After breakfast on Wednesday, September 14, we shouldered our packs and walked through Watchman Campground toward the visitor center and the shuttle bus stop where we would board our transportation into Zion Canyon.
Even before we left the campground, we were greeted with beautiful wildflowers and, of course, views.
The electric shuttle buses at Zion National Park cover two routes: one from the visitor center and into Zion Canyon and the other from the Park entrance station and into the town of Springdale. Both routes reduce the glut of traffic that can regularly overwhelm Zion National Park. For instance, even though we were visiting on a Wednesday in mid-September, the parking lot was full and there was a line for the shuttle.
The shuttle, though, was clean and efficient, and soon we were making our way north into the heart of Zion Canyon. A recorded narrative provided orientation along the way.
The shuttle was free, and it was possible to disembark at any of nine stops along the route. At each stop, visitors could catch the next shuttle or the next, depending on how much time they wanted to spend at each place.
Sean and I hopped off the shuttle at stop four: the Court of the Patriarchs. Although the road and the shuttle stop were still in shadow at a quarter after ten in the morning, the three peaks on the western side of Zion Canyon were bright in the sun.
The peaks were named by a Methodist minister, Frederick Vining Fisher, in 1916, just before the National Monument was upgraded to National Park status. The naming of these peaks, after the patriarchs of Hebrew scripture, is reflective of the battle for place names at Zion in its early history. John Wesley Powell had declared the canyon Mukuntuweap, thinking it was the Paiute name for the canyon. But the Mormons who settled in or near the canyon called it Zion, both after the hill in Jerusalem on which was built the physical City of David and after the concept of the City of Heaven. The Mormons saw in the canyon a physical manifestation of the heavenly Zion. The assigning of explicitly Christian place names to the geological features of Zion Canyon asserts Christian (and specifically, Mormon) control over them. It also makes the entire concept of nature as God’s holiest temple, a concept popularized by John Muir, somewhat ploddingly literal. While Muir saw the sacred in the forests, domes, and peaks of the Sierra Nevada, he did not need to take the next step of naming features of the landscape after any particular religious tradition. The point for Muir was that the sacred is inherent in the landscape and in the ecology of that landscape. The place names of Yosemite are by and large descriptive or honorifics for Euro-American settlers and explorers or Native Americans. Half Dome does not need to be called “The Temple of God’s Earthly Glory” or somesuch nonsense to be awe-inspiring, it can simply be the descriptive “Half Dome.” In Zion, the over-the-top religiosity of the place names feels overwrought. It is sometimes hard to determine whether the grandiose place names enhance the feelings of awe at encountering them or whether the names subtly undermine the features, as if the namers felt they needed the association with the sacred of the Judeo-Christian tradition to truly make the features awe-inspiring. In contrast, the many buttes and mesas within the Grand Canyon are also named with religious associations, but there the namers (including Powell) magnanimously acknowledged that the grandeur of the canyon transcended any one religious tradition and named the features after an array of world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
One red peak stands in front of the three white Patriarch peaks reflecting the Hebrew scriptures. The red peak is Mount Moroni, named for the Angel Moroni who appeared to the prophet Joseph Smith in the Mormon tradition. The effect, purposeful or not, is that here Mormonism steps in front of the larger Judeo-Christian tradition.
All that said, the human names assigned to these peaks do not undercut how grand and glorious they are, either in terms of geology or beauty.
We crossed the road, heading down toward a bridge over the Virgin River.
On the other side of the road we encountered a rafter of Wild Turkeys. They paid us no heed whatsoever.
Between the road and the river, we passed what appeared to be a water facility.
Then we crossed the footbridge to the west bank of the Virgin River. Our shuttle bus had long since departed. Our intention was to take the mixed-use hiking/horseback riding trail along the west bank of the river the next one-and-a-half miles north to the Zion Lodge/Emerald Pools area of the canyon.
The spur trail from the shuttle bus stop and over the bridge led to a longer north-south trail. To the south, it was reserved for horses as the Sand Bench Loop Trail. We turned north for the little over one-mile walk to the footbridge near Zion Lodge.
The trail was broad, and there was plenty of evidence of its use by horses.
The trail followed a bench above the Virgin River and below the looming cliffs of Navajo Sandstone that comprised the canyon’s walls. We passed through oak and cottonwood woodlands and more open spaces dominated by Big Sage and Prickly Pear.
A Rock Squirrel was just on the verge of freaking out as we walked past.
And lizards were sunning themselves. The canyon was hot, but not baking. I think it was just about eighty degrees that morning.
We passed no other hikers on the trail. At one point some horses and riders passed us going south, but otherwise we had the trail to ourselves. What we quickly realized was that it wasn’t so much that Zion was overrun with visitors…it was that the huge swell of visitors all visited the same few places, leaving other parts of the Park, even parts of the Park that were literally immediately adjacent to a highly trafficked area, totally free of people.
Presently, we reached the end of our solitude as we approached the famous footbridge over the Virgin River that connects the Zion Lodge area on the east bank with Emerald Pools on the west bank.
The views south (above) and north (below) from the footbridge are among the most famous in Zion. Certainly the southerly view would have been incredible at sunset. But at midday and suddenly surrounded by people, we were not tempted to linger. We snapped some photos and continued on.
Up next: the three Emerald Pools, terraced up the western side of Zion Canyon beneath Lady Mountain at the mouth of Heaps Canyon. From the footbridge, the Upper Pool was one and a half miles away.
The lower part of Emerald Pools Trail led through woodlands of Gambel Oak.
At 0.6 miles, Lower Emerald Pool trickled off of a broad ledge of Navajo Sandstone. The trail led beneath the light waterfall.
It was almost impossible not to get wet on the trail beneath the ledge as a slow line of visitors moved along. The part of the trail at the Lower Pool was mobbed with people of all ages.
Continuing on from Lower Emerald Pool, we made our way up (with somewhat fewer fellow visitors) to Middle Emerald Pool.
Up on the ledge was Middle Emerald Pool.
We continued on. We weren’t alone, but there were far fewer people making the steeper ascent to Upper Emerald Pool.
For a very popular trail, it was surprisingly rough.
The trail ended in a bottleneck where a very short, narrow descent led to a sandy beach. There was a bit of a traffic jam between the people leaving Upper Emerald Pool and those just arriving, like us.
Zion National Park’s Emerald Pools are caused by seeps of groundwater in the Navajo Sandstone of the canyon’s cliffs. Water infiltrates the rock of the plateau through which the canyon is carved. The water slowly descends through the rock layers until it reaches a less permeable layer. Unable to percolate downward, it moves horizontally until it reaches the canyon wall where it emerges at an often-permanent seep. Minerals in the water stain the cliffs below the seep. And hanging gardens appear where plants cling to the cliffs to take advantage of the reliable water source.
At night, the pools are likely visited by an array of wildlife, but during the day they are near-constantly visited by humans.
While we sat there munching on power bars and taking in the pools with the a few dozen other Park visitors of all ages, two guys descended the boulder slope beyond the pools and then carefully waded across them. We weren’t exactly sure where they had even come from.
A couple of woodsy hipsters played a Fleet Foxes song out loud as they communed with the space. It was…odd. It was like back in Chicago when people bike down the street with music playing out loud. Why? Why do you need to share your music with everyone else?
We started our descent, which went swiftly even though we stepped aside for those who were ascending the trail (which is what good trail etiquette dictates).
At the level of Middle Emerald Pool, we set off on Kayenta Trail, a 0.8 miles descent to the Virgin River that trended north along a sandstone ridge.
As we descended, we met a couple in their fifties who were ascending Kayenta Trail. They recognized us from the previous afternoon on Alpine Pond Trail at Cedar Breaks National Monument. We got chatting about the Parks and the trails and also the arch embryos we could see on the cliff faces on either side of Zion Canyon. It was charming to meet other Park enthusiasts on the trail whom we’d seen on other trails.
We continued on down the trail. Kayenta Trail ends at a junction with West Rim Trail and a footbridge across the Virgin River. A ranger was stationed at the junction to monitor the hikers beginning the ascent of West Rim Trail. Most of these folks were about to ascend Angels Landing, one of the most famous hikes in the National Park system. It can also be a deadly hike. Since 2004, seven people have died falling from various points of the hike up Angels Landing. Sean captured a video of hikers beginning their ascent.
Video: Sean M. Santos
We, however, crossed the footbridge to the other side of the river.
Looking north, we had a clear view of Angels Landing, a fin of rock jutting out from the side of the west wall of Zion Canyon. It was named Angels Landing because early visitors assumed that only an angel could possibly reach the summit 1,400 feet above the canyon floor. In 1926, a trail was blazed up the western wall in a series of twenty-one steep switchbacks (called Walter’s Wiggles after the first Zion National Park superintendent, Walter Ruesch). After the switchbacks, at a saddle called Scout’s Lookout, the West Rim Trail continues on toward the rim and the Angels Landing Trail leads up on a narrow ridge (at some points only eighteen inches wide) to the top of the landing.
In planning for Zion National Park, Sean and I had discussed Angels Landing. I have a healthy fear of heights, so I was uncertain whether the Angels Landing hike was something I could do, although I felt confident that I could make it up to Scout’s Landing. But I didn’t want Sean to miss the opportunity to conquer Angels Landing even if I couldn’t. By the time we left on the trip, I was willing to give it ago and had brought weightlifting gloves to improve my grip on the chains that Park Service has installed at points on the trail.
In actually seeing Angels Landing in person, Sean was keen to go up it. But we were getting hungry, so we decided to walk over to the lodge for lunch. Depending on how we felt after lunch, we might attempt Angels Landing.
The hike along the east bank of the Virgin River was a brief and flat 0.6 miles.
Video: Sean M. Santos
At the lodge restaurant, we realized that we were far hungrier than we’d thought. We shouldn’t have been surprised since it was already after two and we had hiked four miles since we’d stepped off the shuttle that morning. The food was good, and the scenery from the terrace was grand.
I discovered, in checking my pack, that I had left my gloves back at our campsite. So that meant that Angels Landing was off the agenda for that afternoon. We’d just have to have other adventures in Zion Canyon after lunch.