I only left one item on my to-do list in Zion unchecked: Hiking to Angel’s Landing. Back in 1916, a group of four were exploring the Zion Canyon and came to a giant monolith rising nearly 1,500 feet up from the canyon floor. Frederick Fischer, one of the explorers, is noted for describing the monolith as a place that “only an angel could land on.” The highlight of the 2.5 mile trail to the edge of Angel’s Landing is the final half-mile, where the trail narrows to a great sandstone isthmus, with a sheer drop of 1,200 feet on one side and 800 feet on the other. Due to this section of the trail’s full exposure to the sun, wind, ice, and precipitation, the canyon’s rapidly changing weather patterns can make this trail dangerous to hike year-round.
But on the day that I left Zion, it wasn’t the canyon’s weather that had me feeling reluctant to hike the trail – it was the canyon’s visitors. Unfortunately, I was in Zion during Labor Day weekend, which meant that the park was overrun with tourists. While hiking to Observation Point earlier in the weekend, I could clearly make out the seemingly never-ending line of people hiking Angel’s Landing. As much as I’m supportive of people being outdoors and appreciating our national lands, I’m even more cognizant of the types of risks that weekend warriors can unintentionally impart on the people around them. Earlier in the summer, while I was visiting the Tetons, one man literally chased a black bear and her cubs into me on a trail because he wanted to get close enough for his point-and-shoot camera to take a good picture of the wildlife.
As I descended from Observation Point, back down into the Canyon, I ultimately decided that I would pass on Angel’s Landing. I didn’t like how crowded the route was with people who didn’t know what they were doing. It reminded me of Into Thin Air, and it felt like completing the hike would have only been out of some obscure desire for external validation about the worthiness of my trip.
With that in mind, I hopped on the shuttle back to the park’s headquarters, got in my car, and started driving. I was headed to Bryce Canyon National Park.
If I’m being totally honest, I was a little skeptical about how much I’d love Bryce Canyon. Here’s three reasons why: 1) multiple residents of Utah had told me that the two parks to see in Utah were Zion and Arches, not Zion and Bryce; 2) Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon at all – it’s an amphitheater 3) What you see is all there is – literally; Bryce Canyon National Park is tiny compared to some of the other parks I visited this summer; Glacier National Park is more than fifty times bigger. Still, I was looking forward to leaving Zion. I was ready for a change of scenery, and the throngs of visitors at Zion were beginning to wear down my excitement for the place.
Bryce Canyon is less than a ninety-minute drive from Zion. The park’s 56 square miles were established as a national park back in February of 1928. The entrance and visitor center to the park sit along the upper rim of the amphitheater, whose range in elevation begins at just over 9,100 feet, and drops down to about 6,800 feet.
Despite my reservations, I was pleasantly surprised by Bryce. It really is beautiful, particularly at sunrise. Somewhat fittingly, two of the park’s most famous lookouts are along the Rim Trail – Sunrise Point and Sunset Point. I spent my two days at Bryce shooting both the sunset and the sunrise from various spots along the rim. The early rays of light seemed to stretch across the sky and touch the tips of each of the hundreds of hoodoos in the amphitheater. The shades of orange and crimson sandstone seemed to pop more there in the mornings, contrasted against the early, deep blue sky.
As I mentioned earlier, Bryce Canyon National Park is really quite small compared to some of the other parks I visited this summer. The hubristic (read: stupid, naïve) part of me was tempted to try to run all of the trails in the park during the two days I was there. Most of the trails were short, and I’d be able to run the rolling sand and stone hills through the hoodoos without need for much more than a hydration system and a snack. So, I laced up my trail runners, filled up my water bottle, and descended into the canyon.
On my way down, I was weaving past hikers who were making their way into and out of the canyon. Some people would clear off to the side and clap or cheer for me as I passed by, apparently impressed by the ambition of someone intentionally setting off to run the park’s trail system. I tackled the Rim Trail (11 miles), the Queen’s Garden Trail (1.8 miles), the Navajo Trail (1.3 miles), and the Peek-a-Boo Loop Trail (5.5 miles). All in, I figure I covered about 18 miles at an average elevation of 6,800-7,500 feet above sea level. Before this summer, I’d have thought that was crazy. But, in my time backpacking, I’ve come to learn that two conditions are conducive to pushing yourself further than you’d otherwise think you can: 1) When I’m exploring somewhere I’ve never been, I usually get so lost in where I am that I’m able to ignore fatigue and exhaustion; 2) After carrying around a +40lb pack all summer, having anything less than that on my shoulders makes me feel pretty light.
Still, I hadn’t actually run that far since I was training for a marathon last summer. So, I spent the next day previewing what it will feel like to be 90, hobbling back over the same trails that I’d run the day before, shooting the rolling hills and hoodoos that I’ve come to associate with Bryce.
If you find yourself in Utah for a longer trip, I’d highly recommend even spending a day at Bryce. It’s definitely second to Zion, but for longer trips to Utah, the Bryce Canyon Lodge and the amphitheater there can provide a nice respite for a day or two before you head off onto your next adventure.