kept us on the right trail. As we neared the top of the rocky hills we were climbing, the crowd got thicker, and finally we crested the rock at the top and say the arch. It sat alone in a wide amphitheater of rock, silhouetted against a view of the plateau beyond. It seemed almost too perfect to exist. Along the walls of the amphitheater, photographers crouched every few feet, cameras poised and ready in a forest of tripods.

 

Photographers and tourists overlook Delicate Arch

Photographers and tourists overlook Delicate Arch

The saddest part of Delicate Arch came at the most beautiful time: when the setting sun fell on the face of the rock, painting it a glowing golden red. The people taking pictures near the arch were walking in for photos, when all of a sudden deafening shouts rained from all sides of the amphitheater. “Get away! Move! You had your chance for photos! Hey, red backpack, GET OUT!” It reminded me of a gladiator ring, the rabid crowd screaming down at the tiny people in the center. The little foreign woman with the red backpack shuffled away from the arch.

Tourists scared back from the arch by booing photographers

Tourists scared back from the arch by booing photographers

I’m a little conflicted about the yelling, because I know the tiny posing figures would have marred a flawless photography opportunity, but all I could think about was how their perception of this natural wonder would be colored by the rudeness they had experienced there.

Delicate Arch was beautiful, but somehow it felt off to me. The photo I Instagrammed showed me sitting in front of it, looking out as the sun fell on its curved shape. No one else was in the frame—no hint of the clamoring audience or the hapless tourists on all sides. But that wasn’t really what it was like at all.

 

The photo I instagrammed from Delicate Arch

The photo I instagrammed from Delicate Arch

The next morning we climbed to the Windows arches for sunrise, but when the sun rose over the mountains, it was sucked up immediately by a thick blanket of clouds. Still, the dawn light lit the plains and we saw two jackrabbits and everything glowed.