Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Observation Point: Zion National Park

Bridge Mountain
Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate to find myself in the spectacular red-rock playground that is Southern Utah. Early winter is really a superb time to be there. The days are relatively warm, the nights are cool, and the sky is always a brilliant blue. What else to do than visit iconic Zion National Park?

The day after Thanksgiving seemed like the best day to go since we were driving back to Southern California on Saturday instead of Sunday. I've driven the I-15 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving many times and it is not something I care to repeat ever again. That stretch of road from Las Vegas to Victorville is a dangerous and crowded gambit under the best of circumstances, but on the Thanksgiving weekend it becomes a frustrating death crawl. As it turned out, making that drive back on Saturday involved ten hours in the car and clawing our way through a 50-mile parking lot from Vegas to the California state line. So that traffic-avoidance strategy failed miserably. But I digress.

Friday morning we were up and out of the house much later than anticipated. Forty-five minutes later we were in Springdale sitting in a traffic jam heading into the Park. Instead of waiting in that interminable line, we ditched the car along the main drag and walked the rest of the way to the Park entrance. I've done this before and the benefit was a substantially discounted entry fee. This time, when I stepped up to the kiosk to pay, the Ranger rung me up at the full $30. Before paying, I told him I thought the Park charged a lesser fee to those who walk or bike in to encourage that type of thing. That was true, I was informed, but not on days like this day when the parking lot was already bursting to capacity. Hmmm. A harbinger of things to come.

Past the kiosk, we headed toward the boarding area for the mandatory shuttle that would take us into Zion Canyon. There, we encountered a long line of about 500 folks waiting to do the same. Someone nearby crabbed that the experience was more akin to Disneyland than a National Park and I shook my head in knowing agreement. Our outdoor public places are being loved to death. We need more of them, not less.
Big Bend and the Organ

Observation Point

My Two Favorite Hiking Buddies

Daddy - Daughter Date
After what seemed an eternity, we finally boarded a shuttle and were on our way. Before getting to our destination at Weeping Rock, however, the shuttle had to first go through the motions of making stops at the Zion Museum, Canyon Junction, and the Court of the Patriarchs where absolutely nobody got off and nobody got on.

At Weeping Rock (Shuttle Stop No. 7), we de-boarded the shuttle, secured our gear, and started up the East Rim Trail that would take us to Observation Point. The climb out of the canyon begins immediately as the path switch-backs up the imposing sandstone wall on the east side of Virgin River. Cable Mountain and the Great White Throne tower overhead as pretty views of the Big Bend and the Organ open below. A short distance up, a trail splits off to the right and climbs stoutly ala Walters Wiggles into cool Hidden Canyon. We continued on the main path which ultimately levels out some and then enters beautiful Echo Canyon, tracking the creek that has carved a deep gash in the soft red rock. On the cliffs high above us, we caught glimpses of Big Horn Sheep foraging precariously on the steep hillside.

Out of the creek-bed and through a narrow slot in the orange sandstone, the walls fall away and the character of the canyon suddenly changes. Here, the rock is cream-colored and the flora is evergreen. A trail into upper Echo Canyon and ultimately, Cable Mountain branches off to the east, but it doesn't appear to see much use even though it is well marked. Beyond this point, the path steepens again as it climbs vigorously to the top of plateau. Once on top, we had a short, flat stroll out to Observation Point which affords the best views of Zion Canyon. Yeah, yeah, I know. What about Angel's Landing? Angel's Landing, the crowd favorite, is cool and should be experienced, but Observation Point has superior views and is far from the madding crowds.
Desert Bighorn High on the Hillside

Oh, Hello

Sandstone Wonderland - East Mesa Trail

Trail Views

Looking Into Echo Canyon

The Valley from Observation Point. Angel's Landing in the Lower Right Foreground

Observation Point Benchmark - Elevation 6,508'

Oh, the Views

Unfortunately, because it was so late in the day, the light was not optimal so our pics of Zion Canyon from above do not reflect the awesomeness of this place. For that same reason, we didn't have much time to spend on top because we had to hustle back down while we still had light and the shuttles were running. So after a late lunch and a zen moment, we turned tail and began the trek back to Weeping Rock.

On the way back through Echo Canyon, we saw some Big Horn Sheep tracks in the soft sand and spoke about how fortunate we were to see one on the way up. Twenty minutes later, as we were descending the switchbacks into Zion Canyon, two young rams bounded across the trail about 20 yards in front of us. As we furiously clicked away, they grazed on the spare hillside forage completely unconcerned with us and our cameras. One even cut across the hillside about 10 yards above us and peered over the edge which was both exhilarating and frightening. Up close, they are huge and imposing animals.

Late Afternoon Shadows in Echo Canyon

Cable Mountain

More Desert Bighorn Sheep

Up Close and Personal

Look at Those Beautiful Horns

Walk Away. Yeah, That's Right

You Lookin' at Me?

Done Playing with the Humans
Back in the canyon, we boarded one of the last shuttles out as the sky faded to black. The contraption was packed to the gills so we stood. As more and more folks loaded on at each stop, we were slowly forced to the rear as our personal space compressed down to nothing. With everyone putting out their own thermal energy, the shuttle was already quite warm, but the driver had the heat blasting which made it an unbearable furnace. And then it happened. Like it always happens in these situations. Someone cracked one. The nauseating stench permeated the bus and enveloped us all, but nobody said anything. It's not what you do in polite company. So we all sat and/or stood there in the oppressive heat and the foul air hanging on in quiet desperation and pretending all was well. Finally, someone unlatched a window a bit and cool, clean air came filtering in. I would have kissed the guy on the lips if I could have, but he was out of reach and was with his wife. 

Twenty minutes or so later, after having stopped at the Zion Museum once again on the off chance that someone in the over-crowded shuttle wanted to get on or off (which they didn't), we pulled into the parking lot of the Visitor's Center where we all poured out of the bus and into the chill of the inviting Southern Utah night.


  1. Exhilarating trip report! Those view from Observation Point are something else. I've read that is the best spot in the park from several people. What fortune to get so close to bighorns. I think you pushed me to visit Utah next year.

    1. Thanks teke. Zion really is spectacular. If you haven't been, it's worth the trip, but spend a couple of days and make a side trip to Bryce while you're in the neighborhood. Good stuff.

    2. Done and done! We just booked 3 days in Zion and 3 days in Bryce at the end of July. It will be hot, but that's the only time the whole family can go. Psyched!

    3. Dude! Are you freakin' serious? Awesome. I may just have to happen to be there at the same time. Lol.