There is only one word to describe Zion National Park in the fall and that is, magical. Or, would it be majestic?
About two years ago I pulled my 1977 Komfort travel trailer into the Watchman campground, just inside of the entrance to Zion NP, plugged into the electricity and turned to look around me.
The Watchman, a tall expanse of red and tan Navajo sandstone rose overhead and a series of other formations continued on for as far as I could see over the tops of tall trees, many of which had leaves that were beginning to turn yellow. Deer grazed nearby, and I could hear the flow of the stream.
My trip to Zion came about because someone in Grand Teton National Park mentioned that I should go there. And, so, away I went without a clue of what to expect, only hoping that it would be drier and warmer than the parks in Wyoming.
As luck would have it, I arrived in early November, on the day that the road into Zion Canyon was re-opened to private vehicle traffic. From March until November, every year, visitors to Zion Canyon must take a shuttle bus to see the sights, which could be a hassle for some folks, particularly photographers carrying a bunch of equipment.
This year, in 2013, vehicle traffic re-opens on November 4, so hurry up, make reservations and gather your camera gear because there will be some pretty color gracing the canyon floor and walls.
As beautiful as Zion is, it turned out to be the park where I faced my fears head on, in favor of the photo ops. My first outing into the park took me on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway where red rocks towered and water flowed by as I climbed ever higher, via several switchbacks, until, gulp, there was the tunnel. The 1.1 mile long tunnel, cut into the mountain in the late 1920s, is long and dark, but fortunately has large window respites where people were once allowed to stand and take in the views.
Today, there is no stopping allowed inside of the tunnel. I gripped the steering wheel, punched the gas and looked straight ahead. With the window rolled down I gulped the air as I passed by the windows and thought that perhaps it was a good time to end my national park journey. Because, if I were going to continue encountering tunnels in the parks like this one, I was never going to survive. Yes, claustrophobic and a fear of dark spaces.
Once on the other side of the tunnel I wondered how it would be possible to get back to my trailer at the campground. Luckily, along the highway I encountered bighorn sheep crawling over rocks. The rut was about to begin and some lightweight chasing had already begun. Instantly my fears about the tunnel were gone and it was apparent that if this wildlife photographer was going to photograph sheep during her stay, she would have to suck it up and drive the tunnel.
And so began a month-long stay at Zion, two weeks in the campground and two weeks at a RV site, right outside of the park.
On the way back down the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, towards the campground, I came upon a large crowd of photographers lined up 3 to 4 deep on the bridge that spans the width of the Virgin River. What the heck? I wondered. My immediate impression of the view that the photographers were capturing was that, yeah, it was okay, a river, trees, blah, blah.
"Why would anyone want to fight that crowd for a photo?" I asked myself.
I seriously had no idea that these photographers were standing in another famous photo location, attempting to capture the beauty of The Watchman as the last light of day glows red on the red rocks with the snaking Virgin River and yellow cottonwood trees along the way.
Of course, I braved those crowds more than once during my stay, but never did get the exact position that I wanted because several photographers saved their spots, hours in advance, by leaving a cheap tripod on the bridge.
When I finally began my first trip up the six-mile, dead-end road that leads to the Temple of Sinewava and a favorite trail that takes hikers along the Virgin River as it narrows through steep canyon walls, I had no idea what to expect or where to begin.
With the first big mule bucks that I saw, of course! I am a wildlife photographer through and through.
The views are stunning all along the canyon, as the river continues its way and the slopes leading up to vertical canyon walls were covered with yellow, orange and red trees and foliage. But, I found myself always looking up - about 5,000 feet above the bottoms of my feet.
Zion is one of those parks that once you see the valley and the views, there are few surprises, except as weather passes through and the light changes.
If one really wants to see the park, hiking is necessary. I call this a hiker's park. There are moderate trails that do not require much climbing, such as Riverside Walk at the Sinewava Temple, the Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and the beginnings of the West Rim Trail but, in order to see the bigger views, one needs to hike uphill and brave steep drop offs.
Not to mention steep, narrow trails that have chains for hikers to hold onto. Yeah, no way that those steep, narrow trails, with chains drilled into the rock, appealed to me. I was afraid of heights and had been my whole life. Endless nightmares of my fear pushing me over the edge.
When they told me that the Subway was a cave, that was out of the question, along with The Narrows and its suffocating high canyon walls while hiking in the Virgin River. And, so, for three weeks I contented myself with big horn sheep, deer, fall colors, waterscapes and lowland hikes.
Until, one day I stopped along the valley road and looked out over towards the West Rim Trail and Cathedral Mountain, as it the trail winds up the steep rock towards Scout and Angel's Landing. I saw people walking up and down the trail without a care in the world. What was worse were the young kids who were having no issues with the steep drop off and were walking as if on a flat sidewalk.
Determination gripped me. If those kids could hike that trail so could I. And so I drove immediately to the trailhead parking lot, grabbed my pack, water, camera and tripod and began my first journey on the West Rim Trail.
The first portion of the trail was easy, with gentle climbs that meander along, but, all too soon the trail grew steeper and I drew ever closer to the steep switchbacks that fronted the mountain. While I stopped to take a few photos along the way, I stayed back from the edge, which meant the shots weren't all that great.
For the most part, I stuck to the mountain side of the trail and all was well until I reached the end of the last switchback and the area of the trail that is carved out of the rocks. Suddenly the height made me dizzy and I felt as though a force was trying to pull me over the edge.
And, then here comes this large family and we met head on. They took one look at me and knew that not all was well.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not moving away from the wall," I told them.
That was okay with them and they talked me through with words of encouragement. That is until I got to the 5 year-old. "Are you okay?" she asked.
I nodded or mumbled or something - much too frightened to be humiliated.
"Cause you don't look so good," she added.
Everyone laughed, including me, and suddenly it was over with. Time for me to put my big girl pants on and continue on. Out of the mouths of babes.
During that first hike, I made it to the first landing on Walter Wiggles and contemplated going to the top, but the day was late and I was a little concerned about making my way back in the dark. But, never fear, a few days later I hiked the trail, all of the way up the Wiggles, stood on the edge of Scouts Landing and then hiked until I could stand along an edge and see all of the way down the canyon, to the temple.
On my way back down, in no hurry this time, I stopped and watched people as they started up Angel's Landing. Again, small children grabbed those chains and made their way up with nothing but thousands of feet below.
I had no desire to be that brave.
During the remainder of my time in Zion I spent hours climbing trails and scrambling over rocks. Baby steps into the world of heights, but I put myself at many edges and just looked down below, or took photos of the scenery. I am clumsy and so have to be extra careful.
The rewards of the views and the accomplishments were revitalizing and the more that I ventured out, the more that I wanted to explore. Feeling brave, I wanted to hike the Narrows before leaving and went to rent equipment and get more information.
Unfortunately, I was told that the light was gone from the canyon for the remainder of fall and the upcoming winter, and so I decided against the trip. And, so I wandered over Checkerboard Mesa, down canyons with steep walls with caves that looked like perfect mountain lion habitat, and went searching for the petroglyphs that were well hidden.
Even a month in Zion was not enough time and so, when I return, the Narrows, Angel's Landing, and Observation Point will be mine. The Subway has the shots I dream of taking, and so, maybe…next time.