Saturday, July 16, 2016

Coach Kiprunning on the Trail: Southern Utah

Picture of two pairs of hiking boots on a rock in Zion National Park

We apologize for the lack of updates over the past few weeks.  Our sluggishness in this venue is due in large part to our ongoing website revision project (we hope to launch a new site in early August!).  In addition, however, I have been away on an excellent vacation that kept me unplugged from the Internet for about ten days.  It was glorious.

This particular vacation found my wife and I doing a bunch of day hiking in Southern Utah--in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and throughout (to a degree) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  The landscape differs widely between all of these locations, but at no point is it anything less than stunning.  If you haven't made a trip to these parks, you should make a trip to these parks.  The Colorado Plateau is too beautiful for words.

I first came to hiking as a modest hobby over a decade ago, when my wife and I took a few hours of our honeymoon to do a spontaneous nighttime walk to what was then an active lava flow on KÄ«lauea. Since that time, we've hiked to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon twice (once via the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails; once clear across the Canyon from the North Rim), completed a bunch of day hikes in the Shenandoah National Park, and ventured on a three-day backpacking trip in Haleakalā Crater. We’re not exactly hardcore, but we’re also pretty solid for two people who only backpack intermittently between marathon training.

Someday, when all of my PRs are behind me (I hope that’s not right now), I plan to devote more time and energy to this particular hobby, learning wilderness survival skills and so forth. I’ve already got my sights set on the Classic Mauna Loa hike and the full Trans-Zion Trek. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, day hiking it is.

Prior to this vacation, neither my wife nor I had been to any of these three parks. We actually hadn’t been to Utah at all (the beer really isn’t that bad, by the way). The most popular portion of Zion National Park, the one where visitors can find The Narrows and Angels Landing, immediately offers hikers expansive views of the park’s towering canyon walls.

Picture of a valley in Zion National Park
As is customary, I will reiterate that the river did all of this.
We mostly avoided many of the park’s dedicated out-and-back routes simply because it was overwhelmingly crowded. It actually took us about two hours to get to a point where we could even begin hiking. As a result, we just improvised a long circuit hike made from portions of Zion’s West Rim Trail. The nice thing about this particular trail is that it rises in elevation pretty rapidly, which allows hikers to enjoy panoramic views of the vast canyon with relative ease. Looking down at the humble (in parts) Virgin River really does seem to capture the feel of a classic American Western.

Picture of mountains and the Virgin River in Zion National Park
Feels a bit like The Oregon Trail, eh?
On our second day in Zion, we decided to drive to the northwestern portion of the park to explore the Kolob Canyons. This tiny quadrant of Zion is much, much more accessible than the portion in Springdale, UT, and it is much, much, much less crowded, which was a huge plus. Given time constraints, we opted for just one of Kolob’s more popular hikes: the Taylor Creek Trail.

It’s worth pointing out that we were in the desert in July, so this relatively easy trail through and around the creek was a great way to stay comfortable and cool in otherwise oppressive conditions. Plus, eating lunch at the Double Arch Alcove was wonderful.

Picture of Joseph P. Fisher cooling his hat in a stream
Mercifully for all of you, this picture was taken after I put on my shirt.

Picture of the Double Arch Alcove in Zion National Park
The beauty of the Double Arch Alcove, which should distract you from horrible thoughts of me without a shirt 
From Zion, we traveled east to Escalante, buzzing by Bryce Canyon along the way. Bryce, my friend, we will be back, because I think we should spend some time together.

Wide view photo of Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon, begging for some backpacking time
When we finally arrived in Escalante, after several hours of car travel that found me pulling over every 100 feet to gape in awe at the landscape, we were shrouded in serene silence. Prior to this trip, I had spent the better part of the past decade fawning over Arizona, which, outside of Phoenix, is generally gorgeous (there’s also excellent running there). After going to Escalante, though, I think I might spend the better part of the next decade endlessly extolling the virtues of The Grand Staircase, because it is otherworldly in its beauty.

Photo of Route 12 in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Words, there are none.

What I often enjoy most about hiking is the way that it appeals to my literary sensibilities. It’s impossible to spend time in the expansive isolation of a place like Escalante and 1) not feel inspired by the raw power of nature; and 2) not be entirely humbled by that power. The entire Grand Staircase National Monument spans about 1.9 million acres of harsh, abrasive landscape that brings nature’s sublimity into stark relief. The monument’s endless shelves of slickrock simultaneously beckon to visitors—they appear easy to traverse—while also guaranteeing danger and despair to those who are unprepared or who otherwise underestimate the demands that this landscape places on its visitors.

Picture of Devil's Garden in Escalante
The author, in the distance, slickrock scrambling

Warning sign about heat exposure in Devil's Garden
Good to know
As I said to my wife, Escalante made me feel small. Apart from it being huge, it is also entirely “off the grid,” as they say. Cell phone reception outside of the town of Escalante itself is at best inconsistent but, for the most part, is nonexistent. This doubles, of course, for the Internet. Escalante truly is a place “to get away from it all,” but it is also a place that is absolutely away from it all. My meager (as of right now) wilderness skills wouldn’t sustain me for too long out there, which is why, again, we opted for some straightforward day hikes.

Photo of swimmers at Lower Calf Creek Falls
Lower Calf Creek Falls from the bottom

View looking down from Route 12 at the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail
Lower Calf Creek Falls, perilously, from the top
Finally, our trip ended rather unceremoniously in Las Vegas.  I won't post any pictures from that leg of the journey because, after all, this is a family blog.  Also, if you've ever seen a Gucci store, then you've seen about 80% of the Vegas Strip.  And, you know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas for the good of everyone involved.

Now, I'm back.  It pains me to admit that the summer is about half over.  The upside is that the fall racing season is almost upon us.  I needed this vacation.  I had this vacation.  Now, back to work.

I'll see you out there.  Just stay cool in this summer heat.

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