Bruce spent most of 2008 living in the US and was joined by Alistair later in the year for a month-long road trip that included hiking in some of the most spectacular parts of the country. Scroll down to read:
- An introduction to Zion National Park in Utah, home to some of the best day walks anywhere
- Track notes for an overnight walk to Diamond Lake in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains
- A feature article on our road trip.
WELCOME TO THE PROMISED LAND: ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
Some time around June 1844, Isaac Behunin must have started to wonder if joining the new religion of Mormonism was such a good idea.
Behunin had been a bodyguard for the movement’s founder and leader, Joseph Smith, and had just learned of Smith’s death at the hands of a mob in prison. And that was just the start of Behunin’s troubles. He and his family fled persecution through four states for 17 years before eventually finding safety in a narrow canyon in the harsh Utah desert. In 1863, he built a cabin and named the place Zion, an ancient Hebrew word for a place of peace and refuge.
Behunin sold his farm for 200 bushels of corn in 1872, but his legacy lives on in one of America’s most spectacular national parks. Zion National Park, declared in 1919, is 60,000 hectares of towering cliffs, knife-edge ridges, jumbled peaks and hidden beauty spots.
The heart of the park is Zion Canyon, which is less than 1km wide and has only one road. The remote Kolob Canyons, located about 50km to the north, attract more hardened adventurers.
Zion Canyon can be approached from the south through the town of Springdale, or from the east through the 1.7km long Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, one of the engineering marvels of the world when it was completed in 1930. The two roads meet at Zion Junction, the furthest private vehicles are allowed inside the canyon (at least in the peak visitor season from April to October). From there visitors hop on the Zion shuttle, a fleet of gas-powered buses that trundle at intervels of no more than a few minutes, stopping at eight points of interest to pick up and drop off hikers and sightseers.
The road follows the snaking Virgin River, which, over roughly 250 million years, carved Zion’s breathtaking scenery, and gives life to animals including bighorn sheep and a handful of mountain lions, almost 300 types of birds and more than 900 plant species. Mother nature has packed all that life, the remarkable landforms and a diversity of environments – in short, a whole lot of really interesting stuff – into a very small space. Which makes it heaven for anyone with a love of wild nature and a thirst for adventure.
TAKE A HIKE
Zion is home to two of the best day hikes anywhere in the world: Angel’s Landing and the Narrows.
Angels Landing is a jaw-dropping spine of rock that juts into the canyon and can be scaled on an 8km return trip that will take about four hours. The track scales the canyon wall on a series of switchbacks, culminating in a series of 21 hairpin bends carved into the cliffs that catapult you to Scout Lookout. From here the track traverses the narrow fin of Angel’s Landing, climbing steeply with dizzying drop-offs on both sides. In places the trail is barely more than a metre wide and several hundred metres above the canyon floor, the bushwalking equivalent of a high-wire trapeze act. Those who make it to the top are rewarded with incredible views in all directions.
To experience Zion from a very different perspective, try the Narrows. Where the canyon becomes too narrow for cars, a track winds its way alongside the Virgin River until the cliff walls close in so much there isn’t even room for a walking track. From here there is only one way forward: through the river.
The water is rarely more than knee-deep and there are stretches of sand and boulders that provide spots for a rest, or just to take in the incredible surroundings. At Wall Street, 4km upstream, the river is framed by sheer cliffs over 300m high; anyone with inflated ideas about the position of humanity in the grand scheme of things should be sent here.
The Narrows can also be traversed on a one-way overnight trip, starting at the northern trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch. This track requires careful preparation and a permit. If you intend to tackle the Narrows in either one day or two, be sure to check weather conditions before heading out; flash floods occur at any time of year, particularly in the monsoon season from July-August. And they can be deadly.
There are several options for hikers who want to carry a tent, including the Trans-Park Connector, which links the park’s northern and southern sections in a four-day trek. The most popular backcountry trip is the 23km West Rim Trail, which starts at Lava Point and finishes in Zion Canyon, descending via the Angels Landing trail.
The towering cliffs of Zion are, unsurprisingly, a Mecca for rock-climbers. There are epic big wall routes on Angels Landing, the Great White Throne, the Watchman and the West Temple. There are more big wall and free climbing routes in the Kolob Canyons, also the starting point for probably America’s best-known canyoning route, the Subway, which involves three basic rappels to reach a sculpted canyon that preserves dinosaur tracks.
Cycling and horse riding are allowed inside the canyon and so is kayaking, but only when the Virgin River runs above 140 cubic feet per second, which happens on one or two days a year, during the spring snowmelt or after a summer storm.
Getting there: Take a flight to Las Vegas (it’s about $3500 for a return ticket from Sydney), hire a car and hit Interstate 15, the highway that connects Vegas with Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City. Highway 9 branches off to the east just north of the Arizona border and takes you to Springdale. There is no public transport access.
When to go: the peak visitor season is April-October. Try to avoid the height of summer (July-August) when the daytime temperature is regularly in the high-30s. Winter is relatively mild but storms can last several days and roads can be icy.
Fees and permits: A seven-day park pass for private vehicles costs $US25. Permits are required for overnight backcountry trips and can be obtained from the visitor’s centre. $US10 covers two walkers.
Where to stay: Camp inside the canyon at Watchman or South campgrounds. Bookings can be made at Watchman from April-October, phone 877-444-6777 or book online at recreation.gov. For a bit more luxury try Zion Lodge (phone 1-888-297-2757). There are plenty of accommodation options at Springdale just outside the park entrance.
Supplies: Springdale is on the doorstep of the park and has everything you’ll need, from pizzas to outdoor gear.
More info: Lonely Planet’s Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks is an excellent introduction. The park visitor centre has a range of books and hiking guides including Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks by Erik Molvar and Tamara Martin. At the park entrance you’ll get a free map. On the web try the official parks service site.
BEST ZION WALKS
1.6km return, 45 minutes
Starting at the eastern end of the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, climb around and over rocks to a lookout over the Zion Canyon. A fun family walk. Start (very) early to watch the rising sun paint orange the canyon’s massive cliffs.
Northgate Peaks Trail
7.2km return, 2 hours
An easy track in Kolob Canyons with wildflowers and views to the distant Zion Canyon.
11km (approx) return, 3-6 hours
The time and distance depend on how far you want to go up the Virgin River and how long you like to spend contemplating the gigantic cliffs that seem to swallow the river and the hikers in it. Expect to get wet, at least to the thighs.
8km return, 4.5 hours
A steady and spectacular climb to Scout Lookout precedes the spine-tingling ascent up this narrow prow of sandstone. A classic.
13km return, 5.5 hours
Another steep climb rewarded with incredible views. Ascend through Echo Canyon to the canyon rim, then stroll to Observation Point, 650m above the Virgin River and almost 200m above Angels Landing, which juts out from the canyon wall opposite.
West Rim Trail
23km one-way, two days
Zion’s premier overnight experience, hiking from Lava Point to a choice of spectacular cliff-top campsites. On day two it’s a steep descent into Zion Canyon.
Start at Lee Pass and head south, emerging four days later at Zion Lodge (take some pocket money for an ice-cream!). Also pack plenty of water.
* Contact the backcountry desk at the Zion Visitor Centre for up-to-date trail and weather information and to book permits for overnight trips.
TRACK NOTES: DIAMOND LAKE (2 DAYS, 11.6km)
The Indian Peaks Wilderness covers 30,000 hectares of saw-toothed ridges and beautiful forests at the southern end of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The area includes almost 50 lakes, and Diamond Lake is one of the most accessible, providing an easy introduction to the Rockies. The lake is at 3335 metres above sea level – high enough to have an impact if you have just landed from Australia and haven’t spent any time getting used to the thinner air, as Alistair discovered.
Day 1: Fourth of July trailhead to Diamond Lake (5.8km, 2.5 hours)
From the car park at the Fourth of July Trailhead follow the Arapahu Trail as it climbs gently through attractive spruce forest. In summer this area is alive with wildflowers of all colours – the displays here revealed by the melting winter snow are nationally renowned. Squirrels and chipmunks are also common.
After 1km a track junction is reached, turn left following the sign to Diamond Lake. The track follows the northern side of the valley of the North Fork of Middle Boulder Creek, with views across the valley to Mt Neva (3905m) and its ridgeline. A waterfall that plunges into the valley flows from Diamond Lake on the other side.
It is a gradual descent of about another kilometer to the creek, which is more impressive than some rivers in Australia. The creek is crossed on an attractive wooden bridge and the area is worth exploring for an impressive waterfall and some delightful cascades.
From the creek the track takes a big U-turn and heads back along the southern edge of the valley, descending gradually through more spruce forest. As it approaches the lake the track crosses some open meadows – these can be damp underfoot but are home to more beautiful wildflower displays; wooden boardwalks protect the most delicate – to reach a fork in the trail just short of Diamond Lake. The right fork leads to the lake, the left continues for another 4km to join the Devils Thumb trail near Jasper Lake.
The lake is in a beautiful setting nestled in a glacial cirque basin, flanked by steep cliffs and delightful forest. There is also good fishing for trout, if you’re into that kind of thing.
There are 10 designated campsites around the lake, with the first reserved for groups. The sites are all excellent and in picturesque settings not far from the lake edge. Bears inhabit the Rockies – put all food in a plastic bag and hang it in a tree 100 metres from camp overnight.
Day 2: Diamond Lake to Fourth of July trailhead (5.8km, 2.5 hours)
Retrace the same trail back to the car park.
NEED TO KNOW
The trailhead is reached via the town of Nederland, 25km west of Boulder. From there take Country Road 130 then Country Road 111 to the car park. Pick up a permit at the national parks centre in Boulder on your way through. This is a multi-day walk and you will need appropriate equipment and supplies; make sure you check with the rangers that you have everything you need before you head out.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The Rockies offer virtually endless hiking and sightseeing opportunities.
ACCOMMODATION AND SUPPLIES
Boulder is the outdoor capital of Colorado. If you’re in Denver, Outdoor World has everything you need in a somewhat bizarre setting for Australian visitors – the shop is decorated with dozens of stuffed native animals, including a raccoon that models the store’s wares on the sunglasses counter.
The Boulder Ranger District office is at 2140 Yarmouth St, Boulder.
ON THE ROAD IN THE USA
Feature article by Alistair that appeared in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper in January 2008
THE look on the security guard’s face said it all: we weren’t welcome here. After three weeks walking and camping in America’s badlands, we just weren’t the type of people they wanted on their tables at this Las Vegas hotel. Either that, or our inflatable dinosaur put them off.
In a good old-fashioned American road trip that involved several weeks of roughing it, Las Vegas was admittedly an unusual choice for the one night in what can loosely be termed civilisation. But in the middle of a desert and on the main highway, it’s kind of hard to avoid.
I had flown to the US to meet by twin brother, who had been working in Denver for the previous six months. We had friends in San Francisco and a month to get there, and in between lay some of the most spectacular scenery in America and, indeed, the world. And we had an inflatable dinosaur.
Or, to be more precise, my brother had the dinosaur, which I had given him as a joke Kris Kringle present the year before. It had since become his unofficial mascot and travelling companion to wild and wonderful locations around the globe. During our trip, T-Rex was photographed atop mountain peaks, on the edge of giant chasms, in narrow, twisted gorges, beside serene lakes and at the slot machines in the Golden Nugget hotel and casino – at least until he was given his marching orders by a security guard.
Our starting point, Denver, provided a quick introduction to life in the United States – roads lined by fast food chain restaurant after fast food chain restaurant (from McDonald’s to Popeye’s, In-n-Out Burgers, A&W All-American Food, K-Bob’s Family Steakhouse and Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard) are patrolled by cars of a size that in Australia you would pay to see crush normal-sized cars (or hire car, a sedan, was classed as a “compact”). The mile-high city doesn’t have much else to offer tourists, its most notable feature was the overpowering smell of the local dog food factory.
But behind Denver is the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies stretch for almost 5000km from Canada to New Mexico, but for many visitors travel the gateway to the mountains is Boulder, Colorado, which is just 50km north of Denver. Picking up camping gear at an outdoor store with a gun department and filled with dead wildlife (a stuffed raccoon was perched on the sunglasses counter wearing the merchandise) and our hire car in central Denver – occasionally remembering to drive on the right side of the road – we made our way to Boulder and on to the start of a hike to a lake perched high in the hills.
The walk was breathtaking and our timing was good; there were wildflowers everywhere. We passed through surprisingly beautiful pine forest (it still looked like a plantation, but somehow it fit here) and an unexpected waterfall before arriving at the lake shore, where we pitched our tent, stringing our food up from a distant tree to avoid bear attack.
The lake was about 3500 metres above sea level – not terribly high by world standards but higher than I had ever been, and a lot higher than where I was about two days’ earlier – that is, Melbourne. Flying at 8000 metres is not, it turns out, sufficient acclimatisation for a trip to altitude, and I woke up with an eye-splitting headache and feeling like I was about to die. Between bouts of vomiting I squeezed off a few photos of the lake at sunrise (well, when would I be there again?), then my brother dragged me back down to the car. Fortunately, a day in bed in more oxygen-rich air had me ready to hit the road.
Our route led south then west, through the open Colorado plains and the afternoon thunderstorms that were apparently normal for this time of year. The first significant stop was at Mesa Verde National Park, which preserves the ancient cliff dwellings off the Pueblo people, the ancestors of the American Indians. They spent 700 years perfecting villages built into sheer cliffs (which they scaled each day to farm on the plains above), then moved out for reasons no one can explain.
From there our travel route took us west into southern Utah and a landscape I recognised instantly – from Road Runner cartoons (we even saw a coyote, although disappointingly it wasn’t attempting to fly off a cliff in some contraption comprising a rocket, sail and an anvil).
There are a string of national parks here that demand inspection: Arches (home to more than 2000 natural arches, including the world’s longest), Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion, as well Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the last place in the continental US to be mapped and the site of spectacular slot canyons.
Each of the parks deserves its own article, collectively they offer a grand vision of wild nature, somewhat unexpected find in the middle of the US. Zion was my favourite, a narrow sandstone canyon framed by sheer cliffs over 300 metres high. A host of walking tracks start at the canyon floor, including two of the best day hikes anywhere in the world, Angels Landing and The Narrows. The Angels Landing track scales a series of switch-backs then crosses a knife-edge ridge which is barely more than a metre wide and hundreds of metres above the canyon floor. The Narrows track – well, there isn’t a track. You just walk up the river beneath the jaw-dropping cliffs.
Continuing east from Zion required a major detour, zig-zagging back east to go around a giant roadblock known as the Grand Canyon. There isn’t much left to say about this wonder of the world. Suffice to say, it’s huge. Even standing on the cliff edge, it’s hard to grasp the canyon’s sheer size: 446km long, up to 29km wide and 1.6km deep.
The detour took us past Monument Valley. If you haven’t heard of it, you have definitely seen it; the giant mesas rising from the flat Arizona desert have been the backdrop in just about every western movie ever filmed.
The road from the Grand Canyon to California heads straight through Las Vegas, where we were welcomed back to populated America by billboards promoting “Girls, Girls, Girls: Sexy Librarians”, “24-Hour Nude Shopping” and grinning photos of small-claims lawyers holding bags with dollar signs on them. The centre of town was just as subtle: a 400-metre long TV screen showing images of the American flag, the constitution and declaration of independence accompanied by a blaring soundtrack of the national anthem. This stirring display of patriotism had a beggar punching the air and shouting “Go USA!”. He’s living the American dream.
Sadly, we had to leave Las Vegas behind to continue west into California, where the desert continues for a surprisingly long time, almost all the way to the coast. We passed giant wind farms that would give an orange-bellied parrot a heart attack to arrive in San Francisco, a cosmopolitan city that could be in Australia. Except for all the American flags and the International House of Pancakes. And the dinosaurs.