It’s a simple hour drive from St. George, Utah along Route 9 east to Zion National Park. Zion has been a favorite of the Rothermels for a good long time. When Molly, Robyn, and Will were young, we as a family drove here to hike to Angel’s Landing and tube the Virgin River. Hannah and I have returned twice more to hike the red rock mountains of Zion, an easy three hours from McCarron Airport in Las Vegas.
Arriving at the gateway to Zion in Springdale by 1030A in late February, we pull into the Bumbleberry Inn parking lot to see about a room. In the off-season, we find that they have a sweet deal for $58 with 10% off for breakfast at Wildcat Willies. Bonanza! The room is large with a king size bed, fridge, microwave, and a second story deck that looks out into the mountains of Zion National Park.
Then Hannah wants to push it! She wonders if they take AARP. I can’t believe it. We have a burning deal and she wants more. I say, if you want to ask, go ahead, but I won’t. Fearless, she does and gets us an additional 10% off for being AARP members plus finds out the hot breakfast at Wildcat Willies is free. That’s my girl.
A mere mile from the entrance to Zion, I dress for a cooler day with jeans and sporting a VCU/Richmond long sleeve tee shirt. Listed at eight miles roundtrip with a suggested hiking time of six hours, the Observation Point Trail is one of the macho hikes of the park. With an elevation gain of 2100+ feet, the trail is described as strenuous with long drop offs; it can be deep in snow as it was last weekend.
Off season in February, the park is nicely devoid of the masses that swarm here from April through October. During this peak season, visitors must park at the visitor center or in the town of Springdale itself and take a shuttle down Zion Canyon Scenic Drive where the trailheads of the major hikes and the Zion Lodge are. Today unencumbered, we drive along the Virgin River and onto the Scenic Drive. Our Toyota Yaris thermometer says it’s 48 degrees at 11A.
The trailhead for the Observation Point Trail is at Weeping Rock. With parking for no more than 15 cars, I see the towering mountain and am reminded that steep drop offs aren’t my thing. On the plus side, our daughter Molly, who hiked this very trail the week before with her hubby Tip, said this trail did not have the fear factor of Angel’s Landing (i.e., the need to cling to chains on the mountainside 1500 feet above the canyon floor). For me, her endorsement was the tipping point to make this climb.
At the outset, the trail is wide enough for us two to walk side by side as we immediately begin breathing heavily on the switchbacks up the cliffside. Whenever I can, I hike closest to the mountainside. Hannah, like is she is on highways, is just fine hiking down the middle of the trail.
Three miles of the Observation Point Trail are paved over the Navajo Sandstone rock of the cliffside trail. Today chunks of pavement have washed away, but in general the hiking is easy on the feet as we take to the soul saving switchbacks.
Quickly we are above the trailhead parking lot with the zig zags of the switchbacks beneath us. The sand sagebrush and hackberry trees of the lower elevations give way to spiny and barrel cacti and scrub brush. Drop offs are one hundred to five hundred feet or more. As we climb, the sun soon starts to emerge from the relentless overcast. We hike mostly in the shade of the cooler north facing mountain sides.
The trail heads through rock narrows where it appears workers long ago carved out passage ways through the sandstone to make these walking paths. After heading into the interior through Echo Canyon, we emerge to see the entire canyon floor of the Virgin River. At these times, I lean towards the mountainside of the trail. I never look down or step near the edge. Mama didn’t raise no fool. But never do I feel the anxiousness that I once did grabbing mountainside chains on Zion’s sister macho hike – Angel’s Landing.
Some hour and twenty five minutes in to the hike, the trail levels off and we are in a high desert mountain of scrub brush. It seems odd to be walking on the level atop the mountain. As we pass the snow on the trailside, the trail turns muddy from last weekend’s melting snow. Then voila. After an hour and three quarters, we summit. A fellow hiker takes an Instagram picture of us that I successfully transmit to family and friends from this outpost in southwest Utah.
Lunching on pb&j at the summit of 6500 feet, we start to chill down as we overlook the valley. The wind has picked up and coal black clouds are moving in, though there was no forecast of rain. By the way, our ponchos are in our suitcase back at the Bumbleberry Inn.
Having made the climb, I am now less fearful, though still most respectful, of the drop-offs. Oh, I bend to the mountainside when I can, but the cliffs are no longer on my mind. Twenty minutes into our descent the first snowflakes fall. Picking up the pace, we feel the ping of raindrops ten minutes later. With a purposeful descent, we see the clouds roll further down the valley and the precipitation stops.
Today my sense of accomplishment climbing two thousand feet above the valley floor to Observation Point trumps my acrophobia. It’s way cool having done this climb. If you have a strong fear of heights, this is not the trail for you. If your fear is a healthy respect, then this trail is doable and not really dangerous at all.
As we descend, I am starting to rethink my decision to never climb Angel’s Landing again. I summited it once with our family back in 1992. During our last two visits to Zion, I wanted no part of the last half mile of that trail with its chains 1500 feet above the canyon floor. Maybe, it’s time to rethink that absolute position?
After hiking to Observation Point today, I have opened the door and peeked in to the possibility of climbing Angel’s Landing tomorrow. Though no one cares if do or don’t climb Angel’s Landing, this VCU Ram might be ready to take the plunge. Wrong image. Climb every mountain.
PS The preview picture of Hannah high above the Virgin River Valley on the Observation Point Trail is the best picture I have ever taken.