As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
“Wait, did you quit your job to go to the Grand Canyon?”
I was on a tour bus somewhere in rural North Carolina. Next to me was Steve, the inspiring executive director of a conservation organization in northwestern Illinois. We were in North Carolina for the annual Land Conservation Conference. We’d been on a rainy field trip most of the day and now were on our way back to Raleigh. I had been telling Steve about our upcoming Grand Canyon trip, less than a week after the conference. In thinking through the timeline, Steve realized that I would not be in Chicago for my former employer’s very important event, which he was going to attend. It was the sort of function that a staff member would not dream of missing.
“I won’t necessarily say that I quit my job to go to the Grand Canyon, Steve,” I replied with a grin. “But if you want to spread that rumor, I won’t stop you.”
After lunch on September 15, we weren’t quite finished yet with Zion National Park. That night, we’d be camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but before heading south to our final stop on the Grand Staircase, we had one more Zion adventure complete: East Mesa Trail. The out-and-back trail is a three-mile one-way route to Observation Point across relatively flat country from the eastern Park boundary to the rim. Unlike Yosemite National Park, where the road to Glacier Point offers views from the rim to thousands of people a day, all of the rim views at Zion must be earned by hiking.
We woke in pre-dawn light on Thursday, September 15. Wind whipped our tent. And the decision that we had been increasingly fretting about was made for us by the wind.After the splendid performance the previous evening, we’d returned to our campsite and rekindled our campfire. We’d tried to turn in relatively early since we’d wanted to be up early to make an attempt at Angels Landing before it became crowded (we were aiming to be on the first shuttle into the restricted portion of Zion Canyon). Since we’d both had a faint signal on our phones, we’d read up a bit more on the hike. In particular, Sean had gotten his first real taste of news items about Angels Landing. The news stories of deaths on the route in the previous decade and a half hadn’t comforted either of our nerves. Nor had they helped me sleep.
After dinner in our campsite on September 14, Sean and I wandered over to the Watchman Campground amphitheater for the evening’s ranger program. On the schedule was “Concert in the Park: Plants, Animals, and live music.”
We got to the amphitheater a couple minutes late, and as we were walking up, we heard an earnest young man singing with guitar accompaniment. He was singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with altered lyrics to make the song applicable to Zion National Park. We froze, wondering if this would be a somewhat embarrassing evening. Sean has intense emotional reactions to people doing somewhat embarrassing things onstage…poor standup say. But we decided to give it a go.
It turned out that Ranger Taylor, the performer, was disarmingly earnest and completely charming. More often than not, his adaptations were clever and illuminating (the best were “Rollin’ to the River” about erosion in Zion Canyon and “Free Falling” about Peregrine Falcons, the fastest birds on earth). He conjured up an image of a creative, wholesome young National Park Service ranger spending his first summer in Zion taking everything in and reacting to the experience by writing songs on his trusty guitar.
As the program came to a close, he said, “We’re technically done for the evening, but for those who want to stay just a little longer, let’s sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ together. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?”
After lunch on September 14, we hopped back on the Zion National Park shuttle to explore points in Zion Canyon north of Zion Lodge, namely Weeping Rock and the Temple of Sinawava. It was already 3pm by the time we boarded. Our only full day in Zion was moving swiftly.
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.
We departed Cedar Breaks National Monument around 3:30pm on Tuesday, September 13 for the hour and a half drive back to Zion National Park. As we traveled south on I-15, an immense thunderstorm system blew east to west across the interstate. Thunder, lightening, winds strong enough to knock over a semi, and torrents of rain caused us to slow to a near standstill. There was even some flash flooding. It was a genuinely frightening driving experience. But finally we passed out of the storm and continued on our way under relatively dry conditions.
On Tuesday, September 13, we left Zion National Park for a day trip back up the Grand Staircase to the Pink Cliffs at Cedar Breaks National Monument on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs here are the same geological layers as at Bryce Canyon National Park, but at Cedar Breaks, uplift has caused the rim of the amphitheater above the cliffs to soar 2,400 feet higher to an average elevation of 10,400 feet. That was also some 6,400 feet higher than the elevation of the floor of Zion Canyon where we’d slept the previous night.
Cedar Breaks National Monument was established on August 22, 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It protects just over 6,100 acres of the subalpine edge of the Markagunt Plateau and the spectacular Cedar Breaks amphitheater plunging 2,000 feet below the plateau rim and spanning three miles across. Despite its close proximity to some of the most famous National Parks in the country, Cedar Breaks National Monument is lightly visited, averaging fewer than 500,000 visitors per year.
It was already 4pm on Monday, September 12 by the time we drove out of Bryce Canyon National Park and into the gateway town of Bryce, Utah, where we got hotdogs and kombucha at the massive tchotchke-laden store at Ruby’s Inn. Sitting in the Jeep afterward, we made the appropriate decision that it was too late to go to Cedar Breaks National Monument and that we should continue on to Zion National Park and set up camp. We decided that we could drive out to Cedar Breaks from Zion in the morning.
We drove off the Paunsaugunt Plateau and south on Highway 9 toward Zion’s east entrance. The drive through rolling scrubland took about an hour and a quarter, and we arrived at the east entrance a little after 5:30pm. From the 8,000-feet elevation of the rim of Bryce Canyon, we’d dropped to 5,700 feet at the eastern entrance of Zion. And we would drop another 1,700 feet by the time we reached the canyon floor.