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Zion

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Zion National Park is amazing. Many of the big parks are unique in one way or another, but no place touches Zion. It is a long narrow valley, so narrow it's called a Slot Canyon. The Lower Zion is a mile wide tabletop flat valley floor, flanked by sheer cliffs rising a mile skyward. It's scenic enough. And delicate. Just parking your vehicle and coming in through a tunnel by battery powered bus establishes this as a different experience. Camping or staying at the Lodge is mesmerizing. You find yourself wanting to just sit in an Adirondack Chair or lay on your back and look at the cliffs, especially when you can use binoculars to find hikers creeping up the trails or climbers pulling themselves up or hanging their hammocks for a mid day nap, hanging from pitons half a mile above you. The Lodge, as most of its national park brethren, is an architectural masterpiece. And the Virgin River, flowing cold through a 110 degree desert, is an inviting place for an afternoon dip.

There is a beautiful campground in the lower canyon. Sites are spacious, shaded and grassy. They include tables and firepits and well maintained restrooms. They do not offer showers. For that, you go outside the park entrance and put quarters in a machine for three minutes of hot water. The Virgin River runs right past the campground, so you can finish your dayhiking by early afternoon, fix lunch, and sit in the pools to keep cool until dinner.

This is the most vertical park America offers. Every trail goes deep into the canyon or up to the rims. You could enjoy a fine week here with four or five great day hikes and a two or three day backpack. But the reason you drive three days from Lexington to Zion is for the following three trails :

l. Observation Point. At the top of the Lower Canyon, where the walls begin closing in toward The Narrows. Strenuous trail climbs four miles through continuing switchbacks to the rim, from which you look down on Zion Canyon, tangential Echo Canyon, and across to Angels Landing, Red Arch Mountain and Cable Mountain (photo bottom right). This is a great place to watch Peregrine Falcons riding the air currents and, once they spot their prey, diving at 100 mph. Take a snack, bottle of water, camera and binoculars and figure on staying for a while. Your legs will be ready to rest. You need to get up in the morning, finish breakfast and start up the trail no later than 9 a.m. You want to be up on top by 11 and starting down by noon. Any later than this, and you'll be caught in the building heat, which would be your worst nightmare. It is110 during the summer down on the valley floor, and hotter than that up along the cliffs with their reflected heat bouncing back and forth.

2. Angel's Landing. Observation Point is breathtaking, but this hike will blow your mind. Several lists rank it as one of the top 10 day hikes in the world. But this is also serious business. You need to make sure everyone in your group is focused and mature. Half of all the people who start up this trail do not finish it. They either tire out, get dizzy, or just become afraid. As with Observation Point, you must get an early start. This trail is only 2.2 miles one way, but it will take you a while. It begins with a bridge across the Virgin River and a pleasant walk through a scrub forest of cottonwood and box elder. But then you turn left into Refrigerator Canyon and start switchbacking up and up and up, 30 in all, steep and narrow. The stonework here is considered one of the engineering wonders of the national park system. You will need to stop at least once and if your group is not in top shape you may need two or three pauses. Finally you come out at Scout Lookout, a sandy terrace with views straight down into Zion Canyon. Some of your group may stop here after they see what comes next. Called The Razor's Edge, the trail climbs an ever narrowing knife of rock with thousand foot sheer drops on both sides. The scariest sections are the breaks between chain railings, where you're relying on handrails and footholds sunk into the rock. There are no aids at all once you level out on Angel's Landing. Many of our groups have dropped to their knees and crawled out the final distance. Your reward for this disorienting climb is an incredible 360 degree panorama. The Virgin River curls around below you for 320 degrees. If you can steel yourself to crawl close enough to the edge to look down, the cars on the road by the river look like tiny specks of color. Without binoculars, you can not see people on the parking lot or the bridge. And you're not finished. Many hikers consider the climb back down from Angel's Landing to Scout Lookout much worse than the climb up. See photo at right. Many go down backward. Slowly. (Also see photo top right)
3. The Narrows. This is another mindblower, from exactly the oppopsite perspective as Angel's Landing. You hike eight miles round trip. But you're hiking up one of the world's greatest slot canyons. You need special equipment.which you can rent from several outlets down in Springdale, at the park entrance. You need water shoes, a waterproof pack, a heavy staff, and all or part of a wetsuit. The Virgin River is the trail. You will be hiking in water ranging from hip deep to chest deep. Every once in a while you'll emerge onto a sandbar or shallow ledge, but most of the time you'll be in water. And if you're claustrophobic, this is not for you. The canyon is not wide at its mouth, and it narrows as you continue, until you reach places where you can touch the walls on either side with your staff from midriver. The multicolored cliffs soar a thousand feet upward. You can see a thin slot of light way up there, but the canyon down where you are is in deep shade even at noon. The Narrows could actually be a 15 mile through hike, but you'd have to start at dawn and finish up just at dark and there are some tricky waterfalls to scale partway through. The sane alternative is the four mile hike up to Orderville Canyon, which opens out to your right. A mile up this side cleft brings you to another high waterfall, at which point most people turn back. There's a sandy ledge at the base of the waterfall, and a shaft of sunshine, which makes a nice lunch stop. You need a little flexibility for this hike. The Park Service monitors rainfall in the watershed above The Narrows, because if any rain falls, it raises water levels in the canyon 24 hours later. In such cases the Park Service shuts the gate and keeps hikers out until water levels recede. Unlike the other hikes, you can start this one a little later, because the canyon is the coolest place in the park. (photo left and series of five above)

There are another dozen dayhikes, most of which lead up to overlooks along one of the rims. But there are also backpacking opportunities. We think the best are as follows :

l. East Rim Trail. 150 yards inside the East Entrance, turn north on a paved road that runs in to a ranger residence. The trailhead is at the end of this short spur. You start up Clear Creek through slickrock formations, then turn left (north) up Cave Creek. The trail winds around through steep, wooded slopes and emerges again into slickrock, where you get excellent views of Checkerboard Mesa. You wander along the high cliffs of Jolley Draw and pass an impressive waterfall. You finally reach the rim, and hike through forest for several miles. The trail then begins a long descent. You come to a pipe running out of the hillside, which is the only reliable source of safe water on the East Rim. Just past that spring, you'll come to the intersection of Cable Mountain and Deertrap Trails. They form a Y trail. Turn left here and hike to the Y. You could hike to one of the scenic overlooks, take a photo break, then hike back to this intersection and hike to the other overlook and pitch camp. Or you could camp one night at each of the overlooks, which are about three miles apart. Both overlooks are spectacular, but they offer different views. Whichever you choose, you'll come back out the same trail you came in, then turn left and resume hiking on East Rim Trail. You'll descend a series of switchbacks, then enter a difficult stretch where you cross a section of open slickrock. There's no real trail visible on the smooth rock. Cairns mark the way, but you have to study carefully to find them. There are also places where it's hard to get solid footing, especially with the pack affecting your balance. But you come out on the Observation Point Trail and hike down to the road. You will have come about 15 miles if you hiked both forks of the Y.

2. West Rim Trail. There is an entire section of Zion National Park that most visitors never see. It is the vast plateau to the west of the main canyon. To reach it, you have to drive out the South Entrance at Springdale, turn West, and re-enter the park at the West Entrance. There are numerous trails over in that section, but the best is the West Rim Trail. It begins at Lava Point and comes out at Scout Lookout at Angels Landing. This is a 15 mile route over an amazing landscape of twisted rock formations, domes, beehives, sweeping views and wierd canyons. Three springs along the way provide safe water. Trees are intermittent. The only true forested section was burned out by a lightning induced fire back in the 1980s, and is still recovering. Lava Point is at 8000 ft., and the Angels Landing Trailhead at 4500, so the West Rim Trail shows an overall descent. However, it is a jagged profile, continually going up and down along the way. During the last mile there is another stretch of slickrock hiking, where the trail is marked by cairns, is hard to locate, and footing is treacherous on the smooth rock. This might seem like a good two day hike, but 100 degree heat slows you. It is a better three day route.

Zion is a three day drive from Lexington. We recommend KOAs at Lawrence (Kansas) and Glen Springs (Colorado). You basically take I-64 and I-70 west into Utah, I-15 South, then state route to Springdale and the South Entrance.

We like to celebrate the last night in the park with a meal in the Lodge. There's also a fine store there, which is about your only source of park t-shirts, books, postcards or other souvenirs. Zion is the least commercialized of any national park we've seen.

However, Springdale is worth a few hours. It has hot showers, laundry, a great Mexican restaurant, and several rock, jewelry and Indian artifact outlets. It also has your only gas station and camping supply stores.

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