Speed bumps in Zion

Like my drive to Tucson, the story of my trip to the Zion National Park in Utah is one that could be told several ways.

looking toward the entrance to Zion

looking toward the entrance to Zion

I could tell the unglamorous story. This story includes my feelings of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and self-criticism. I’d talk about how a lack of sleep made me less able to enjoy my stay, hindered my decision-making process, and generally made me cranky. I’d tell you that I suffered the effects of camping inexperience, not feeding myself well or using my time effectively. I didn’t explore nearly as much of the park as I might have under different circumstances. It would be kind of a lame story, to be honest.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without the lame parts – the speed bumps. But sometimes I wonder if I should censor things like that from my travel stories. They make me sound whiny, and after all I’m truly privileged to be able to take this trip. When things don’t go as planned, when I feel lonely and unhappy and uncertain, I wonder if I’m acting spoiled. I’m embarrassed to think I might actually be a spoiled person, so I feel I should omit my negative feelings from my stories to avoid seeming ungrateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I don’t usually think of myself as a spoiled person – but what spoiled person does?

cliffs bordering Zion.  Note the tiny window in the rock - that window borders the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

Cliffs bordering Zion. Note the tiny window in the rock – that window opens onto the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

So what would my non-spoiled-person story sound like? I could post pictures and talk about the hikes, the wildlife, and the natural beauty – it would be the story of a lucky girl who got to travel to a beautiful national park many Americans will never visit, the story of an independent woman venturing into a new chapter of her life and discovering new and exciting skills, preparing for her next adventure.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without that side of it, either.

This formation is called The Watchman

This formation is called The Watchman – visible from the campground where I stayed

For now, I’m choosing not to censor my negative experiences from my travel stories. For one, I’m not entirely convinced that they make me a spoiled person – an honest picture of travel isn’t complete without the dirt and tears and worry. Hell, an honest picture of life isn’t complete without those ugly bits. I think leaving out the unglamorous bits of a travel story makes it shallower, and less realistic. I’ve gained a lot of useful information reading the travel blogs of other nomads, and if those people had chosen to leave out the difficulties they faced while traveling I’d probably be a lot less prepared for some of the speed bumps that have come up on my road.

So – here’s the story of my trip to Zion National Park, speed bumps and all.


You’ve already seen how beautiful are the views on the way into the park. I was on a bit of a schedule: my research suggested that the first-come first-served campground in the park would fill by about 11:00 and I was still a couple hours’ drive away when I woke up at Lake Powell. I made it into the park around 10:00 and was delighted to find plenty of campsites still open, including a spacious site with plenty of shade directly across from the bathrooms and water pump.

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my hotel for the night

I feel so lucky to have snagged this campsite!

That first day I explored. Zion is a relatively small park – really just the one canyon and a few surrounding cliffs. The park management has made the wise decision to close the main canyon to traffic and instead rely on a series of shuttle buses to transport visitors around. I found this system to be surprisingly comfortable and quick, and definitely preferable to long traffic delays up the canyon! The park roads are also open to bicycles, and I found them easy enough to navigate on mine.

That first day I explored the route up the canyon and did the Emerald Pools Hike.

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I would recommend the hike to anyone! It was strange, though – after only a couple of days of traveling alone I was already a bit lonely, and met a lot of blank stares on the trail. Maybe it was the general population density, or maybe I was meeting mostly foreigners (there were a ton of French and German-speaking tourists in the park), but I didn’t find myself striking up the usual conversations with fellow hikers. It’s possible that my perspective is skewed by having more recently done challenging and less-traveled hikes, where it’s in your survival interest to chat up the passing hikers who are few and far between, knowing that they may be the ones you call to for rescue if you run into trouble up the trail. That’s certainly not the case in Zion – I probably passed 200 or 300 other people on this hike. Loneliness was my first speed bump.

Cliff by Upper Pools - tiny dots are climbers

Cliff by Upper Pools – tiny dots are climbers

At the Upper Pools I found a crowd gathered to watch the descent of two climbers down a massive cliff. Here’s a zoomed-in crop of the image above so you can appreciate the scale:

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag in the upper left quadrant of the image

It was at this point in the hike that I realized how difficult it was for me to grasp the scale of the cliffs in Zion. The people in those pictures look tiny in comparison to the rocks! It has the effect of being so overwhelming it’s underwhelming – it’s similar to being in St. Peter’s church in Rome. Everything is massive, but all in proportion to itself, so it’s actually harder to appreciate the scale. On my hike down, I challenged myself to keep the human scale in mind (comparing the size of trees wedged into cracks in the rock helped). I thought of my mind as something that was being physically expanded by the presence of so much large and dramatic scenery.

Virgin River and... some pointy rocks.  I can't remember right now.

Virgin River and… some pointy rocks. I can’t remember which right now.

That night was a big speed bump – I slept well at first, but a fierce wind began to blow through the canyon at about midnight. At that point, I wasn’t accustomed to camping, and the noise of the wind whipping my tent around terrified me. I was worried that a huge storm was brewing (it sounded like a hurricane from inside the tent) and I was sure I’d never be able to hike Angel’s Landing in the tempest. I slept only a few hours that night, and I woke up frustrated and disappointed (especially since the wind never turned into a storm and died down by the time I would have been on my hike).

I then proceeded to have an irritating morning that involved dropping my bra in the toilet. Speed bump after speed bump.

To cheer myself up, I decided to spare a few extra dollars for breakfast at a local cafe in the nearby town of Springdale. Revived by breakfast and coffee, I spent the morning biking around the park and wading in the river.

mule deer buck grazing at the campsite

mule deer grazing at the campsite

The rest of the day was so hot I couldn’t sleep even in the shade. I was down on myself at first for not getting out and doing more that day, but in all honesty it was lovely to spend the afternoon taking periodic dips in the river and lying in the shade on the soft sand of the banks.

The next morning, despite another sleepless and windy night, I resolved to hike Angel’s Landing.

worth it.

worth it.

This was a good decision.

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel's Landing

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel’s Landing

It was a challenging hike, but at 7:30 in the morning the air was cool and dry as I slogged up the steep ascent. The chain grips along the final stretch were mainly free of the crowds that swarm them later in the day, and the early morning light threw the cliffs into dramatic relief. The view from the top, as you can see, was memorable.

Looking upcanyon along the river

Looking upcanyon along the river

On the way down the trail, I struck up conversation with a group of fellow hikers and ended up sharing stories all the way back to the trailhead – finally having found the connection I was hoping for! It’s starting to happen in my life that anytime I strike up a conversation with someone and it goes well, it turns out that person is either a nomad or traveler, or they’re from another country. It’s kind of annoying in that it makes me wonder if I’ve lost the ability to connect with anyone else… but then I think, what the hell, travelers are the coolest people anyway.

Sunrise panorama

Sunrise at Angel’s Landing

I’d only been in Zion for about 48 hours by that point, but it was time to move on – restlessness kicks in for me after a couple of days and I begin to long for the open road. Though I’d initially thought of going to Bryce Canyon and Arches in Utah, Nevada was calling me back.

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