This is our 6th Thanksgiving spent on the road. Every year we try to do something different. There was the Thanksgiving buffet in Las Vegas, Thanksgiving with friends in Las Vegas, Thanksgiving with family in Florida, Thanksgiving in Nashville, Thanksgiving with family in North Carolina, and finally, this year, Thanksgiving with family in Zion. Hmm…I wonder where we’ll be next year?
Our Thanksgiving in Zion National Park this year was low on holiday tradition and high on fun national park adventures. Last year I pushed for a full Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, and while it was delicious, it was also a LOT of work. This year, we passed over spending two days in the kitchen in favor of spending more time outside exploring the park. Our simple Thanksgiving meal consisted of chicken pot pie and pumpkin pie – both homemade of course.
While our holiday meal was delicious, it was hardly the highlight of the week or even the day. What was the highlight? The hiking of course! We thought we had hiked most of the trials in the park already, but I guess not because we managed to hike five new trails plus re-visit a few favorites. Yes, it was a busy week! The hiking extravaganza started with an old favorite — the trail to Observation Point. Hiking this trail has become somewhat of a tradition for us. Even though we’ve already hiked it twice, it’s long been on my list of overall favorite hikes and I really wanted my brother to experience it, so off we went for the third time.
For more photos of the Observation Point trail check out my blog post from the first time we hiked it: Zion N.P. – Hiking to The Top of the World and Other Adventures.
I think the reason I like this trail so much is that it offers tons of variety. There are the steep switchbacks that get the blood pumping in the first 1.5 miles, the cool oasis of Echo Canyon, another mile or so of unrelenting uphill through a little explored section of the park, more switchbacks up the side of a sheer cliff, and the final trek across a flat-topped mesa to the rocky viewpoint. For an 8-mile round trip hike, that’s an astonishing amount of changing terrain and views.
We hiked this trail very early on our first day in the park. It was cold. No scratch that – it was freezing! I hiked about half of it with a jacket, hat & gloves on. The uphill climb warmed me eventually and by the time we got to the top for our traditional photo I had shed a few layers.
The next hike on the list was Angel’s Landing. In the past, we’ve avoided this hike because of the crazy crowds. One year we hiked to the junction of Angel’s Landing and the West Rim trail. The massive amount of people at the bottom of Angel’s Landing was a major turn off and we happily turned in the other direction. This time around we knew it would not be any less busy (holiday week and all that) but decided to go for it anyway. I really wanted to show my brother the most famous trail in the park, and as this will probably be our last visit to Zion for awhile we also wanted to say that we had hiked up the “death-defying trail”.
Once again, we started out very early in an attempt to beat at least some of the crowds. It was an effort that was only partly successful. Peter and Tim made quick work of the first section of switchbacks with me straggling a bit behind as usual.
Walter’s wiggles is a well-known section of this trail. As we zig-zagged up the wiggles Peter commented that the whole thing felt a little silly. I have to agree. I mean yeah, it’s a good way to lessen the difficulty of a steep section, but it also seems like overkill to weave back and forth 21 times to climb up such a sort section. Maybe fewer wiggles would have been more efficient? I guess the novelty is part of the appeal.
At the top of the wiggles, we reached Scout’s Lookout and the intersection of Angel’s Landing and the West Rim trail. Turn left here for a scenic hike up to a wide rim with a handful of other people, or turn right for a half-mile climb up a skinny ridge with masses of hikers, many who are unprepared for hiking in general much less a trail like this (I see you, guy hiking in flip-flops).
We merged into the crowd and started making our way up the ridge. At first, it was very crowded and soooo slow. But after making it past a group of hesitant hikers at the first set of chains we sailed through the middle section and only had to wait for groups of descending hikers a few times.
All three of us agreed that this trail would have been fantastic had we hiked it by ourselves. This is actually my favorite kind of hiking. I like having to use both my hands and feet and find the challenge of scrambling up rocks more enjoyable than simply slogging up a bunch of switchbacks.
We also agreed that this trail wasn’t as scary as advertised. In fact, there was never a point where I felt unsafe or worried (for myself at least, some of the other people on the trail were a whole different story). I am sure my comfort level is directly related all the exposed hiking we’ve done this fall. Yes, there is a 1,000-foot drop off on either side of the trail, but there are also sturdy chains and a well-defined path which is more than we experienced on many of the trails we’ve hiked over the past few months.
At the top, we took in the view, ate some snacks and then went right back down before it got even busier. It was a smart decision because on the way down there was a steady stream of people heading up the trail. We spent a lot of time waiting for groups to climb up and tried our best to be patient with the slow ones.
Now we can say that we hiked the famous Angel’s Landing trail. Check that one off the list. Yes, it was fun and the views at the top awesome, but when Tim declared that it didn’t even make his list of top five hikes for this year I had to agree.
We got back to the campground by early afternoon and after some snacking were soon ready to go out again. This time all five of us piled into the truck and drove over to the east side of the park. The main canyon of Zion tends to be the bigger attraction, but the east side is probably my favorite. The landscape over there is totally different. Dominated by sloping hills of white slickrock adorned with twisted juniper trees and stately hoodoos it’s like a whole different world as compared to the other side. It’s also a great area for spotting bighorn sheep!
We stopped to see the Checkerboard Mesa.
And then managed to squeeze into the small parking lot near the long tunnel so we could hike up the Canyon View Trail.
The next day was Peter’s last day with us so I let him choose the hike. Tim had to work that day so we were on our own. He wisely chose the Separation Peak hike on the east side. Like most of the hikes on the east side of the park, there is no actual trail here, just a wash that you can walk up and then scamper around as you wish.
We made our way up the wash to the base of a giant slickrock mound. Not content to simply look from the bottom we decided to climb up to the top of the Nippetop Peak. This flat-topped mountain of rock has a small, pointy rock formation on the top – hence the name “nippletop”. You can only see it from the road and I forgot to get a photo so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
To get to the top we first had to scramble up a steep ravine. It was difficult in spots, but all the vegetation and jagged rocks provided much assistance. Then we walked across a narrow ridge with awesome views into the main canyon. The final leg was a short, steep exposed climb to the top. Loose sand and rocks made it more challenging than it should have been, but again there were lots of trees and roots to use as handholds.
On the way down Peter admitted that while he enjoyed the other two hikes in the park, this was one was more his style. Yes, I couldn’t agree more! Tim and I have both decided that the non-trail trails are our favorite. We love the challenge and thrill of finding our own route and I can see us seeking out more places where this is possible in the future.
The next day, we said our goodbyes and my mom and Charlie drove Peter to the airport in Vegas. It was a great visit and we left with a loose plan to tackle some overnight backpacking together in the northwest this summer!
Despite the crowds in the park, the shuttle system was only running on Thursday and Friday during Thanksgiving week. As a result, things got so busy that by 9 or 10 each morning on the days it wasn’t running that they had to shut down the main canyon to cars. The overcrowding here is such a shame and I’m not sure there is a solution that will make everyone happy. Instead of fighting the crowds that afternoon we decided to walk over from the campground to the Watchman Trail.
This 3+ mile round trip trail travels up to a viewpoint above the visitor center. It was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday afternoon. I guess everyone else had the same idea about not trying to drive up the canyon.
Once again, on Wednesday morning the main canyon was closed to cars down by 10 am. We briefly discussed driving over to the east side to hike the Many Pools trail (for the third time), but in the end, skipped it in favor of a walk into town. Despite the crazy crowds in Zion, the small entry town of Springdale has managed to remain quaint and unassuming with a noticeable lack of chain businesses. There is an ongoing major road construction project happening that has things torn up and traffic backed up, but it doesn’t diminish the view from town.
Thanksgiving morning we were up and out the door early for more hiking. Despite the fact that we took the shuttle on both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, this was the first day that we had to wait in line. It looks long, but two shuttles with trailers pull up and load at one time so it went very fast. I think we only waited 10 minutes. I enjoy the shuttle for the convenience factor, but after three separate visits and countless shuttle rides, I am pretty tired of hearing the same recorded narration. At this point, I might even have most of it memorized.
The first hike of the day was Hidden Canyon. This is another repeat trail for us. We hiked it back in 2012 during our first visit to the park. At the time it felt like a magical journey that wound up and around a sandstone cliff into a narrow canyon. This time it felt like a short hike into a canyon that ended at a small arch.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a really cool hike, but I guess my perspective has changed because it was more ordinary than magical this time around.
After hiking back down, we boarded the shuttle and road down the canyon to the Zion Lodge for our next hike. The Sand Bluff trail is an 8-mile lollipop-shaped loop. It’s not one you hear much about because from April to October it’s only open to horses. As a result, we thought it might be less busy than the more popular trails. Was it ever! The entire way we only saw a handful of other hikers.
As the name indicates, this trail is very, very sandy. The loop was mainly uphill in both directions (how that is possible I don’t know) and we were slogging through for a few miles. There really is nothing more tiring than hiking uphill through deep sand.
Those views though!
About halfway through the hike, the sky cleared and the sun came out making our already sweet views even sweeter.
By the time Friday rolled around we were more than ready for a day off from hiking. Instead of another early morning, we slept in and hung around our lovely site in the Watchman Campground. We made this reservation many, many months ago and I’m so glad we did. The convenience of staying inside the park instead of driving in every day was really nice. We also liked the campground. The sites are large with lots of vegetation and we had daily visits from the local deer population. Our site was next to the river and while we couldn’t actually see it from our backyard, we could hear the soothing gurgling as it rushed past.
For our final Zion adventure, we decided to hike the other famous trail in the park — the Narrows. Since both of our previous visits have been in the early spring when the narrows hike is closed because of high water it’s never been an option before. This time, we were visiting when the water was at or near its lowest point which made the Narrows hike practically a necessity.
Earlier in the week we had taken the shuttle to the last stop at the Temple of Sinewave and followed the river walk trail to the end. This is where the Narrows hike begins. There is no trail — just a river. At the time we thought maybe we could hike it as a family hike with all five of us. But when we saw people wet up to their knees and realized just how fast the water was rushing we decided to forgo that plan. Nothing against my mom and step-dad but they are just starting to get back into hiking after some time off and I think they would have really struggled. Also, not sure I could have convinced them to get in that really, really cold water!
So we postponed the hike until later in the week when it would just be the two of us. Because we’re not totally crazy, we decided to make the 45-degree water a little less painful by renting special gear. There are several outfitters in town including the Zion Outfitter located right next to the park visitor center. Their river gear options range from tough as nails (just a walking stick please) to all-out wimp (give me the full body suit). We leaned in the wimp direction with waterproof bids, neoprene socks, and special river boots. The stick comes with the package and was probably the most useful. There were times several times when I probably would have fallen in and been swept downstream had it not been for that trusty stick.
We rented the gear the day before so we could get to the shuttle early. The line was even longer than it was on Thanksgiving, but once again it went fast. It was a chilly morning and we hustled along the river path to the start of the narrows. The river was already full of hikers. We knew it would be busy, but this was the kind of busy that would normally make me want to turn around. It was only the $45 worth of rental gear that kept me going.
I struggled a lot during the first 20 minutes. Walking upstream in a fast moving river is not easy! The rounded slippery rocks on the bottom made me feel like I was constantly on the verge of falling into the icy water. It got easier as my legs adjusted to the unfamiliar movement and I eventually started to relax and enjoy myself.
There are a number of landmarks that many people look for along the way while hiking the Narrows. The first one is the side tributary of Orderville Canyon about 2.5 miles from the shuttle stop. This is where lots of people turn around. Not us, we planned on walking as far as we could with a loose goal to reach the 5-mile mark where we could view the Big Spring.
Except we forgot what the landmarks were and with no GPS in the canyon had no idea how far we had gone. I do know that the farther we went the more the crowds diminished.
In the end, our turn around point was decided by a section of the river of undetermined depth.
We and everyone else near us turned around at the same spot so we never did find out how deep it was. We didn’t make it to the five-mile point or see the Big Spring but I later looked at a map and estimated that we hiked about three miles up the river. It felt much, much longer.
The way back downstream was easier but still not easy. Especially in some of the areas with large submerged rocks to navigate. This is when the hiking stick became my best friend.
This is another trail that we feel happy to have checked off the list. I doubt we would do it again. Yes, the Narrows are beautiful and I am thrilled that we went, but the sheer number of other hikers definitely took away from the experience. I guess that sums up our general feeling about Zion after this last trip. It will always be one of my favorite places but after three visits where we have seen the ever-increasing crowds, I think we have crossed this one off the list for awhile.