Fearless Adventurers No More
Trip Start Nov 20, 2003
7Trip End Dec 06, 2003
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Where I stayed
Only a couple of miles from Tropic Utah State Road 12 enters the park.
Bryce Canyon National Park is so popular in the summer time that in order to alleviate traffic the park runs a shuttle bus system from Ruby's Inn near the entrance. In freezing temperature in November however the park is pretty much empty. There are enough people around to keep you from feeling totally alone but it's pretty easy to find some space all to yourself to take in the sights.
The highlight of the park is the Bryce Ampitheatre, a semi-circular canyon with thousands of hoodoos in a rainbow of pastel colours. The Ampitheatre can be seen from a number of different angles at the various scenic points where you can park your car. The real beauty of the area isn't truly discovered until to see the canyon from the bottom up.
We parked at Sunset Point and proceeded down the switchbacks of the Navajo Loop Trail. While descending the trail we thought we wer about to reach a dead end as the high canyon walls were slowly growing closer and closer together. At the bottom the trail leads through a fissure in the rock only about 7 or 8 feet wide in an area called Wall Street. The 100-foot high walls seem to lean in on you as you pass through. Miraculously, at the end of Wall Street three huge Douglas Fir Trees have pushed their way up through the small opening available for light. At this point the walls give way and you walk along the canyon floor.
The bottom of the canyon was considerably warmer and less windy than the rim. We even took off our winter coats! Once at the bottom you have several options available to you. We got off the the Navajo Loop and followed the Below-The-Rim Trail to the Queen's Garden Trail. The Queen's Garden leads you through a number of different vegetation areas (at this time covered in snow) and amongst number of different hoodoo formations. The trail ends at a hoodoo that looks exactly like Queen Victoria. This has to be seen to be believed. Neither of us even took a picture of this fascinating freak of nature as we would have been accused of photo-trickery. Backtracking along the trail you can then climb back up to the canyon rim near Sunrise Point and follow the Rim Trail back to Sunset Point
We picnicked in the snow while fending off some ravens after a scenic drive down to Rainbow Point at the extreme south end of the park. On the way there we stopped at a couple of lookouts, the most impressive being the Natural Bridge. This huge arch is a rarity as it was not caused by a stream but by wind and frost.
The view from Rainbow Point is different from the ones along the Ampitheatre as you can look southward toward the rising plateaus in Arizona. Apparently on a good day you can actually see the edge of the north rim of the Grand Canyon from here. Views of this plateaus are best from the Bristlecone Pine Loop, a 1 mile trail through a forest of trees twisted by the harsh winds on the canyon rim. One particularly grotesque tree is believed to be close to 1600 years old.
We headed back to the Ampitheatre area and warmed ourselves by browsing in the gift shop. Hardly an exciting travel note but one that was necessary for our sanity. Still we headed back out to hike a few more miles along the Rim Trail between Inspiration Point and Bryce Point and back. Unfortunately canyon rim blocks the sunlight late in the day so the colours didn't get spectacular like they do at the Grand Canyon when the sun sets. All this meant to me was that I'd be back out here before the sun rose the next morning. Before that though was an evening of bathroom cookery and the discovery of Nadia's new favourite TV show "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy."
The next morning Nadia decided to join me for the sunrise which I found a bit surprising since she's pretty much catatonic until her first coffee and Doug's Grocery wasn't open when we left for the park
Our original plan was to attempt another hike in the morning but because of the weather we decided to move on to Zion Canyon. Zion Canyon is 3000 feet lower in altitude than Bryce so we hoped things would be much warmer there.
We were right. As we headed southward (and downward) along US Route 89 the snow slowly disappeared. Things were still brisk when we stopped at the Buffalo Grill not far from the park entrance for a couple of sasparillas in order to watch the buffalo heard but all we needed was a nice sweater as opposed to a shirt, sweater, coat, toque, and gloves that we had been swathing ourselves in for the past few days.
Zion Canyon National Park gets 3 million visitors a year and even in late November the park appears busy. Of course we had the past three parks to ourselves so this may have been a lesson in relative persectives. Like Bryce, Zion operates a shuttle service in the summer except these buses are the only way to make your way through the park in summertime. You have no self-drive option
Our first choice of hikes was the Emerald Pools. This moderate hike leads you to three different spring water pools and a couple of waterfalls including one you walk directly behind. If you want a scenic but not too daring hike then this is the one for you. Our second hike was much more nerve-racking. Both Nadia & I agree that the Hidden Canyon trail was the best one we did on the whole trip. One of the reasons was that we didn't really read about it ahead of time and thus everything came as a surprise to us including the long, cliff-side portions carved out of the rock. Unlike the trail at Arches there wasn't any ice but the canyon floor was much, much, much farther away from us and that made this hike somewhat scarier.
The funny part was that we always assumed we had just reached the scariest part of the trail and then we'd get around a corner and see a ledge just a bit narrower. At the end of the maintained trail you reach Hidden Canyon, a small cleft in the mountains that you can scramble through for another half-mile or so. There is a small natural arch to view but the highlights are the incredible shapes and nooks and crannies carved out of the canyon walls. I'm not sure they will look as great on film as they do in real life but here's hoping that happens when I get my film back
After winding our way back down the trail we headed into Springdale for some grub. Springdale has a certain touristy charm. It's filled with cruddy gift shops but there are also some really nice photographic galleries to poke into. The most impressive gallery belongs to Michael Fatali who crafts such wonderful and colourful images of the Utah canyonlands that was almost enough to make me put down my camera and give up. Check out his website at http://www.fatali.com
Within the same building as Fatali's Gallery is Springdale Pizza & Noodle. Early we had decided upon eating at the Spotted Dog Cafe but quickly ducked out when we realized that after a day of dirt and rock we weren't going to eat in a place that had napkin rings and table centerpieces. Pizza & Noodle was the perfect place. We had the Southwest Spicy Burrito Pizza. It ranks among the greatest pizzas I have ever eaten. The crust was fantastic and the toppings of roast chicken, jalapenos and onions with a healthy dose of mozzarella approached culinary perfection. Of course, when you take into consideration just how hungry I was I probably would have said the same thing had they handed me a pizza covered in dirty socks.
Motels in Springdale were a little too pricey for our stingy ways so we made our way back through the park in the dark to Mount Carmel Junction. On the way we enjoyed perhaps our best view of the Milky Way on a perfectly clear night. The Golden Hills Motel in Mount Carmel Junction was only $30 but for a room that cheap you must endure a TV with only 4 channels, a portable heater for your room, and a shower that feels like it's shredding your skin.
For breakfast the next morning we just had to walk across the road to visit the Thunderbird Cafe just because they have a bright neon sign declaring it "The Home of The Ho-Made Pies." We didn't ask where the ho in question got her recipes and we didn't even sample the pies as we were too stuffed from their skillet breakfasts. This breakfast was sausage, onions, and hash-browns all fried together in a skillet then smothered in country gravy and topped with two eggs done the way you like it. So big I didn't even finish it.
We got back into the park and hiked the Canyon Overlook trail. It's a nice, short hike that ends in a great view. If you're just passing through the park it's the one you should definitely attempt to get the flavour of the area
This day was Thanksgiving Thursday in America so the park was quite busy. The parking area for this trail was completely full so we had to walk an extra mile from the next closest place to leave the car. Now I know why there is mandatory shuttle service in the summer.
The trail starts out on a nice easy incline along the Virgin River. About a half-mile in you hit your first series of long switchbacks where the trail really steepens. At this time the warm sun was hitting our backs and we sweated profusely. The sweat and heat was quite welcome after the previous week of cold and snow. Just about the time your lungs feel like bursting the trail levels off and enters Refridgerator Canyon, a small crack in the mountains which is much cooler than the surrounding area due to the lack of sunlight. Then you hit Walter's Wiggles. This is a set of 22 steep switchbacks. It hurts getting up here but if you've made it this far you should definitely keep going as once you reach the top all the steep climbing is done
At this point you're 2 miles into the hike and you've got some great views on either side of a long ridge of rock. This is where most people pee their pants as the trail continues along a knife-edge of rock where you could fall on either side to the canyon floor approximately 1200 feet below. Nadia & I made our way along it for a few hundred yards until we reached a natural (and wide) rest point.
For those of you who might attempt this trail I would highly recommend not resting at this point. From this point you can see the rest of the trail as it climbs up another 200 feet along this knife-edge. To get a visual, picture a staircase that ascends 140 stories in the air with nothing on either side of it. Sure there are some chains to hold on to for balance but all you can see as you climb is the ground getting farther and farther away. That's what you see from this rest point. I got a bit queasy and both of us found a place to sit down on the logic that you can't fall if you are already sitting.
I declared the hike over. Thus if you want to make it to the top, just keep plowing ahead without looking too far into your future
Once we got back to the car we finished the scenic drive to the mouth of the narrows of the Virgin River and continued back down to Springdale. Having been in a number of America's National Parks I might just declare this one the best I've seen. Everything is accessible and drive at the canyon bottom amongst the cottonwood trees is just too beautiful to describe.
We made our way down to St.George for some dinner not realizing that Thanksgiving meant that all the restaurants would be closed. We found a Shoney's that was open and serving a Thanksgiving buffet. It was edible. The only item worth mentioning was the creamed corn. After such a crappy meal I took the liberty of smuggling out a bunch of yogurt cups from the dessert area for the next couple days' breakfasts.
Hotels & motels in St.George weren't cheap so we motored on through the desert to Mesquite, Nevada in the hopes the casino hotels would be to our liking. Mesquite is an oasis of articifical light and debauchery in the middle of nowhere. It just so happens to be conveniently located on the Nevada/Arizona border so that everyone driving down I-15 into the state happens across its casinos first. Had it been any night but Thanksgiving the room would have been $22 but we paid $40. At least it was big and clean. I tried to talk Nadia into doing some bowling in the casino but she wouldn't dare put on shoes who knows who else wore.
We ended up saving our money and energy for the next stop: LAS VEGAS!!