Yesterday was our last day in Vegas and the plan is to get up bright and early and high-tail it out of Sin City and do a whirlwind 1,200-mile road trip around the Grand Canyon. Taking in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Page Arizona, The Grand Canyon South Rim then Pick up Route 66 and head for L.A before moving on to San Diego. It was an ambitious plan to pack everything in and would need some perfect execution of our plan.
It all fell apart after two words. We managed the “Get up” part, but bright and early is a stretch. Essentially the weather forecast had really put a damper on things and we maybe enjoyed the free drink in the casino a little too much last night, so getting up was tough. Rain and low cloud had been forecast in Zion and it was giving heavy snow in Bryce…this is in MAY!
Upon Waking around 8:15 and slowly coming around we checked the weather and the rain and cloud had gone from the Zion forecast, and the snow in Bryce was forecast to end any time soon, so as long as they kept the roads open we could be ok. These were all very narrow windows of opportunity and things could easily change to ruin things but it looked “ok”. So we mobilized.
We used the auto checkouts at Planet Hollywood which went super smooth then tried to remember where we had left the car three days ago. We jumped in and sped out of town as some pretty grim storm clouds brewed up over Vegas, out in front in the desert things look sunny and hopeful.
I-15 to Zion
Amazingly we were on the road for 9:00 am. This was way behind schedule and would almost certainly mean the parking at Zion would be rammed. Along with big queues on the trail at angels landing. Out plan to get off early had failed but we made great progress as we rolled up the I-15. For a dull free-way, the scenery as you pass through deserts, valleys, Gorges, and past snowcapped peaks is quite stunning. A quick stop in St-George for breakfast and we plowed on through the epic scenery until we arrived in Springdale. Greeted by large flashing signs saying the parking was full.
We decided to gamble on lucking out on a space of someone leaving. And headed into the park. The alternative is paying $20 to park in Springdale and catching the shuttle into the park. This seemed like a faff and the $20 seemed excessive when the Parking inside was free (included). We had picked up an Interagency pass a few days ago (America the Beautiful) for $80 and had already used it twice, Red-Rock and Lake Mead. So this would almost break us even, with two more parks to go, it really is great value if you are visiting a few parks!
After circling the Car Park for 15mins with no luck we were about to give up when we spotting a couple removing their hiking boots. We asked if they were leaving and they confirmed they were. So we staked our claimed and waved off any challengers to our spot. Phew.
Zion National Park – Angels Landing
Zion is a real victim of its own success. This once quiet and peaceful park has been overrun by tourists. On busy days there can be queues of up to two hours for Shuttle buses and some trails. Several years ago the numbers of cars heading into the park became unsustainable and the Park Service Banned them. The only access is by foot or free shuttle. The Queue for the shuttle was pretty small and we got on the next bus. This was pretty good for the late hour we had arrived. It was now after 12:00 pm.
On the bus, we were told Angel’s landing hike would take 4 hours, and even longer if there are queues on top! This confirmed what we had gathered from forums and such as to how long the epic 5.4 Mile hike would take.
If you don’t know about Angels Landing, it is one hell of a hike. The start meanders up through the canyon with some great views and only a steady gradient. It then heads straight up a cliff face via a stunning set of switchback trails. Once on top, at Scout lookout, you are treated to stunning views out over the valley with 2000ft sheer drops. You can also see the rest of the trail.
The Final section of angels landing heads out over a rock outcrop. At times the trail narrows to a couple of feet wide with 2000 ft sheer drops either side. The most exposed sections have a chain rail for you to grasp to stop you plummeting into the abyss but it is not much protection. The last few meters have you scrambling up some pretty severe rock climbs as you haul your self up to the final summit, trying not to look down.
4 hours+ would really be pushing things as far as our schedule goes, but we had a plan and a secret weapon. Me. Kate is still recovering from surgery and really wasn’t up for the full 5.4miles of punishing hiking so the plan was to gently walk as far as she wanted, then unleash my speed to power hike the rest. We made it to the first set of switchbacks and Kate threw in the towel and headed back to the grotto to relax in the sun. I powered on.
I should make it clear I am currently in training for a half Ironman Triathlon, so this sort of thing is really no issue to me and Power hiked/ran straight to the top with very little rest in only 20 mins, this would take most people around an hour. Once on the top, the pace slowed down somewhat as much care was needed across the terrifying ledges of the trail. It really is a long way down. A lot of people were thinking twice and many turning back as the exposure ramped up. I am not great with heights but a stubborn old goat so pushed on with the other who continued to brave it.
The final haul up to the top is a real all body workout as you use as much upper body as you do lower to literally haul yourself up the chains. At the final viewpoint, the reward is truly stunning. The Landing gives you views both up and down the canyon and with sheer 2000ft drops all around the views are unobstructed like a helicopter. it was a hell of a push to get up here but as I relaxed in the sun taking in the views while chipmunks played at my feet I was a very happy man.
As for the weather, Wow we were lucky, the forecast rain was all around. In every direction, large rain clouds loomed. But the valley was bathed in a small hole punched in the clouds to let the glorious May sun shine down on us. It couldn’t last so I started the journey down.
The biggest problem is this is only halfway. and the only way back is the same route back. Only this time the hard parts are the descents. Hauling up the rock faces is scary, but going down them ace first is a whole lot worse. Coming back gave a real sense of just how many people really were turning back. The severity of the hike is no secret and signs line the entire route reminding people how severe the hike is and how many people die falling off but people still keep giving it a go, when it should be clearly out of their ability level. Still, the View from Scouts landing is good enough to make a failed effort still worth it.
Back at scouts, my watch was showing <2 hours Total elapsed time, and the decent, now back on good trial should be only a few minutes as gravity would assist. Amazing progress but be warned I am not a typical hiker. 3.5-4 hours is a very good estimate for fairly fast hikers.
Reunited with Kate we took the shuttle back to the car park. The Park is pretty much on shut down as heavy rain has closed so many of the trails and even the narrows is a washout as huge amounts of snowmelt were making it impossible to hike. We were lucky to get up angels landing and make the drive to the east side as the tunnel road only opened a week or so ago as the road had collapsed!
Mt Carmel Highway, Tunnels and Canyon Overlook.
The next stage of out Zion Whistle stop tour was to take the staggering Mt Carmel Highway up to the Canyon Overlook. This is a really stunning road that zig-zags up the rock face before tunneling straight through to the east side of the park. The tunnel is dotted with windows where you can peek out into the canyon below.
Right at the east side for the tunnel is the Canyon Overlook parking, this is a reasonably sized parking lot that is for some reason restricted to only a few spaces. Obviously, these were full and there is no stopping. There are quite a few pullouts, however, along the next half a mile of the road so we had no problem finding a spot.
The Canyon Overlook trail is a little over a mile of pretty rugged terrain but Kate managed the hike with only a little complaining. While it isn’t far and it’s quite flat the path is very natural with a lot of large boulders to scramble up via natural steps. It’s easy enough to take a little slip and ruin your day!
Once at the Overlook, the whole valley is laid out before you and it is seriously stunning. Not quite Angels landing Stunning, but a close second. By now the surrounding rain clouds were looming ever closer and it was time to make our retreat. Back in the car, we got to around Checkerboard mesa when the heavens opened. The next hour or so of driving was in torrential rain.
Bryce Canyon Sunset
As we drove up Route 89 heading to Bryce things started to clear up gradually. As we gained altitude the rains cleared and the sun came out bright and strong over the Utah Plains. The red Mesa’s and seracs of the canyon formations shone off in the distance, some snow-capped. It was a stunning drive on nearly empty roads.
As we got to our stop for the night we still had plenty of time until sunset so we checked into our Motel for the night, the Bryce View Lodge. We are not sure why it claims to have a view as all you get is the carpark and some trees but we were aware of this and it was merely a cheap place to crash for the night. After checking in we headed into the park in glorious sunshine.
Hmm, the sun may have been out and the skies clear, but that sun was doing nothing for the temp which was hovering around freezing. Snow was lying on the ground from this mornings deluge and it was a far cry from the 60°f monthly average. We really were not well prepared.
At sunset point, the view is pretty awesome. However, there is no real sunset at any viewpoint in Bryce. The Sun sets behind you and pours its light onto the spires in the canyon, they glow in beautiful shades of red and pink. The real treat was a huge storm rolling across the Utah plains in the distance.
As it went dark the temperature plummeted. it was quicking into the freezing, and with only light clothing, we started to get really cold. By the time we got to the car, shivering had set in. Even during dinner at the Cowboy Ranch House we never really recovered.
Dining options are somewhat limited in the park and even outside. The Cowboy ranch was pleasant enough with some good ribs and a nice warming bowl of chili for Kate and some nice craft ales. Hit the spot after a long hard day hiking and on the road.
Bed was VERY welcome that evening! Especially with the super early start tomorrow.
Live Blog – Trip Report