ConservAmerica members often ask me about my travels and for advice on travel to our country’s great open spaces. Many have more experience than me, but I thought I’d share notes from my family’s Thanksgiving trip to Zion and Grand Canyon National Park. One thing we learned is that we want to go back, see more, and do more.
I encourage you to share your favorite memories or ideas for visits to these parks in the comment section below!
As parents of twin 15 year old sons, my wife and I have discovered that our calendar no longer belongs to us. It is controlled by the wide-ranging interests of the boys and their school schedule. We skipped our annual vacation “out west” this summer due to too many conflicts. But, when we saw that their school had tacked the Wednesday before Thanksgiving on to the holiday break, we jumped at the chance to “go”.
I’m a northern Rockies kind of guy: mountains, forests, trout laden streams, elk, moose, bears, and cool temperatures. My wife, though, has always had a hankering for the landscapes of the Southwest. We decided, given our limited time frame, to visit Zion National Park.
Traveling in the Fall is a great time to visit our national parks. The crowds are gone, the temperatures are moderate, and the colors spectacular. Entering Zion Canyon is like entering an enormous temple. In fact, the names given to many of the natural features by early Mormon settlers reinforces that sentiment: Temple of Sinawava, Court of the Patriarchs, Tabernacle Dome, and Towers of the Virgin, to name a few.
Over two-and-a-half days, we notched five hikes, including two of the more strenuous listed in the park’s guide. Hidden Canyon was our unanimous choice as favorite trail. It begins with a series of switchbacks shared by visitors making their way to Weeping Rock, a prominent and easily accessible feature. A chained, 2 foot wide ledge around a bare cliff face takes hikers to the canyon entrance, hanging about 800 feet above the valley floor. The canyon is narrow—sometimes less than ten feet wide. For most of the year, a stream makes the hike wet and muddy. But, in late November, we found dry sand all the way to our turn-around point. The hike required modest rock climbing skills, some team work, and common sense.
Our son, Nathaniel (named after James Fenimore Cooper’s Pathfinder, “Natty Bumppo”), picked The Narrows as the hike he didn’t want to miss. This is the most famous hike in the park and involves wading upstream in the Virgin River for several hours. We rented dry pants and water shoes from a local outfitter and hit the trail head by 9AM. In the summer, a visitor might share the route with several hundred fellow travelers. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we saw just four other people in the canyon. The route takes hikers to one of the most photographed places in the park—a section of The Narrows called Wall Street. The vertical canyon walls close into within 20 feet of each other, and with every passing minute, the sun’s movement changes the scene.
While the sun isn’t part of the park, its varying light throughout the day is as important as any landmark inside the park. Artists and photographers flock here, chasing the light. Indeed, my wife commented that she’d be content to sit in a chair, with a thermos of coffee, and just ‘watch’ the day unfold in the Valley.
We dedicated one day to a quick trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, about 2 ½ hours from our base in Springdale, UT. The drive itself is spectacular and along the way we stopped to visit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, near Kanab. The boys enjoyed an hour of rambling over 800 acres of fine dunes.
I’m embarrassed to admit that none of us had ever visited the Grand Canyon before. Almost all of the visitor services on the North Rim close on October 15 each year. Snow can close the only road to the Rim anytime after that date. For most of our final approach to the park, ours was the only car on the road. When we arrived, we found only two other groups on the Bright Angel Point pathway.
Truly, words cannot describe the view. Time seemed to slow down to a geologic pace, and I found myself thinking about Creation, about natural and native history, about what lay around the next bend of the Colorado, about what I wanted to do the next time I came here.
We drove east of the North Rim Visitor Center to the Walhalla Plateau, stopping at viewpoints, including one named for the great Republican conservationist, Roosevelt Point, and the road’s terminus at Cape Royal. We were the only people at Cape Royal. With the scent of pinyon pines on the breeze, we strolled to the overlook and stood in silent awe.
Viewing our great parks is an act of meditation. As a person of abiding faith, the notion that God speaks to us in these beautiful places is humbling. The silence of open spaces fills my soul, and the breeze carries away my troubles.
Now, it’s your turn! Tell us about your experiences in these parks.