Learning to Love Hike: Hiking Zion National Park
Adventures in Hiking in Zion National Park (And Beyond), or, How I Learned to Love to Hike
By Tess DiNapoli
Hiking Zion National Park over the years has taught me a lot about myself; like a sustained yoga practice, through hiking in nature we can really connect to a part of ourselves that is abundant, clear, and peaceful. I love walking my shoes into the ground in exploring metropolitan cities worldwide, but there is a different sense of satisfaction after a good, long hike in nature.
I just got back from celebrating my ten year anniversary with my boyfriend in one of my favorite places to hike in the world: Utah. That I even have a “favorite place to hike” is kind of a marvel in and of itself, because it wasn’t always the case.
As a teenager, I was always resistant to exerting physical effort on dry land; in the water, I was always fine with whatever activity it was. While hiking, you weren’t paddling, or boating, or swimming; it required sweat, climbing hills, scrambling over rocks and being exposed to sunlight for more than one hour, which my inner teen-aged vampire was loathe to do.
In my early and mid-twenties my primary form of exercise was being a pedestrian in Portland, Oregon, walking everywhere, sometimes riding my bike, and frequenting my favorite yoga studio three to four times a week. I’d go on short “hikes” in the area, like the paved paths up to Multnomah or Wahkeena Falls, or later I’d do moderate hikes up at the Hoyt Arboretum but nothing terribly strenuous.
When I studied abroad in Greece in 2006, I would enjoy the Friday hikes we went on, traversing the island of Paros, but there were hikes I was resistant to do or skipped entirely. It was then, though, that I began to be comfortable saying, “I like hiking. Kind of. If it’s not too steep.”
On Paros, there was one hike we did where we ended up scrambling through the dark in a marble quarry, sampling ouzo from an old man in the middle of nowhere, and we collectively collapsed into a field of thyme; I think that’s when the shift toward enjoying hiking started, a spark that was lit for the experience of being in the landscape, perching in ancient olive trees.
By the time I moved to Los Angeles with my boyfriend in 2010, I was on the lookout for places to explore and hike in, and one of my favorite hikes here in LA is actually pretty steep and leaves you breathless with the views of the Pacific from the top.
The trees in Zion National Park during fall shimmer like gold against the dusty earth-red-orange landscape and white Navajo sandstone that juts up dramatically from the red rocks and into the sky. Zion is one of many (10+) National Park Service points in the larger area called the Colorado Plateau, along with other big hitters like the Grand Canyon, Bryce National Park, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef.
I went to Zion for the first time in 2008 with my mother and sister. The first hike she took us on was the East Zion Overlook, a short hour out-and-back hike that took you up to breathtaking vistas of the canyon after thirty minutes of an easy/moderate hike uphill with a bit of scrambling, a bit of careful walking over narrow ledges, a beautiful cave, and views of deep crevices below where we did see some brave souls canyoneering. The same weekend, we went on the Emerald Pools Hike and the Watchman hike. I remember being very sore, perpetually. But the place left an impression in my mind that was impossible to shake and left me wanting more.
I went again with my Mom in 2011, for Thanksgiving. She knew that Zion National Park was the only place she had to be on Thanksgiving after her late husband had told her he’d be there that weekend. Being in the place they both shared together (and she had discovered because of him) was a beautiful experience. We did the same East Zion Overlook hike as she had shown me two years earlier, and she bid farewell to some of his hair there, leaving a little part of him there forever. We hiked, we ate, we reminisced, and I was happy to be my Mom’s rock in such a difficult time, in such a breathtaking place.
Thanksgiving dinner with her was during sunset at Parallel 88, now closed. Outside the panoramic windows, the setting sun deepened the contrast of the colors around us. That same weekend, she took me to Kolob Canyon, a new place for adventuring, where we hiked in freezing cold winds but under flawlessly blue skies.
Every time I go to Zion, I meditate on the way the sun moves across the rocks, the mountainsides, and the way the shadows take on purple and hazy blue, never black, never truly dark. The sky in Utah is the bluest you’ll see, largely due to the predominance dusty red-orange; the place is a dream for observing light, shadow and color theory in action in the natural world. I remember when I remarked to my Mom on all the colors on the hill on that first trip in 2008, particularly the violet; she had not seen those colors before.
Every time I go to Zion, I’ve forgotten my really good camera and have to rely solely on whatever camera phone or disposable camera is available. Because I forget my good camera every single time I’ve been here, I’m forced to truly emblazon the views around me in my mind’s eye.
Full circle, here I was showing my love my favorite place last weekend. We flew in to Vegas last Thursday; it was a nightmare. There’d been an accident in the tunnel that connects the airport to the McCarran Car Rental Center, in addition to construction. We had landed at 2:40 and didn’t get out of the city until 4:30. The anxiety about this hold-up melted away once we were speeding out of Vegas on the I-15 and into the vast nothing of the desert beyond. It turned out to be perfect, because the sun was beginning to set -that’s when the light is at its truest brilliance in the desert and when nature’s color palette is unmatched.
By the time we arrived, it was dark, and while you could vaguely see the silhouettes of giant rocks around us, my boyfriend had no clue what we had just driven into.
The next morning, we had a leisurely morning after a particularly crazy week, and as I drew the curtains in our suite, I told my boyfriend to look out the window. Outside, the Watchman loomed overhead, the Virgin River babbled, and that blue sky beckoned.
I took him to see the Emerald Pools hike Friday afternoon. After crossing the bridge from the visitor center, you make your way up a paved path to the first pool, a dramatic overhang with a light waterfall into the pool of water below. Then, you continue on up the trail, some steep switchbacks and a little bit of rock scrambling, and eventually cross the Middle Pool – which we did not pause at all to linger at due to screaming children and big families – to find the path up to the Upper Pool, my favorite place. After a steeper ascent and lots of turning around to say “Whoa” to the landscape behind us, we were there, and we snacked on our sandwiches, Cliff bars and polished off a bottle of water, watching the people come and go and watching the light change.
For our anniversary on Saturday, we’d be hiking the Narrows – a trek new for both of us. We rented our gear from the Zion Adventure Company on Friday night: shoes, neoprene socks, dry pants, and fleece leggings, fleece long sleeved shirts and walking sticks.
What is unique about hiking the Narrows is that you are hiking mostly in the river, through moderate to strong currents, in the depths of the canyon. We opted for the hike that embarks from the Temple of Sinawa Riverside Walk with a goal to make to what guidebooks and others call “Wall Street”, where the canyon walls narrow to approximately 22 feet across.
Criss-crossing the rocky banks, slowly moving over bowling-ball sized rocks in the river and navigating currents, snacking on trail-mix while whispering “This is amazing,” every other breath, the hike filled up five hours of our day. There’s a glow in the Narrows as the sun trickles down into the deep river crevasse you’re hiking in. The subtle whisper and roar of the river, the way the trees in the canyon look against endless walls of red rock… it’s magical. We made it to “Wall Street.” We ate lunch on rocks looking up a narrow sliver of that blue sky high above us and watched the colors of the smooth inner canyon walls light up as the day went on. I struck Natarajasana despite my layers of clothes and heavy shoes. We were completely disconnected and perhaps somewhat foolishly even went without a watch. Of course, given my camera karma in Zion National Park, I had forgotten my beautiful waterproof digital camera, and we were left to use a disposable one. None of the pictures from the Narrows turned out well. Not one.
Remarkably, we were out of the canyon, off the river and back on the National Park Service shuttle with enough time to make it to our couples massage at the Spa back in Springdale. After hiking six miles, I happily ordered the steak, he the lamb shank, and we enjoyed a bottle of red from a Tuscan town I visited in 2012, Montepulciano. It was a perfect day of adventure and leisure.
Sunday we were a little less adventurous but took scenic drives into the eastern side of the in awe of the changing landscape there and the sudden appearance of white sandstone. We then drove toward Kolob to have a picnic in the aspen forest with dramatic views of the canyons and gorges below. Sunday night, we watched the moon light up the Virgin River from the bridge as the moon rose over the towering peaks, which prior had just been beautifully ominous shadows under the stars.
Monday I showed him the same Eastern Overlook hike that my mother loves so much, and we were visited by a group of five Big-Horn Sheep to see us off.
What has made me learn to love hiking really stems from my yoga practice. Yoga teaches us to be more present both in mind and body. The more I’ve practiced, the more I feel I’ve been able to just “go with the flow” wherever I am while traveling, and hiking has become a companion to my practice when I’m on the go. You breathe, you sweat, you look around and come back to center within yourself, acknowledging the beauty within you and around you in a whole different light.
And maybe, if you have a moment, you pause to find, connect, and find an asana that helps you get grounded in the place you’re in.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.
- John Muir