The Great American Road Trip: Bryce & Zion
// July 2nd Jackson Hole → Salt Lake City, UT //
Despite the dingy room and the paperthin ceilings that carried every stomp and wail from the children above us, I got a decent enough amount of sleep to get up and go for a run. Jackson Hole is pretty tiny, mostly occupied by hotels and a few residential streets, so it didn’t take long to circle around. We scored some free leftover food from other backpackers and hit the road to Salt Lake City. The route took us through the farmland of Idaho, which went on for miles and miles, and then some more miles. Some of it looked idyllic and pleasant, but a lot of the towns we passed through were dull and had little more than a gas station and a general store. Our podcasts entertained us for most of the trip while we searched for a place to try true Idaho potatoes. I would’ve even settled for Mcdonald’s french fries, but I didn’t even see that. If there are people from Idaho reading this, I’d encourage you to open a potato stand on the side of the road to sell mounds of fries, baked potatoes, and hash browns to tourists.
Over the border into Utah, the green rolling land turned into dramatic peaks of brown and orange dirt. It reminded me of the mountains I’d seen from the hotel room in Las Vegas during previous trips. We intentionally drove past Salt Lake City, up a big mountain pass and onwards to Park City Hostel. We met with the young owner and he took us on a tour of the property, despite the fact that the hostel was occupied by a family reunion that looked at us quizzically as we wandered through their celebration. It was hard to get more than a few words at a time out of the owner, so sitting by the firepit in the blazing heat was not the most comfortable experience. When we got tired of prodding answers from him, we wrapped up, toured boutique-y downtown Park City for a hot sec and headed on to Salt Lake City.
The traffic piled up unexpectedly on the mountain pass and we spotted billows of smoke emanating from something around the bend. No one was moving, so we ate some canned soup for dinner and watched as we neared a tractor trailer engulfed in flames. We took a detour off the highway and carried on to Byron’s cousin’s apartment, where we were greeted by his roommate splayed out on the couch playing video games. It was reminiscent of my old college dorm, but we were really grateful we got to crash here for the night. We didn’t really see much of Salt Lake, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to the Mormon HQ and Temple Square. The museum detailed their account of history, full of lessons and teachings to follow. Putting aside my lack of religious beliefs, I could appreciate the strong sense of community.
// July 3rd SLC → Bryce Canyon, UT //
Because the trip was coming to an end soon, Byron and I had begun planning for our future by researching opportunities to work in hostels. Our connection at Hostelling International introduced us to a hostel in Massachusetts that was looking for a couple to manage their property. We had an early morning Skype interview with them to talk about the potential opportunity. We answered their questions as best we could, while trying to stay quiet and not wake up the roommates. It turns out the roommate was still asleep on the couch downstairs in front of his video games anyway. Unfortunately, the job ended up requiring being in New England during the dead winter in an isolated town, so we decided to pass.
We lost track of the time and realized that our lodging for the night was a first-come-first-serve campsite over an hour away, so we microwaved oatmeal packets and ran out the door. We passed multiple RV car parks on our way with “No Vacancy” signs and our anxiety grew as we brainstormed alternative options. Luckily, despite it being the third of July, we made it past the red canyon walls and into the campsite with plenty of spots left in the North Campground. By now, we were pros at the whole claiming-your-spot thing and found a beautiful plot of land under an evergreen and just close enough to the bathrooms. The powdery white dirt swirled around us as we tagged our spot, set up the tent, and headed out to hike in the canyon.
The park had a shuttle bus to transport hikers from point to point, so we hopped on and hopped off at an incredible overlook called Sunset Point. The vast canyon opened up underneath the viewing platform and revealed bright orange and rich red rock that reached up in pointy spires and crumbly pillar formations. Apparently the name for these spires is a “hoodoo”, which I’ll let WIkipedia explain:
“A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos, which may range from 1.5 to 45 metres (4.9 to 147.6 ft), typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. They generally form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations.”
The dusty Navajo trail snaked its way down into the foreign looking canyon and was filled with hikers exploring their way down each switchback. The evergreens that dotted the path gave a lush green contrast to the parched orange land and it felt as if we were in some other country, perhaps a middle eastern desert or something. Eventually the exposed dry path dipped into a forest with pine needles carpeting the ground and scraggly pine trees hugging the Queen’s Garden Trail. The elevation started to climb again and soon we were back out of the basin and straining our calf muscles up to the hoodoos, underneath rock arches, and through narrow rocky passes.
Back at the top, at Sunrise Point, we walked the rim trail along crowds of tourists that had opted not to explore down into the canyon. We followed the trail all the way to Inspiration Point, which was an outcropping of rock that dropped hundreds of feet on either side of the ledge. If you could get over that fact, the view was amazing and you could see the entire basin of hoodoos and the mountains way way in the distance. Truly inspiring.
We were exhausted from our hike, so we took the shuttle bus to the general store and splurged on craft beer and tortilla chips to enhance our canned veggie dinner. We feasted on our treats and played cards and talked to the Canadian couple next to us who had bought an old van and built an entire living space inside, complete with a mattress, rugs, and drawers.
// July 4th Bryce Canyon → Zion National Park, UT //
The sun warmed the tent early today, so we woke up excited for another day of hiking, this time at Zion National Park a few miles away. It was the Fourth of July so the park was PACKED. The drive was beautiful though, with sweeping drops, rising rock cliffs and mountains dotted with sparse trees. The stone wasn’t as red as Bryce, but instead was white and tan with striations distinguishing the layers. The weaving road took us through a tunnel that lasted for miles. The RVs actually needed an escort to block the tunnel in the opposite direction because the tunnel was too narrow to accommodate two at once. The looping switchbacks brought us deep into the valley, down to our campsite with modern and clean facilities and a great view of the mountains.
It was stiflingly hot as we set up the tent and lined up as if we were at an amusement park, just to get on the shuttle bus. The heat fatigue was clear on everyone’s faces, looking drained before they even started their hike. We finally got on the bus and headed to The Grotto, chugged as much water as possible and refilled (there was a sign stating there would be no water on the whole trail). The trail was directly in the sun, with only knee-high shrubs for shade all the way until we reached a series of switchbacks that snaked up the side of a steep cliff. I was struggling in the heat and relished every second of shade whenever I walked underneath the cliff above. At the top of the cliff, the path continued in between two massive rock walls on either side, and chipmunks scurried around everywhere you looked. The rock walls soon gave way to more steep switchbacks in the direct sun and, by this point, every step was miserable. We trudged onwards and made it to the top of this peak, only to be met with the view of the next peak and the final path of Angel’s Landing with large chains bolted into the rock for climbers to use. It looked impossibly high up and the slabs of rock looked so narrow. My legs turned to jelly just watching the other hikers.
I grabbed on to the burning hot metal chain and continued on, just putting one leg in front of the other, not looking at the drop below and hoisting myself up. I clung to that chain with every ounce of strength and prayed the bolts were in deep. I got to one point and realized the chain ended, and then began again, leaving about twenty feet of un-chained distance to cross. I felt like my legs couldn’t be trusted, but I inched along and felt a wave of relief when I clutched the chain on the other side. Hand over hand, step by step, focus on moving forward, don’t look down. Okay, look down, holy crap, okay don’t look down.
We made it to the top and saw the tic-tac sized buses moving on the thin line that was actually the road below. We were 1,765 feet above that road, and I felt every foot of distance. We were on top of Angel’s Landing and the view was incredible and stretched out across the entire park.
I was eager to head back down to stable ground, but I think going down was even scarier. Again, I clung to the nasty hot chain until my hands burned. I took the last step down to the solid ground landing and sighed with relief. Those switchbacks that I despised earlier felt better on the way down, but by now I ran out of water. All that was keeping me going was the promise of cool water down below. I started thinking about swimming in pools, rivers, oceans, drinking slurpees, basically anything cold. Every step was a thirsty struggle, but I was encouraged when I first saw the river below, then heard the sweet gush of the water, and then got close enough to sprint off the path and splat down in the middle of the steam, clothes and all. It felt amazing and I didn’t move for a good long time.
Back at the water spout, I chugged and chugged and finally felt like a human again. I only felt slightly embarrassed when I walked onto the shuttle bus dripping wet. We road the shuttle around to the other stops and saw the entrance to The Narrows, a famous hike that requires wading upstream in a river. Back at the campsite, we had some canned food, played cards, and walked around a bit. We fell asleep while enjoying the songs of Led Zeppelin blaring from the RV next door and the moon shining right above the cliff peaks.