Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park

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Bryce and Zion were at the top of my list of National Parks from the very beginning, but I had to wait impatiently for the weather to change, because I was not prepared to deal with snow. April was as long as I could wait before packing up my car and driving to Utah.

I happened to be reading The Remains of the Day where the main character, a British butler, claims that the English landscape is the finest, because it is understated and subtle--not like the demonstrative landscape of America. I find it easy to disagree with Mr. Stevens, but I could not deny his point witnessing the massive scale and beauty of Bryce and Zion.

I woke up early on Wednesday and started driving toward Bryce Canyon, racing to get there before the sun set. Having paid no attention to the changing of seasons, this was far easier than expected. After driving eight hours, I checked into my hotel, changed my clothes, and went right for the canyon. I could not help but compare it to Grand Canyon. In addition to not really being a canyon, Bryce is less grand than Grand Canyon, but also more beautiful.

It takes very little time to reach the floor of Bryce Canyon, so I walked down the switchbacks quickly, pausing only to take pictures. I took the Navajo/Queens Garden Loop, where I was taken by both the rock formations and the wilderness feel of Bryce. The combination is what makes Bryce so beautiful.

When you visit Bryce Canyon mid-week in April, you have the feeling that maybe other people don’t know about this place. There were certainly other people there, but it was not hard to be alone on the trails, which is often what I prefer.

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I had planned to get an early start the next morning, but I woke up exhausted. Feeling the pressure to make the most of my limited time at Bryce, I got ready and drank some tea, but finally remembering I could do whatever I wanted, I went back to sleep for three hours and woke up ready to hike. I decided to brave the Fairyland Loop, an 8.2 mile trail through some of the most beautiful parts of the canyon.

I took hundreds of pictures, sure the view was completely different from every angle. I always end up frustrated that even when I can capture the beauty, I cannot capture the scale. What does show up is the color of Bryce. Even after racing the sun the first day, once I finally arrived, I couldn’t imagine a canyon that bright ever being dark.

The last three miles of the hike were along the rim of the canyon, which was not at all flat like I was expecting. I stopped a couple times to sit on a log bench and stare. Only when I was nearly to my car did I realize I wouldn’t see the canyon again. I stopped and said goodbye.

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The next morning I drove to Zion. I thought for a while that the pictures I had seen of the park were heavily edited, because the roads always appeared reddish-brown, but that is their true color. My first reaction as I entered the East Gate was, “What is this place?” I recognized what I had seen in pictures, but they had not prepared me. The canyon is of such obnoxious beauty that Mr. Stevens would surely hate it.

I drove through the park to the other side, parked at my hotel and then took the shuttle back. If you are looking for a park to visit with friends or family, I would highly recommend Zion. There is a lot to do in the park and while it is still kind of in the middle of nowhere, the small city of Springdale is right outside the gates. You can drink and eat and sit by the pool, and still see the canyon. This is not true of all parks, where food and lodging is limited, and the beauty of the park does not extend outside the gates.

I had been so preoccupied considering one trail in Zion that I had failed to fully research the others. I only knew that my guidebook said I could not miss Angels Landing Trail. I noticed the warnings about steep drop-offs, but I figured that was to be expected. It is better that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Nothing I can say will do this trail justice. It starts off as an easy walk along the creek, but as soon as you reach the base of the canyon wall, you begin a long series of switchbacks. It was only then that I looked up and saw people hundreds of feet higher, still on the switchbacks. What I could see of the switchbacks was only the first third. There was another walk to a steeper series of switchbacks where I got to know the people around me as we continually passed and were passed by each other, all of us taking breaks to breathe and take pictures.

When I reached the top and saw people sitting there, I assumed I had made it and really could not make sense of all of those warnings, since the trail had not been that scary. Then I noticed that the trail continued up the rocks guided by chains. This was sometimes frightening, especially with a daypack on my back, and more than once I had to pull myself up with the chains alone. Again I reached the top and thought I'd made it. Then I glanced and saw people climbing the much narrower and higher section of the canyon wall with steep drop-offs on both sides.

I sat down and considered whether I could possibly do this. I couldn’t imagine turning around without going to the top, but I cannot explain how terrifying and dangerous it looked. I finally decided to go and as I read in my guidebook later, it really does look worse from far away than it does while you’re climbing. But, as another pamphlet I read added, it’s weird that the National Park Service ever built this trail, and as a teenager I encountered on my way back down said, “WHO WOULD EVER THINK OF THIS?!”

I made it to the top and the view was worth it (unless you’re terrified of heights in which case it was terrible and don’t do it). I slipped twice on my way down, but I was holding onto the chains. Once I was right in front of a woman who was already debating turning around, and she was done the second she saw me sliding toward her. It wasn’t until the middle of my hike the next day that I realized I could no longer use my arms.

When I was back on the ground, I ate a giant cheeseburger.

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The Narrows was the big hike I was considering. It is the biggest attraction in Zion, but it requires hiking up a river. I would have to rent special equipment and there was the threat of flash flood and water makes me nervous. But the woman on the cover of the guidebook I’ve been staring at for months was hiking it. When there was a threat of rain and high winds, I decided to save it for my next trip.

As an alternative, I hiked to Weeping Rock, an alcove in the canyon that drips water, and Observation Point, an 8 mile hike to the top of the canyon. I had ambitions of hiking more, but my legs dictated no, so I spent the evening sitting by the pool reading.

The next morning I drove to the Kolob Canyons section of Zion, which has a separate entrance, and hiked the Taylor Creek Trail to the Double Arch Alcove. It was a creepy place to be alone, but when I saw so many people hiking in on my way out, I was grateful I got to see it by myself. It was nice to say goodbye to Zion in a quiet place before battling I-15 in Sunday/Vegas traffic back to California.

This trip provided me with some necessary perspective. It is always frustrating trying to travel as much as possible on a limited budget and with limited time off, but it is particularly frustrating knowing there are so many National Parks within short distances of each other in both Colorado and Utah. It would be nice to spend weeks visiting them, but I can only absorb so much at once, and by the time I headed home I was physically exhausted. For now I’m happy to take short trips that allow me to experience nature often and give me enough time to write about my experiences.