My wife, Cheryl, is on a mission to visit more National Parks. She feels we’ve been deficient as parents and citizens for having dragged ourselves and our children to so few parks. Now, she believes, we must make up for lost time. So, we have become park baggers.
This fall we planned a trip to Zion National Park in Utah between Christmas and the New Year. Daughter Rosa is a school teacher, so the timing worked well for her to join us. Our son, Garrett, declined as he had a two-week business trip to India planned in December, which was enough travel for him in one month.
When planning our vacations, we usually go one of two modes: all-inclusive or adventure mode. When we book an all-inclusive trip, we like to make as few decisions as possible and plunk ourselves in one place for the duration; we have done this several times for Caribbean getaways and this is how we do our annual summer vacation to Silver Bay YMCA on Lake George in the Adirondacks. Other times, we go adventure mode and book only the first couple nights, then wing it for the rest of the trip depending on what we discover as we go.
We chose the latter option for our Zion adventure. Our loose plan was to fly into Las Vegas, drive to Zion for a couple nights, then decide whether to stay there or go over to Bryce Canyon National Park for a day or two. With the government shutdown, we weren't sure what would be open, although we read that the State of Utah was providing funds to keep Zion and Bryce Canyon open.
Just two days before Christmas day departure, I got the hot idea to see if there might be any fishing opportunities out there during this time of year. I quickly found Fremont River Guides in Torrey, Utah and called owner Shawn Saunders who said we could fish a spring creek in the area where the water doesn’t freeze and there are big brown trout and rainbows. As I booked an afternoon trip – either Thursday or Friday depending on the weather - visions of a sunny, 45 degree day were dancing in my head.
We flew out of Logan Airport on the afternoon of Christmas Day and landed in Las Vegas near midnight. We stayed near the airport and then drove up Interstate 15 to Zion with a stop at Valley of Fire State Park on the way. This side trip in the desert, recommended by my good friend Bob Chamberlin, was a chance to stretch our legs on a pleasant afternoon and explore the amazing sandstone formations and petroglyphs.
Continuing east, we rolled into Springdale just before sunset. We had just enough time to drive through town and up the canyon road to the Visitors Center (yes, it was open) before the towering sandstone formations - the Watchman, the Towers of the Virgin, and the three Patriarchs – lit up in spectacular colors in the setting sun. After sunset, we naively tried to drive through the park in the dark to meet Meg and Mike Lepage, friends from Maine who were renting a house outside the east entrance, but the recent snow and the icy twisting switchbacks through the pass made us turn back to town.
Knees and Toes
On Thursday, Cheryl, Rosa and I agreed to try the eight-mile round trip hike up to Observation Point that looks down over the canyon and the famous Angels Landing formation. Both my knees and the footing on the trail were questionable, but we figured we would get up to some nice views even if the trail got too slippery to continue to the top. There were some slippery spots, for sure, but we were pleasantly surprised that we made it to the top of the snowy mesa where the view was simply astounding. And it was sunny with no wind: what luck!
My bad knees held up on the hike back down, but another problem quickly became apparent: my hiking boots were a half size too small. While descending the steep trail with tricky footing, my toes were smashing into the front of my boots. The pain got worse and worse and I shuffled the last mile in agony, using my hiking poles almost like crutches to take the force off my feet. At the bottom, both my big toes were black and blue and I could barely walk. I'd post a photo, but you really don't need to see that. On a positive note, compared to the toenail trauma, my knees didn’t hurt at all.
Despite my throbbing feet, it was such a spectacular hike, we celebrated an amazing day with Mike and Meg at Zion Canyon Brewing. I enjoyed their excellent Pale Ale which is a whopping 4% ABV, the maximum allowed for draft beer in the Beehive State.
After dinner we made our plans for the remainder of the trip: Friday we would go to Torrey where I would try my luck fishing while Rosa and Cheryl hiked in Capitol Reef National Park – a spectacular and under-visited park with huge sandstone cliffs along the Waterpocket Fold – 100 mile long geological fold in the earth’s crust. On Saturday, we would visit Bryce Canyon National Park and on Sunday we’d return to Zion for a final afternoon before flying back to Boston on Monday.
Early Friday morning we watched the sunrise as we began the 3.5 hour drive across the incredibly varied Utah landscape to Torrey. We pulled into the Fremont River Fly Shop at 11 sharp to meet Mark, my fly fishing guide for the day. He had called the night before and warned me that the high temperature for the afternoon would be below 30°F, but said he had pre-fished it that afternoon and caught an 18-inch brown trout, despite the ice on his fly line and rod.
Cheryl and Rosa went off hiking while Mark and I put on our waders and threw my gear into the jeep. The spring creek where we fished was only ten minutes away, so we barely had time to chat before we were looking down at the stream where trout were rising to midges or blue-winged olives in the bright sunshine. Mark said the water temperature was about 40° while the air was maybe pushing 20°F. So much for a warm sugarplum day. Fortunately, there was little wind.
We slipped and slid down the snowy bank from the road and crouched low as we approached the stream, just 15 to 20 feet wide. A half dozen different fish rose steadily, including several large ones, on the far bend under a grassy cutbank. Down below us, Mark spotted a large brown trout rising now and then near another cut bank.
Bravely bare-handed, my intrepid guide tied on a blue-winged olive dry fly which I cast upstream and to the left of the rising fish, allowing the current to pull the fly down along the far bank to where the fish were stacked up. We had no luck after several passes, so Mark switched me over to a fluffy Adams as the indicator fly with a bead-head zebra midge as a dropper. He could see the fish in the clear water and several moved toward the nymph as it passed. Soon I hooked up with a decent fish, but quickly lost it when my line went slack. This is when I realized that my fingers were already numb and awkward, and the line and guides on the rod were freezing up after just a few casts.
We cleared the guides of ice and I cast the best I could to drift the flies over the holding fish. I finally hooked, landed and released a ten-inch rainbow. A rush of adrenaline warmed me as I lifted the fish into the cold air. I was pumped that we had immediate and steady action.
But Mark said there were much bigger fish to freeze. A few more casts of the zebra midge drew no interest, so Mark decided to try a heavier Copper John to get the fly down lower to the bigger fish on the bottom. While he was tying on the fly, one of the brutes swam downstream past me. It was at least two feet long if it was an inch.
Yes, the day was cold, but the fishing quickly got hot. The Copper John elicited strikes from two big rainbows. I landed one about 16 inches and a second over 18 inches, both leaping twice and running hard around the pool. Mark released the fish back into the warmer water. After that, the remaining fish were a bit spooked and we couldn’t entice them to take a sleigh ride in the frosty air.
Next, we worked our way around below the big brown trout that was still rising and made a few tries for him. My casting was okay, but a big plop of the Copper John suddenly spooked the wary fish. By then I was shivering steadily, so after a couple hours in the Utah winter air, we declared victory and went back to the fly shop to warm up.
Cheryl and Rosa soon returned from a very enjoyable and scenic hike in Capitol Reef. They saw no more than 10 people, unlike Zion which was crowded with shuttle buses full of people and dozens on even the toughest trails. All three of us were happy with our day in the park and ready to move on.
On To Bryce Canyon
We had booked rooms at Ruby's Inn near Bryce Canyon, so Shawn and Mark told us to drive to back on Route 12 through Boulder, UT. This, they said, is one of the most scenic drives in the world with jaw-dropping views out across the Waterpocket Fold to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and parts of Bryce Canyon. The highlight, however, was a terrifying S-curve, knife-edge south of Boulder called The Hogback which was no wider than the road itself with 1000 foot cliffs on either side AND NO GUARD RAIL! Talk about adrenaline.
We watched the sun set from a spectacular lookout near The Hogback and drove on through the Dixie National Forest and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Bryce Canyon in the dark, knowing we were missing more incredible scenery. On Saturday, we hiked down into Bryce Canyon among the spectacular hoodoos and cliffs. The trail was pretty mild and my toes were still sore, yet I was glad to be able to get down into the canyon to feel the scale of the place. We realized that this is what “wow!” was invented for.
For our final day back in Zion, Rosa and Cheryl did a moderate vertical hike up to the Watchman formation while I walked – slowly – on the flat easy Riverside Trail up along the Virgin River up to the Narrows, where the canyon is no wider than the river. The light and towering walls made for a mind-bending experience.
As a final surprise, we stopped for pizza at River Rock Roasting Co. in the tiny town of La Verkin, UT. Okay, maybe we were just hungry after a day of hiking and several days of lousy food, but this was some of the best pizza we’ve had in a while. We were completely out of superlatives, so we enjoyed the meal and drove off into the sun set, back to Vegas to catch our flight home to snowy New England.
What a fabulous trip! Three parks and a national monument in the bag. Now we're ready for the next park adventure.