US Road Trip day 17.1 – Bigfoot and Zion

Follow the trip from the beginning here.

We woke yet again to a tent full of steamy air, because we’d forgotten to move the tent to a shady spot the day before. The sun beat down relentlessly so I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, threw on some flip flops and escaped into the great outdoors. It was several degrees cooler outside the tent and the camp site hosts were bustling about fulfilling their morning chores. I waved to them as I passed by on my way to the showers. The bats had been flying so crazily around the shower rooms the night before I had decided to wait until morning to wash, which was just as well, because the sauna-like temperatures inside our tent would have necessitated another shower anyway.

There is nothing quite like a hot shower after a night of camping, and this was nothing like a hot shower. Icy cold water barrelled out of the shower head and pinned me to the wall shrieking like a banshee. At least I was wide awake now. I huddled in the corner until the water heated up and then washed away all the grime I had spent the previous day acquiring. By the time I stepped out into the sunshine again, fresh and clean and towel-drying my hair, I had forgotten all about the sweltering night I’d spent trussed up in a sleeping bag trying to pretend I was comfortably communing with nature.

Jill was up and showered too; we had a big day ahead of us because we were planning to drive long haul across Death Valley, aiming to hit Bishop, California by nightfall. It was going to be a long drive and we wanted to get the truck in for a quick maintenance check before we crossed the desert, just in case. We were seriously behind schedule and had decided to forgo seeing both the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park; it was a tough call but according to our original schedule, we should have been in Bishop last night and heading towards the California coast this morning.

We wandered over to the camp site hosts and asked them where the nearest Jiffy Lube was. They told us the nearest one was in St. George, which meant, to my delight, we would drive through Zion after all. As we were chatting, we mentioned that we were planning to travel across Death Valley and they looked at us as if we were fit to be institutionalized. “It’s August” they said, incredulously, glancing at our little pickup. “We have a brand new Mercedes and we wouldn’t drive across Death Valley in August.” Jill and I looked at each other. “We’d be too afraid of the car overheating” they continued, “and sometimes they close the roads altogether.”

There was no internet access at the camp site so I couldn’t run a search to verify what they were saying, but it sounded perfectly reasonable. After all, Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth, regularly reaching temperatures of over 120 °F (49 °C) from June to August. I racked my brains to remember the little I had read about the route back in Seattle. Every site I had found mentioned the fact that GPS was entirely unreliable within the boundaries of the park and they all agreed that cellphone service was non-existent. Considering Jill and I had had almost no cellphone service throughout the entire journey, the chances of T-Mobile miraculously staging a reception comeback in Death Valley was pretty slim. Then I remembered reading the following sentence on one of the web sites. “The name of the park says it all – unprepared tourists die each year within its borders.” I was beginning to feel decidedly unprepared, it was time to find an alternate route.

The hosts tried to help us as best they could, but their directions were vague and, as I discovered when I pulled out the road map, wrong. “Never mind”, I whispered to Jill, “I am the queen of navigating by the seat of my pants.” Before we took leave of our hosts, we had one final question. Coming back to the camp site the night before, we had passed a police car parked on the side of the road just outside Kanab. As we drove by, we had seen a mannequin propped up in the front seat, dressed like a policeman. “It’s a cheap way to stop people speeding” our camp hosts explained.

kanab utah police mannequin dummy cop car

“Watch out for the ants,” they added. I looked down to discover I was standing on an ant hill and the indignant occupants were protesting by stabbing stings at my feet. I brushed them off but my feet were already turning red and beginning to itch. “Thanks” I said without even a hint of bitterness and hopped in the truck.

I talked Jill through the amended route as she drove. “Sounds good” Jill said as I scratched miserably at my feet. They were nicely swollen now and my flip flops were struggling to stay on. The plan was to whip through Zion, make a brief pit stop at the Jiffy Lube in St. George and then pass through Las Vegas and across the Mojave Desert. That was the plan; the reality, of course, was radically different. For one thing, we hadn’t expected to be so totally overwhelmed by Zion. The minute we entered the park boundaries we started gasping at the sights that lay before us and before long, we were pulling over to the side of the road to take it all in.

The first sight that stopped us dead in our tracks was the giant Checkerboard Mesa, originally massive sand dunes that over time had been compressed into Navajo sandstone. Layers of sand set down over the years had left horizontal stripes across the surface and vertical stress fractures caused by fluctuating temperatures, expansion and contraction amongst other factors, created the most marvellous patterns in the stone’s surface.

checkerboard mesa zion national park utah navajo sandstone us road trip usa america driving

checkerboard mesa zion national park utah navajo sandstone us road trip usa america driving

Just around the next corner we stopped again and got out to explore some intricate wave patterns in a little canyon by the side of the road. We were getting nowhere fast and loving every minute of it.

red wave zion national park utah navajo sandstone us road trip usa america driving

red wave zion national park utah navajo sandstone us road trip usa america driving

One of the big differences between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park is the perspective you get from the road. In Bryce, the main road weaves you up over the canyons, affording you dramatic panoramas of the canyons below. In Zion, by contrast, the roads drop deep down into the canyons allowing you to stare in awe at the towering cliffs all around. We were submerged in yet another canyon when noon hit and we scurried out of the truck once more. Jill wandered along the edge of the road while I climbed down to the bottom to watch the sun crest over the incandescent, fiery rocks.

zion national park utah red canyon road trip us usa america driving

zion national park utah red rock canyon us road trip usa america driving

It was glorious. I stood there for quite some time in silent reverence as the canyon lit up around me and bathed everything in orange light. I had the feeling I was the very first person to ever set eyes on this magical place and at that exact moment, in that exact light, I suppose I was. Places this sublime are born anew every moment, with each subtle shift in light and each new pair of eyes that revels in its wonder.

We succumbed entirely to the splendour of Zion. To be honest, there was no way we could have traversed it with speed; to do so would have bordered on the sacrilegious. With each new view that burst into frame I felt inexplicable emotions well up inside me; our chatter dropped to hushed tones and then faded away completely as we contemplated the impossible beauty of nature’s work.

zion national park canyon utah us road trip usa america driving

Then we disappeared into a tunnel, masterfully carved through one of those massive cliffs, popped out briefly into daylight again and then plunged headlong into another tunnel. This one had great windows chiseled out of the tunnel walls, perfectly framing the splendid vistas beyond.

zion national park tunnel us road trip utah usa america driving

zion national park tunnel window utah road trip us usa america driving

zion national park utah america road trip usa us driving

zion national park tunnel window utah road trip us usa america driving

One of the tunnel windows from the outside

When we emerged, we promptly pulled over to take in the brilliance of our surroundings because it was so startling we could easily have driven over the edge of a cliff, blissfully transfixed by the spectacle of those soaring peaks and monoliths.

zion national park peak monolith canyon utah road trip us usa america driving

zion national park utah peaks monoliths canyon us usa america road trip driving

zion national park utah canyon peaks monoliths valley panorama vista us road trip usa america driving

Over the edge of the cliff, twisting and turning in rapid-fire switchbacks, I saw the road ahead. I was reminded of something Theodore Roosevelt said when he first looked out across the Grand Canyon. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” I felt the same way about Zion; yearning to have seen it as it looked when the Anasazi and Paiute peoples lived in harmony with this blessed landscape, before man’s hand became all too apparent. Kudos to the National Park Service, however, for they had eschewed the traditional stark black tarmac that paves the way through many of the country’s finest scenic spots, carefully choosing a brown surface for the roadway which cut a far less dramatic gash through this most sacred of valleys.

zion national park road brown utah trip us usa america driving

Down and down we drove; the peaks growing in stature with each bend of the road, until finally we reached the bottom where we stopped to bask one last time in Zion’s majesty before continuing on our way. If you are ever in search of a spiritually transformative experience, go to Zion. There is a reason why this park is filled with ecclesiastical landmark names such as Cathedral Mountain, East and West Temple. There is a reason why this canyon is named Zion.

zion national park canyon monolith peak valley utah us usa america road trip driving

zion national park utah road trip driving utah us usa america canyon valley peak monolith

zion national park peaks monoliths canyon valley us road trip usa america driving

zion canyon national park utah peaks mountains valleys monoliths vista panorama road trip us usa america driving

It was now late in the afternoon and our chances of reaching California by nightfall had become a pipe dream. We still had to get the pickup in for a check up in St. George, it was high time for a coffee and my feet were huge.

(Continued here.)

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue wheresmybackpack.com Remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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121 Responses to US Road Trip day 17.1 – Bigfoot and Zion

  1. WOW I have to do that drive!

  2. poppytump says:

    Ailsa ! I want to go back . Now . You capture the very very essence of these beautiful National parks with your descriptions . Fantastic .

  3. Ailsa – Very impressive photo shoot and narrative. You go, girl!

  4. I had the exact same reaction: WOW ! That place is amazing. As are your photos, but I bet you are thinking how hard it was to try capture the essence of this spiritual beauty.
    ……. You really need to work on that tent positioning huh Ailsa ;) Happy travels. Looking forward to the next installment xx

    • ailsapm says:

      So true, Emma, the only way to understand Zion’s greatness is to see it for yourself, photos cannot even begin to convey the experience. Yeah, about that tent thing, it’s a work in progress ;)

  5. Karen says:

    Awesome Ailsa! I have this on my bucket list. Your spiritual experience is how I first came to understand God, for me – finding him in nature as a child was just so natural – if you’ll excuse the pun! So you are quite right there is a reason why the early settlers called this place Zion, and the Paiute made it a holy place to their gods. It is quite transcendent!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Karen, you must visit, you absolutely must! I was recently reading about John Muir, the Scottish immigrant who played an instrumental part in the founding of US National Parks. He was said to preach the gospel of the mountains, and after visiting Zion, I know what that means.

  6. Karen says:

    PS loved the photo with the sun cresting the cliff – just fab!

  7. Wow! Fantastic landscapes – and images…

  8. Beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing these. I bumped this trip on my list just gazing at your pictures. Wonderful!

  9. Breath taking, heart-in-mouth – your narrative is made for adventures

  10. viveka says:

    We have those .. dummies too … only the sight of a police cars makes people slow down.
    I think they do what they are suppose to do. Stunning how nature sculpture itself – that top photo without any doubt my favorite. That road is what Walt Disney thought about … in the short movie with Donald & Goofy Goof in the caravan adventure. Fantastic and powerful shots.

  11. Great shots! Congrats

  12. What an incredible journey. Stunning travelogue and damn that lack of time!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh boy, Animalcouriers, I tell you what, if I’d spent any longer at Zion I would have been carried out on a stretcher, too much beauty to handle all at once! :)

  13. Mjollnir says:

    What a place! Another great post. :-)

  14. ledrakenoir says:

    Wonderful captured… :-)

  15. justmusing says:

    Wonderful – thank you!

  16. pommepal says:

    Your road trip just gets better and better, so much beauty, no wonder your schedule has gone right out the window, that scenery has to be taken slowly. Stunning photos

  17. fgassette says:

    I am more than stunned and amazed by your words and your photos. They have inspired me to learn to become more descriptive in my own posts. I am honored to follow your blog because you take us to exciting places and make us feel that we are personally there as well. I have been to the Grand Canyon and would love to follow in your footsteps to Bryce and Zion canyons. Looking forward to more of your exciting adventures.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Francince, thank you so much, I love language just as much (if not more) than I love photography, and am honoured you find it inspiring. I am sorry I didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon but feel humbled to have seen so much of the incredible beauty of Utah. xxx

  18. John says:

    A beautiful landscape! Hope the swelling goes down, ouch!

  19. kristc99 says:

    Wow, I am planning a southwest trip in March and you have inspired me, and I’m even more excited! How amazing

  20. Police dummies and fire ants – slow down and don’t steal the cop car. :D Hope your feet improved. Lovely photos and stories! – Suzan -

  21. gooseyanne says:

    Breathtakingly beautiful – thank you so much for sharing this – it has made my day!

  22. gooseyanne says:

    Reblogged this on Gooseyanne's Blog and commented:
    Fantastic writing and even more fantastic photographs – take a moment to go on this journey.

  23. My reaction to Zion was very similar–such a mesmerizing, larger-than-life, glorious place. I look forward to the next chapter in this adventure.

  24. bulldogsturf says:

    What a magnificent share and what a fascinating area.. I would love to see this in real life, looks so interesting…

  25. elleturner4 says:

    Wow! What fabulous images :)

  26. B Gourley says:

    Beautiful pictures

  27. cftc10 says:

    Reblogged this on cftc10.

  28. Uh-mazzinnnggg! I wish to do a US roadtrip one of these days, especially in Utah! Your photos are fabulous and breathtaking!!!

  29. Zion Canyon – we spent a few days there years ago, and it’s one of the most beautiful and overwhelming places I’ve ever seen. Being down in the bottom of the canyon and looking up at the rock walls is an experience you don’t forget. Your photos are wonderful.

    “There is nothing quite like a hot shower after a night of camping, and this was nothing like a hot shower.” – as always you find the perfect details (even the vicious ants) to share with us. I’m really enjoying your road trip stories :)

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, thanks, newpillowbook, glad you enjoyed the details, the fun is in the little things I always find. You’re absolutely right, Zion is an experience I won’t ever forget. xxx

  30. Beautiful photos and writing. It’s a sham our modern life doesn’t let us spend more time absorbing natures’ wonder.

  31. Wingclipped says:

    Wow that’s stunning! Have added it to my list of “must go there” pleases.

  32. I love your story and your photos. I agree, there is something about the high desert that brings out the awe and reverence in us. When we lived in Western Colorado it was like being in church – nobody raises their voice. The expansive horizon and sweeping views in every direction are a sensory overload. I am looking forward to reading about the rest of your journey.

    • ailsapm says:

      Colorado is a state I haven’t visited yet, Allan, but I hear it’s drop dead gorgeous. Whereabouts did you live, and what were your favourite spots?

  33. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Amazing, you mustn’t have known which direction to look first!

  34. I haven’t been to southern Utah since the late 70’s. Gosh, I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. Your pictures make me want to go back! Thanks.

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Linda, I left a big piece of my heart in that state, it’s unbelievably beautiful. I hope you get to go back sometime soon! xxx

  35. Gorgeous photos of a fantastic landscape! The colours and the mountains – just wonderful. They make me want to go there.

    • ailsapm says:

      You should go there if you can, lagottocattleya, my photos can only hint at the splendour of it all, to see it in person is overwhelming. I am in awe. xxx

  36. Great photos, Ailsa!

    I really like the tunnel, so pretty :)

  37. I like reading funny, insightful travel stories, and have been enjoying following along on your road trip. But I have to ask if you brought a first aid kit with you on it?

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, thanks for the concern, c & c – yes, I used some ointment from the first aid kit later in the day and thankfully, my feet went back to normal. Whew!

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks brulionman, it’s funny, those giant stones and peaks have the potential to make you feel terribly small and insignificant, but oddly enough, they had the exact opposite effect. I think, unlike a manmade structure like a soaring cathedral, these places make you feel like a part of it all, like you belong to something bigger. Hard to explain, but true. xxx

      • brulionman says:

        I think I know what you mean, just watching picture is shallow sense, being there is deeper feeling -enough to be proud and feel these harmony as a one of all puzzles that world is made. One but important because, like in Walker’s “Waste Land”, 99 is not 100 :)

  38. cerikson says:

    First off, thanks for the like on my blog post at: http://alifeofwanderlustandcontemplation.com/2013/01/24/top-10-travel-music/ since that is what directed me here.

    Second, wow. I like the genuine narrative voice that you have. It makes the stories quite enjoyable and easy to imagine. Also, these pictures are stunning. I look forward to reading more stories of your travels, and seeing more photos.

    Keep up the good work!

  39. It’s quite a place, isn’t it?! I’m very glad you got to drive through Zion.

  40. colormusing says:

    Great story, spectacular photos!!

  41. Pat . says:

    Wow!! And, right at the end, lol – your poor feet.

  42. Sara P.G. says:

    Amazing story and Pictures

  43. lensaddiction says:

    Wow! I have heard of Zion but never seen any pix that captured the grandeur like yours have. I particularly like the differentiation between the viewpoints driving thru Bryce vs Zion. If I ever get over there I am totally doing this, and this post is the reason why :)

  44. Pamela says:

    Wow! – and Wow again! Fantastic sights, fabulous views, splendid splendour – and those tunnels; the window sitings; the road itself; all in perfect harmony with nature’s tremendous display!
    Love your writing and can feel those burning feet.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thank you! Zion really blew me away, I wasn’t expecting to be so overwhelmed. I’ve already seen some pretty spectacular scenery but Zion topped it all! xxx

  45. Another wonderful post about the beauties of your native land! Thanks for sharing again!
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

    • ailsapm says:

      Heya Charlene, so glad you enjoyed this post, I must confess it’s not my native land, I’m a transplant from Ireland, but boy, I have seen such amazing places since I’ve been here. It really is a spectacular landscape.

  46. I have been reading this journey at work (on my breaks of course) for the last few weeks. I can’t comment from there because i can’t log in. But I am home tonight I wanted to make a point to tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed this. I started with your trip with Sprocket and followed it through. I broke off to read about your train adventure while waiting for your next post here.
    Please continue.

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, thanks lingeringvisions, I love that you have gone back and read the whole journey from the beginning, it’s been quite a ride! I just posted the next installment. xxx

  47. Love this post. I have been to Zion several times – each time it seems more breathtaking than the last. It has become my favorite place to take people who are extremely special to me. There’s nothing quite like knowing what the view is on the other side of that tunnel and watching someone you love experience it for the first time. Thank you for sharing your ‘first time’ with us. The photos are stupendous – what a wonderful day (those clouds! and their shadows!). Looking forward to the rest of the story :)

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh boy, I will never forget emerging from that tunnel and seeing that overwhelmingly vast beauty burst into view, what a magical place to take people, researchingsandiego, and how wonderful it must be to watch them experience it for the first time. I love it! xxx

  48. Anna Marie says:

    My first experience of the Grand Canyon felt similarly spiritual and transforming – your description and photos of Zion are beautiful – I can only imagine how powerful driving through this incredible landscape would be.

    • ailsapm says:

      I must see the Grand Canyon next time I visit, Anna Marie, we ran out of time, sadly, but Zion was one of the most stunning places I have seen to date. I am compelled to return soon! xxx

  49. vyvacious says:

    Absolutely gorgeous photos. Haven’t visited yet but I hope to someday soon!!

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