Marcelo and I took some time off work to do some hiking in Utah and Arizona. Our main goal was to go to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon with some minor stops in between. It was a great trip with some lessons on what to do and what not to do when embarking on a road/hiking trip. To see all of the photos of our trip you can go to rickjensen.smugmug.com All photos here were taken with the Nikon 300Ds/16-85mm and the Olympus TG-1.
We started our journey in Las Vegas where we landed about 10pm local time. After holding back on the slot machines, we made our way to the Alamo desk to pick up our rental car. We had reserved a mid sized SUV for ten days for $322. Not too bad condsidering. After picking out and inspecting a Jeep Patriot, we noticed it didn’t have a privacy cover for the back. We asked to have one put one but were told it didn’t have one. So we requested a different SUV but it didn’t have one either. After further inquiry, we were informed that none of the SUVs came with a privacy cover because people kept stealing them so Alamo just had them all removed. This made no sense to us and it meant that we couldn’t use an SUV because we didn’t want to have our stuff in the back uncovered while we were out of the car. So after a short deliberation, we decided to take a Ford Taurus because it had the largest trunk we could find. I was driving since we didn’t want to pay an extra $150 or so for an additional driver and I quickly realized that I would never be buying a Ford Taurus in my future. It had lots of power but was just too big for my liking and hard to see out of. Thank goodness for the back up camera which I quickly got used to out of necessity. We navigated our way out of the airport and onto Tropicana Ave and finally on to the freeway heading out of Vegas. The next two hours were relatively uneventful as we made our way to Hurricane, Utah. We finally pulled into the Travelodge at about 2am. We both were tired and we still had to get up at 6am to drive to Springdale for our rappelling course. The Travelodge was adequate for our needs and would recommend it for those on a budget.
We managed to drag our tired selves to Springdale for our intro course to rappelling. We were only five minutes late which wasn’t bad considering our previous late night. Our impressions of the Zion Adventure Company were mixed. We really liked our instructor; he was knowledgeable, friendly and verrrry patient. It was a small group so that helped as well. The company itself was not quite as good. The place was chaotic and while there was a lot of staff, they never stayed with you for more than a couple of minutes. Not to mention that they screwed up our bill and rented me faulty equipment but more on that later. We spent quite a lot of time in and out of the Zion Adventure Company over the next few days so we had a large sample size to complain about. If I were to go back to Zion, I would look into another company to rent gear from. It was still a good day as we learned lots and felt ready to tackle the canyons ourselves. Because Springdale is so close to Zion National Park, accommodation is quite pricey so we had booked a campsite on the other side of the park (Zion Ponderosa). Before we could head for the campground, we still had to eat and see if we could get a permit to hike the Narrows. At the park info centre, we were told there was a flash flood advisory for the next day. Because of this, there were permits available as a lot people were probably cancelling. But after that, the forecast was calling for nothing but sun so we decided to risk it. If there was a flash flood, it would really only be an issue for the bottom half of the canyon, and we would be at the top for the first day where there was room to get to higher ground. So we bought our permits and we were set for hiking the narrows “Top Down”. It was now dark and we still had to eat and drive to the campground which was at least a twenty minute drive away. It was going to another night of little sleep; I thought this was supposed to be a vacation!
So day three was another early morning as we drove into Springdale from the other direction to catch a shuttle to take us to the top of the Narrows trailhead. It was a full shuttle as a large group was also starting the two day hike with us. The flash flood advisory turned out to be a false alarm as the weather turned out to be beautiful. The Narrows is a flat hike that follows the north fork of the Virgin river as it winds through the canyon. Most people hike the Narrows from the “Bottom Up”, meaning they start at the bottom and go as far as Big Springs (6km) before turning back and return to the bottom. Our hike from the top was going to be two days over 26kms total and we would end up at the Temple of Sinawava. The top of the hike started at the Chamberlain Ranch which is actually outside of the park. The first part of the hike went through rolling forests and scrub with no indication of the gorge ahead. Eventually the gorge revealed itself and the farther we hiked, the farther we waded into its depths. After a few hours, we were enveloped in gorge goodness with steep cliffs on either side of us. We had to spend a lot of time walking in the river and the uneven footing made for slow going. Add to that the weight of our packs and we were becoming quite tired despite the fact that there was no elevation gain. While we enjoyed scenery, after ten hours or so of hiking we were really wanting to find our campsite. We deliberately picked one of the last campsites so as to have a shorter second day, but as we neared the eleventh hour of our hike, I was beginning to second guess that decision! At long last, campsite number eleven came into view and we were done for the day. It was a beautiful oasis with a large campsite complete with private swimming hole and beach. A welcome sight after a long day. We had the campsite to ourselves which was even better. So after setting up camp and eating dinner out of a bag, we settled in for the night.
After a long first day of hiking, we took the morning of the second day to relax, enjoy the sunshine and our beautiful surroundings. It was going to be a much shorter day so we could afford to relax a little and take our time. It was around eleven in the morning by the time we packed up and started the trek to the Temple of Sinawava. We could see why a flash flood would be bad in the bottom part of the canyon as there was little place to go between the towering sheer walls. We started to see more people the farther we headed down the canyon until finally you had to watch out for other people as well as your footing. There was a reason why there was so many people as the beauty of the canyon was just awesome. It took about six hours to hike the rest of the way to the bottom of the narrows which ended at the Temple of Sinawava. It was a tough two days but totally worth it. So beautiful.
So after the narrows, we had a day to do some local hikes and just drive around the park. We tackled Angel’s Landing which was “just” a four hour hike round trip with an elevation gain of 450 meters. It wasn’t just the elevation that was hard it was the 35+ degree heat. We made it nonetheless; well Marcelo almost made it and it is definitely worth the hike. We had a great day of taking it relatively easy and enjoying the park. We had one more big hike ahead us the next day so it was nice a break.
For our last day in Zion we were tackling the Subway slot canyon. The Subway is the probably the most famous slot canyon in Zion and maybe even the world so we were hoping to finally put our rappelling skills to good to use. We drove into Springdale first thing in the morning to catch the shuttle and arrived at the trailhead around 9am. The suggested time to complete the 9.5 mile trek was around seven hours, but if our past hikes were any indication, it was going to take us longer than that. Either we were really slow or the time estimates we read were really aggressive. For gear, we each had our rappelling equipment plus full wet suits and water shoes. I carried both my cameras with me where my Nikon was in a waterproof camera bag. We knew we were going to get wet so took all the necessary precautions. Marcelo also had his GPS which proved invaluable and kept us on the right path which wasn’t always easy to find.
There was one other hiker (Todd) that was also doing the Subway so we set out as a threesome. It was good to have another set of eyes to help find the trail. It started out as a beautiful day with some high clouds in the sky. It made for a beautiful sight contrasting with the stark landscape. It was a couple of hours before we finally found ourselves with the steep descent into the canyon. Luckily, a large group had passed us, showing the exact way to go. Otherwise, it would have taken us quite a bit longer to find the right entrance point as it was not well marked. At the bottom of the entrance, we had to traverse a large pool of water so it was time to put on the wet suits. It was also a lot cooler in the canyon so the wetsuits also provided some warmth. After talking with the other group, we found out that the repels we trained for were not really necessary and all could be done simply as downclimbs. Oh well, we were going to use our gear anyway since we paid for it. Our first obstacle was a 12′ rappel that probably took us about an hour for all of us to get through but we eventually made it. It was time to get wet as there were several pools that we had to wade/swim through. The water was cold but bearable and we soon came to our next obstacle. Another 12′ drop awaited us that again could have been downclimbed but we elected to rappel it. We were getting the hang of the equipment and the second one went a little smoother.
Our next obstacle proved to be the most challenging but not for the obvious reasons. Throughout the hike I had been using my Nikon and taking it in and out of my waterproof bag. The next rappel was only 8′ but it was a very narrow slot next to a small waterfall. The drop ended in a pool of water that extended to about 30′ long. That is where things got interesting. I made it down to the pool at the bottom without any perceived problems and proceeded to swim out to the end of the pool. We all made it fine and continued our journey. About fifteen minutes later, I reached for my camera bag to take out my camera when I noticed that it was sloshing a bit. “Oh no!” I thought, “I have water in my camera bag.” I opened it and looked inside and indeed it was full of water. What it wasn’t full of was my camera! Apparently, sometime during the last rappel, the seal unsealed and the bag had come open. I’m pretty sure during my swim, the camera was displaced by the water and floated out and to the bottom of the pool. My camera was the latest victim of the subway and I wasn’t at all pleased.
After this point, all photos posted were taken with the Olyumpus TG-1. While competent, it was no replacement for my Nikon. My Nikon had done well. I had tried to break it by dropping it on a sidewalk earlier in the year and it had survived, but apparently it doesn’t do so well under water. Trying to remain upbeat, we continued on our way since we were already well behind schedule. We had one more rappel to do and there was two options we could do, the easy way or the hard way. Marcelo really wanted to try the hard way but after deliberating for almost an hour, we finally decided to take the easier route as we just weren’t comfortable with the more difficult drop. The canyon continued through the colourful walls that made the Subway famous. We finally emerged from the canyon into the sunshine and a series of cascading waterfalls. The route now widened and we crisscrossed the river many times as we picked our way downstream. The time rolled on and the sky started to cloud over as we continued down and looked for the exit to get out of the canyon. It was taking a lot longer than we thought, and we started to worry that we were not going to make it back to town in time to return our gear. Luckily, we still had the GPS so we knew where the exit point should be. We finally came across the exit marker and started the trek up and out of the canyon. It was a good thing too as the clouds had rolled in and it was starting to rain. It was a steep climb, about the equivalent of a grouse grind and after hiking the Subway all day, it was pretty brutal. Plus we were in a hurry now to get back to return our gear before 8pm. What seemed like forever, we finally crested the top of the trail and caught sight of the parking area. We sprinted (probably looked like slow motion at this point) back to the car and drove as quickly as we could back to Springdale. We made it back with ten minutes to spare and the fuel tank on empty. After returning our gear and complaining about my faulty camera bag, we were ready for some food and moving on from Springdale. After filling our stomachs and the fuel tank, we said goodbye to Zion National Park and headed towards the Grand Canyon. I was really tired and it was getting quite late in the evening so we actually only made it to Kanab, Utah before finding a cheap motel and settling in for the night.
Day 7 was a travel day as we made our way to the Grand Canyon. We travelled through Lake Powell which was beautiful and is definitely worth a visit in the future. After a brief stop to visit some toadstools (funny looking rock formations), we arrived in Page, Arizona around 2pm. We wanted to take a tour to see the Upper and Lower Antelope canyons but only really had time for one. So we had lunch and decided on the Lower Antelope canyon. It was longer and less busy so it seemed to have more value for the money. We drove out to the canyon and it was a good thing it had good signage as you would never know it was there otherwise (well except for all the cars and tour buses). The canyon itself was a welcome reprieve from the hot Arizona sun. We had two hours to explore the canyon with a local native guide along with about 15 other people. The canyon was amazing and hopefully I will get back to see the Upper Antelope Canyon. We didn’t exactly get to go at the optimal time for pictures so I can imagine how beautiful it would be at the right time of day.
Our journey continued on towards the Grand Canyon. We still had a ways to go to get to the Grand Canyon and by the time we got there, it was well after dark. We checked out a couple of hotels but they were really expensive so opted to stay just outside the park at the Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan. So after another long travel day (everything seemed to take longer on this trip!), we had found a place to stay and now needed to get some sleep so we could tackle the canyon in the morning.
In order to save time we decided to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in one day. We had read various things about whether this was a good idea or not. Some said it was too difficult while others said it was hard but very doable. We went with the doable. So another early morning as we caught the shuttle to the trailhead and we were descending into the cool morning air. I have to say that the Grand Canyon is touristy and cliche but it is still absolutely awesome. It is so massive that it doesn’t even really feel like a canyon. It’s more of a huge valley with a large deep canyon the extends from the floor of the valley. You can’t see the bottom until a couple of hours into the hike. It was a fairly easy trail down with lots of switch backs but as the time went on, the temperature went up. Soon we had no shade to speak of and the temperature climbed over 30 degrees Celcius. Most of the people we came across were only hiking a little ways down and then turning around and climbing back up. Not us though, we wanted to do the whole thing in one day. Stupid schedule! After four and a half hours, we hit the bottom and descended upon Bright Angel campround and dunked our heads in Angel Creek to cool off. Another ten minutes which felt like ten hours and we were at Phantom Ranch which was where we were going to relax and have some lunch before starting the long climb back to the South Rim. Phantom Ranch is a great spot to cool down and rest up for the long hike up. We knew it was going to take longer to get back to the South Rim but we wanted to wait so we weren’t hiking in the scorching heat. So we hung out and drank copious amounts of ice tea and water. We also didn’t want to hike in the dark so we couldn’t leave too late either. We started to get restless about 2:30 and despite the heat, we packed up and headed up the Bright Angel Trail. The first hour or so was brutal because of the heat but it cooled down the farther we climbed and soon we were in complete shade. It took us about 5.5 hours to climb back to the South Rim and by that time we were hiking in complete darkness. Despite the darkness, the trail was easy to follow and we were soon sitting down for dinner at the Arizona Room in the Bright Angel Lodge. A good way to end a long but rewarding day.
We spent the morning walking along the trails at the South Rim with all the other tourists. It was a great day to spend the morning and the views were fantastic. The only downside was we were cutting into our travel time to get to Havasu Falls, our next and last hike. For the first time, the weather turned nasty and we ended up driving through a thunderstorm. It rained most of the way to Williams, Arizona where we stopped for gas. Williams turned out to be a neat little town that was part of the original Route 66. We ended up staying for an hour or so exploring the town before setting off. It was getting late in the afternoon and the weather forecast didn’t look good for the next day so we decided skip our hike to Havasu Falls and head straight to Las Vegas. We took the old Route 66 and we were glad that we had some time to check out a piece American history. It was an unexpected highlight of the trip. We continued on through Kingman and to sin city.
Day 10 and 11
We ended our trip with two days in Las Vegas. No photos for this part of the trip. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas
So after all is said and done, it was a great trip, covering two national parks and a lot of early mornings. Zion and the Grand Canyon are American cliches but there is a reason for that. These two icons are fabulous and should be on everyone’s bucket list and I can only hope to get back sometime soon.