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.
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
“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 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.
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.