Up and Down – Grand Canyon and Zion National Park

Leaving LA at rush hour was a bit of a mistake – we were caught in traffic within just a few minutes of driving. However we plodded through and were soon on the outskirts of the giant sprawling city. With a long drive ahead of us we grabbed some petrol and settled in. We climbed steadily from sea level to over 6,000 ft in elevation, but apart from that it was pretty barren and nothing really to write home about. We made good time and with only a brief stop for lunch (grace feeding me as I drove) we arrived in 8.5 hours, in just enough time to visit the back country permit office.

Grand Canyon National Park

Due to over 250 rescues a year, overnight trekking in the canyon is highly regulated with only a handful of last minute permits issued per day (unless you booked up to 2 years in advance). Arriving 10 minutes before closing time was crucial, we were issued a number (much like a deli at a supermarket) and told to come back the next morning at 8.

With this in mind we checked into our campsite, grabbed a much needed shower and hit the hay.

The next morning we headed straight to the permit office and awaited our number to be called. Being number 8 in line we were extremely lucky to be given a permit, it may have even been the last one, making the long drive (and the speeding) from LA all worth while.

With temperatures reaching over 45 degrees in the canyon we were strongly advised to start our trek well before sunrise the next morning. With this in mind we made sure to grab all our provisions then, including a tent and sleeping mats from the Village Store.

Next stop – the airport for a helicopter tour of the canyon. A massive thanks to Grace’s parents for this one, what a treat. We sat upfront with myself (Mike) riding in the co-pilots seat – we definitely had the best views. As it was our first time in a helicopter we did not know what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised by the smooth nature of the ride. We took off then slowly gathered speed flying low and fast over the vast ponderosa forests that thrives on the rim of the canyon.

The pilot did a great job of keeping the canyon hidden from view right until the last moment. Just as he had finished saying “welcome to The Grand Canyon” we zoomed over the edge, the rim floor disappeared from view leaving only shear cliff edges that descend over 1 vertical mile to the canyon floor. We were left speechless by the sights ahead, this was my first ever glimpse of the canyon and one I won’t be forgetting soon. I was struck by the vastness of it all. At over … Miles across…it was massive!

 

We buzzed around the canyon, travelling north to catch glimpses of the Colorado and turquoise blue Little Colorado River. After a quick flyby of the northern rim we headed back over the canyon one last time before heading back to the airport. It was an incredible experience and gave some truly unforgettable views of this natural wonder of the world.

Back on terra firma and with an afternoon spare we decided to rent some bikes and explore the southern rim on 2 wheels. We cycled through the village and along the rim trail out towards Hermits Rest over 10 miles to the West. Along the way we were treated to some excellent panoramic views and shady picnic spots.

Back at base we dropped the bikes off and set up for the evening at Mather lookout point to catch the sun set and the ensuing light show. A perfect way to finish the day…

With the alarm set for the delightful time of 3am we crashed out early and grabbed as much sleep as we could. It only felt like 20 minutes before the alarm was ringing, still we popped on our head torches, got dressed and headed to the back of the van for some breakfast (more like a mid-night snack at that hour). Trying to stuff down a large bowl of porridge and a banana at silly o’clock is more difficult than it seems. However with a long hard trek ahead we shovelled our breakkie down and were on our way.

The plan was to trek down the South Kaibab trail (7 miles long), camp overnight at Bright Angel Campground before heading out of the canyon (same side) via the Bright Angel Trail (9.5 miles long) the next morning. With temperatures reaching unbearable levels in the canyon we heeded the advice given and set off before sunrise with the aim of reaching camp and the Colorado River by 10am.

We reached the trailhead and started trekking by 4:30am, not a bad effort, in fact we were among the first people to start that day. With enough moonlight to guide us we didn’t even have to use the torches. The silence was bliss, with only the crunching of gravel to fill our ears we trooped on into the dark abyss below.

As the sun slowly rose and our eyes adjusted we began to see more and more of the canyon. It’s hard to describe how small you feel when you start to descend, it’s like entering a different world. With the thermometer rising we made sure to rest frequently and drink plenty of water. Even with these mini stops we made good time and reached the emerald green Colorado River by 8am, not a bad effort for a 7 mile trek.

Taking advantage of the early arrival time we made camp before the midday heat. We bagged a lovely spot right by the creek on a small sand bank – perfect.

We also paid a visit to the Phantom Lodge a short walk away and grabbed an ice cold, over priced beer. A bit early but a great treat regardless.

With R & R high on the priority list, we chilled by the Colorado, went for a swim and took a nap. Only really moving again for some sweaty sandwiches and to watch the sunset. We took a stroll down to the river and watched as the sun disappeared over the canyon rim, and as the sky slowly changed colour to a fiery red. Back at camp and with another early start ahead of us we crawled into our tent, gazed at the starry skies above and slowly nodded off.

 

After a rather broken and neck aching sleep (no pillows) we woke at 3am and started to pack down camp. Eating ‘breakfast’ in the pitch black whilst dismantling a tent was quite an experience.

We were first on the trail again and making good progress in the cool of the night. With over 9.5 miles ahead of us and a vertical climb of 4400ft we made sure to take advantage of the shade and the frequent water stops. At each water station we would make sure to fill up our bottles and drench our clothes to avoid overheating/sunstroke.

The views as we climbed seemed to get more and more spectacular, with the rising sun painting the canyon walls an ever changing orangey red.

Before long we had reached Indian Gardens – a small campsite based on an aquifer giving the area an oasis like feel. The lush greenery and trees provided and excellent rest spot as well as the last of the shade. It was only going to get harder and hotter from here on…

 

We pushed on in the scorching sun and with a few water breaks here and there, we were out of the canyon by 9:20am (only 5:20 hours from top to bottom). Standing at the top, looking at the winding path below and the distant Colorado River gave a real sense of achievement – it was without doubt the most beautiful and most rewarding hike we had done. It was an incredible experience sleeping at the bottom under the stars and couldn’t recommend it enough (if you like a challenge anyway)…

Naturally, back on the flat ground of the canyon rim we headed straight for some grub. As I’m sure most hikers do – we grabbed a fried breakfast, with a cinnamon bun for good measure as well. It was just what we were looking for! With a combination of achy legs and full bellies we literally waddled back to the car where we unpacked, dropped back the rental gear and headed east towards the edge of the National Park. The scenic road that led us all the way to Desert View Watch Tower provided yet more excellent panoramic views of the canyon. We briefly checked out the watch tower, but as we could barely stand up decided not to hang about, so we picked up some souvenirs and got straight back in the car. Next stop was Zion National Park – a cheeky 5 hour drive away…

The drive to Zion passed over much of the same terrain as before, it was fairly flat and barren although things did start to change as we crossed into Utah. Utah is known as one of the prettiest states in the US and although we were only to explore the southern tip of it, so far we couldn’t agree more.

We arrived at the National Park just in time to catch the visitor centre before heading straight to our lovely campsite on the edge of the park. Grace had booked ahead securing an excellent river side spot with our own mini beach – perfect. We grabbed a much needed shower before crashing for the night. With only 2 days in the park we didn’t want to waste any time – the next morning we were up early and with some rented hiking poles we entered the park and caught the shuttle bus to the top of the canyon.

Zion National Park is well known for its incredible hikes, in particular, the ‘Narrows’ and ‘Angels Landing’. Both of which we were hoping to tick off, depending on energy levels of course. We started with the Narrows, a hike with a difference. The trail, instead of a dusty path was the flowing river that bisected the Zion canyon. We hopped off the shuttle bus, and with trekking ‘stick’ in hand jumped in the knee dip chilly water and set off up the river. It was such great fun and a nice change from all the other hikes we had completed. The water level varied with some places up to shoulder high (for Grace anyway). The slippery rocks definitely added an air of excitement as well. As we moved up river the canyon walls grew closer and steeper, at one point you could almost touch both sides of the canyon, crazy!

As expected the trek is subject to water levels and can become extremely dangerous during flash floods, luckily for us the area was in drought. After we had seen the highlights we turned around and walked, slipped and swam our way back towards the shuttle bus.

The rest of the day was spent exploring some of the parks other highlights whilst drying off. This included the Weeping Wall and the green waters of the Emerald Pools before heading back to camp for lunch.

With the thermometer rising we decided to spend the rest of the day wallowing in the river that ran past the bottom of our campsite. A perfect place to cool off and rest the legs. As it was effectively our last night camping we decided to have a campfire to end all campfires and toast the remaining marshmallows for s’mores. Impressed by our campfire and never having tasted a s’more our friendly Californian camp neighbours popped round for a chat and to try their hands at toasting marshmallows, a funny end to our evening.

The next morning we rose early again and headed back into the park. This time to hike ‘Angels Landing’ – a very popular and much talked about trek. Built back in the 1920’s (obviously before health and safety became an issue), this trail winds its way up a steep ravine before an almost vertical rock climb to a flat topped outcrop or ‘Angels Landing’. The last part of the trail is so steep and treacherous that steel handrails have been built to assist the brave climbers. Even with these in place, unfortunately 6 people have plummeted to their deaths in the last 8 years after losing their footing.

Although Grace had actually completed the hike 5 years previously, she couldn’t remember any details, simply that it was tough. Grace’s vague bad memories and comments overheard whilst in the park led us to feel slightly apprehensive before the trek. Never the less we packed our bags and set off at a good pace. After a seemingly endless amount of short steep switchbacks we arrived at a point known as Scouts Lookout…

For the less able, or for those who simply don’t fancy the climb, Scouts Lookout provides the perfect place to rest whilst friends or family members push on to the summit. We took 5 and then carried on, it wasn’t long before we realised why everyone was talking about it. You literally had to scramble and climb your way over boulders and up the side of steep rock faces, the whole time clinging on to the rails whilst overlooking shear drops of over 400m – It was great fun!! At one point you cross a thin ridge, only 1-2m wide providing unbroken views to the valley floor on both sides – it was seriously breathtaking.

We eventually made it to the top and were treated with even better panoramic views of the entire Zion Canyon area, it was the perfect reward for such a hard hike. It also made a pretty good picnic spot, joined by the resident chipmunks we ate our snacks and rested before the descent. One cheeky critter even scampered over Graces leg in order to grab some crumbs!! We packed away our lunch and started the hike down, believe it or not, it was actually harder and more time consuming than going up.

All in all the hike was amazing but very tough, climbing over the large boulders and steep gradients started to take their toll on our knees. It is definitely one of our favourite short hikes though (2.5 hours).The added excitement of the last scramble to the top and the views you are rewarded with make every drop of sweat worthwhile.

Back on the canyon floor, tired and achy, we caught the shuttle back to Winnie, changed out of our stinky clothes and left the park. A mere 3 hours to the West was our next and final stop – VEGAS BABY!! Bring it on….

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