November 11-17, 2019
We’re discovering that an advantage of our new lifestyle is the ability to stay in one location for an extended period of time allowing us to immerse ourselves in that area. We visited Southern Utah nine times between 2010-2017. We saw a lot of incredible places, but we never stayed in one area for more than a few days—we were always trying to hit the highlights. Now, we have time to slow down and enjoy. We can bag big bucket list items. We can explore lesser known areas of amazing beauty without all the crowds. We have time to visit friends. And we can even take a day off to relax.
One of the highlights of our week was meeting friends Will and Penny for dinner. Will is a former coworker of mine who retired last year. He and Penny now split their year between the mountains of Montana and the desert of SE Utah. We tell them they are the smartest people we know. To be honest, we can’t help but be a little jealous. They live in two amazingly beautiful areas that abound with outdoor opportunities—the exact type of places we’d love to have a home. But these two wonderful people have worked hard for what they have and we are happy to see them enjoying this new phase of life.
Kolob Terrace Explorations
Zion National Park covers 229 square miles of some of the most beautiful country God created. Mormon pioneers named the area Zion, which is ancient Hebrew for sanctuary or refuge. Photos give a sense of the park’s beauty, but it is a land that must be visited and explored to fully experience it. Apparently others agree. 4.32 million people visited Zion last year and the lions share headed straight for Zion Canyon, the most iconic area of the park where sandstone cliffs and formations like The Watchman and Great White Throne tower thousands of feet above the Virgin River. The canyon is by far the most popular area in the park, so much so that the park has implemented a mandatory shuttle from March through November. During peak season, lines for the shuttle look like lines for rides at Disney Land.
Those seeking a more intimate experience in Zion National Park have many options. Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend riding the shuttle into Zion Canyon and experiencing all it has to offer. But then get off the beaten path. Head out to the East Canyon, past the tunnels and into the slickrock wilderness. Or head to the lesser known areas off Kolob Terrace Road or Kolob Canyons Road. We’ve been spending a lot of our time doing just that.
We recently spent a day with friend Yvonne doing some off trail explorations along the Kolob Terrace Road. The “KT Road”, as it is referred to by locals, starts in the town of Virgin on State Highway 9. We began our adventures at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and quickly went off trail to explore an area near Pine Valley Peak. We saw remnants of early pioneers, hoodoos, great views toward Hop Valley, colorful slickrock, a massive field of moqui marbles (small, brownish-black balls composed of iron oxide and sandstone that form underground when iron minerals precipitated from flowing groundwater), and a rafter of turkey in hiding until after thanksgiving.
Aside from a few people near the trailhead, we didn’t see anyone else…in a park that saw 4.32 million people last year! Now that is solitude. Thank you Yvonne for taking us on a true Zion Wilderness adventure!
Pa’rus Trail & East Canyon Wanderings
We spent one day doing some easy wandering around Zion. First, we hiked the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center to the Human History Museum. Pa’rus means bubbling water in Paiute, an appropriate name for this trail that follows the lovely Virgin River. We had fantastic views of the sandstone cliffs that rise dramatically on all sides of the canyon as well as nice access to the river. There was even some good fall color making this easy trail a delightful stop.
We then drove out to the park’s east side where we did some more off trail explorations. We found some nice fall colors as we explored a beautiful area of slickrock near Checkerboard Mesa.
Bucket List: Zion Narrows
The day had finally come for us to check off a big bucket list item—The North Fork of the Virgin River (aka The Zion Narrows). This is one of the most popular hikes in Zion and for good reason. Sandstone walls rise 2,000 feet above the Virgin River. In places, the walls are just 20 – 30 feet wide forming a narrow slot canyon that sees very little direct sunlight throughout the day. For this hike, you don’t hike along the river, you hike in it.
River depth and temperature fluctuate daily and hikers must carefully time their hike. On a good day, this is heaven on earth. On a bad day, a flash flood can kill you. Never, ever enter this canyon if there is rain in the forecast.
We started the day by picking up our rental gear at Zion Adventure Company. When we hiked the Subway a couple weeks earlier, we went in our regular hiking pants and boots. Conditions were cold enough that there were icicles hanging in the Subway, but we did just fine with wet feet through countless river crossings. It was really just like fly fishing in the cold Idaho rivers back home. For the Narrows, we reconsidered our gear. In the Narrows, you aren’t just crossing the river, you are wading right up the middle for much of the day. Even with hiking on a low river flow day, we still ended up wading through waist deep sections of 34 degree water.
Our gear package included Gore-Tex dry pants, canyon shoes, neoprene socks, and a wooden hiking staff. They also gave us the nice map shown below. The package was $45 per person for a one day rental, which we thought was kinda of high. In the end we were quite pleased with our gear. Our feet did get wet, but they stayed much warmer than with standard boots and the traction was far superior. The dry pants made the difference between warm legs and miserably cold ones.
Our hike began at the Temple of Sinawava which is the last stop for the Zion Canyon shuttle bus. We began with an easy stroll along the Riverside Walk, a paved trail alongside the Virgin River. We were joined by many tourists out for an easy hike. At one mile, we ran out of dry trail. The canyon walls constricted and the only way forward was to wade up the Virgin River. We left the crowds behind and the real adventure began. Now, the Virgin River was our trail.
For the next three miles, we were primarily hiking in mid-calf to waist deep water. The riverbed below our feet alternated between sections of sand and rock. The current was mostly gentle, but a few crossings required hiking against stronger current over uneven rocks. We saw several hikers join the Narrows Swim Team meaning they lost their balance and fell into the water. This was a more frequent site on our return hike when many hikers were fatigued and weren’t concentrating as carefully.
Soon after entering the water, we passed Mystery Falls where several small streams of water flowed gracefully down the sandstone walls. Over the next mile, we were able to zig zag across the river to small strips of dry land which gave us brief moments of reprieve from wading in the cold water.
After about a mile of wading, we began a nearly two mile stretch referred to as Wall Street. This is the narrowest section of canyon and there is very little dry land on the canyon sides meaning we were now in the water most of the time. This was also the most stunning section of the Narrows. The further up we went, the fewer people we saw.
We had heard from a few hikers that we’d need to turn around at the end of Wall Street unless we were prepared to wade through chest deep water. Sure enough, as the canyon walls began to widen, we encountered a deep pool. We watched a couple in full body dry suits go through water that was mid-chest on the woman…we were in waist high pants. Yep, that looked like a good turn around point!
We hiked about 8 miles round trip with 6 miles of that spent mostly wading up the cold river. This is one of those places where photos just can’t do justice to the awe inspiring scenery. We were both pleased that we didn’t lose our footing or balance in the nearly freezing water. This is a relatively strenuous hike in conditions that most hikers are not accustomed to. We saw several people struggling over the rocks and in the river including one woman who was so exhausted she couldn’t even stand up on her own after falling into the river. Jason pulled her out of the water multiple times while her family stood to the side telling her to keep going up canyon. My advice is listen to your body and only hike what you are comfortable with. Remember—once you turn around, you still have to hike out!
East Mesa Trail to Observation Point
One of the best views in Zion is from Observation Point. Several trails lead here with the most popular being from the Weeping Rock Trailhead in Zion Canyon up the Observation Point Trail. This is a strenuous 8.0 mile roundtrip hike with 2,100′ elevation gain. We hiked most of this trail back in 2013 when we adventured 11 miles across the East Rim, but we didn’t add the side trail to Observation Point. You can also access Observation Point from one of three trailheads on the park’s east side: East Entrance, Stave Spring, or East Mesa.
Earlier this fall, a massive landslide forced the closure of the popular Observation Point Trail. For the time being, the only access is via one of those east side trailheads. Most people don’t venture out to these areas making this a great option for a Saturday morning hike on a beautiful mid-November day.
Of the three east side trails, East Mesa offers the shortest and easiest route to Observation Point. It is probably the least interesting option, but it is still an enjoyable hike. We hiked along through junipers and Ponderosa pine and saw a few deer along the way. We had occasional views of interesting pink cliffs off in the distance, but it wasn’t until we dropped to Observation Point that we had our WOW moment. We suddenly found ourselves standing a couple thousand feet above Zion Canyon. Views down canyon were subdued by the angle of the sun and some haze from area wildfires, but we had great views of Angel’s Landing, the West Rim, and down into the Narrows where we had ventured just a few days earlier.
For those wanting the views of Observation Point without the stiff climb out of the main canyon, I’d recommend this route. While not as scenic, it does provide the same end views. There was a little bit of elevation gain on the way back, but otherwise it was an easy 7.5 mile roundtrip hike.
Back on the trail with our friend Yvonne, we spent some time looking for rock art that she had heard about, but had never seen directions for. She had just enough information to have an idea where to start looking. After some exploration and searching, we located the panel. It had several unique and colorful pictographs.
Around the corner from the rock art, we found an ancient sacrificial alter of sorts. There was a large flat rock in a cave that was covered in shards of animal bones. At first, I thought it must be a hoax and surely the bones were modern. But after some examination, I convinced myself that the remains looked quite old. There was also some rock art on the cave walls. This was one of the most eerie and cool discoveries we have ever made on trail. We are living this lifestyle to have new and unique experiences—this sure fit the bill!
We appreciate Yvonne including us on this adventure. Accordingly, I won’t be sharing directions to this special location.
The Adventures Continue
Thanks for visiting us this week. Stay tuned next week for more Zion adventures. We celebrate our two month anniversary on the road and experience Zion after big rains. With that, we will say goodbye for now and leave you with these parting photos of the boys.