“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.
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.
In 2016, the Centennial Year of the National Park Service (although National Parks had existed for decades prior), Sean and I embarked on a mini-journey to calibrate our Park trips so that by the end of the year, we’d both have visited the same National Parks. That meant that we had to travel to Yosemite, Shenandoah, Dry Tortugas, and Grand Canyon. Along the way, we picked up other Parks near those four so that by the end of the year, we’d visited eight National Parks and thirteen National Park units.
After Yosemite and Channel Islands in May and Shenandoah in June (and Muir Woods, Golden Gate, and Point Reyes in August), we planned to visit the Grand Canyon in September. We knew that we’d want to pick up at least one more Park on a visit to the Grand Canyon. Very early in our planning, we considered a relatively short trip to the South Rim and Petrified Forest National Park, which is near the top of Sean’s list of Parks to visit. But we decided that an extended long weekend was giving both those Parks short shrift.