THE SHUTTLE HAD reached the Visitor Centre and we were sheer moments away from leaving Zion. I looked up and soaked it all in. The setting sun was creating the most beautiful alpenglow that I had ever seen. The shadows of one side of the immense canyon was cast on the other side and the parts of the sheer, vertical red rock face that weren’t shadowed, were glowing incandescently under a sky that was still brilliantly blue. In that moment, I was more convinced than ever of Zion’s magic. I had expected to find beauty only sparsely sprinkled amongst the dryness and monotony of the desert and instead, I found an oasis, bursting with life and colour. Everything about Zion seemed simultaneously at odds and in harmony with one another; natural and unnatural at the same time. Zion is such a magnificent place that it made me feel out of place, almost unworthy to be there. No wonder its Mormon settlers, inspired by its beauty and peace, named it after Zion, the holy city in the Bible’s Old Testament.
DRIVING INTO ZION had been enough to take my breath away. On the way into the park, the road was long and straight and the desert was open and mostly flat all around, punctuated only by colossal rock formations, some looking like they belonged on Mars with strange spires jutting out.
Almost as soon as we passed through the park gates, the scale and abundance of these wonders just ramped right up. I’d never found myself before in a place where there was so much to look at! We picked up our Wilderness Permits at the Visitor Centre from a ranger who warned us about the squirrels who “unlike many things in Australia won’t kill you but can become pretty aggressive over food” and then we made our way towards the park’s East Entrance to begin our backcountry adventure. At this point, it was already early evening and yet the heat was still oppressive.
ALONG THE ZION-MT CARMEL HIGHWAY, every switchback gave us increasingly insane views of Zion Canyon; it was so grand, that it felt intrusive to be there, driving along a cement highway in our exhaust-producing car. The most spectacular sight was the Great Arch of Zion, this unbelievably perfect arch in the rock; so perfect that I couldn’t stop staring at it, wondering how on earth (or not on earth…) a structure like that could be created ‘just’ by natural forces. Just like how, for me, El Capitan in Yosemite represents human potential, because of the climbing feats that have been achieved on that wall, the Great Arch of Zion represents the formidable powers of nature.
ONCE WE HAD gone through the tunnel to Zion’s eastern rim, the topography changed from imposing bright red and orange cliffs to expanses of intriguing white and pastel pink slickrock that had been carved into striking patterns of waves and ripples. This landscape was less dramatic but equally enchanting. As we hiked, I saw the layers of rock as representations of periods of time and history. I imagined all those other people and animals that had been here before me, and it felt very significant to have the chance to be in such a place.
The Information Board at the Visitor Centre had rated the East Rim Trail as DRY, (yes in capital letters) and the ranger had informed us that we should ‘probably’ carry all of our water (ALL of our water, for 4 days and 3 nights of all-day backpacking in the desert heat…), and yet I was still taken aback when every creek bed we crossed on the trail was completely parched. Even the beautiful, rosy afternoon light on the pretty pink and white rock couldn’t dispel our discomfort and after only a couple of hours hiking, we decided that we would return to the main canyon the next morning, to hike the other end of the East Rim Trail.
TO REACH THE other end of the East Rim Trail, we followed the trail from the main canyon up towards Observation Point. This morning was our first time in Zion’s main canyon and it was intense. To go from the wider stretches of slickrock to be right in the thick of it, in the narrow and deep canyon where cliff walls soared dramatically above us, made us feel delightfully insignificant. Hiking amongst it all made me feel more a part of this otherworldly, awe-inspiring place than when we were driving along the Zion-Mt Carmel highway. The trail itself was also breathtaking, both in the literal and figurative sense. The sun was scorching, the switchbacks were aplenty and our packs were heavy; we moved slower than we had ever moved before. I was too out of breath to even care that teenagers (though without packs) were steadily overtaking me. It definitely had something to do not only with the stifling heat, but also the altitude and the fact that we had only landed in the US about 36 hours beforehand.
At some point during the sweatfest, I looked up and noticed how the colours of the desert were fascinatingly and beautifully contrasted. The red rock was dotted with unexpectedly richly green pines and all was ablaze under a vividly Blue sky. I was captivated; I hadn’t expected such a vibrant palette in the middle of the desert.
AND IT ONLY got better. Our campsite for our second night in Zion was stunning. We were almost nestled in a saddle in between ridges that rocketed upwards so that to both sides and behind us, were towering rock walls and an interesting conical formation, and in front of us, we had this tunnel view down the slopes, back towards the main canyon. The colours of the sky and rock were ever-changing and it felt like the upmost privilege to witness it, especially the next morning’s sunrise of pastel pink, orange and baby blue. When these colours slowly melted away and the sun rose and first kissed the rock with its golden light, I knew that that would forever remain one of the most beautiful mornings of my life. It is as though the entire canyon came to life in that moment.
WE RETURNED TO the main canyon that morning, nineteen hours after setting out on the East Rim Trail. During these nineteen hours, we had really struggled with the heat. In the hottest part of the day, we were traversing the slickrock under the burning sun when we had to stop and retreat to one of the few miniscule patches of shade. We had only carried six litres of water and this was quickly depleted. We had not even dared to brush our teeth. Looking back, I think that we could have well been on the borderline of heat exhaustion. I remember marvelling at how back home, in 40+ degree heat, I would not even leave the house yet alone, go backpacking!
During those nineteen hours, we also had not seen a single soul. As we descended, we met clean and fresh hikers, including a beautiful dark-haired man in a black sleeveless top who was absolutely charging up the switchbacks. As soon as he passed us, Luke turned to me and exclaimed, “did you see that? Was he a DESERT MODEL?” and we laughed hysterically. We chatted enthusiastically with all those we met, mainly about how it is indeed worth all the effort and sweat! Everyone was very interested in the fact that we had camped the night before as well. I love the trail; it brings people together. Encounters are almost always filled with smiles and well wishes.
We also crossed paths with a red-bearded ranger with piercing blue eyes who greeted us jovially and then launched into an excited monologue about how there was a buck “with three points!” and a doe further along the trail. He tried in earnest to point them out to us but they were well camouflaged. We wished each other good days, then continued along and sure enough, shortly after, Luke shushed me and pointed to a rock outcrop above the next switchback. There stood a majestic buck, lazily chewing away, gazing down at us, completely unfazed. He was so graceful and strong and it reminded me that we were mere visitors to this oasis. As we hiked along, we were surprised to see yet another buck next to the trail, and when we saw a doe emerge, we realised that this was what the ranger was talking about. We counted ourselves very lucky to have been able to see not one, but three deer, and to have had them all to ourselves.
THAT AFTERNOON, once the worst part of the day’s heat had gone, we tackled and topped out on Angel’s Landing after an hour’s worth of switchbacks and another hour clinging onto chains and bolts set into the rock. Previously, I had always declared myself as afraid of heights but sometime in the last year, I seem to have embraced the fear, because although I still had the occasional butterfly in my stomach, I felt mostly very comfortable and confident on Angel’s Landing. I found myself in a state of flow, loving every moment of the hike and wishing that I could imprint every step and every vista, in fine detail, into my memory forever. Luke, on the other hand, was unexpectedly petrified! He always had both hands on the chains and told me that his mind was going haywire, thinking over and over again, that just one misstep could send him tumbling down the cliffs to his death. He sped ahead and didn't look out on the view once until we reached the summit.
By the time we reached the top, it was early evening and the golden light streamed down into the canyon like heaven had opened up its doors and it was so surreal. Angel’s Landing is a fin-shaped formation that seemingly juts out of nowhere in the middle of the canyon so we felt as though we were suspended almost in mid-air in this canyon that snaked along for as far as the eye could see, with the Virgin River meandering through the middle. Instead of looking up at those towering red and orange walls, we were now mostly looking across and down on them and it felt as though we were peeking in on a secret, foreign, toy world, like one of those snow globes. I felt like I could reach out and brush the pines. We giggled at how pine trees even sprouted on some of these walls because they were so high up.
ONCE WE DESCENDED Angel’s Landing and Luke had recomposed himself, we bee-lined once again for the Virgin River. Standing there, at the base of the canyon with our feet in the frigid waters, beneath scorched red rock and a flawless sky, I was still keenly aware that this was not my domain but I felt more in harmony with Zion. I had fallen in love with the place for all its beauty and difficulties. The motto of Utah is "life elevated" and Zion definitely did that for me in all possible areas and angles. We walked from the Visitor Centre to our car on that final evening under that gorgeous alpenglow. As always when an adventure ends, I was hit with instant nostalgia. The dramatic display of Zion's grandeur flooded me with emotion and it was the perfect ending to this first leg of our trip.