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A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking Zion National Park

Two Canadians, one great American adventure.

See recent posts by Siobhan Reid

It was 97 degrees, just after midnight, and the air mattress underneath me was slowly deflating. My sister Olivia slept next to me, oblivious to the impending bedding crisis and the sounds of drunken campers stumbling back to their campsites. I got up and unzipped our tent, stepping outside and scanning the sea of tarps, hammocks and other improvised housing around me. I can’t believe Olivia talked me into this, I thought to myself, as I wiped the sweat from my brow for what must’ve been the hundredth time that day.

I grew up hating nature. My family lived close to the Rocky Mountains in Southern Alberta, and even as a kid I dreamt of living far away from its flat fields and murky grasslands. So it came as no surprise to my family when I packed up and moved to Manhattan shortly after graduating from college. Olivia, on the other hand, loved the outdoors and spent her weekends trekking through Canada’s most challenging terrains. Understandably, I had my concerns when she first pitched the Utah-Nevada road trip.

“You’ll see,” she said. “It’ll be fun. We’ll camp for one night and spend the last part at the pool in Vegas.”

It was snowing that day in New York, and “pool” and “Vegas” were the only two words I needed to hear. Which is how I found myself in Zion National Park in the heat of the summer, crickets chirping and mosquitos sucking away at my ankles.

Day 1: Angel’s Landing

I woke up at the Watchman Campsite that morning roasting, the sun’s hot rays pouring in through the tent windows. Outside, Olivia was loading gear into her backpack. “You ready?” she asked, tossing an empty sack in my direction. We were hiking Angel’s Landing—the trail I had spent many a Stairmaster sweat sesh preparing for in the weeks leading up to the trip.

I slathered myself in a carcinogenic cocktail of DEET and SPF, and hopped aboard the Zion trolley, which shuttles tourists between the Park’s eight landmarks. The relief I felt to be in the presence of the very young and the very old—two demographics I was confident I was more physically able than— turned out to be short-lived. At the mention of an alleged sighting of white-tailed deer off stop number four, the families and selfie-stick wielding tourists filed off the trolley, leaving Olivia and I in the company of bandanna’d men and women with the bodies of pro wrestlers.

“Here we are—stop six,” the driver announced. “It’s a hot one out there today, folks, so remember—hydrate, go at your own pace, and be on the lookout for bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes and other dangerous desert dwellers.”

My time had come.

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Photos by Siobhan Reid

Most people complete Angel’s Landing in three-and-a-half hours. It took me five. Olivia had failed to mention the hike’s relentless switchbacks and near-vertical summit. So you can imagine my horror at schlepping it to what I thought was the trail’s end, and learning that for the final ascent I had to pull myself up the mountain’s jagged face on steel chains drilled into the rock. White knuckling the cables for dear life, I took slow, cautious steps, scared sh-tless of falling to my death like those Zion hikers I had read about in the news.

“This is EPIC!!” Olivia yelled in my direction, ten or so feet ahead.

We were 1,600 feet above ground and my breathing was reduced to short, strained sips of air. Between the temperature and the altitude, I felt delirious. But seeing no way out of the situation, I dragged my weight up the sheer cliff—at one point getting on all fours to propel myself forward.

By the time I made it to the top, my clothes were soaked and I had inhaled so much red dust that the saliva at the back of my throat tasted alkaline.

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A young couple approached us and asked if they could take shelter in our modest patch of shade. They explained that they had driven all the way from Los Angeles to Zion that morning in a joint quest to collect Pokémon. (And yes, they actually thought they’d get an Internet connection in the middle of the desert).

“We figured nobody would be collecting them up there,” the woman said, hastening to add, “But we wouldn’t have ever done this hike if I knew it was going to be this hard.”

“Yeah. Zion—more like die-on!” her partner said, standing up and taking out his phone in an attempt to get service.

After the final descent down Angel’s Landing, we bummed a ride back into town, lugged our bags into the Cliffrose Lodge (no more camping for this city slicker) and crashed just after sundown.

Day 2: The Narrows

We hadn’t accounted for the fact that it was a Saturday when we rolled up to the to hike The Narrows the next morning. The trolley line was 200 people deep and when we finally made it to water’s edge, three hours had gone by. I slipped on my water shoes and Neoprene socks and began wading up the river’s serpentine bends, eager to make up for lost time. The slippery, lichen-covered rocks underfoot made the hike more strenuous than it had first appeared, and I spent most of the next few hours trying to steer away from the forceful rapids that lapped up against my thighs. I finally stopped to look up at the canyon’s towering walls, some 2,000 feet above ground. I may not have been one for nature, but I had never seen a place so transformed by light—the sun’s rays dancing across its terra-cotta walls.

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We stopped for lunch and lazed out on the river’s rocky beaches. Looking at our watches, we turned around and headed back toward the start of the trail, only this time, with the current behind us. We took a cue from the pack of twenty-something guys ahead of us, and held our dry packs high in the air as we floated down the river on our backs.

Back at the Park’s entrance, I found myself wishing we had a few more hours to spend in Zion. There were trails we hadn’t explored, and canyons we hadn’t climbed, but we had a long drive ahead of us to Lake Powell—a small lakeside community outside of Page, AZ—and so we picked up our rental car and hit the road.

At Lake Powell Resort, we sat on our balcony, uncorked a bottle of red and drank until the sky filled with stars, bathing the lake in a soft, lunar glow.

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Day 3: Horseshoe Bend

It was still dark out when we checked out of the hotel at 4:30 AM and loaded up the car. We motored down the highway, arriving at Horseshoe Bend half an hour before daybreak. A sign reading, “EXTREME HEAT: No Sandals. Wear Hat. Minimum 1 Bottle Water Per Person,” hung outside the path’s entrance, so we trekked back to the car to change into more suitable footwear. Trudging down the mile-long path that led to the iconic lookout point, we saw rattlesnakes slither between the cacti and tumbleweeds. It was only 5AM, but the heat was stifling and dangerous, and by the time we made it to the canyon’s rim—a hair-raising 1,000 feet above the Colorado River—I felt too woozy to sit on the thin, sandstone ledge.

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And so I watched the sunrise on a sheltered picnic bench far away from the canyon’s rim. Even at that vantage, it was still the most dazzling light show I had ever seen.

We embarked on the eight-hour journey back to Las Vegas. It was the part of the trip I had been most looking forward to during that first night in Zion, and yet here I was, wanting nothing more but another day spent under Utah’s cloudless sky—despite the heat.

We flew past apocalyptic-looking salt flats, wide-open pastures and futuristic wind farms, finally crossing the border into Nevada. Pulling up on The Strip, I had to shield my eyes from its dazzling glass-encased condo complexes and multimillion-dollar hotels, which were brighter and more blinding than anything I had seen in days.

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It wasn’t until I was blasted with cool, oxygenated air in the lobby of The Cosmopolitan that I remembered how much I had missed civilization. Don’t get me wrong, the last three days had been magical, and I was thankful for the shared memories. Still, I felt relieved to no longer be at the mercy of the desert and had a new found appreciation for the basic comforts I had often taken for granted (air conditioning included).

The hours passed by slowly as I swam laps in the pool and sunbathed on luxurious loungers, but I still instinctively knew to look up to the sky a few minutes’ shy of 8PM.

The sunset cast a violent, shimmering light on one of Vegas’ skyscrapers. Pretty, no doubt—but it had nothing on those desert canyons.

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