I had the great pleasure of spending 24 hours in Zion National Park, as a quick respite from the hustle and bustle of work life and a conference in Las Vegas. (After a brief visit to Zion in 2014, I knew I needed to come back for more!) I arrived at sunset on Monday and left at sunset on Tuesday, with the aim of doing several hikes and making the best of this photographer’s paradise. It had snowed over the weekend, so the high cliffs were dusted white, but the weather for my visit portended clear blue skies, a frigid morning, and a warm sunny afternoon. Read on, and check out the photo gallery. The photos are much more beautiful there!
As I drove into the park in the growing twilight, pleased to have arrived just days before the seasonal closure of park roads to personal vehicles, I wound my way north along the Virgin River toward Zion Lodge, in the heart of the canyon. A gray fox scampered across the road – a rare sight, and a sign of good things to come. Mule deer grazed on the grounds of the Lodge as darkness grew and the night’s cold settled. Over a hearty dinner and a fine glass of porter, I reviewed my plans for the next day.
Rising at five-dark-thirty I grabbed my camera bag and warm clothes – the starry skies let the temperature drop into the teens – and headed for Canyon Junction, back near the park entrance. Wild turkey calmly stepped aside so I could pass. I parked near the bridge over the Virgin River and watched as the first rays of the sun tickled the peak of the Watchman, a dramatic scene more commonly photographed at sunset. From here I stepped onto the Pa’rus trail, essentially a paved sidewalk that follows the Virgin River downstream toward the park entrance. This trail poses beautiful views of the river, where I watched a great blue heron languidly flap his way downriver in search of breakfast. The canyon walls to the west loomed to my right, with the sunlight creeping quickly down from the snow-dusted peaks toward the canyon floor. The trail led me to the Human History Museum, behind which is a favorite spot for sunrise photographs of these cliffs. A herd of mule deer were the only others there with me to enjoy it on this chilly morning.
In the parking lot, though, I encountered an older man carrying a serious tripod and camera kit, who was packing up after his own sunrise outing. Turns out his name is Dave (!) and he used to live in New Hampshire. He kindly gave me a lift back up to Canyon Junction, where I hopped in my car and headed east, zig-zagging my way up the slopes. The road disappears into the incredible Mount Carmel tunnel, and pops out on the eastern side of the park. From here there is a short — but precipitously exposed — trail to Canyon Overlook. By now it was almost 8am, the sun was starting to illuminate the valley floor, and a few other hikers were on the trail. I spent a happy hour hopping about the rocky overlook, experimenting with various angles and exposures. The strong sunlight provided brilliant, colorful views of some cliffs… and deep shadows on others, a challenge I faced throughout the day.
Back through the tunnel, down the windy road, and up canyon again. I stopped at the Court of the Patriarchs, snooping around the brushy riverbanks for a nice view of these impressive monoliths framed by still-leafless trees and the bubbling Virgin River. The morning sun had painted all of the cliffs, but not yet the canyon floor, leading to interesting contrasts.
After a quick stop at the Lodge to check out, I drove up canyon to Big Bend and the trail to Observation Point. This third hike of the day was the grandest of all: 8 miles (round-trip) and a gain of 2148′ ending at an overlook over 6,000′ elevation. This beautiful trail switch-backs up the eastern slope of the main canyon, then wiggles through a slot canyon to an adjacent valley, where it switch-backs up to the plain above the canyon. The snow, just two or three days old, had been packed firm by prior hikers; although warm sunny afternoons had melted much of the trail dry, there are plenty of spaces where the winter sun never shines… and those sections were treacherously slippery. The edge of the trail had, in places, a precipitous drop hundreds of feet into the valley below; a slip or a trip in these areas would have been a serious bummer. I pressed on, picking my way across the ice. By now it was almost 11am and there were many other hikers on the trail.
This trail is fascinating, with a new view at every turn of the switchback or every bend in the canyon. Extremely well built and maintained, with hand-spread concrete paving sections that are subject to erosion. Eventually it tops out on the red earth of the plateau, winding through a landscape of shrubs and pine trees. Two inches of wet snow covers the shady areas, while sunny areas have turned to red mud.
At the cliff edge, where the trail ends, perhaps two dozen hikers rest and enjoy their lunch. Most appear to be college students, here on spring break. One group breaks out a birthday cake, complete with candles, to the astonishment of the birthday girl. Another man uses a selfie stick and leans precipitously toward the edge, photographing himself with the canyon beyond. It’s noon, the view faces the sun, and the canyon is flooded with daylight. Time to head down.
After carefully winding down the trail (very carefully on the icy patches) I get ready for the next hike. I drive just a bit further, to the end of the road, where the parking lot is overflowing. This trailhead leads to The Narrows, where the canyon slims so narrowly that only the river fits at the bottom; the curving, sheer walls on either side illustrate the tremendous power of water and time. Dozens of people are wearing special wetsuits and booties that allow them to walk through the icy water, ankle-deep in most parts but hip-deep in some places. I explored the Narrows in 2014, and have no time or interest today. My interest is in the mile of river before the Narrows, an easy and popular walk. I eschew the trail, though, and follow the riverbank looking for nice shots of the water and surroundings. It’s now after 3pm, and the sunshine is already starting to climb the eastern cliff faces. Lots of fun experimenting with exposure bracketing here, too.
By 5pm I’m back in the car heading downriver, back to Canyon Junction to catch sunset from the bridge. Sunset is not until 6:30pm, but I’m set up by 5:30. A crowd has already gathered, and the sun has already left the foreground in twilight while only the cliffs of the Watchman loom bright in the sunlight. At 5:52pm I take the last photos of this scene, figuring I’ve tried all the permutations. I could work it harder, stick it out until after sunset, but it’s been a long day (16+ miles of hiking, 600 photos) and I have three hours of driving ahead.
Such a great day! Lots of experiments with photo bracketing; later, I used Photomatix Pro to blend them into HDR images. (About a third of my final gallery are HDR. ) Amazing tool! I’ll have to try it more often. And, I need to get back to Zion, especially to visit the Subway.