Zion Canyon Showers

by Britta on 5 October 2013

in National Park Tour,The Great American Road Trip

Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon in a rare sunny moment

We got rained out of one of the most beautiful national parks of the trip. We stayed for five days, and we kept the rainfly on our tent the entire time, despite the fact that we were camping in the desert. Apparently Zion gets 15 inches of rain a year. About 9 of them fell while we were there, and most of that on our last 2 days in the park.

Our first day there, we started early. We wanted to beat the heat and the crowds, so we rose before sunrise and were in the park to catch the shuttle by quarter after 7. During the height of summer, when most people visit the park, private cars are not allowed beyond a certain point on the road into Zion Canyon, so the park service contracts out a shuttle service, with shuttles looping constantly through the park, dropping off and picking up at the trailheads throughout the canyon. We started out “easy”, a short 4-miler with a nearly 1000 foot elevation gain. We

Hidden Canyon

Hidden Canyon

made our way to the mouth of a hanging slot canyon, aptly named Hidden Canyon, on a trail that hugged the side of the cliff, and provided chains for extra security. The canyon was dry, so we hiked up it for maybe a mile or so, marveling at the pink sandstone walls, pockmarked in some places and washed smooth in others. The canyon floor was sandy, and in the narrowest slots we found ourselves clambering over debris piles, logs and sticks and boulders that had been washed down by the last flash flood. We walked until we started hearing thunder in the distance, and then we turned around and retraced our steps to the mouth. There was no flash flooding that day, but we figured we’d play it safe, this desert hiking thing being new to us and all. We passed several parties still heading up, however, so apparently they felt no alarm.

Once the thunderstorm passed, it got hot. By midday we were done hiking, back at camp relaxing, and the temps made it well into the 90s. We set up our backpacking shelter for shade, but without a breeze and with the leftover humidity from the thunderstorm, it was sweltering. With sunset came relief, but that took a few long hot hours to arrive.

Observation Point

View from the top of Observation Point

We were a little more ambitious the next day. We decided to hike up to Observation Point, which left from the same trailhead as Hidden Canyon but made a significant split from that trail, continuing up the cliff face while the other one leveled off and meandered toward the canyon. Observation Point was located at the top of one of the higher cliffs in the canyon, and there was indeed a fantastic view from the top–when the clouds weren’t in the way. It rained on us nearly the whole way to the top, 4 miles up and 2300 feet in elevation gain. It was still raining when we got to the top, but we stayed long enough for the clouds to clear and to get a view of nearly the entire canyon, with all of the landmarks in view below us. Angel’s Landing, Big Bend, we could even see the trail to Hidden Canyon on the other side of the ravine. A grueling trail, but so worth it once we got to the top. And we actually welcomed the rain; it was much cooler with all that cloud cover.

Angels Landing

Angels Landing (the end of the trail is on the rock fin behind us)

Angel’s Landing is Zion’s most famous day hike, known for its narrow trail with thousand-foot drop offs on either side, with chains bolted to the rock for support. The first section of the trail is a series of switchbacks hacked out of the rock. The short ones are a set of 21 called Walter’s Wiggles, which zigzag tightly up the mountain to Scout’s Landing. From there, the Angel’s Landing trail continues on a fin of rock rising out of the canyon, with the chains seemingly the only thing between hikers and the bottom of the canyon. We did the first section of these chains, and decided that was enough. It was a challenge of trust: you have to trust the chains and the bolts in the rock, you have to trust the rubber soles of your shoes, and you have to trust that all the other hikers will make the right decision while near you. It was too much to trust in, for us. Quite frankly, it was the coming down that scared me, that and the fact that there was little room to pass even on the wide sections of rock. Had there been no other hikers on the trail, had I been able to take my own sweet time, had I not had to pay attention to anyone else, I might have gone the whole way. As it was, I was content to turn around where I was, and so was Brian, thankfully. I didn’t want to have to worry about him, too.

Desert Wildflowers

Desert Wildflowers on the trail

We went to town and took showers that afternoon, and found a little gourmet pizza place that also served sandwiches and local beer. It was sunny when we walked in, but the sky slowly clouded over and by the time we got back to camp, the downpour was upon us. A lake started forming in the lower part of our campsite, and though we had pitched our tent on the highest ground available, we feared the lake would grow enough to flood it. Fortunately, it stopped raining just in time, and the lake dissipated very quickly, to our surprise.

The next morning, it was raining, and we decided we didn’t need to get up so early, because the rain would be keeping both the heat and the crowds away. We hadn’t done the Narrows, the most famous slot canyon in Zion, nor did we get to. The river was deep and muddy, and all the rangers recommended that people stay out of it. So we took the tourist path from the shuttle stop to the beginning of the slot canyon, as far as we could possibly go, and got rained on nearly the whole time. There had been a flash flood the evening before, and flooding was expected for most of the day.

That afternoon, the sky cleared and the sun came out. The mountain next to the campground was called the Watchman, and we decided to do the trail up later that afternoon. It was 3 miles, with only about a 300-foot elevation gain, so the trail was an easy one. We took our time at the top, trying to find our tent and pointing out all of the peaks and repeating what we knew about them, having memorized by then the recorded spiel that played on all the park shuttles. We made our way down and thought we’d cook our dinner over the fire. We had just gotten it going when the sky opened up. We saw it clouding over and rushed to get our rain jackets in the midst of chopping veggies. We got soaked to the skin anyway, simply because all of a sudden the wind whipped up and knocked over our shelter and our chairs, and righting it meant fighting through the wind and the tangle of legs, guy lines and trekking poles that we had rigged to get it to stand up. Once it was righted, we sat under it and watched our fire sputter and the lake fill up again, this time leaving only about 6 inches of shoreline between the tent and the edge. Eventually, the rain lightened up a little, and we started to hear a roaring nearby. We went out to look at the river, and where it had been muddy and slow moving, now it was red with sandstone runoff and very swift. We walked upstream and discovered a new tributary, one that hadn’t been there a few hours ago, carrying down red mud from the mountain we had just hiked up.

Clouds at Observation Point

Clouds at Observation Point

On our last day, we left the main canyon and drove to the north part of the park to hike in the canyons there. It was still wet, some parts of the road were one lane instead of two due to debris that had been washed down, and the rain continued to spit. The clouds dropping in and out of the canyon made for some dynamic pictures, but we couldn’t see the peaks or the backs of the canyons. We tried a hike, but we got in about a mile and eight stream crossings before it started to rain harder and we decided we’d better play it safe and not get stranded on the wrong side of the creek. By then, after our second hike was thwarted, we realized it was probably time to move on.

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