My Adventure to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks

19-22 September 2020

What do you do when the schedule at work just so happens to work out so that one has a four-day weekend? Go camping at a couple of National Parks of course! Originally, I was torn between visiting Silver Falls State Park in Oregon and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming. Both would have amazing fall colors to experience in late November. With four days off in late September this would have been a perfect opportunity for such a trip.

However, I was thwarted by terrible wildfires throughout California and Oregon. Silver Falls State Park was surrounded by roaring wildfires so that was of course a no go. Based on national pollution and wildfire charts courtesy of our tax dollars, GTNP was pretty smoked out as well. Major bummer. Yet, this forced me to consider other options and discover that Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park are only about 600 miles away from Boise and had clear skies free of smoke. Big win!

I left for Bryce Canyon early Saturday morning in my Land Rover “Jumanji” and rolled on through SLC at noon just in time for a couple mustard grilled hamburgers and a neapolitan shake at In-n-Out.

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I arrived here at the Red Canyon Visitor center only to realize that despite how amazed I was at the cool rock formations, I was still many miles from the National Park (this is how you know a National Park is going to be good). So, on I went to the actual Bryce Canyon National Park where I shelled out $80 and bought my very own National Parks Pass (and you can bet I am going to get some good use out of it this year). By now it was nearly 1800 and golden hour was fast approaching. Out I went for a quick hike along the rim of the canyon. When I first hiked up to the rim of the canyon from the BCNP visitor center I was blown away by how unique and beautiful this place was!

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I hiked northward along the Canyon Rim Trail stopping to taking in the sights and of course to think about a few photos. At nearly 8,000 feet above MSL and being pretty far away from any cities, Bryce canyon has very little light pollution and less atmosphere which I knew would make for some incredibly clear and bright star. Even more fortunate for me in the timing of this trip was that only a sliver of the moon would be illuminated, and it would set shortly after sunset resulting in maximal star appearance.

Thus, as I hiked along the rim I was constantly thinking about where the bright galactic center of the Milky Way would be at its peak in the night and where would look best for some astrophotography. I hiked a little way past Fairland Point and began descending eastward into the canyon. With the bright galactic center of the Milky Way reaching its peak above the horizon in the south, this allowed me to find a place with a view of the Canyon in which the Milky Way would also be able to be in the frame and in line with the towers or rocks, or Hoodoos, rising from the canyon floor.

Right as I was thinking, “oh this is going to be a good spot”, another photographer hiking along apparently had the same idea. I started taking to him and he showed me some of his previous milky way shots at other national parks. This guy was good. John introduced himself and we talked as he pulled out two Sony A7R IVs with fast wide-angle lenses, a couple of tripods, and a star tracker. I was slowly realizing that this guy was not just your average enthusiast but a super legit astrophotographer who has spent years and tens of thousands of dollars getting to where he is now. By then the stars were starting to come out and there I was looking like an amateur with my Sony a7 III, 16-35 f/2.8 lens, and NO tripod (In my defense, I had planned to do my astrophotography the next night after I had scouted out the land).

I was about three miles away from Jumanji where my tripod was with about 40 minutes from the peak of the bright galactic center. Plus, there was a road I could drive to get from the visitor center to Fairland point and then only have a short five-minute hike to get to where I was with John. Shooting the milky way in such a cool place with John was an opportunity I could not give up on, so I took off running in the starlight and sliver of moonlight to get back to my rig ASAP. And guess what? Yet another lesson on never giving up even when days are dark.

John was quite impressed that I was able to make it back in time. He helped me get dialed in with all the correct settings that usually take me a few minutes to get properly adjusted. Turns out that John is a top cardiologist down in California who was very humble. Man, what a cool guy. We shot together for about an hour before packing up and calling it a night. Here is the resulting photo and I must say, I am very proud if it.  

I slept very well that night in the back of Jumanji and was up at 0645 at Fairland Point to photograph the sunrise over the canyon. A few people quietly trickled in to enjoy the peaceful sunrise and brisk 43 degree morning air as well. It was serene to watch the sun’s rays slowly touch the tops of the hoodoos and illuminate the national park. After the sun had fully risen over the horizon, I descended into the canyon past where I had photographed the Milky way the previous night on the Fairland Loop trail.

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Hiking down on the canyon floor through the hoodoos was amazing and unlike anything anyplace I have hiked before.  The orange colors, striations, and textures in the rocks coupled with their enormous size gave an extra-worldly feeling.  Though the temperature was chilly before sunrise for a t-shirt and shorts outfit, which like the well-prepared explorer that I am packed exclusively, things warmed up quickly to a comfortable 60 degrees with no wind and was perfect for hiking.  I saw very few people on this 8.7 mile “strenuous” hike with 1706 feet of elevation gain until I came back up to the rim trail which took me back to Fairland point where I started.  What an enjoyable hike!  I highly recommend doing it first think in the morning sue to the way the morning sun illuminates the hoodoos which makes everything seem that much more picturesque.

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After my hike, a lunch of pita, hummus, roasted chicken, and bananas was enjoyed from the rim of the canyon. I FaceTimed my sister Kourtney who I knew was hard at work studying to show her the canyon and tell her about my adventure. She tried to argue that her view from the top balcony patio of the Liberty Med School library was just as good. I suspect that neither of us were convinced and off I went on my next hike, the Figure 8 Combination. Starting from Sunset Point, this hike combines three iconic hikes, Navajo Trail, Queens Loop, and Peekaboo Loop into one “strenuous” 7 mile hike with 1509 feet of elevation gain.

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This route included many doorways carved through the hoodoos which really added to the immersive experience. Seemed that around every corner and tunnel, there was another epic view. When I am out hiking with my camera, I can always count on random people asking me to take their photo and this hike was no different. It was at one of these doorways about halfway through my hike that a fellow solo hiker, Abhi, asked me to take his photo and we ended up hiking together for the remainder of the route. This man at only 28 years of age has visited 33 countries, all 50 states, grew up in India, and was such a pleasure to talk and share the hike with! Although Abhi is currently a computer programmer, he also studied film in university and wants to become a film director in India’s Tollywood. He had many creative ideas for cool photos which were super fun to shoot with him. The photos of me were taken by him. Hard to beat meeting cool people and making new friends exploring such amazing geological formations!

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The next morning, I was yet again up early to witness the sunrise over the iconic Thor’s Hammer and what a sight this was! It was an easy five-minute walk down from Sunset Point and very peaceful with nobody else in the canyon. However, as sunrise approached, photographers began to trickle in until there were about 10 of us there for the sunrise. Everyone was very quiet, and it was interesting to see how everyone else went through the photographic process of framing their composition, dialing in their settings, setting their tripods, and taking their photos. I commented on the beauty of the scene to a gentleman set up next to me with his sons to whom he was teaching photography. “Yes, and I am warmer than you too” he said with a smile. In the 40-degree morning air, I was of course the only one wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. In the cool morning air of the canyon, I probably looked pretty cold and out of place. But these are the sacrifices necessary for getting good shots. Interestingly, after just a few minutes of the golden light touching the hoodoos and illuminating Thor’s Hammer, all the photographers took what I can only assume to be roughly the same shot and then left. I hung around a little longer to try to find a more unique angle which lead me to get the shot (at the top of this page) with the sun bursting over the hoodoos in the right of the frame. I am very pleased with it.

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Interestingly, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon were formed from water freezing in the deep cracks of the rocks that make up the canyon. As I gazed out on the view with nobody else around, it was amazing to think how the very same water that is essential for life also possesses such destructive power to shear huge rocks apart. Yet, through such formidable destruction, a beautiful canyon of hoodoos was created.

Finally before I called it a day and left for Zion National Park, I stopped at Bryce Point where I enjoyed my bananas, grapes, and pita for breakfast.

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On to Zion National Park

These parks are only about 70 miles from each other so it would be crazy not to visit them both in one go. Driving into Zion, I was yet again amazed by the astounding and unique scenery. Zion is the fourth most visited National Park in the US with over 4.5 million visits per year. Knowing this, I visited Bryce over the weekend and saved Zion for Monday and Tuesday. Despite my planning, I was shocked when I drove in and arrived at the visitor center to find cars circling in both the regular and overflow parking lots. Of all the national parks I have visited, I have never experienced such feelings of frustrated confinement. Compared to parks like Yellowstone which extends from Idaho, to Wyoming, to Montana and covers over 2.2 million acres, Zion in southern Utah is 15 times smaller and encompasses only 147 thousand acres.

After giving up on the parking lots, I finally found a pull out a couple of miles from the visitor center on which I could safely park. Luckily, I had brought my mountain bike with me (in case I had extra time to visit the legendary trails of St. George) which I rode on down the road to the visitor center. As I was riding along in the far right of the bike lane multiple feet wide admiring the beautiful scenery, one of the shuttle busses gradually caught up to me. However, instead of carefully passing me as any reasonable driver would, he just rode my wheel. I started to ride on the gravel on and waived the bus driver to go on. Yet, he did not. In fact, he seemed really mad and gestured in less than polite ways. What the heck was this guy doing? There was even an aisle of large boulders lining the road which I was riding on the opposite side of from the road. After a couple minutes I stopped to see what would happen and bus driver made another series of rude motions and sped off. Weird.

When I got to the visitor center, which was absolutely packed, I asked a ranger and apparently the bus drivers are not allowed to pass cyclists until cyclists come to a complete stop. As I found out later, a perfect track stand in a freaking pull out 15 feet off the road does not count to these silly bus drivers - they will freak out and angrily yell at you to get off your bike. Man do you not just love government regulation? What a joke.

Okay, rant over.  Now comes the good stuff

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I was given a map by a helpful park ranger who told me about some of the most intense and iconic hikes in the park. Turns out bringing my bike was one of the best decisions I made (thanks to my roommate Drew who encouraged me to do so) due to the fact that essentially all the cool hikes are accessed from the Zion Canyon Drive which is accessible only to pedestrians, cyclists, and the shuttle busses. The shuttle busses would have been a decent option too but as of now the NPS is trying to limit the number of people using them due to COVID-19 and tickets must be purchased for $1 weeks in advance.

Abhi had told me that the Angels Landing hike was one of his favorites and according to the map it was only about 6 miles round trip – perfect for an easy afternoon hike.

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What a steep hike! Over 1800 feet in elevation gain but well worth it given how pretty it was. I heard there were 21 switchbacks on the way up to the chain section and I believe it. Many of the sections were basically carved into rock on the side of cliff providing great views of the canyon below.

The Chain Section of Angels Landing starts 1400 feet above the canyon floor at Scouts Lookout with a sign informing hikers that this is a very strenuous hike from which 10 people have fallen to their deaths since 2004. Honestly, I am surprised there have not been more people to die given how steep and narrow the range of safe places to step are. The section starts with a very steep climb up to the ridge guided by namesake chain rails which were polished smooth from people constantly using them to pull themselves up the climb.

The further one progressed, the better the views became from both sides of the ridge. This is probably one of the top ten adrenaline inducing hikes in the world given the many sections in which one or two mistakes could easily lead to a rapid encounter with the canyon floor. Lots of people turned back in the first ten feet of the chain section from fear and I suppose that helps to keep the death count low. As an added bonus, it meant that very few people actually made it to the peak of Angels Landing.

The view and feeling of immense scale from the peak was jaw dropping. I sat there on a rock for about a half hour taking in the view and watching the light change as the sun was going down and clouds moved over the park illuminating different parts of the canyon.

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The next day I woke up early and rode my bike along the Zion Canyon Scenic drive stopping at the lodge to buy a ham a swiss sandwich from the lodge to have later for lunch (at this point all I had left were some dried figs). Glad I did because I ended up hiking for 22 miles that day! As I was leaving the lodge on route to the Temple of Sinawava, I met a fellow cyclist from Texas named Angela who was actually on a continental cycling team and hoping to become a world tour pro (pictured above on her green Cannondale). We rode along together until the end of the rode where I parked my bike and started my hike. She was all decked out in her Zoot cycling kit looking pro while I was wearing my Chaco’s, and camera backpack with a baseball hat on backwards (more aerodynamic that way). When we rolled into the lot together at 22 mph, she on her road bike and me looking like a clown on my full suspension endure mountain bike, we got a lot of looks. One guy commented that she looked way faster than me. True statement.

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The hike to the iconic Narrows through the Temple of Sinawava was a very easy and nicely paved 2 mile walk. At the end of this section, the canyon narrows abruptly as the cliffs texture and colors change quickly indicating a transition of the types of rock layers. From here on, not only is there no paved trail, there is no trail period. One simply hikes along in the water which for the majority of the hike was about one to two feet deep. Especially given it was still early in the morning, the water was quite cold but later in the day as things warmed up felt really nice.

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Hiking in Zion National Park, especially the Narrows, felt unreal! The further I progressed the more deep sections I encountered and more people began to turn back. Given there was no trail, nobody really seemed to know where the hike ended. However, I ran into somebody who said there was a waterfall up ahead. About 6 miles into the hike, I found this “water fall”, and let me tell you this was the most pathetic water fall I have ever seen. That was the point at which the few who had made it that far turned back.

However, I was having a blast and I knew from my alltrails app that one could hike all the way out of Zion National Park in this river to a town just north of Zion. The whole thing is 16 miles long and I was seriously contemplating just going for it and trying to hitchhike back to the park. However, I was deterred when I thought that even if I managed to find a ride back to the park in the evening, I would then have to walk all the way back to my bike at the end of the scenic byway. That would take way too long given that I had to be back at work the next morning. So, based on the time I had made, I gave myself until I had traveled 11 miles to turn back. From mile 6-18 I did not see a single person over the course of the 22 miles that I hiked that day. In many places I had to carry my camera gear above my head given the water was at many places was over five feet deep. I am so glad that I went on as far as I could because the rock textures changed slowly and I was able to get some of my favorite shots I have ever taken around mile 10.5.

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This photo in particular I knew was gold when I shot it. The light was just right at this time in the evening to cause the textures to really pop and make an already interesting composition even better.. It was what I had been imagining in my minds eye this whole time and I was extremely happy to be able to find and make it happen. After I took this photo I put my camera away in my backpack and cruised back down the river as fast as I dared go knowing that I was all alone and that should I slip and hurt myself, I would likely not be found for days.

I also noticed that my feet had quite a few wounds on them from sand rubbing on my feet under the straps of my sandals, which despite this were very comfortable. I imagine the cold water had numbed the pain of my skin being rubbed away. When I stopped for gas in SLC on my way back to Boise at 0230 Wednesday morning, I realized my feet were crazy swollen, and hurt quite a lot to walk on. When I noticed my wounds while hiking, I was a little nervous this might happen given the NPS had posted many warning signs indicating the “North Fork of the Virgin River contains a cyanobacteria on the river bed that a neurotoxin, anatoxin-a” and warned to avoid ingesting the water.

I have no doubt that some anatoxin-a, also known as VFDF, or Very Fast Death Factor, had entered my body through my wounds during the seven plus hours I was hiking in the river. This makes sense given my subsequent difficulty in moving my toes. I am not sure how long VFDF blocks Acetylcholine in one’s neurons so it is possible that this stiffness was only a result of my wounds. Anyway, the swelling of my feet gradually decreased over the course of about two weeks while one month later, my toes dexterity has still not fully recovered. I would say it is 90% as dexterous as normal. I have no doubt that they will return to normal soon though.

What an amazing trip!

I arrived back to my Land Rover Jumanji on my bike shortly after sunset and rolled on out heading home. I took a nap in Jumanji at about 0400 but accidentally slept for an hour and a half rather than the 25 minutes I intended to. Thus, I drove straight to work which, since I normally ride my bike to work and change into suits I leave upstairs, worked pretty well!

Interestingly when I returned home and started processing my photos, the one above that I thought was golden did not quite have the same effect as I had hoped. I still liked it, but the textures and shapes seemed less interesting than in person. This is when I decided to make it a black and white photo so as to really draw out the textures and shapes. What a difference that makes! I feel like Ansel Adams with this photo. Okay, given that he is widely considered the greatest landscape photographer of all time, that might in reality be an exaggeration but nonetheless I am still very pleased.

This camping trip was an absolute joy and I am so thankful to have been able to go visit such amazing, unique, and beautiful places. Additionally, I was able to meet and have meaningful conversations with quite a few great people which I deeply appreciate as well.

Thanks for reading and do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or requests!

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