I have a confession to make. The American Southwest wasn’t on my adventure radar until my friend Reed persuaded me to join him on a road trip through Utah Canyon Country.
Driving into Zion National Park at sunset was a shot in the arm for my wanderlust. I was ready to explore the big red playground.
At the entrance to the park is a very cool small town called Springdale filled with great restaurants, art galleries, and hotels. But when I’m in a new territory, I always talk to the staff at local outdoor stores to get the intel on the best spots. So we headed to Zion Adventure Company to start planning our trip.
The people there did more than just give us pointers; they sat down with us to highlight the best hikes and lookouts — and even recommended what gear we should rent to get the most out of our experience. This place had far and away one of the most helpful teams I’ve ever come across. We went from no plan to a three-day, sunrise-to-sunset itinerary in less than 30 minutes.
Our first challenge was tackling Angels Landing, a dramatic rock formation rising almost 1,500 feet above the canyon floor. Although the trail there is 2.4 miles long, there’s another shorter route that’s 1.1 miles round trip, a strenuous hike cut into solid rock with only chain cables to prevent you from falling off the sheer hundred-foot cliffs on either side.
As a recent snowfall remained on the cliffs, the crampons we rented (for $8 — not bad!) made all the difference in the world. Of the hundred or so people we saw on the trail that day, we were two of four with crampons. (Heck, we even saw one girl hiking in TOMS.) Given that a handful of people have died on this hike in recent years, it’s a miracle no one was hurt that day — which highlights the need to ask questions and make sure you’re prepared for current conditions before setting out.
Angels Landing is a famous hike, but the most famous in Zion has to be the Narrows, one of the most unique hikes in the world. You literally trek up the Virgin River through a 2,000-foot gorge, as the water covers the basin from canyon wall to canyon wall in many places. Since we were hiking in March, we rented dry suits with neoprene booties, walking sticks, and waterproof hiking boots.
We were so excited to test our dry suits that we were purposely hiking in the water, but the novelty soon wore off as snowmelt turned what was a tranquil morning stream into a swiftly moving current. As the muddy river wended its way through the canyon, we were forced to cross waist-high water dozens of times, which accelerated our leg fatigue.
The big surprise came when a weary-looking mule deer stumbled out of the canyon and almost ran into us. From talking to locals, this is extremely rare to see. Though it was likely lost and disoriented, it was heading out of the canyon so I hope it made it!
After eight hours in the Narrows, the novelty had worn off and we were begging to get out of those dry suits. We had forgotten the golden rule of the bottom-up hike in the Narrows: the farther you go up, the longer the hike back. The canyon walls and towering snowy peaks had mesmerized us to the point we weren’t thinking about how tired we were. Terrible problem to have, right? I guess it could have been.
I always like to say that some places just get it. It can be a café or a store that seems to capture that certain je ne sais quoi of a place. In this instance, the red canyon walls of Zion were complemented perfectly by the town of Springdale to make the whole place just get it. I don’t know why I counted the Southwest out as a prime destination before, but I can tell you that there will be many trips back in the future.
Ben Long is a writer and photographer from Lewisburg, West Virginia, who is currently working and adventuring across South America. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.