Dan and Hannah Take on the Hidden Canyon and Observation Point at Zion National Park

Don't miss breakfast at Wildcat Willies in Springdale, UT

Don’t miss breakfast at Wildcat Willies in Springdale, UT

There is no better way to start a day of hiking at Zion National Park than with a Wildcat Willies breakfast in Springdale, Utah.  As a part of our stay at the Bumbleberry Inn, we get a free breakfast at Willies.  For the second day in a row we have Anahi, the $10 waitress from yesterday, who is just so upbeat and attentive, serving Hannah chicken fried steak with home fries, eggs and wheat toast and me bumbleberry pancakes.  Married for a hundred amazing years (actually nearly 44) Hannah and I split the breakfasts and we won’t need much lunch on the trail today.

Zion mountains behind our Bumbleberry Inn

Zion mountains behind our Bumbleberry Inn

Having brought five copies of my book, Sweet Dreams, Robyn, to give away to people who we connect with on our hiking vacation to Utah and Arizona, we give the first one to Anahi.  When Hannah delivers it to her later as we head to Zion, she taps her chest and smiles thankfully.

AL map of zion

Driving down the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive the last week in February, we pull into Weeping Rocks, which is the trailhead for both the Hidden Canyon and Observation Point Trails.  In the past I have been spooked by hikes that required holding on to chains above this canyon floor like we will have today at Hidden Canyon.  That all changed now that I am Daniel, Le Conquerant of Angel’s Landing.

The icy trail begins

The icy trail begins

Today’s combination Hidden Canyon/Observation Point Trails rises steeply on switchbacks and we are soon well above the parking lot where our no frills rented Nissan Versa sits.  Highly motivated to climb both these “strenuous rated” hikes on this red sandstone paved trail today, we step purposefully on a mid-50s late February morning that is going to 70F.  Fifteen minutes on the trail, we see the sign to the left to Observation Point, while we go right on the Hidden Canyon Trail.

On to Hidden Canyon

On to Hidden Canyon

Soon the first of the chains attached to the mountain wall appear.  The chains are useful, but in no way does the canyon fall off 1500 feet as it does at Angel’s Landing across the valley.  Immediately I think this is the perfect “pilot trail” if one wonders whether they may be up for the Angel’s Landing hike.

Some of the chains of Hidden Canyon

Some of the chains of Hidden Canyon

Three to four times we grab stretches of chains but never does it feel scary or intimidating.   This trail goes into the interior and ends at a sandy, shallow mountain pool.   There, a sign notes that the park service no longer maintains the trail after this point; we head back to the main trail since we have no interest in bushwhacking this fine morning.

OP 4 OP trail snow

On to Observation Point

In fifteen minutes we are back on the trail to Observation Point.  Once at the top, we will have the Virgin River Valley to our west and even look down on Angel’s Landing across the valley floor.  On this north side of the valley we run into snow on the trail.  Much of it has been covered by sand and we step easily through and around it.

OP 4C closeup D in canyon

Finally hiking into the sunlight, we climb and climb some more.   Last year we hiked this same trail (see to the left of this blog under Utah for the blog describing last year’s initial assent of Observation Point).  The climb is steady and relentless with 2100′ of elevation gain as we hike on the exposed cliffs of the mountainside facing the Virgin River Valley.  Last year I hugged the mountainside in fear, leaning into the mountain at a 75 degree angle for reassurance.

Valley side of the Observation Point Trail

Valley side of the Observation Point Trail

Today I wonder what the big deal was.  These trails at Zion are for folks who have a respectful fear of heights not the “severely debilitating fearful” kind.  And always, as the sign at Zion says, Your safety is your responsibility.

The Virgin River Valley from Observation Point

The Virgin River Valley from Observation Point

The final half mile to Observation Point is basically a level walk on the high plateau.   For the third day in a row in southern Utah, the sky is bright blue without a cloud within 500 miles.  At the summit, ten others, mostly couples are lunching and enjoying the view and the sunshine.

Unfortunately, sunshine is no friend for mid-day picture taking, especially looking down the Virgin River Valley into the afternoon sun.  We ask Joan, who we will learn is a farmer with her husband Russell in Pocatello, Idaho, to snap our picture.

Atop Observation Point

Atop Observation Point

Talking for twenty minutes about potato farming, travels, and children with her, I feel the connection that makes me want to make them the second recipients of a copy of Sweet Dreams, Robyn.  Alas, we have not packed a copy for the trail and the ones we do have are in our rental car four miles down below at the trailhead.

Descending on the Observation Point Trail

Descending on the Observation Point Trail

Packing up to leave, we don’t see Joan and Russell and guess that they must have left five to ten minutes before us.  On a mission to get them a copy of Sweet Dreams, Robyn, we rocket down the trail and know we will easily catch them.  Cruising along at three miles per hour down the mountainside, we don’t see them after 20 minutes or even 30 or 40.  What the hey?  They must be some super hikers.  And then it hits me – they never left the summit and are still exploring above us.

Coming down the mountain

Coming down the mountain

So we on to Plan B – we’ll just look for the car with the Idaho plates and leave a book on their windshield.  Easy Peezy.

Once at the trailhead parking area, we begin to scour the lot with a mere 25 cars, which should make it easy pickens to find their Idaho car.   Returning with news, that unbelievably, there are three vehicles with Idaho plates, Hannah is not dismayed.   We’ll do some sleuthing to figure which is their vehicle.  The first Idaho vehicle is a Subaru Outback that has a rear sticker indicating it was bought in Florida.  Not likely theirs, though farmers might like its all-wheel capability.

The second is a Lexus with a Go Irish Notre Dame vanity plate.  Dubious.   The third is a pickup truck.  Nothing says farming like a double cab pickup truck.  Checking the license plate holder it says Hirning but nothing about Pocatello, Idaho.

OP 6C looking up to mountains

Figuring I’ll just google Hirning on my iPhone to see if Hirning is a Pocatello car dealer, I am quickly aware that deep in Zion with mountains 2000’ above us, I have no cell service.  Giving it our best shot, we guess that theirs is the pickup and leave a note and a business card with a copy of Sweet Dreams, Robyn under their windshield wiper.  Once back in town within cell phone range, I’ll google Hirning to confirm our suspicion.

At the Zion Visitor Center, Hannah looks for animal post cards for our grandsons Owen and Max while I google Hirning.  Immediately our dear friends at Google come up with the electronic information that Hirning is indeed a Buick dealership in Pocatello.   Bingo!

Post script Anahi, the Wildcat Waitress.  One month later she met our daughter Molly and her hubby Tip who had come to Utah to hike Angel’s Landing.  Molly mentioned her parents and Anahi beamed with a reminder of our visit.

Springdale Neighborhood B and B

Springdale Neighborhood B and B

Post script Joan and Russell, the Idaho farmers.  It was their car.  Joan emailed two days later that she had read parts of Sweet Dreams, Robyn to Russell while they were driving.  It seems they themselves have a daughter who beat childhood cancer and next year is off to college.

Son of a gun, small world!  Now just three more copies of Sweet Dreams, Robyn to give away!  Who’s next?

Dan and Hannah Take Another Crack at Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park

Angel's Landing

Angel’s Landing – It looks daunting from below.

Presence is not about winning.  It’s about approaching your biggest challenges without dread, executing them without anxiety, and leaving them without regret.  – Amy Cuddy, TED superstar

Amy has thrown down the gauntlet.

We love us some Angel’s Landing hiking.  In fact, it is our #1 all-time hike.  Grabbing on to chains 1500’ above the Virgin River Valley floor last year, I had an Outward Bound experience that challenged my own limiting, self-defining behavior.   Last year, I hiked to the 25’x25’ perch of Angel’s Landing hanging on for dear life, throttling the chains, and squeezing any joy out of the experience.   Today we are back to see if I can enjoy this thrill ride.

Angel's chains above the valley floor

Angel’s chains above the valley floor

Flying from Boston to Las Vegas in the last week of February, Hannah and I have six hours snuggled into our Jet Blue seats.  Speaking of air travel, I will not use the airlines as my punching bag.  People belly ache about the cramped seating, extra charges for bags, and the few chocolate chip cookies or pretzels they throw our way.  True, true, and true.

Zion National Park in southern Utah

Zion National Park in southern Utah

But …  today, we leave Maine at 530A for the Boston airport for our 10A Jet Blue flight.  Six hours later we are in renting a car in Las Vegas for our three hour drive to Springdale, Utah.

Voila, we are at Zion National Park 16 hours after leaving home on Chases Pond Road.  Where would we be if we were driving?  Let me see, maybe western Pennsylvania?  Maybe the Buckeye State?  And still with three or four or five days of driving ahead!  Thank you Jet Blue, Delta, and Southwest.

The red sandstone trail to the summit begins

The red sandstone trail to the summit begins

Preparing to hike to Angel’s Landing this morning, we wake early due to the two hour time change from Maine.  After a little meditating to calm the soul for the challenge ahead, we walk the quiet predawn streets of Springdale bundled up against the 32F morning chill before our breakfast at Wildcat Willies.

A wily friend at Wildcat Willies

A wily friend at Wildcat Willies

By staying at the Bumbleberry Inn ($61 per night for a couple of seniors here in the off-season), we get a full breakfast at Wildcat Willies as part of the deal.  It’s a triple egg omelet with home fries and sour dough bread for $9.95 each.  With coffee and tea, our bill is $25+, all included in our $61 per night motel charge.   We royally tip our upbeat and attentive waitress Anahi and then head down route 9 to Zion National Park not two miles away.

The Angel's Landing perch itself

The Angel’s Landing perch itself

From November to March 15, private cars have access to all parts of the park, especially the popular Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which goes to the Zion Lodge and the trailheads of the major hikes.  Other times of the year, visitors and hikers are shuttled to the various Zion venues.  Being here in late February unimpeded, we cruise into the park but never talk about our hike ahead to Angel’s Landing.

In 1995, clueless as parents, we took our 8, 10, and 12 year old kids on this trail.  In 2006, I got to the brink of the chains and turned back.  Then in 2009, I didn’t even think about trying Angel’s Landing seemed so daunting.

The canyon to her left

The canyon to her left

But then last year (2015), I got the courage to try Angel’s Landing with Hannah.  By the way, Hannah was always up for this hike.   Last year I choked the chains with both hands as I leaned in at a 75 degree angle to the mountainside wondering what the hell I was doing, muttering to myself; gripped by fear, I never looked down and went hand over fist until…until I made it to the rocky top and felt like the king of the world.  (See the categories on the left side of the blog, click on Utah to see about this triumph on Angel’s Landing last year.)

The switchbacks leading to the staging area for the final half mile assault to Angel's Landing

The switchbacks leading to the staging area for the final half mile assault to Angel’s Landing

Today my goal is to enjoy, not just endure, the hike to Angel’s Landing; leave behind the fear, trepidation, and self-doubt of last year.  Still with a kernel of wondering how I would do on this climb, neither of us bring up the subject as we ride into the park.

Paved red sandstone path to the summit

Paved red sandstone path to the summit

The trail to the summit of Angel’s Landing is paved with red stone quarried from the nearby hillsides.  With few on the trail this Wednesday late in February before the season begins, we continue to sidestep the conversation about the chain-hanging part of the hike.

AL 2H H on sandstone steps of trail

The trail climbs steadily and the switchbacks make the climb comfortably doable.  Soon the switchbacks get steeper, and we take off our sweatshirts and long sleeve tee shirts to accommodate our rising body temperatures.

Hannah Banana with her costumed namesake on the trail

Hannah Banana with her costumed namesake on the trail

After two miles of hiking over 40 minutes we arrive at the staging area where all the hikers make the decision whether to go on or this is quite enough thank you.  By a pine tree just off the trail, we stow most of our clothes and fanny packs to prepare for summiting of Angel’s Landing.  Surprisingly, all I feel is excitement of the possibility that this will be a fantastic experience.

The chains begin

The chains begin.  It’s a long way down.

Rather than choking the chains with two hands, I grab with one hand and balance with the other.  Of course, I never look to the canyon floor below, but there is a growing confidence that this is my day to release my quasi-fear of heights.  If it was a debilitating fear, I would never have even started, and I empathize for those with such fear.

Here are 7 seconds more video of the trail

With Hannah in the lead, I follow closely.  Stopping to take pictures and videos this time, I start to think this is so cool!  It is really not the big deal that I made it out to be in the past and am cruising along.  Last year, I didn’t want Hannah to even talk to me while we were holding on to the chains; I needed every ounce of attention to move forward.

Seated in the same position on the trail but shot from a slightly different angle

Seated in the same position on the trail but shot from a slightly different angle

Warned of ice on the trail, we see that it has been sanded and is between stones and easy to navigate.  This time I can be the chivalrous one to allow others to pass back down the mountain as I wait, not worried about what’s ahead.  To all the ones returning from Angel’s Landing, I congratulate them on a job well done.  It could be that they just may have conquered a fear and this will be one of the highlights of their year.  Nay, their life!

Success!

Success!

There are no chains over the last 200 yards as we walk easily on the wide sandstone ridge to the 25’x25’ rectangle of Angel’s Landing.  Only five others are there to witness my personal triumph.   Taking pictures from every angle, I shoot this video to commemorate the moment.

I can’t believe I am saying this, but the hike was a joy without end, amen.  I’d do it again tomorrow!  I have been able to take it in all the beauty of this spectacular aerie 1500’ above the canyon floor.

Descending

Descending

The half mile return to where our clothes and fanny packs are stowed is a celebration as we are now passing folks choking the chain themselves, with the same fear of heights I once had.  To everyone we meet, I do not joke but congratulate them on their success so far.  Nearly all say thank you for they may be in the challenge of their lives.

AL 6 H against sandstone wall

Hundreds make this hike every day. Why not me?  Why not you?   Hundreds more get to the staging area and say they just don’t want to go any further.   As the trail sign says, Your safety is your responsibility.  I have been on both sides on this mountain of fear and applaud everyone who steps up and congratulate all those who step back.  Know thyself.

So with this victory, what lies ahead for me?   The cables of Picacho Peak near Tucson, Arizona with its 1500′ of elevation gain over two miles that we will hike this coming Monday.   It’s another mountain I’ve tried and stepped back from eight years ago.

Two for two?

 

AL Molly and Tip

And by the way,  one month later our daughter Molly and her hubby Tip climbed Angel’s Landing.

 

Dan and Hannah Hike to Observation Point in Zion National Park, Utah

OP map of area useIt’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.

Late afternoon from our second story deck at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, Utah

Late afternoon from our second story deck at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, Utah

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.

OB1 Zion NP signA 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.

OB1 trail sign warningOff 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 trail to Observation Point begins

The trail to Observation Point begins

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.

Climbing higher to Observation Point

Climbing higher to Observation Point

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.

VCU Ram in his mountainous element

VCU Ram in his mountainous element

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.

The switchbacks of Observation Point trail

The switchbacks of Observation Point Trail

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.

Heading to Echo Canyon

Heading to Echo Canyon

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.

OB4C final assaultLunching 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.

OB5 H descending

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.

OB1A  falling rock sign

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.

Angel's Landing from the Observation Point trail

Angel’s Landing in the distance from the Observation Point Trail

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?

OB  Angel's Landing chains

Some of the chains of Angel’s Landing high above the Virgin River valley floor

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.