National Park Number: 34 of 59
It is with great shame that I report that while David and I lived in Utah for several years each, and while I grew up so near Utah as to believe Salt Lake City was my state capital, neither of us had ever visited Zion National Park. In fact, the only one of Utah’s national parks we had been to was Capitol Reef, and that only because of a glorious man named John Bennion who taught us a writing class in college that also had a wilderness field trip component. David went to Capitol Reef with his class right after we were married, then I went with my class while I was excessively pregnant and rotund, then we both went together with my master’s program on a writing retreat when Graham was a few months old; and what I’ll always remember about that is that on the way home, in a 15-passenger van filled with my colleagues and two professors I idolized, colicky Graham screamed for four hours straight and we could not for the life of us get him to stop and at one point I tried fixing him by changing his diaper which had up to that point been a smell-free activity because he only drank breast milk but on that day happened to be mysteriously and horribly rank, and it was humiliating and demoralizing and not the proud boss mom moment I wanted the whole experience to be.
So anyway, we’d never been to Zion. And it wasn’t even the Utah park I was most excited to visit because although we’ve heard only good things about it, we’ve also heard that it’s extremely crowded, sometimes to the point of non-enjoyment. We figured January would be a good time to hit it to avoid crowds, and while there were still quite a few people, we did luck out in finding both peace and parking.
We started in the north section of the park at Kolob Canyon. This part of Zion is less visited, with longer views and more rounded cliffs. We drove all the way up the canyon road, then kept going by hiking the Timber Creek Trail, which gave us a beautiful look out over the cliffs and brush-covered fields. The red rock is so vivid and striking, and the air was clear and brisk. After so many park visits that were light on hiking, being back on the trail was like coming home.
After our hike, we headed to Hurricane to meet up with a new friend, Arika, who’d reached out to us on Instagram about doing a photoshoot while we were in southern Utah. She specializes in doing family sessions in Zion, and we loved her stuff, so I told her yes even though we’re very un-model-esque people. Instead of shooting us in Zion, she—southern Utah native and wealth of knowledge about All The Cool Things—took us to a little spot in Hurricane called West Cinder Knoll.
The rock here was deep purple and black, shot through with white, and the whole place was just incredible. We never would have found it without Arika, and we also wouldn’t have had a bunch of beautiful family pictures without her, and we were just so glad she reached out to us. If you’re going to Zion or southern Utah, you should get pictures done with her! Besides being dang good at what she does, she’s also extremely sweet and fun and she can point you to all the cool spots in the area.
After recovering from our big modeling debut, we headed the next day to the main part of the park, Zion Canyon. The drive in is startling; massive red cliffs tower overhead as the road winds along the river, through the narrow canyon. We drove all the way to the end of the road, to the Temple of Sinawava. The place names in Zion are august and spiritual, invoking thrones and temples, altars and angels, and the scenery matches these grandiose titles. We love the desert in general—despite the lack of water it feels scrubbed and fresh—and after spending months in the humid, sultry South, being here was like a purifying ritual. This is a cleansing place, a wild mikvah, and we loved it instantly.
We parked at Temple of Sinawava and walked through the tapering canyon on the Riverwalk Trail. This is where the hike into the Narrows begins, and we passed some people in drysuits who’d continued on the trail through the river itself. We’d thought maybe the Narrows hike would be too ambitious with the kids, but it looked too good to pass up, so we resolved to rent drysuits another day and come back. But after that day, the weather cooled off quite a bit, then threatened snow, so the hike didn’t happen for us this trip. We have big plans for a late-February return!
Walking back to the bus, we ran into two of our great friends, Mike and Tiffany, who live in Salt Lake but were down for a weekend visit: lucky timing for us! They saw Buster in the parking lot and walked up to find us, and running into them like that absolutely made our week. David and I met on our LDS missions to Portugal, but I actually never lived in the same city or even the same region as David. Mike was also on our mission, and he and I lived and worked in the same city for a while; he was hands-down one of my favorite people, a level-headed friend and calm presence during one of the most intense parts of my life. If you’re Mormon, being a missionary probably seems very familiar and normal to you; if you’re not Mormon, being a missionary might strike you as odd or radical. When I think back on the 18 months I spent trying to teach people about Christ in Portugal, I mostly wonder how in the world I did it; David feels the same way about his missionary time. We’re both nervous around people, anxious about being irritating, and—especially back then—painfully self-aware. We loved our message, felt deeply that it had brought purpose and joy to our lives and that it could do the same for others, but the circumstances of our work were far from comfortable: we were barely more than teenagers, living far from home in a strange country, and all day, every day we spent our time approaching people and asking them, in a foreign language, if we could come into their homes and talk religion. It’s a miracle that many people did, in fact, let us in; it’s also a miracle that we didn’t hyperventilate or have a panic attack every day upon leaving the house. Having fellow missionaries like Mike helped.
When we all got home from Portugal, we started a band called The Spirit Electric, with Mike’s friend Tiff as bassist. We played one show and it was utterly terrible in every way, and then we paired off, ABBA-style, and the band dissolved. Mike and Tiff were then in another band, Johanna Johanna, superior to our former effort in every way, and the ever-talented Mike also makes the coolest amps I’ve ever seen (see here.)
Anyway, that’s the story of Mike and Tiff; we were so happy to see them and we all talked in the bus til they had to go. We are trying now to convince them to move to New York and start up the band again; this time we’re determined to practice much more before booking shows ;).
After Mike and Tiff left, we headed for the short hike up to Weeping Rock, a shallow cave in the cliff face where water drips down the ledge overhead so that the view out looks rainy. It was beautiful and smelled divine, and we stayed a long time looking out at the view over the canyon.
The next day was misty and cold, and snow was forecast for that night, so we decided to skip our plans to hike Angel’s Landing (adding it to our plan for our February visit!) and explore the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway instead. The highway winds up the east side of the park and through a long tunnel in the cliff which, as an over-sized vehicle, we had to buy a permit to enter. Just on the other side of the tunnel is the trailhead for Canyon Overlook, a family-friendly hike up to a gorgeous view of Zion Canyon and the cliffs named Court of the Patriarchs.
Then we continued on the Mt. Carmel road. Arika had told us earlier about an unmarked petroglyph trail and where to park to find it. We found the little pull-off and set off to look for the petroglyphs. We ended up wandering a long time, first south and then north, finding incredible petroglyphs in both directions but also just smitten with everything: the pink sand and smooth sandstone, the smell of juniper and creosote and slow rain, the clatter and huff of big-horn sheep climbing the hills above us.
I’m not sure what makes us connect to some places more than others, what strange chemistry inhabits a space like Zion and seeps into our bones and turns a long wandering walk into a series of enchantments. But Zion was magic to us; we felt serene here, pacific, but also revived, eager for the things coming up on our trip, and so so glad that we get to be doing this. We can’t wait to get back to Zion and the other Utah parks next month; I think the desert is our place.