Trip Report Home
Zion / Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah
"Jay, if you wanted to rough it, then you should have went with Mike's group!" - Ray Aldridge
I was very fortunate to lead the advanced backpackers in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. My group consisted of the following people: Matthew Cerralvo, Eric Evans, Jay Jahangiri, Tommy Hamby, and Betty. We hiked and climbed for approximately 53 miles in the backcountry over a 6-day period and endured several freeze-thaw cycles.
The club departed very early on the 16th from DFW and traveled to Las Vegas via Houston. During the flight out, people on the right side of the airplane were fortunate to see Guadalupe NP, White Sands NM, and Grand Canyon NP from the air. People seated with me on the left side of the airplane - the cheap seats - only got glimpses of Hoover Dam and the Sedona area in Arizona. I voiced my unflattering opinion of the Sedona area to Eric as we passed by and later found out that I was putting my foot into my mouth. Eric mentioned that our very own Tom Slater was wearing a Sedona T-shirt for the trip out! We had more than a few laughs about this when we arrived at Vegas. At the Las Vegas airport, Mike and Matthew went to the Budget booth to pick up the two minivans. Budget would not honor our original reservation and, after a frustrating delay, they finally substituted three Jeep Grand Cherokees in place of the two vans. After loading the Jeeps and stopping at Wendys for lunch, we traveled from Las Vegas to Springdale, UT, a town at the entrance of Zion National Park. At the park, we went directly to the visitor's center to obtain our backcountry permits for the week. My group had planned to hike from Grotto trailhead in the main canyon to Lee Pass in the Kolob section of the park (a 38 mile one way hike). There would be a 16-mile day hike the last day due to campsite locations, but everyone was willing to tough it out. I informed the ranger of our intentions and she mentioned that we would have to posthole our way through portions of the route as 2 to 3 feet of snow had been reported. We unanimously declined and chose instead to hike three separate sections of the park: the West Rim, the East Rim, and Kolob Canyon. After forking out a lot of money, the West Rim and East Rim backcountry permits were secured. The club secured campsites and shower tokens for the night at the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Park in Springdale. As I write, the advanced group is still trying to decide on what to do with our souvenir shower tokens and extra TP! Before bed, the club ate at the Zion Park Deli, a local sub and ice cream shop.
The advanced group grabbed coffee and pastries at The Watchman Cafe and drove to the Grotto parking area to start our hike of the West Rim. At the trailhead, the sign read "Angels Landing - Stiff Hike", "West Rim - Arduous Hike". I really didn't know what the word arduous meant at the time, but, based on the elevation gain given - 3200 feet - I knew that it was going to be a tough day. Matthew "Man with Big Pack" and Tommy "The Mountain Biker" took off with a vengeance through the desert scrub. Eric and Jay followed. After about 30 minutes of switchbacks, I knew that I would be the acting caboose on this train to Potato Hollow. These guys were in the advanced group for a reason. We ascended Walters Wiggle and chose to take a break at the trail junction to Angels Landing. Several of us broke out the trail grub and the chipmunks zeroed in. These tame critters would do anything to get a handout, even perch on Eric's leg. It is unfortunate that people can't resist feeding these pests! After loading up on the sunscreen again, we left the junction and followed a nasty set of switchbacks. The sun was out for good now as evidenced by my profuse sweating and burning neck. After an hour on these switchbacks, we stopped at a shady spot at the base of the Horse Pasture Plateau and watched a small waterfall streaming down the face of an 800 foot solid rock wall. Eric brought out the topo map and confirmed that the spring at the top of this waterfall would be our next source of water. The switchbacks to the plateau were very long but not particularly steep. Snow in the shady places helped to cool us as we made our way up. At the plateau, we followed the Telephone Canyon trail after a futile search for our campsite. To our surprise, the scenery at the top of the plateau had been completely burnt as the result of an illegally started forest fire which, we were told, had cost the taxpayers $50,000 to control. About the only thing green that we saw were weeds and prickly pear cacti. At the point where I didn't think that I could climb anymore, we stopped for lunch. During lunch, we met and talked with a friendly Swiss mom hiking with her two daughters on the trail. These ladies were on a year long vacation in America and must have been on a mega-Powerbar diet since they had no problem dayhiking to Potato Hollow and beyond. The wind stiffened up severely as we passed the intersection of the Telephone Canyon trail and the West Rim trail. I was relieved when Eric and I spotted that last saddle that we were to cross before Potato Hollow. Thirty minutes from the saddle and a total of seven grueling hours into the hike we set up camp at Potato Hollow amidst the prickly pears and fire ants. I checked out a selection from Matthew's library and stayed in my tent for a while reading and cleaning up before dinner. The rest of the group went to visit a tiny lake a small distance away from camp. We ate dinner after the group returned and watched a herd of mule deer graze in the thicket behind our tents. We talked for a while, finished our dehydrated dinners, and went to sleep. The topic for our "camp stove" discussion tonight was women.
Eric and I awoke during the night to an extremely bright light. Eric, waiting to hear "Come toward the light my son", thought that God was in the process of recalling him. I was hoping that this light was the sun because my feet were getting pretty chilly. The light turned out to be the moon in all of its brightness! At dawn, we awoke to deer and freezing temperatures. Eric and I were debating the use of extreme hypothermia techniques for warmth as I frantically raced to grab my fleece jacket. Wanting to get moving fast, we gulped down our breakfast and broke camp. Thirty minutes into our return trip, we had climbed back over the saddle and warmed back up. We continued on the West Rim trail at the Telephone Canyon trail junction and made our way along the western side of the Horse Pasture Plateau to the West Rim Spring. The canyonland scenery on the west side of the plateau was very colorful and rugged. We speculated that few, if any, humans had ever traveled across some of the places that we were photographing. At the West Rim Spring, Eric, Jay and I refilled our water bottles for the trip downward. The hike down from the plateau was somewhat less strenuous than the hike up, however, the sun and the heat were just as oppressive as they had been on Sunday. We stopped again at the junction to Angel's Landing and ate our lunch. I was succumbing to a heat-induced headache, so, after our lunch, I continued down the canyon. The rest of the group climbed the 0.5 miles to the top of Angel's Landing. When I quizzed them later about the sideshow, they told me that the view was about as impressive as the views that we had already seen. Back in the parking lot, I commandeered the Jeep and traveled back to Springdale to get all of us some ice cold Gatorade. I picked up the backpackers at the trailhead and distributed the Gatorade. The day's descent had drained us all, so, we decided to hike to the closest campsite for the night. I was dirty, tired, and recovering from my headache when we finally reached camp. I think I overheard one of my team members say "I'm deflated!" Sensing the condition of the group, I recommended that we just take care of our personal hygiene, eat "no-cook" meals, and get to bed early tonight! That was exactly what we did - It was a restful night indeed!
After breakfast today, we hiked from our campsite and drove to the Weeping Rock trailhead. Our first destination today was Hidden Canyon, a narrow slot canyon adjacent to the Great White Throne. Tommy and Matthew led off again as we made the uphill climb to the mouth of the canyon. The canyon trail was pure sand in most places making walking a chore. After about 20 minutes of walking, we encountered our first canyon obstacle, a 15-foot to 20-foot high portion of the canyon wall. We took care climbing this wall because handholds were hard to find on the smooth rock face. Raging waters, in general, had sculpted the canyon walls, very well. At one point, we discovered a McDonald's shape double arch sculpted into the wall. The next obstacle that we encountered on our trip to the canyon head was an 8-foot long by 4-foot wide water trench. Not wanting to get our socks wet, each of us found a way to stretch our bodies between the 4-foot span and carefully crawl down the trench. Jay attacked this obstacle the Marines way; I personally learned the "butt-crawling" technique! The final obstacle that we encountered on our dayhike was an exposed ledge 10-feet above the canyon floor. I was groping to find some kind of handhold on the rock wall above the ledge as I inched across the ledge, but I just could not find anything - a very eerie feeling. At the canyon head, the boulders that we were climbing were getting larger and larger, so we decided to turn back. I have to thank the members of my team for getting me back through the obstacles on the return trip - especially Eric and "camera-saving, water-bottle-abusing" Sure-Hands Jay. We stopped again at the canyon mouth for lunch before returning to the Weeping Rock trailhead. Next, we drove to the end of the Zion Canyon road to hike the Gateway to the Narrows trail. After about 1-mile of hiking, the swift waters of the Virgin River turned us back at the first river crossing. From Zion Canyon road we traveled to the East Side of Zion via the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway tunnel. The 1-mile tunnel through solid rock is an Engineering marvel. We continued through the tunnel to the trailhead adjacent to the East Entrance of Zion. After meeting a park ranger and two future HBO-bound actresses at the trailhead, our group walked in about a mile and spent the night in the rugged East side of Zion.
We decided today to travel from Zion NP to Bryce Canyon NP for a change in scenery. At Bryce, the rangers suggested that we stay at the Right Fork of Swamp Canyon campsite, a site - with known water availability - located 1-mile from the main road. After restocking our fanny pack with snacks from a local grocery store we chose to dayhike the 8-mile Fairyland Loop Trail. Hoodoos - colorful, wind/water eroded, rock columns - and other rock formations were plentiful on this trail. Whites, beiges, browns, pinks and reds colored the landscape here. The colors were amazing; something you could probably only find in Utah. We were also fortunate to see one of the earth's oldest living things on this trail - the ponderosa pine. In the course of completing this loop hike, we passed many of the same people twice on the trail. One notable group was a couple with their young child. Matthew noticed that this man and his wife were getting really pink from the hot Utah sun, so, he offered his sunblock to them. Politely, and to our surprise, they denied his offer. A couple of hours later and 4-miles down trail, we would pass this couple again. It was our consensus at this time that they were "well-done!" It appeared that the lady was already becoming ill from intense sunburn. We wondered what their conversation must have consisted of back at the hotel that night! The weather really went downhill the last mile of the hike as cloudy skies and extremely brisk winds followed us back to the Jeep. From the Fairyland Loop trailhead we drove to the Swamp Canyon turnoff. At the turnoff, the rain began and made packing our backpacks an unpleasant chore. Once packed, we could not initially find our trail to the campsite due to the numerous side trails, so, we pointed ourselves in the general direction and took off down the ridge. About 30 minutes into the hike, rain still pouring, Eric and I decided to get out the topo map and determine if we were on the correct trail to the campsite. After orienting the map, the surrounding landscape confirmed that we were on the correct trail. Thirty minutes later we arrived at our campsite and set up camp. Dinner was served in the tents tonight because of the rain and lowering temperatures. Eric and I got smart and laid out a space blanket on the floor of our tent to preserve body warmth. You know, I think that really worked.
We awoke today to freezing temperatures and a couple of woodpeckers participating in a pecking contest. We took off our ice-covered backpack covers and prepared breakfast. While we were eating, Jay mentioned that during the night he heard voices. He wasn't sure at the time, but, he thought that they repeated over and over: "Forsake Your Leader, Jay!", "Hijack the Jeep, Jay!", "Go to Vegas, Jay!" Eric and I told him that we didn't recall hearing anything: must have been a dream ;). We broke camp and returned to the Jeep. The elusive trail we failed to find yesterday in the rain was well defined today. It terminated just a few feet in front of the Jeep's front tires; so much for our scouting around in bad weather! Matthew and Tommy took us for a scenic drive through the park this morning. We hit all of the scenic pullouts and took a few pictures. It was much too cold for my cotton T-shirt and shorts, so, I remained in the Jeep at most of the pullouts. We left Bryce Canyon NP and traveled to the Zion NP's Kolob Canyon via Cedar Breaks NM. At Cedar Breaks, the main access road was closed due to lots of SNOW so we continued without stopping. We arrived at the Kolob Canyon visitor's center around 12 noon to secure our backcountry permit. The ranger mentioned that the water may be swift in spots and she briefed us on how to cross swift water before we left. We drove to the Lee Pass trailhead and hiked about 5 miles in to our campsite adjacent to La Verkin Creek. After setting up camp, we dayhiked 1.5 miles to Kolob Arch, the world's largest freestanding rock arch. Our view of the arch was not very impressive due to the time of the day. While we were resting at the arch viewpoint, Matthew commented that his knees were really hurting due to the constant ups/downs that we had encountered this week. The advanced group had really covered some hard miles this week and our scheduling was a bit aggressive. My main "comfort-zone" breach was increasing body funk, so, I fell behind the group and took a backcountry bath. Back to camp for dinner. We tried extreme means to filter clean water for boiling out of La Verkin Creek (i.e. coffee filters, bandanas...) but we just could not remove the silt from the water. One of our filters was clogged bigtime; We chose not to jeopardize our spare. Faced with a "no-cooked-meal" predicament, we opted to catch water in one pot, wait for about an hour for the silt in this water to settle out, then carefully scoop our meal water from this pot into another pot for boiling. This technique worked and the water was not bad, but, I must admit that my dehydrated burrito and nachos were just a little bit EXTRA CRUNCHY tonight. The group settled in early tonight for a restful night's sleep.
We returned to the Lee Pass trailhead this morning. At the first clear stream, we felt ecstatic when we replaced last night's "mineral-rich" drinking water with crystal clear runoff. I took the liberty to take lots of pictures of the desert scrub and surrounding mountains on the return trip. The land was covered with prickly pear cacti and mesquite shrubs. At the Jeep, we packed our gear up for the return trip to Las Vegas. Matthew made an interesting discovery when he lifted up the padding up from his hipbelt: a scorpion. It was the first wild scorpion that I had seen. After packing, we headed towards Las Vegas stopping briefly to eat at Chili's in St. George - Yes, they actually let us in! Back in Las Vegas, we met Mike and his already "cleaned-up" bunch in the check-in line at the Maxim hotel. After taking a long, memorable shower, I went with my group on a tour of the Las Vegas strip. We toured several of the casinos and ate our second "civilized" meal of the day at the Holiday Inn buffet. After dinner, we watched Jay, our experienced "Mr. Vegas", try his luck playing Craps and Blackjack. It was enlightening to say the least. I know Las Vegas was glad that we came to visit this week!
We flew from Las Vegas to Dallas via Houston today. At the Las Vegas airport, we spent a lot of time exchanging stories with Mike's group. Houston was humid as usual and the flight from Houston to Dallas, well, it was pretty frightening due to turbulence. Back in Dallas, we once again loaded our vehicles for the trip back to Texins and to our respective homes.