For the second year in a row, we decided to take off on a desert camping trip for Halloween weekend.
Last year we road-tripped to the Grand Canyon — right after a cold front had passed through Arizona. We knew it would be cold, but we had no idea it would be leave-your-beer-outside-to-freeze, stick-your-tongue-to-the-pine-tree, 15°F-at-night cold. I spent last Halloween setting a personal record of wearing five layers and bundling up inside my 0°F sleeping bag. It was so cold, it was comedy.
This year’s destination, Zion Canyon in southwestern Utah, wasn’t quite as cold… until the last day, that is.
If you’ve never witnessed the stunning sandstone grandeur of Zion Canyon, it’s a must-see in your lifetime. I grew up in Vegas among the vermilion beauty of Red Rock Canyon, but Zion is all that, times ten! It’s known to feature the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world, and water seeping out of the rock has been determined to be thousands of years old.
Mormon pioneers in the 19th century gave this natural wonder the Biblical name Zion, “The Promised Land.” One visit and you might actually believe you’ve glimpsed a slice of heaven, too.
We hiked Angel’s Landing on a particularly bipolar day — the sky was sunny above us, but on the other side of the canyon, it looked like a totally different day, all dark and ominous. The goal was to beat the storm to the summit. Starting out on the West Rim Trail, the hike was moderate, or difficult if you’re constantly gazing up in awe and careening off-trail at every turn.
We cooled off in Refrigerator Canyon, squiggled the “Wiggles” (a series of 21 steep switchbacks up to Scout Lookout), ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the views, built a rock cairn, then the fun really began on the last half-mile of the hike — the notorious Angel’s Landing Trail.
I give props to whoever constructed this course. A one-way trail follows a narrow sandstone spine with sheer dropoffs on either side — 1,200 feet and 800 feet, respectively. For a true Indiana Jones experience, there are chains bolted to some sections of the rock as you scramble and climb to the summit.
And since no adventure is complete without a kink, it decided to rain on us. Anything else would be too easy, right? We skidded across slabs and clambered up boulders until we found ourselves standing on a plateau with the most breathtaking view of the canyons below.
As we reached the Angel’s Landing, it seemed as if the clouds suddenly parted, the heavens lit up, the angels started singing, and a beam of glorious light shined on us. Laaaaaaaaaaah! So divine.
The next day we decided to explore the Narrows, the grand daddy of slot canyons. Before our trip, I’d only heard a few things about the Narrows… warnings of flash floods, tales of wading through water… and stories of sights so utterly supremely dramatic, it all added up to a very enticing adventure.
The Narrows is a deep gorge carved out by the Virgin River over 16 spectacular miles, top to bottom. There is no “trail” per se. The trail is the river. The very, very cold river. To hike the Narrows means you’re spending most of your time in the water, whether you’re walking over a shimmering stream, or wading waist-high in a swift current. It feels like you’re balancing over a slippery bed of bowling balls that you can’t see under water.
One can do an overnight backpack by hitching a ride to the top of the canyon, camping at one of 12 campsites above the high water mark, and hiking downriver until reaching the paved Riverside Walk. Or one can get a taste of the Narrows by doing an out-and-back day hike from Riverside Walk from the bottom of the canyon.
Remember the freezing wilderness that was last year’s Grand Canyon adventure? The Narrows in the middle of autumn equals or even surpasses that. We came prepared with layers, but we didn’t anticipate just how cold the water could actually be. One step into the Virgin River, and I instantly got ice cream headache. The first 100 yards consisted of me splashing and running toward a little beach that was poking just above the water level. But after five minutes of jumping jacks to get the feeling back in my toes, I had to stand still and really take it all in.
The Narrows is indescribable. Soaring canyon walls, hanging gardens, natural springs… it was all intensely surreal. And here I was in the middle of it… in the middle of the river.
We only made it another mile more before we turned around. But after that little teaser, we knew we had to come back next year to hike the entire route. Backpacks, tents, and neoprene included!