“Zion is like Moab on steroids!”
Or so I was told by a guy in a Moab bike shop before I headed out of town. The morning of October 27th I left Red Canyon State Park, headed toward Zion National Park. I’d yearned to explore Zion again for 15 years, the on my first visit having seen it only for a moment while foolishly driving through without pause on a cross country move after college. I remembered it was all very big, and that the cliffs seemed to climb forever out of the canyon floor, but not much else.
I was feeling earnest to get there, but was not excited about the 70 miles of highway that seemed to lay between me and Zion. Having spent so much time on back roads, trails and the likes since entering Colorado and Utah, I have become attached to the quiet of less popular routes. A little map sleuthing and getting confirmation from some locals sent me on a forest service road route that would land back on pavement almost exactly at the park entrance. For those interested I’ll describe the route in detail at the end of this post, as it was one I’d certainly suggest.
I said goodbye to the quiet of Red Canyon and the comforts I had been afforded at the closed campground and visitor center and pushed on.
I grabbed all I could from this gas station in the tiny town of Hatch Utah, as it was closing day for the season and everything was being sold at fractions of normal prices. It has been quite interesting to see how all these towns shut down right at the same time in late October as the Fall season comes to a close. People are battening down their hatches for the Winter. It’s a good thing as it was 22 degrees when I woke up in Red Canyon this morning! Just outside of town I took my turnoff to start climbing up toward Navajo Mountain. Even at 11am, it was still cold enough to need my Winter gloves and warm hat, and I knew it would get colder up around the mountain at 9000’ of elevation. It was actually really difficult to regulate my temperature in the cold windy sunny setting as I rode. Every uphill I’d overheat and every downhill I’d get too cold. Still working on the perfect garment combination for this environment. Still, it was a beautiful sunny day, and 80 miles of unknown land lay before me on the way to Zion.
The road before me alternated between dirt and pavement as I wiggled South and West, all the while climbing up out of canyon country and into more lush pine forests. While I still hadn’t seen any running water since 80 miles back, I knew I was getting to a more hydrated environment based on the vegetation.
Nearing Navajo Mountain, I began seeing aspen trees, growing out of huge piles of lava rocks. Really interesting and beautiful to see the contrast between the white aspen bark and the black lava.
Reaching the high point of my climb, Navajo Lake, at the base of Navajo Mountain. Seeing this clear, serene lake I realized I’d not seen a high mountain lake since Colorado (I don’t really count Lake Powell as a lake as it’s more of a reservoir for the Colorado River to run through, plus a million motor boats prevented much of a feeling of serenity there.) After hiking down to the water’s edge I stopped and listened to the quiet lapping of tiny ripples against the rocky beach. If I weren’t concerned about the temperature dropping so low at that high elevation I’d have just stopped there for the night. But a short pause did wonders for taking in the richness of this environment.
Final glimpses of hoodoo covered cliffs off in the distance as the aspens ushered me onward.
Remnants of an old townsite up in the hills as I curved around the backside of Navajo Mountain down toward Zion.
Having crested the big climb, the road finally began to descend toward Zion. And what a descent it was! I barely pedaled at all for about 15 miles as the road rolled through various layers of hillside, dropping 3000’ of elevation! I finally came to the point where I knew I’d have to climb up out of this grand valley I’d entered, and decided to call it a night at the sight of a beautiful meadow, the Virgin River running beneath it. I found some down wood right by the river and started a fire to help maintain the heat as the sun set and the temperature began to plummet.
The following morning, I got up early to begin my final 20 miles of riding up and down through the hills just North of Zion in order to leave time for exploring in the park. At long last the sandy dirt road dropped me onto highway 9, the road which runs through the park. Perfectly, the pavement itself changes color the moment you enter the park. I’d never seen this before. It made me feel like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, oddly. You can see the pavement change just at the bottom of the following photo:
Of course you can also see that geologically, things are about to get…interesting…
Entering Zion from the East, there are 2 tunnels that pass through huge cliffs. The first can be biked through, while the second required hitching a ride as the park service doesn’t let cyclists ride it. Luckily hitching was extremely easy as there are a lot of pickup trucks in Utah. I had a lovely 5 minute conversation with the driver about his experience doing mission work in Central America for the LDS church (yep, still in Utah), so interesting to hear the variety of perspectives of life in less “developed” countries. Before I hitch through the second tunnel however, I followed the advice of the ranger manning the tunnel and hiked a short trail up and over it. This gave me a glimpse of the land I was about to see on the other side…
The winding road dropped all the way to the floor of the valley pictured above. Fantastic hairpin descent on smooth pavement, allowing me to lean way into the turns and gain distance from the cars behind me. Stopping at the first campground I could find to set myself up for a couple of days, I luckily I met two people who were happy to split my campsite to cut down on costs for both of us. Two college friends who were on a 3 week adventure together before starting new jobs. I saw them hunting for a campsite after they had all filled, so I jumped on my bike and caught up to them to offer a split. How could they say no, with this view right in our backyard:
The following morning as the sun crept through the cracks of the looming cliffs above, I set out to ride up into the scenic canyon drive road which wiggles up the canyon’s floor for 8 miles until it’s too narrow to continue. I planned to do a couple of key hikes suggested to me by various people I’ve met along the way: Angel’s Landing Trail and Hidden Canyon Trail.
Interestingly, the hiking trails were actually paved, almost the entire way. While I appreciated that this likely made the trails more accessible for people who would be weary of scrambling across rocks and sand, I felt a little removed from the sensation of feeling the real ground beneath my feet. It’s a curious experience, being in all these national parks in between stretches of being out by myself on desolate back roads and trails. So many people in general, but also the majority of whom don’t seem to want to walk more than 1/2 mile to see things. Lots of RVs. LOTS. But I have to appreciate that everyone has their own capacities and their own ways of interacting with nature. I’m just glad there’s a place for that to happen for those who would not or could not otherwise do so. Plus, these paved trails were NOT for the faint of heart both in terms of elevation and fitness!
Quite impressive to me were the amazing ways the National Park Service has etched these paved walkways way up high into these cliffs! This is a long section of switchbacks that bring you up a cliffside that would otherwise have required roped climbing!
Then the ‘trail’ got really interesting… In order to get to the top of that big cliff, I had to walk along the razorback from another cliff. Sooooo glad the park put in chains onto which I could hold on for balance!
These chains have clearly been here for a while. Have worn their pattern into the sandstone!
Made it to the top… Looks like a few others had as well. I’m personally not a big “mark my visit to this peak by putting a pile of rocks up there” kind of person. But the collection of little rock cairns was actually quite lovely.
Getting back down was surprisingly harder than going up, acrophobically speaking.
Yep. That’s about a 1200’ drop. I am grasping quite tightly to one of those chains at this moment…
After a quick bite, I rode further up the canyon to the trailhead for my second hike up the day, up Hidden Canyon. It started out quite similar in exposure to the previous hike: narrow walkways carved out of sandstone cliffs with the occasional chain drilled into the wall for some sense of security…
Beautiful textures of rocks were all around me on this hike.
The further I walked into Hidden Canyon, the more narrow it got and with increasingly complicated piles of boulders to scramble over.
At some point I realized that the canyon could go on like this forever. I was alone and hadn’t seen any hikers for an hour or two (rare in this park), plus some of the scrambles over the rock piles were getting a little scetchy. So I decided to turn around and head back to watch a sunset in the main canyon. I was only about a mile from the North end of the canyon road, and wanted to see how narrow it would get. Following the trail from the end of the road for a mile or two, it ended at the mouth of the Virgin River (which formed the canyon a while back). I saw many hikers with waterproof pants, waterproof hiking shoes and long wooden poles for balance coming down the riverbed. At 52 degrees, that water was not inviting me in at this late hour! I headed back to my campsite.
Zion is a magical place. I only wish I could have had it to myself without all the hordes of people for a little while. It’s the challenge of visiting national parks in beautiful places: Rarely are you the only one with the idea to go there. However, I was able to find some quiet moments along the way, and the extreme beauty of the place made it all worthwhile. Onward to do some mountain biking in the canyons near Hurricane and St. George….
P.S. — For those interested, the route I took from Red Canyon to Zion was the following:
Hwy 12 to 89 South into Hatch (approx 11 miles)
Fish Hatchery Road (just South of Hatch) which turns into FSR 67 (approx 20 miles)
Hwy 14 to the Navajo Lake turnoff (approx 7 miles)
Navajo Lake State Park road which turns into North Fork County Road at the end of the park. Follow this road all the way to Rt. 9, 2 miles from the entrance to Zion (approx 40 miles)
From here if you don’t want to ride through Zion, it seems that there IS an ATV route that you can take for another 20-30 miles South if you ride Rt. 9 East a little ways, to get on ATV route 20 (see map below from a random kiosk I saw outside of Coral Sand Dunes State Park). Feel free to contact me if you’d like more info on this or any other route I’ve taken.