Zion

No other national park on our list had set my expectations quite as high as Zion. Various sources made it abundantly clear that this park is something special – be it travel blogs, YouTube videos by other photographers or images I’ve come across. The danger with high expectations is that one can easily be disappointed if the park doesn’t live up to them. Fortunately for me, Zion absolutely lived up to mine!

On our first evening, we quickly set up to shoot the Watchman from the classic spot, along with several other photographers. While the scene and sky were not playing into our hands, we sure had a good time talking to everyone there, sharing stories, photo locations and how and when to best go there. Loaded up with plenty of suggestions, we headed to bed, ready for the following day.

On our first full day, we explored Kolob Canyon, the north-western part of the park. Much less crowded, it was a good place to really take in what Zion is all about: cliffs and peaks of red rock, dotted and surrounded by greenery. The contrasting colours make for some beautiful views, some of which we were able to capture with a storm brewing behind the peaks.

A storm brewing behind a mountain in Zion - finally we got some clouds!

A storm brewing behind a mountain in Zion - finally we got some clouds!

In the afternoon, we headed outside the park to visit a slot canyon – a very narrow canyon, carved by a stream of water – to capture some tight spaces and explore the creek while wading through water the entire time. The waterfalls had to be climbed using makeshift ladders and holding on for dear life with everything being super slippery. Getting some good images, not meeting many people and even finding a natural waterslide (we did slide it several times!) definitely made for an amazing experience that afternoon.

Since the sky wasn’t looking too good for some sunset action, we headed to camp, had some dinner and headed to bed, as we’d be getting an early rise the following day to explore the world-famous Narrows at the end of Zion Canyon. The Narrows is basically a hike though water in the tight space that is the end of Zion Canyon. The water would sometimes get chest-deep, and you sure have to watch your footing as you cannot make out the rocks under the silty water. Having a ton of fun, we were lucky to be in there early in the morning, as already then there were a lot of other visitors. We managed to wait it out for a couple of great photos without any people in them.

At the end of Zion Canyon, the Narrows allow visitors to explore the stream by foot, surrounded by green and orange wherever you look.

At the end of Zion Canyon, the Narrows allow visitors to explore the stream by foot, surrounded by green and orange wherever you look.

Soaked, exhausted from finding our way through the rocks in the riverbed and satisfied, we left the narrows and joined the line for the shuttle bus back to camp. Waiting, we met Mike and his family who had backpacked down the narrows over the course of two days. Their account of the hike inspired me to put that one on my to-do list for my next visit! A whole 16 miles of the Narrows, who could possibly resist?

After some relaxing in the afternoon, we headed to Canyon Overlook to enjoy the sunset and later on capture the cars coming up the windy road, their headlights lighting up the valley as they climbed up. While waiting, I met Sarah, a local guide for hikes in the park. Amazed at the opportunity her job gave her, I got some suggestions from her and I almost missed the sunset talking to her. Once the sun went down, people started clearing out and a relaxing silence fell upon the otherwise crowded spot in an insanely crowded park. Just as we were packing up our gear, we heard some noises nearby. Startled, we looked in the direction they had come from. Staring at us, not 3 meters away, stood a baby bighorn sheep. The animal approached us, curious about what other creature would be scaling those cliffs in the darkness of early night. Amazed and concerned at the same time (you never know where mama bighorn sheep is, ready to push us over the edge of the cliff…), we let the animal get a good look at us, until it passed us and disappeared up the cliffs. Tired but happy with the images and encounters – human and animals alike – we headed back.

Cars snaking their way up to Canyon Overlook after sunset.

Cars snaking their way up to Canyon Overlook after sunset.

A 5 am rise got me on the first shuttle bus the following morning. I was about to hike the infamous Angels Landing – a 2.5 mile hike up on a peak which got its name from a person describing it as “so high, only angels can land there”. Getting on the trail as the last person off the bus, I challenged myself to get to the top first. Passing everyone on my strenuous hike (run) up the windy trail, up tight switchbacks and up a narrow ridge of sloped sandstone, with only a chain to hold onto and 300-meter drops left and right, I reached the top within 50 minutes on getting on the trail. Utterly exhausted and excited simultaneously, I enjoyed the silence up there all alone. Soon after, the first fellow hikers started trickling in – even some swiss among them. Wanting to avoid the largest crowds on the narrow paths with the chain, I descended again pretty early to have some snacks on the way down. During that break I had time to really take in the valley and even got a decent photo of a cliff face.

The red cliffs of Zion Canyon as seen from the Angels Landing trail.

The red cliffs of Zion Canyon as seen from the Angels Landing trail.

Reaching the bottom, I added another trail to my morning. Soon after getting on, I joined up with a lady trail-running the hike I was on. We hiked the entire trail together, sharing stories about hikes, the outdoors and sports. Passing some ponds, waterfalls and even spotting a wild tarantula (how cool is that?!), we had a lot of fun. After saying our goodbyes, I headed back to camp around noon to catch up with Derek to have some lunch (breakfast for him, really). It didn’t take long for me to realise that my exertions probably had been a little much, considering how out of shape I currently was. Taking it easy, I took a good afternoon nap in the hammock back at camp until we headed out to Kolob Canyon again in the evening, in the hope of catching another storm and possibly some lightning over the cliffs. With no luck, we turned around pretty soon and rewarded us with some pizza near our campground. Back in the tent, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so quickly, already having my mind on our next stop: Bryce Canyon.

Until then,
David