Afoot for Adventure: Hiking Zion and Bryce
by YVONNE MICHIE HORN
It was hard to restrain our imaginations this day in late April. We’d already seen poodles and clowns and gargoyles, not to mention Queen Victoria and Pizza Man. All shapes to be hotly disputed, for where one person saw guests at a fancy masked ball, others saw an advancing army — rather like trying to reach a consensus on a series of Rohrschach blobs. Only Queen Victoria held her own, although I privately voted for the queen in Alice in Wonderland.
Do You Hoodoo?
We were hiking into the depths of Bryce Canyon past natural-rock sculptures called “hoodoos.” Bridges, arches and peepholes kept the hoo-doos company as we made our way through this fanciful, freeform playground — the product of 60 million years of erosion.
It was day four into a six-day trek with Country Walkers, a Vermont-based touring company that promises a unique view of the world one step at a time. I’d done trips with the tour operator before, choosing adventures to far-flung and exotic reaches of the world. This time as I perused their wish-book of destinations, I was looking for a something closer to home, a trip in celebration of America the Beautiful. “Utah: Natural Temples of Zion and Bryce.” Ah, that was it.
Although I’d visited both Bryce and Zion National Parks before, I’d stopped by each only long enough to ooh and ah on the edges of their splendors — as do some 80% of the 2.5 million tourists who come to the parks each year. Since southern Utah boasts nearly two dozen national parks and monuments, it is difficult to resist crossing off as many sights as possible on a single trip. The “Natural Tem-ples” itinerary offered the opportunity to explore in depth two of the area’s most spectacular natural attractions.
Our meeting point was Las Vegas, chosen because of its easy air connections for our group of 18 arriving from all over the U.S. On hand to greet us were our guides, husband and wife Cheryl Destrooper and Curt Loeffler. Curt, a red-haired, gentle bear of a man, and Cheryl, unflappable, personable and organized, had both turned their backs on the world of high tech to return to their love of the outdoors. To both, the nooks and crannies of Bryce and Zion were as familiar as that of their home base, Yellowstone.
To the Promised Land
Two vans soon took us a world away from the neon dazzle of Las Vegas as southern Utah began to assert itself in deep canyons and movie-set-perfect mesas. Nearing Zion, we traveled through towns scarcely larger than they were when established by Mormon missionaries a century ago. (Zion, meaning “the promised land” or “place of peace and refuge,” was named by early settlers.)
Entering Zion Canyon, the heart of the park, I immediately fell in love with the three Patriarchs, a neck-bending trio of side-by-side sheer cliffs soaring 2,400 feet from the canyon floor. Nearby stood other awe-inspiring sandstone and shale monoliths — the towering and craggy Watchman, the Towers of the Virgin blushing rosily in the afternoon light, the fire-dipped Altar of Sacrifice, the domineering West Temple, the Great White Throne.
We checked into Zion Lodge, a classic national park lodge designed in the 1920s, unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1996 and, equally unfortunately, hastily rebuilt, ignoring the historic architecture. Recently the lodge’s exterior was returned to its original appearance in a project that also renovated its surrounding cluster of western-style cabins, in which we stayed.
No time to settle in, for Country Walkers takes its name seriously — out into the countryside with boots laced up. With Curt and Cheryl in the lead, we found ourselves on the way to the Emerald Pools, a “warm-up” walk that gradually increased in huffing and puffing as switchbacks took us to three pools, the highest of which dead-ended against a towering, water-fall-dashed cliff. Golden columbine, Indian paintbrush, hoary aster, and shooting star edged the trail. From the opposite side of the narrow canyon, a wild turkey gobbled encouragement.
Call of the Canyon
In the days to come, a host of trails awaited. With particpants divided into two groups (the park asks that number of people hiking together be limited), I followed Cheryl into the folded and vermilion-colored cliffs of remote Kolob Canyon. Our route traced the meandering middle fork of Taylor Creek — crossing and re-crossing the stream 33 times. Kolob’s towering walls closed in tighter and tighter as we neared our destination, the mineral-tinged, water-cooled enormity of Double Arch Alcove. A bandstand for the gods; nature’s perfect lunch stop.
Changing places, the next day I followed Curt to Angel’s Landing, a spire of rock rearing up proud and solitary 1,500 feet from the valley floor, reached by a series of switchbacks that include a demented tight set known as Walter’s Wiggles. At the top, we found ample reward for the vertigo-inducing climb — a 360-degree view of Zion’s cathedral-like splendors.
Two years ago, all motorized vehicles were banned from the Canyon proper, eliminating the crowds of cars and RVs that had besieged the 13-mile scenic drive. In place is a sleek, user-friendly shuttle service. Animals have returned to the lower elevations; peace and reflective solitude has been restored.
For us, the shuttle provided an efficient way to access trailheads. We hopped off to make our way to Weeping Rock, an enormous alcove behind spring-fed mist that waters hanging gardens of columbine, moss, and maidenhair ferns. Another stop took us to the Riverside Walk, where we passed box elder, bigtooth maple and canyon grapevines on our way to dip our feet in Zion’s sculptor, the North Fork of the Virgin River.
Our goodbye to Zion was a lingering one via the Zion-Mount Carmel highway, a spectacular route built in the 1920s through the massive walls of Zion. Tight curves took us past jagged rock faces and mesas dotted with cottonwoods to a mile-long tunnel quarried through solid rock in 1930. Here we hiked the Overlook Trail with its staggering view of the Canyon.
On to Bryce
Further along, we said our final farewell with a stop at Checkerboard Mesa, an orderly cross bedding of cracking and grooving. Bryce Canyon National Park lay ahead, but not before one more stop. A short walk through a wash led to a protected canyon wall etched with petroglyphs, pictorial evidence that this was once the land of the Anasazi, “the ancient ones.”
Bryce Canyon is named for Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer. (He also offered the best description of the labyrinthine area: “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow!”). Although Zion encompasses some 229 square miles, Bryce is diminutive, only 21 miles long and just 36,000 acres.
We checked in at Bryce Canyon Lodge, a National Historic Landmark recently restored to reflect its original rustic style. Right after dropping off our bags, we headed for our first hike into the canyon. A walk through the pines led us to the canyon rim for a sight that took our breath away — below, Bryce flaunted its delights like a waiter displaying a tray full of pastries.
Although the view of Bryce is spectacular from above, you must get down among the formations to fully appreciate the intricacies. From Sunrise Point we descended on the Queen’s Garden trail, where the hoodoo image of Queen Victoria holds forth through a rock garden maze. Columns and crenellated spires swarmed out of the cliffs. Puffs of clouds sailed across the sky, enhancing a limestone palette ranging from mineral-tinted reds and ocher to soft buffs and blue grays. Aptly named Wall Street led to the Navajo Loop Trail and a return to the rim.
Seeds of History
The next day, we had a strenuous hike to Fairyland Loop, descending into the canyon depths where dwarf forests of pinion and juniper grow. Among Bryce’s trees, not seen here but in higher elevations, are the bristlecone, members of the oldest living species on earth. (One of Bryce’s bristlecones was seeded 1,800 years ago.
We lunched in the shadow of Tower Bridge, where Curt relayed Indian legends read from his Palm Pilot. Afterwards came the hard part of any hike in Bryce — an unrelenting climb via steep grades and calf-numbing switchbacks to the rim hundreds of feet above at an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Our last day in Bryce, we woke before dawn. Staggering out into the chill morning air, we made our way to Inspiration Point, arriving as the first rays of sun began to peek over the horizon. Below us a Byzantine landscape sprang to life, awash in ever-changing color — starting off gray, and moving through translucent white and buffs to yellows, pinks and mauves.
America the Beautiful? Yes, indeed.
The 6-day “Natural Temples of Zion & Bryce” departs from and ends in Las Vegas, NV. Price is $1,898, including all meals except for one dinner. Departures begin in late April and continue through June, with one trip slated for early August. Weekly hikes are then planned from September through mid-October. For more information, contact Country Walkers at 800-464-9255; E-mail: info@ countrywalkers.com; Website:www. countrywalkers.com.
Photo courtesy of Yvonne Horn.