Zion National Park: The Narrows and Cable Mountain

I am not a Vegas person. I had once held out hope that I might never see it at all, but alas that dream ended this year when one of my annual trade shows was held there. I decided that I would at least use the trip to get out and see something great in one of Utah's amazing National Parks. At two and a half hours by car, Zion is the closest to Vegas and seemed like the obvious choice. After doing a little research I discovered that I had just missed the free-for-all opening date for booking camping permits in June by two days (this bad karma would be paid back in a few months when I booked a 2017 trip, but that post is coming later). There are all kinds of amazing things to see and do in Zion; some of them, like the Subway or the Narrows (from the top down) are so popular that you have to enter a lottery to get a permit. Others, like the reserved campsites on the west side of the canyon, usually fill up on the first day they are available to be reserved, the fifth day of the month - two months in advance. The blogs and message boards I read told me that getting a permit for the West Rim Trail is the way to go -- it's much more scenic than the East Rim Trail. But everything on the west side was already booked, and I was going to have to sleep somewhere on Saturday night, so I reserved a $5 wilderness permit for camping on the East Rim. Unfortunately, this meant I wouldn't be able to hike the iconic Angel's Landing, but at least I have a good reason to go back.

The "less scenic" East Rim.

I guess I should mention that I had never really been camping; at least not the real thing like this. But we (The Brodys, Badgers and I) had our big Iceland hiking & camping trip coming up that summer and we were all stocking up on REI gear. We had a nice little "practice" hike and camp planned for a Pennsylvania state park in May, so I would have that under my belt. But I was definitely worried that I was biting off more than I could chew, especially for a solo trip. My first order of business was to come up with an itinerary. There are so many things to do in Zion and I would really only have all day Saturday and Sunday until it was time to head back to Vegas to catch my flight home. Plus I really had no idea just how much hiking I'd be able to handle, especially with all this gear I had never carried before. This website (Joe's Guide) was incredibly helpful, and eventually I settled on a plan. Saturday morning would start with a trip to the Narrows on the very first bus of the day, to beat the crowds. Spend the morning doing the "Up and Back" hike of the Narrows, as far as I could make it before turning around to keep on schedule. Then take the bus back to the parking lot to eat lunch and gear up (no sense in taking camping gear for the first part). Then back to the East Rim Trail entrance to make the 2500 vertical foot climb to the plateau above the canyon. Go to Observation Point if there is time (adding a couple miles to the hike) or straight to the east rim and past Stave spring if it's getting late. Camp somewhere on the east rim. On Sunday morning, continue on the East Rim Trail to Cable Mountain and/or Deer Trap Mountain, enjoy the views, then head back down the way I came. Maybe hit Hidden Canyon on the way down if I'm feeling good and there's time.

The East Rim Trail switchbacks climb the canyon wall. With the Hidden Canyon trail spur.

Great, I had a plan. Now, what extra crap did I have to buy? I was going to get a camelback thing for my backpack anyway but I definitely needed one now. And an extra 5 liter bag for water, and a water filter in case the spring was running (and some water purifying tablets for backup). Zion is in the desert, so you have to carry ALL the water you will need. The rule of thumb is one gallon per 24 hours (I had no idea how hot it was actually going to be. We got a record heat wave, of course). So that meant two gallons of water to be safe (over 16 pounds!) I needed food, and a portable stove to cook it. I couldn't wear my waterproof hiking boots into the river, so I had to get another pair of hiking shoes that could get wet and dry fast (I got La Sportiva trail running shoes). Oh, and the river is really cold, so neoprene socks. I got a really thin and lightweight hiking shirt for the heat, and a floppy hat to protect against the sun. I got fancy Ex Officio underwear. A Buff to protect my neck from the sun. Nuun tablets because you can get dehydrated if you're not replenishing electrolytes with your water. And I bought a Zion map. I think that's all the stuff I bought specifically for this one weekend. Pictured below.

Now, I was absolutely prepared to go it alone on this trip but I was thrilled when I convinced the Badgers to join me. And, as it turned out, Badger's nephew Zach had just moved to Vegas and he was able to join us too. After some planning and permit-changing and trade show attending, the four of us hit the road for Utah on Friday afternoon, June 3rd. We arrived at the park that evening, picked up our permits, signed our death waivers, and listened to the park ranger's spiel about how we were definitely going to die of dehydration. Then we checked in at the The Zion Park Motel (which is a steal at $100/night for four people just outside the park entrance) and had a lovely dinner and evening in the town of Springdale. This place is so beautiful you can hardly believe that people actually get to live here year round.

Strolling the streets of Springdale, Utah.

Dinner on the patio.

We did a little souvenir shopping and got some ice cream too, but we were all tucked in nice and early. We had one strenuous day ahead of us.

We may not have quite made the very first Zion shuttle of the day but we were close enough.We were on a bus around 7:20, and by 8:00 AM we had reached the end of the line; the Temple of Sinawava.

The gang is ready to roll. Except for me; I look like I just woke up.

First there is the riverwalk, which runs about a mile until you reach the entrance to the Narrows. After that, the canyon is basically only as wide as the Virgin river itself, and you're mostly hiking in ankle to knee deep water. It is quite a unique experience; 2000 foot tall cliffs on either side of you running straight up, and so close together at times you feel like you could reach out and touch both sides at once. And although it would get up over 100 degrees on this day, the water is cold and the canyon is mostly in the shade so it's actually a struggle to keep warm. Every time the river turns another corner you're treated to even more incredible sights than the spot you were just in even though that seems impossible. You spend so much time looking up that your neck gets stiff.

The Narrows.

Scrolling through these giant vertical pictures is probably annoying, but it's the only way to do it any justice.

Standard Zion Narrows upward gawk.

Ellen looking like Charlie Brown after getting bad news.

Zach using an unusual erosion formation to take a break.

At right, some wildflowers (Golden Columbine I think) hanging near a waterfall.

Below, Ellen shows there's no wrong way to look up in the Narrows.

A little video of our river hike.

We made it about two and a half miles up the river. We would have loved to just keep going and going but we had big plans and a schedule to keep. We turned around at about 10:30 AM and headed downriver, where we ran into larger and larger throngs of people hiking in. If you ever do this hike, you absolutely have to do it first thing in the morning. It gets really crowded really fast!

One last look at the Narrows. The sun is reaching the canyon floor as it approaches high noon.

The original midday plan was to take the shuttle back to the Zion Welcome Center, eat a quick lunch of Clif bars and assorted camping food, grab our gear and head back on the shuttle to the East Rim Trail head. However, it turns out that there's a Brewpub place just outside the park entrance within easy walking distance. Eating a bacon cheeseburger and fries in air conditioning seemed like a better way to "carb up" so we did that instead. It's nice when the weak point of an itinerary is suddenly transformed into a strong one. I think we really needed that big lunch before the big hike.

After lunch we grabbed our backpacks at the car and made one final gear check, making sure we had everything and that all of our water bottles and camel backs were full. I had brought one of those luggage scales; my fully loaded pack checked in at 46 pounds (that's all the stuff in the picture at the top plus about 18 pounds of water). Badger's weighed even more; we'll never know for sure because there was some reshuffling of stuff between bags after departure. Zach didn't have a huge backpack like the rest of us and had to carry a 1.5 gallon jug of spring water by hand like a crazy person. But we were pretty confident we had enough stuff to survive one single night in the Utah desert, so took another shuttle ride, and by 3:00 PM we were taking our first steps on the East Rim Trail.

Just to set the stage: it was about 102 degrees. The sun was high above and there was almost no shade to be found at all. We had about six miles to cover while climbing 2500 vertical feet and we were each carrying about as much weight as we could possibly handle (we had over 8 gallons of water between us; more than 70 pounds worth!). We had six hours until darkness, oh, and we had already hiked 7 or 8 miles already that day. This reads like an excerpt from Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Sun" about how we died out there because we didn't know what we were doing. (It's not. Spoiler: we all survived.)

Our spirits were high as we set out. We knew it was going to be tough and we were determined not to rush it. Slow and steady, one foot in front of the other. The really difficult part was the complete lack of shade. There are a few trees here and there but they don't provide a whole lot of relief from the sun, and that's pretty rough when you're dealing with triple digits. We made quite a bit of progress before one of the trail switchbacks dug into the cliff side enough to provide a shady nook. We took a five minute break to enjoy the relief.

Not even enough room for all four of us to hide from the sun.

This picture gives a really good illustration of what we were dealing with. Every now and then a small stand of trees or bushes would cast just the tiniest amount of shade onto the trail, and every single time I would insist we stop for just a minute to catch our breath. The sun was just brutal. Also, we would get passed every few minutes by some young, fit, outdoorsy couple on their way to Observation Point, AKA people who weren't carrying 50 pounds of crap on their backs. Jerks. Also I should mention that it really was incredibly beautiful and the views just kept getting better the higher we climbed.

Zach taking a load off in a sort-of shady spot.

The East Rim Trail rising from the canyon floor in a series of switchbacks.

About 90 minutes of hiking in and we had reached our first major milestone; the entrance to Echo Canyon. This beginning stretch had basically been straight climbing. We had gained about 1000 vertical feet to this point, and now the trail turned away from the main canyon and towards the back country, where the climbing would hopefully be a little more gradual. And standing here, looking straight up, we could see our final destination, Cable Mountain.

That's Cable Mountain. You can actually see the wooden structure if you look closely. We won't make it there for another 18 hours.

Echo Canyon is a small slot canyon that the trail runs through, a very narrow fissure carved between two mountains by water. It's really beautiful, but more importantly it's shady! And there was a breeze! We took a nice long break as soon as we hit this shady spot. We also used some of our water to soak our Buffs and used them to keep our heads cool. After 15 minutes we were feeling good and ready to make some progress.

Just can't describe how good a cold, wet Buff felt at this point (no matter how ridiculous it looks).

Ready to roll out.

Echo Canyon. OK, this next one is a vertical panorama so get ready...

The other side of Echo Canyon.

We passed through Echo Canyon into the back country. We still had miles to go. There was some more climbing and slightly more frequent shade and occasional hikers descending from Observation Point. Eventually we made it to the fork in the trail, where most hikers head left to Observation Point and the East Rim Trail heads to the right towards Cable Mountain and the eastern entrance to the park. Laughably, I had once thought we might do both; head to Observation Point first then circle back to Cable Mountain. That was obviously out of the question; it was almost 6:00 PM and just getting to a campsite before dark was the main focus. There would be no side trips. Luckily we soon ran into a couple who were coming the other direction on the trail. They lived in the area and did these hikes a lot, and they were able to clue us in to what lied ahead for us. Which was primarily letting us know that we better hustle (yeah, we know) and also that we had quite a bit more climbing ahead of us than we thought. Hooray.

East Rim back country.

The first time we saw a lizard I got really exited and made Zach take a picture of it. Just FYI, there are thousands of these things in this part of the park. No need to get all excited Dickey.

After the East Rim Trail split off from the Observation Point trail it became much more difficult to follow. It's not always well marked and you're frequently walking on hard slick-rock that doesn't show any wear and tear from previous hikers. A lot of the time you're stuck looking for the next cairn which might be 50 yards up ahead. The funny thing is you can usually see the trail way up in the distance where it's cutting through some vegetation, but you can't spot it 10 feet from where you're standing. The picture above kind of shows this; you can't really tell there is a trail between where I am and where they are.

Another break in the shade.

When we finally made it to the base of the last climb we took a nice long break. We ate some of our snacks and just relaxed for a bit. Ellen and I were beat. Jeff took a little rest stop; we didn't know it at the time but he wouldn't pee again for over 72 hours. The last climb was a bear. There were lots of trees which made it claustrophobic (I think it was the lack of breeze). Zach and Jeff pushed on at their own pace. Ellen and I pulled up the rear. But by 7:30 PM, we had all reached the top; no more climbing, and we'd be able to make camp before it got dark!

Here are Ellen and me on the last little bit of the climb. I have to end this post because it's gotten too large for the editor to handle. Continued in Part 2!

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