ZiOnMyMind — completing the Zion National Park Trek

5.21.2017 — Washington, DC

In a sense, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. In another sense, it was the easiest. Let me start with the aftermath.

10:15pm, Sunday, April 23: I sit down in an aisle seat of the Southwest plane, mentally preparing myself for the final leg of my journey — a flight from Chicago Midway to Baltimore. I close my eyes. And in that instant, a scary realization hits me: I don’t have my house keys. I left them at home. When I arrive at my residence at 3am — a plane, bus, train and Uber later — I’ll be locked out. Not good. As the plane taxis toward takeoff, I text my housemates Lauren and Katie. No response. Predictably, they’re probably asleep. Shit! What now?

I land 90 minutes later. It’s almost 1am at BWI, and the baggage claim is a swarm of travelers with way too much energy for this time of night. I get my bags and decide the only logical thing to do is to “sleep” for four hours on a BWI bench and then accost Bryce (a companion from my trip) when he gets in from his redeye from Salt Lake City. I try to sleep. I fail. Mostly. But time does move forward, so 5am arrives and at the last minute, Bryce comes down the stairs to claim his bag. Relief. I have a ride home! Bryce’s family graciously takes this bearded stranger from the airport. They drop me off at home a tad before 6am. Usually at that time, Lauren and/or Katie is awake. I text them. I’m confident. Nope. Door locked. I try the doorbell. Nothing. I sit down on the porch and a light rain starts to fall. I position my hiking backpack, my day pack, and my suitcase so that I can rest my head. I close my eyes. Falling asleep on my porch is difficult. I open my work email for the first time in nine days. It’s frightening. Bad idea. I delete emails to pass the time. Finally, a few minutes after 7, Katie texts me. She’s up. She lets me in. I’m home.

The following few days, nothing as dramatic happens, but I’m a mess. I forget things. I feel sick. Functioning, let alone doing it well, is a challenge. Life is hard.

Now back to that “hardest thing I’ve ever done.” You see, when I was in the midst of those 54 miles in Zion National Park, with 40-plus pounds on my back and nowhere to go but the next step before me, it sometimes felt that way. It certainly wasn’t easy. But it was simple. And it was rewarding. And I didn’t mess up. This trip, the sequel to last year’s Portland-area adventure with friends Steph, Aleta, Drew and Harrison, plus our friend Bryce, was a huge challenge. While I’ve done hundreds of challenging day hikes, I had never been out in the wilderness with a pack on my back for longer than two days and one night. To complete the Zion Trek, we would trek 47 miles from the west entrance of the park to the east with no food refills, with no amenities except one drinking fountain on day four between the start and the finish. And we’d add 7 extra miles, just for kicks.

When Harrison first emailed about the trek on Sept. 21, 2016, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. I skimmed his email, browsing the online description. I see and read about a lot of adventures. Not many of them are feasible within a week’s timeframe (side note: we all work too much, don’t we?). But I didn’t trash his email. And as the leaves changed, I began thinking about the week in April I usually allocate to a hiking trip. Where should I go? And with whom? In 2014 — back when I had no hiking friends — I had planned and even booked a solo Zion and Bryce Canyon trip. But then life circumstances at the time got in the way, and I canceled it. Ever since, I had thought about it often. Harrison’s email was a jarring reminder to stop thinking and DO. In early December, I made up my mind. I emailed the crew: “So I wanna make this April trip happen to Zion and hopefully do the Trans Zion Trek…” I wrote. A day later, I dug deeper, spending hours reading Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park (highly recommend) and putting together a day-by-day itinerary. It didn’t take long for everyone to confirm their interest. Sure, logistics, mainly the dates, had to be worked out, but we were doing it. On January 3, as Steph finished moving all her stuff into my house, we made a big dinner and hashed out plans. Days later, plane tickets were bought and Bryce was added to the crew. There would be six of us. Six of us and our heavy packs.

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The Leadup
By early April, I started worrying about our itinerary. The plan was to fly into Salt Lake April 15, drive to Zion on the 16th, and complete the trek April 17–21 before a day in Bryce Canyon on the way north and then a final night with Steph’s gracious grandparents Helgard and Carl in Ogden. It was a good plan, but also early in the hiking season. As I scanned weather reports two weeks before the trip, the temperatures didn’t scare me — 70s during the day, high 30s at night. Not bad at all. But when I emailed the park about trail conditions at the highest elevation, the worry crept in.

“Snowshoes or cross country ski’s may be necessary. Snow levels on the Plateau are reported to be several feet deep. You will also need excellent cross country winter orienteering skills to stay on the trail. There are no winter markers.”

Wait, what? Snowshoes?? I emailed the crew. I knew that these reports could be inaccurate and that we still had two weeks for the snow to melt, but still this was anxiety-inducing. Imagine being on the third day of the trek, 20-plus miles from a road, and in deep snow with no clue where the trail is. Beautiful, I’m sure. Difficult to navigate? VERY. Harrison accurately pointed out in his response that SNOTEL — a site that measures snowpack — had no locations actually in Zion and that the most recent report from a plateau at close to 10,000 feet was 23 inches. He doubted that Zion had the resources to measure snowpack in the depths of the park. Were they just guessing? Were they going off hikers’ reports? Then Harrison found a trip report from mid-March. The blog, written by a somewhat cynical woman (more on her when you get to Day 2), described the trail as very muddy and pictures showed patches of snow, but no more than maybe a consolidated foot. We had always planned to bring microspikes. And writer “Little Grunts,” while quite negative in some of her descriptions, assuaged concerns about not being able to do the trek. We pressed ahead. I continued monitoring the weather. The forecast looked great. High 70s during most days with lows even above 40. Little to no chance of rain.

Lots of planning went into this trip.

In the days leading up to our flights, excitement had for the most part taken over nervousness. I also felt a lot better because a knee injury that had hit me while in San Diego in late March felt much better. In a matter of two weeks, I went from feeling unsure both about my health and trail conditions to feeling ready for the trek. It’s amazing how these things come together, right?

(Side note: I have never gone on a hiking trip that I didn’t enjoy. Some haven’t gone exactly as planned, but every single one — day hikes, nights out — has been enjoyable.)

We all had different flights into Salt Lake, and I landed Saturday afternoon. After picking up my rental car — a smooth-riding Nissan Elantra — I cruised into downtown, had no problem finding free parking, walked a crosswalk while cars stopped, and met Drew, Steph, Aleta and Helgard at a coffee shop (see what I did there, DC?). We walked up to the state capital, stretching out those legs, and then I cut off to pick up Harrison and Bryce back at the airport. An hour later, we all rendezvoused on Antelope Island where we saw Bison roaming the hills above the salt flats. The late-afternoon scenery was spectacular.

On the way back to Helgard and Carl’s house in Ogden, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up supplies and we accomplished a difficult feat in Utah — locating a liquor store — to grab wine for the night and bourbon for the trek. We then took a winding road up and up and up above Ogden’s bright lights to Steph’s grandparents’ beautiful house. Helgard and Carl were incredibly gracious to not only bring five strangers into their home, but also serve us a ginormous German-themed dinner and regale us with stories. I set up my phone on a monkeypod contraption attached to their back deck railing and took a time lapse of the sun setting over Ogden. For being in civilization, this was pretty good. But I was also exhausted. After a quick dip in their basement hot tub, I passed out. As did everyone else. The adventure would begin the next day.

After a huge Easter breakfast served up by Helgard and Carl, we got to stuffing our packs in preparation for the five-hour journey south to the park. I was an REI stop away from having everything I needed, so I figured it’d be easiest and smartest to pack everything before the car ride. I’d be joined in the Elantra by navigator and basketball-score-updater Steph and DJ Aleta. The boys had a minivan. A note about my pack situation: I had originally thought about using my regular overnight pack, a Gossamer Gear lightweight version, but quickly realized it was too small. Then, a few days before the trip, I decided I would take a newly acquired pack that Steph’s and my old housemate’s boyfriend had never claimed. I was excited. A new free pack, and it looked legit. But then, the Thursday before our Saturday departure, I tried stuffing my 3-pound tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad plus clothes bag in the pack — which had no big exterior pockets — and realized it wasn’t big enough. Nope. Not working. I had one other option: my old North Face pack that I had loaned to my friend Crespo for our “Yo Bear” trips to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. I hit up Crespo and told him I needed it back. The pack is huge, but also heavy (probably 5–10 pounds by itself). However, I could fit everything in it. The weight, though? Again, not good. When I stuffed it at Carl and Helgard’s (before adding REI food items and the 64 ounces of water I would carry each day), it weighed 39.6 pounds. OUCH. I thought about what I could subtract (my hiking pants and keep my rain pants? Sure. My portable chess set? No way! We were going to play), but had few options. I would just need to eat a lot the first couple days. Anything to reduce the weight.

Anyway … we all weighed our packs, with Harrison and Bryce, I believe, winning with packs around 30 pounds. And then, after hugging Helgard and Carl and promising we’d return six days later, we were on the road heading south. After a quick stop at an REI on the south side of SLC where I picked up my freeze-dried dinners and some Bobo Bars, and we got essentials such as bear-proof bags and TP, we were a lunch stop away from getting to the park. We wanted to arrive well before 6pm so that we could stop by the visitor’s center and get our camping permits — something you must do in person the night before your trip. We weren’t sure if we’d get all our desired campgrounds. So that uncertainty was in the air.

But first, the drive. And oh, how glorious it was. Not only did DJ Aleta live up to her name, but Utah driving is about 227 times better than the utterly miserable slog that’s commuting in DC. The speed limit on Route 15 is 80, and the road was mostly clear. Snow-capped mountains lined both sides of the highway. As I zoomed along, barely needing to apply pressure to the gas peddle, a thought occurred to me: I had never gone 100mph. This was the perfect place and opportunity. A moment later, an impeccable open straightaway presented itself and I increased my foot pressure on the gas. ZooooOOM, I was from 85 to 100 in a second. WHEEWWW! We were living!!

Not surprisingly, we made great time and got to the west side of Zion and the Kolob Visitor Center before 5. We explained our situation to the nice ranger at the desk, Linda, telling her how we had booked the site for our first night, site №8, online but needed permits for nights two and three (night four would be on the East Rim, where all camping is at-large). Linda informed us that our desired site for the second night by Wildcat Canyon, №9, was already taken for Tuesday. Thankfully, we knew from research that we could at-large camp about a mile before that site. We just weren’t sure exactly what our site would be like. Rita affirmed, though, that there’d be a water source we could camp by. More importantly to me, campsite №1 was available for the third night. This was the site, on the west rim, I anticipated the most — the site that would offer the most exhilarating evening and early morning views.

Speaking of views, we had some good ones Sunday night. With all things camping squared away — and with neither Linda nor the other ranger we met calling us crazy, foolish or stupid for trying the trek — we continued south on Highway 15 until we turned off on Route 9 to head east and eventually reach Springdale, the town just outside the park. Minutes later, we reached no-vacancy Watchman Campground (thankfully, we had booked our base camp spot months before). Our site for the night was beautiful, offering a poster-like view of a towering red-rock wall just beyond our tents. We couldn’t enjoy it too much, though, with many logistical tasks still in front of us. I was excited to use my brand-new REI Quarter Dome tent, which I would share with Drew. We set it up relatively quickly, and would only get quicker as the week wore on. Once everyone got their shelters ready, we moved around belongings — clothes, food, miscellaneous items, etc. — so that the Elantra was empty and everything was in the van. Then we set out on Route 9 in two cars to drop off the Elantra. As we ascended the narrow, twisting road, eye-popping views of the canyon walls opened up on all sides. We went through a tunnel carved out from the rock. Then another. If the driving was this good, just imagine the hiking! Finally, we reached the east end of the park and dropped off the car, and I briefly thought about when we’d see it next. Friday. Wow … that seemed really, really far off. That battle between enjoying the moment and thinking about the end goal would be a constant for me all week.

We piled into the van, which was plenty roomy for six, and looked for a place to stop for an evening hike and dinner spot. The first road-side spot we chose ended up not offering a lot (except for the chance for me to almost lose my mug, which fell in a creekbed), so we piled back in the van and continued until we reached the popular Canyon Overlook trailhead. Many of the cars from earlier in the evening were gone. The crowds were thinning. Equipped with our dinner supplies and headlamps, we hiked up the half mile trail and enjoyed the view from the ledge overlooking the winding road below that we’d experienced earlier. We ate. I used my Jetboil for the first time. It felt like a test run. Except that we then returned to the van. And then the campsite. We made a fire, which we wouldn’t be able to do in the backcountry. We saw a deer just outside our campsite. We ate chocolate. We exchanged a few stories.

And then, full of all the anticipation, we climbed into our tents. After what had seemed the longest weekend full of preparation, the true adventure was set to begin.

Were we ready?

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MY GEAR LIST

Bold indicates items I didn’t use

>> Shelter items

1 tent (Drew & I split up the components between our bags)

1 sleeping bag

1 sleeping pad

>> Clothing

3 pairs of wool socks (2 heavy duty)

2 pairs of athletic boxer shorts

1 pair of athletic hiking shorts

1 pair of rain pants

1 pair of fleece pants

1 polypro T-shirt

1 light longsleeve poly pro

1 light medium-weight fleece

1 800-down “puffy jacket”

1 outer shell rain jacket

1 baseball hat

1 winter hat

1 pair of light gloves

1 pair of mittens

1 pair of gaiters

1 pair of microspikes

>> Food & drink

5 homemade oatmeal bags (shared with Steph and Aleta; I only carried two)

1 block of cheese

1 box of crackers (Blue Diamond)

4 Bobo bars

4 Clif Bloks (energy squares)

4 peanut butter and honey sandwiches

4 freeze-dried dinners

2 small serving-size bags of trailmix

1 Reese’s Fastbreak bar

1 pint of Bulleit Bourbon

1 bear-proof plastic bag for food storage

2 32-ounce Nalgenes for water (water treated along the way)

>> Accessories

1 Jetboil

1 medium fuel tank for stove

1 small container with lighter, spare match

1 A & B water purifier solution

2 bandanas (1 for food, 1 for nose-blowing)

1 headlamp (and two extra batteries)

1 roll of toilet paper

1 pair of hiking poles

1 mini chess set

1 rather heavy portable phone charger (good for up to six full charges)

1 deck of cards

1 toothbrush (Aleta provided the toothpaste)

1 compass

Several old plastic bags for random purposes

*I might be forgetting items, but I think this just about covers it. All of this equaled more than 40 pounds on my back as we set out on Day 1.

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Monday, April 17 — Lee Pass to La Verkin Creek campground, 12.4 miles
After a nice first night in the tent, a first oatmeal breakfast, and a bunch of packing, it was time to hit the trail … but first the road. We packed up the minivan and drove back north and west to Lee Pass. The excitement was palpable. The canyon was already heating up. And I was mentally ready, at least, to get this trek started. I sent a final text message and put my phone on airplane mode. I wouldn’t take it off the setting until Saturday night.

We arrived at the trailhead a few minutes after 9 and took 15 minutes or so to do some final double-checks of gear and make sure all our valuables were hidden away in the van (I didn’t take anything in my wallet; extra weight!). And then, 10:47am, we passed by the trailhead sign and put boots on dirt. Trekking time.

I felt sluggish. My pack felt almost unbearably heavy and my legs kept saying, ‘Yo, Jake, why the hell are we doing this and why are you all of a sudden 200 pounds??’ After a couple miles hiking at a slight decline through light cover, we reached an opening and deemed it a good resting spot. I ate my first Bobo bar. My pack was lighter! The scenery only got better as we descended farther, with the towering canyon walls that define such places popping up. Upon passing Campsite №4, we arrived at La Verkin Creek and would parallel it the rest of the 6.4 miles to our spot for the night, Campsite №8.

It hadn’t been a strenuous hike, but I felt a sense of relief upon reaching our spot and getting to discard my 40-pound pack. Ahhhh! I shook out my shoulders and gave them a massage. As I would learn throughout the week, my hips were simply too nonexistent and incapable of carrying their share of the weight, and my shoulders paid for it. Oh, well. It wasn’t unbearable, just a bit uncomfortable.

Everyone was in good spirits as we set up camp in the grove of pine trees just a stone’s throw from the raging creek on the other side of the trail. We enjoyed a cheese and crackers dominated lunch by the water and dipped our feet in. Despite the 70-plus degree temperature, the water was ice cold. I counted to 30 and then got out. Little did I know that the afternoon of my feet getting wet was just commencing.

After lunch, we put together two day packs and set out on what I’d determined would be a 5-mile round trip hike to Bear Trap Canyon and a waterfall. It was a bit after 3pm, and we figured we’d make great time without any gear (kudos to Aleta and Drew for carrying the packs). Little did we realize there’d be not one, not three, not seven, but 15 stream crossings! Yes, 15 in 2.5 miles!! Never before have I been on a trail that has so tested my ability to hop from rock to rock, to balance on logs, to not fall in frigid water. I’m not sure any of us came out of the hike dry. Bryce took a plunge. I made a poor step and soaked my left boot and sock. Steph was incredibly adept, reminding us of her gymnastics days. It was a fun but slow hike.

Because of all the crossings and all the scouting we needed to do at each one to determine the pass crossing, the 2.5 miles took much longer than anticipated. Knowing that we still wanted to hike 0.5 miles from our campsite to Kolob Arch for dinner later, we decided we would turn around at 5pm. At crossing №13 or 14, Steph and Harrison and Bryce forged ahead while the rest of us took longer to put socks and shoes back on after wading through knee-deep water. When Drew, Aleta and I came to the intersection to hike the final half mile up Bear Trap Canyon to the cascade, the other three weren’t in sight and we couldn’t be positive that they hadn’t continued on the maintained trail. It was also 5pm, so we sat down and ate our snack. Oh, well; no waterfall for us. A few minutes later, we heard the sloshing of shoes through the creek and Steph, Harrison and Bryce rejoined us. We weren’t happy with them, but at least, they said, the cascade wasn’t anything to write home about. A snack later with frustrations mended, we turned around and begin the 15-crossings journey back. The late-afternoon light was spectacular, illuminating the red canyon walls above us. The 2.5 miles passed quicker this time, and we arrived back at camp at 6:30pm.

One thing I love about this group, which makes it easy to hike with them, is how everyone gets timing and being at certain places at the right times. There was no disagreement when it came to our dinner and sunset spot; we wanted to visit the hyped Kolob Arch. So we packed our stoves and food and water to boil and were back on the trail 20 minutes later. The end of the Kolob Trail provided an obscured view of the arch, which, frankly, was a bit disappointing. But there was a nice flat surface for cooking. And while I waited for my risotto bag — a 20-minute wait! — I scrambled up an unofficial path high above our spot for a grander perspective of the arch and canyons to the south. When I descended, others whose food was ready much earlier went up. Steph kept me company and I took my first sips of the bourbon (cutting weight!) as the sky darkened. The only real negative of the first day was an upset stomach upon returning to camp, but I focused on the clear sky full of stars and soon forgot about it.

What a place. Everything was quiet. Complete peace. By 9pm, all of us, rightfully exhausted, ducked into our tents. The hardest anticipated day of the trip beckoned. We hoped our bodies were prepared.

MILES HIKED: 12.4 (6.4 with packs)

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Tuesday, April 18 — La Verkin Creek to Wildcat Canyon, 14.3 miles
Remember Little Grunts, the woman whose journal we referenced in preparing for the trek? This is what she had written about hiking through Hop Valley, which was on our menu for Day 2:

“Hop Valley was a long slog through sand with multiple muddy creek crossings and nary a cow in sight. There was no keeping our feet dry — a recurring theme throughout the trip. There is no water at the Hop Valley trailhead so we filtered from Hop Creek before exiting the valley. We also added Aquamira drops to our water to be extra safe from cow dung. The climb out of the valley was hot and seemingly endless. The last mile and a half from the border of private property to the trailhead was the longest mile and a half I’ve hiked.”

So without a whole lot to go off, we were rightfully skeptical about what the 6.3 miles to start our second day would be like. A slog? Mud-filled? Not much scenery? We expected such things. But first, we soaked up a beautiful morning at camp. We all had a tacit understanding that there was no rush. We had the full day to hike. The sun wouldn’t set until after 8pm. We didn’t want to hike in the dark, but we also knew we could if needed. I really appreciated the fact that none of us had the rush mindset. After breakfast, the boys, myself included, had fun playing bocce ball with the huge pine cones around our site. I picked up a couple victories, giving my self-esteem a nice boost heading into the day. As the valley warmed (we were at about 5,500 feet), we slowly packed up things and finally hit the trail at 10:40am. Sadly, my pack didn’t feel any lighter than the day before.

The hike began with a short climb, which I always prefer to start a day. Nothing wakes the legs up more effectively than ascending. Not only that, but we soon eclipsed the trees and looked back to the sky-scraping canyon walls on the opposite side of La Verkin Creek. It wasn’t peak wildflower season, but red, lavender and yellow flowers also popped up here and there along the trail. Upon gaining the ridge, I became thankful for having applied sunscreen at camp as rays beat down on me. It was hot. It was also beautiful. We soon descended into Hop Valley and its cow poop-infested (or at least advertised) creek. We had filtered water at camp in preparation for not coming to safe water to treat for at least 10 miles. I had 64 ounces and Aleta had packed extra too (thank you, Aleta!) in case I needed more (side note: because my backpack was 99% full, I had decided against bringing my Camelbak). We crossed the shallow, narrow stream and began a stretch of flat valley trekking.

In contrast to Little Grunt’s opinion, we all thoroughly enjoyed this stretch. We gazed up at the canyon walls 50 yards to our left and a few hundred yards to our right, and took in the landscape before us. At the second or third stream crossing — a walk in the park compared to the raging creek we had navigated the day before — we stopped for a moment, and across the grassy landscape came two dudes straight out of a Western on horses. I was prepared for a simple Howdy, but the cowboys stopped and began chatting with us. We learned that the horses were Rosie, a Tennessee walking horse, and Buddy, a quarter horse — “a Jeep and a Cadillac,” as one of the guys put it. The men were retired and just out for a joy ride. Before continuing on their way, one of them looked at Aleta’s enormous backpack and exclaimed, “I feel guilty!” Haha. Yes, we were all still carrying hefty loads.

At what appeared to be the end of the flat section, we found shade under a generous pine tree and grabbed a snack. After a few minutes, I felt refreshed and decided to go ahead of the crew and start up the slope. The next half mile was all uphill, but suddenly my legs were alive like they hadn’t been the previous day and a half. I churned ahead, beginning to sweat but loving every step and the burning in my calves. When I eclipsed the final switchback, I stopped for just a moment and took a photo of the canyon way in the distance where we had started the day. Then I continued, taking the narrow dirt path into a landscape with fairway-length (but natural!) grass.

I could barely take my eyes off a sky pocked with clouds as I passed through a gate signifying leaving private property to re-enter the park (this was a common occurrence during the Hop Valley section of hiking; thank you to the fine folks who make their land available!). I could have stopped and waited, but I felt so damn good so I continued on, cruising through the 1.3 miles Little Grunts had negatively described and loving every minute of the hike. I reached the Hop Valley trailhead, about the midway point of the day, at 2:32pm and encountered a few people including a woman who recognized my November Project shirt and said she did NP in San Francisco (it’s now become regular for me to run into an NP person on every hiking trip).

Everyone devoured lunch in the shade while gazing out at the crazy clouds sky. Cheese and crackers, YOU WILL NEVER LET ME DOWN. And then as I walked to the bathroom at the trailhead, a black and white dog approached, waving its tail vigorously. Our first dog of the trip. I immediately called to Steph, who thanked me for the introduction. We named the dog George, but would later learn the mutt’s real name, Lil Dan. Steph also met his friend Shaggy the Shitzu.

Before we left, one member of our crew said to another (I forget who): “Can you get me some slices of TP?” Hey, some things you will only hear during a backpacking trip! And then it was off on the Connector Trail, a 3.8-mile, wait for it, connecting path to the Wildcat Trail. As we hiked on the dirt path buttressed by sage grass, the cloud-filled sky behind us to the west became just a bit ominous. The forecast had indicated that if rain was going to happen, this would be the day. I stopped to put on my outer shell in preparation, but it wasn’t necessary. No rain. Just an incredibly alluring sky.

At 5:36pm, we all reached the junction for the Wildcat Trail, our last leg of the day. We had about 4 miles to where we believed we’d find space to camp at-large by a water source. But first, we fueled up with a snack. It’d been a long day and legs were rightfully fatigued. The boys then pushed ahead and I found myself, again, alone with Steph and Aleta trailing. It’d been a long day of mostly hiking solo, and the scenery had been so tremendous that I didn’t mind it one bit. As I began on the Wildcat Trail, I saw a patch of snow off to the right — the first white stuff of the trip. The ranger had told us that this might be the section of the trail with the most snow, but I wouldn’t see anymore during the following 3.5 miles.

The Wildcat Trail was the only somewhat dull portion of the Zion Trek’s 47 miles. The wide dirt path under fir trees reminded me of a hike back on the east coast. Nothing special. But then as it slowly gained elevation, the trail emerged from the trees and offered views to my right into Wildcat Canyon and across to the West Rim and the trail we would hike the next day. This is also when I saw a paw print in the mud and convinced myself (hey, you think silly things when you’re alone) that it was a cougar. The following mile-plus, I continuously gazed up the hillside to my left, keeping an eye out for that cougar preying on me. Thankfully, nothing.

At 7pm, I came to a small spring spewing out from a couple rocks and I stopped and took a seat. According to my map, I was farther than I thought. I couldn’t decide whether I’d actually reached Blue Creek, clearly marked on my Nat Geo map, or an unmarked water source. Regardless, I decided to treat water while taking a break. With no sight or sounds of others in the group, I continued on after 15 minutes and within 14 minutes I heard the roaring of a much larger water source — the real Blue Creek — and also voices. I had reached our camping spot. About 200 feet from the trail, an opening in the trees provided just enough of an area for three tents. Barely. When Steph and Aleta arrived a few minutes later, everyone expertly utilized every square foot of space to erect our three tents. There would be no secret conversations during the night. We were all on top of each other.

Camp set up, we took our dinners down to the trail and sat in the flat area crushing a well-deserved huge meal as we were enveloped by darkness. Suddenly, as we ate our last bites, a smattering of raindrops hit us. We scattered. Here, finally, was the the precipitation we’d expected. But then, just like that, it was gone in less than a minute. We wouldn’t feel another drop that night or, for that matter, the rest of the trek. We really were lucky. Instead, we were blessed with another clear-sky night. When I exited the tent in the middle of the night to relieve myself, I did so while gazing up into galaxies far and wide. And even at 7,000 feet, the air was warm.

We really were lucking out. The trail conditions. The weather. Everything. Through two days, I had nothing to complain about. Not even my pack.

MILES HIKED: 14.3

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Wednesday, April 19 — Wildcat Canyon to the West Rim Campsite 1, 11 miles
I awoke at 8:30 to sun shining into our tent. I laid my head back on my makeshift pillow. No rush. We only had 11 miles of mostly level hiking to do on Day 3. Easy day. Rest day. Despite being in the woods and at 7,000 feet, it was warm. I quickly shed layers after another oatmeal and tea breakfast as we broke down camp. The adjacent creek made for easy water filtration and I decided to fill both Nalgenes full despite having a water source, Potato Hollow, about 6–7 miles in.

We got on the trail at 11:07am. If we were going to see any snow on the trail, the next mile was most likely. We gained elevation as we headed toward the junction with the West Rim Trail and Lava Point, the highest point in Zion at 7,900 feet. But barely any snow was to be seen. It became clear that the microspikes in the bottom of my pack were deadweight. We really had lucked out with conditions. After a mile, the woods thinned and we came to an old farming till right before taking a right on the West Rim Trail. If we had headed left, it was a very short hike to Lava Point and the dirt road that led to it and a campground (another entry into the park).

The next two hours weren’t the most memorable of the trip. They also weren’t the most difficult. The going was mostly flat on a dirt ridge that seemed to have more dead trees than alive ones. What that did mean, however, were far-reaching views especially to the east toward where the world-famous Narrows are. It was probably the most conversational two hours, for me, of the trip as Steph and I discussed myriad topics and then Bryce and I had one of several NBA conversations (side note: I will forever be thankful to Bryce for being a tremendous person to talk hoops with on this trip. Guy knows his stuff!).

A little after 2pm, having knocked off about half of our mileage for the day, we came to Potato Hollow and its supposed water source. I took the spur trail toward what looked like a dried-out tiny pond. There was a very slight trickle of water at its edge. I didn’t need water, so I didn’t use it. I continued walking until I reached Campsite 7 in what I’d describe as a mini meadow of mostly dried-out grass. Conditions, including the dry heat, felt desert-y. While waiting for the others, I came upon two other backpackers, Kristen and Andy from Denver, who would be staying at Campsite 2 adjacent to our site that evening. In the midday heat, dreaming about our ideal resting spot for the night was a respite in itself. We paused on a log for a long lunch before continuing on a little after 3pm. Again, no rush at all.

Within a mile, after a short, sweat-inducing climb, Zion opened up before us for the first time. Expansive views everywhere. We were truly on the West Rim. I gazed out at distant rock towers on the other side of a large bowl cut out from the earth. We all scrambled a bit off the path and, all of a sudden, the calm became a fierce wind. I grabbed my hat before it blew away. For a solid half mile, the going was start-stop, start-stop as the views were nonstop. We laughed about why anyone would take the slightly shorter but less scenic Telephone Trail that cut off from this most-beautiful section and would rejoin us by our campsite. After another slight climb and a rest under a huge tree, we continued on at a higher elevation. We passed Campsite 5, which I deemed the absolute best for sunset — imagine walking 50 yards from your tent to a ridge with a direct view to the west and distant canyons. Wow.

Finally, we left the ridge, but the spectacular scenery only took a brief respite. After passing sites 3 and 4, the trail bent around to the east and all of a sudden we had brand-new canyons and rock walls — these ones to the south and east — to stare at in awe. The late-afternoon light was impeccable, and our climbing was done for the day as we ambled along. We came to our campsite, which was tucked — as advertised — under a grove of Ponderosa pines on the side of a mild slope with obstructed views to the east. We threw our still-heavy packs off.

Work done. Now for all the fun. But first, finding the water.

From our research and maps, we knew a spring was close to the campsite. I just couldn’t find it. I walked down what I thought was the trail to the spring for 10 minutes before giving up. Where was the water? Would we be stranded sans water for the night? Thankfully, I was just being silly. A few minutes later, as we lounged on a log and Steph studiously looked at the map, Drew and Bryce located the water by heading down in the other direction and finding an offshoot from the main trail. They described the spring as very tiny with just a trickle, but enough to fill our bottles — filtering, of course — with ice-cold 7,000-feet good stuff. Not only that, but the fellas raved about the location of the spring. It was just a stone’s throw from a ledge with an unobstructed view to the east. Wow. I couldn’t wait to make it our dinner and sunset spot.

But first, the deer.

As we set up camp in the spacious site (Campsite 1 was everything we could have asked for), we noticed a deer … and then another … and a third … and a FOURTH! Walking up from getting water, Drew yelled out about the deer we had already located. We tried to let him know, “Shhh…” but it actually didn’t matter. The deer didn’t care. They weren’t going anywhere — except closer. As Steph and I took photos and videos, we gave each deer, each with distinctive features, a name. Penelope. LaVerne. Charlie. And the fourth one, which never came very close, got stuck with No Name. I kid you not when I say the deer got within 10 feet of our tents and sniffed around for 10 minutes before finally going on their way. It wasn’t food that brought them close. They were simply curious and, I guess, used to humans? Whatever the case, we truly felt immersed in nature.

Now back to dinner and that ledge… We grabbed all our cooking gear and food, stuffed them in day packs, and made the 7-minute walk down toward the ledge, arriving with ample daylight left to cook but as the sky was rapidly changing colors. The ledge was everything I could have imagined — a flat area of dirt maybe 5 x 15 feet with an abrupt dropoff of at least 1,000 feet straight down. My kind of place. Immediately, before even getting my water boiling, I identified a rock just to the right of our sitting spot on which I could stand, on its edge, and gaze out at the expansive beauty before me. Not only that, but Steph — whom I probably should pay for all the photos she took during the trip — could snap a photo of me on the ledge from back on the trail with a composition that demonstrated just how severe the dropoff was. Perfect. I held my standing position for a minute or two before finally stepping off the rock and back to the solid dinner spot a few feet from the edge. Dinner time.

That night was just perfect. We ate. We watched as the dipping sun behind us cast its final reflections on the rock walls across from us and below us. We identified a late-start hiker making their way up the trail we would descend the next day (later, Drew and Bryce would run into the guy as he passed by our site). The sky darkened. The first planet became visible. Then what we thought was a satellite. And, finally, stars. First a few. Then dozens. Then hundreds. I sipped tea, entirely content. Finally, we headed back to camp but only with the consensus that we would wake early and head right back our spot in the morning.

What. A. Day. How in the world could Day 4 top it?

MILES HIKED: 11

Thursday, April 20 — West Rim Campsite to Stave Spring, 12 miles

Wow, it was actually cold. For the first time all trip, I considered getting out my gloves from the pack. It was a few minutes after 6am and sunrise beckoned. The chill in the air was noticeable, but so were the yellow and pink colors above the distant ridge that I could see, clear as midday, from our tent. And there was that planet (Jupiter, maybe), even more glowing in the dawn sky than the night before, placed impeccably between the branches of the Ponderosas. It was a tent view that’d be hard to beat. I put on all my layers, but not the gloves, and we all walked slowly down the path toward breakfast and the rising sun.

As I’ve learned from doing a few of these camping trips now, boiling hot water right away is of the utmost importance when it’s cold out. So I got the Jetboil going even before admiring every aspect of the pink sky before us. Soon, we were sipping tea, with the oatmeal imminent. Of course, I also bugged Steph to take the same photo of the night before — for comparison’s sake. The light wasn’t as great, but everything else was equally glorious. The feeling of being on the edge of such a massive cathedral of rock. It’s hard to describe. Harrison tried taking a timelapse, but his phone battery was close to nil. And then my GorillaPod failed him. It was the only thing that didn’t go smoothly to start our Thursday. As the sun finally eclipsed the distant ridge, we warmed and, within minutes, began shedding layers. The desert, man — it’s an incredible place.

While I could’ve sat there all morning reading my book (“A Dog’s Purpose,” by the way) and soaking everything in, we had a big day ahead of us — 12 miles including world-renowned Angels Landing and an ascent from the valley floor to the East Rim and our final campsite. We wanted a relatively early start. Maybe, we thought, we could even beat the crowds to the landing. We all got on the trail heading down at different times. I was second from last, my (somewhat) lighter bag and I beginning the walk at 8:48am. Drew was the only one behind me.

I didn’t feel it during the first mile, but Day 4 was a brief return to civilization for us. I should have known right away because the switchbacking path was a cobbled together asphalt. It had some rock and stone, but also was partly man-made with the stuff you find on a sidewalk in Washington, DC. This was noticeable throughout our entire hike to Angels Landing and down, and then also during the first mile ascending the East Rim. I get it — parks want to cater to the more casual hiker. But it also takes away from the feeling of being in nature. But back to the beautiful. The earlier start afforded us incredible morning shadows, many of which reflected on the smooth rock walls that only got taller as I descended farther. It was as if I were in a ginormous sports stadium and walking down to field level (just multiply the size several times).

Soon, the people began appearing. We were entering popular territory. As I caught up to Steph and Aleta, we passed a group of three women running. Before they got completely past us, I asked what they were doing. “Running the full trek,” one of them said. Oh, you know, no big deal — 47 miles in a day! They had started at what would be our ending point, the next day, at 5am and hoped to be done by 6pm. Wow. A moment later, a fourth member of the squad passed us. We wondered, while walking the next mile, what kind of support, if any, they had. They just had very small backpacks on (sidenote: while it sounds like a crazy day, if you break it down, the hardest part in my mind is early in the day. Once you gain the West Rim, it’s relatively flat all the way to Lava Point and then down to Hop Valley with just a 3-mile ascent at the end. Very doable. But still … 47 miles). They were crazy!

At the beginning of the trip, we had logged guesses as to the number of people we would see (minus the Angels Landing section). By the time we got to the Landing, we were at the highest guess, mine, at 58. But man, the mile before reaching the hordes was spectacular. First, upon reaching the lowest point, Steph turned around and pointed up toward a point high above us. “You see that?” she asked. “That’s the ledge we were on.” Holy cow; she was right. We could now verify just how ridiculously sheer the dropoff was. What a spot — as seen from all angles. After climbing up to a small plateau, I again turned around and could see a stick figure, Drew, weaving through the switchbacks far below. That vision and the photo I took of him spoke more than anything to me about just how large of a place we were sharing. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon on three occasions and no, Zion isn’t that massive, but it’s really large and open and that particular view and spot especially spoke to this.

At 10:28 am, having hiked 2.9 miles, we reached The People Zone, aka Angels Landing. Just like that, we were surrounded by a movie theater on a Friday night’s worth of day hikers there for the main attraction — the 0.4-mile climb to the perch and its splendid views into Zion National Park. The climb had a decent amount of exposure, thus the chains to guide people. It wasn’t that steep, however, and I never felt the need to use the chains. Two good feet and adept hands were enough. Similar to climbing the cables at Half Dome four years ago, starting and stopping was the norm during our ascent and descent. Climb some. Let others go down. Climb some more. Stop. But not to worry — the views were spectacular throughout. I especially enjoyed looking out to our right at the huge, sloping limestone rock face and the tiny pine trees that somehow made a living with their roots tucked into the tiny areas that (maybe?) offered soil. I’ll never cease to be amazed by how this occurs.

Anyway, we reached the top and took dozens upon dozens of fun photos (the only bummer was we missed Bryce, who wasn’t a fan of the exposure and stayed at the bottom), many of them on the edge. The views exceeded expectations. Yep, this spot was legit. No wonder it gets so many people. We further realized this while walking the relatively easy, again paved 2.1 miles down to The Grotto trailhead after. Angels Landing is a pretty accessible place, and if you’re only in Zion for a morning or afternoon, I get why people do it. For us, it just felt a bit weird after three-plus days of seeing fewer than 50 people. Still, it was incredible. I would’ve regretted not doing it. Right call, for sure.

The Grotto was our first time below 5,000 feet since Monday. We passed by the Virgin River and threw down our packs amidst the civilization. I will say that the water spout and not having to filter was nice. As was the bathroom. Other than that, I was ready to get back into the wilderness. But first, we needed to walk on a road. Yes, more pavement. To reach the East Rim Trail, we needed to walk 1.25 miles on Valley Road, the park bus-only roadway. It was probably, I must say, the most beautiful mile and a quarter I’ve ever traversed on a surface used by motorized vehicles. Angels Landing, from a much different perspective, stood up to our left looking as regal as ever, and the road was skirted by leafy green trees. Not bad. Still, we were on a road. Not ideal.

When we reached the trailhead, we were in need of energy. It was mid-afternoon. We hadn’t eaten lunch. And we had a ton of climbing to do; 2,000 feet of climbing. We found a nice, long log by the river and gorged on sandwiches, bars, everything. Hey, lightening the packs even more would make the ascent easier. Drew, I think, fell asleep. Bryce forged ahead. Aleta patched up blisters that had bothered her since day 2 (I can’t imagine coping with all the blisters Aleta dealt with during the trip; seriously). And then the ascent began, the trail bearing a striking resemblance to the one on the other side of Valley Road. Yes, we were still in casual tourist territory. In fact, about a half mile up, I came upon a park service woman in a vehicle I’m more used to seeing in DC patching up a part of the trail with old asphalt. Ahhhh, Zion!

It was sticky hot and we were climbing, but at least it felt like we we gaining elevation quickly. I don’t remember this, but Steph and Aleta would remind me later that I had mentioned something along the lines of, “It’s 3 miles up, 2 miles flat” to the campground. As I climbed up that first section, I mistakenly thought we were knocking off the large chunk of the climbing. More on this in a minute. After passing the junction for Hidden Valley to the south, we entered one of the more spectacular, if short, sections of the trek — aptly named Echo Canyon. We walked through a narrow canyon with towering, 90-degree walls walling us in. Before leaving the canyon, we came upon a quartet of backpackers like us. Finally, some non day-hikers! So naturally, we chatted them up and learned that they, too, were doing the trek but with different campsites and in five days. They had done a night, if I recall correctly, at Lava Point and also the night before that on the Northgate Peaks Trail off the Wildcat Trail (they had also hiked the peaks, which is something I would do next time).

While us fellas were talking to the guys, Steph and Aleta were 50 feet ahead of us chatting up a family. When we left the backpackers, they let us know that the family had dropped a tip as far as a campsite we absolutely had to have right by the spot where we planned on spending the night adjacent to Stave Spring. The spot had a mini waterfall. We couldn’t miss out on our money spot for the final night of the trek. Suddenly, we felt just the slightest tinge of urgency — what if the other backpackers got the good spot? OK, I’m not suggesting we created a competition on a hiking trip. But … that campsite did sound pretty nice. We exited the canyon and continued on, gaining a few minutes later a junction with the trail to Observation Point. We joked about hiking the 1.9 miles to the point and I guess I’m crazy enough of a person that when I suggested I was going to do it, everyone believed me. But no way; we still had 2.7 miles to the campsite.

But mostly flat … right?????

We were in for a rude awakening. It was uphill. The majority of it. We climbed. And climbed some more. We sweated maybe more than we had the entire trek. We stopped along switchbacks to catch our breath. Little did I know that Steph and Aleta, not with us on the trail, were probably swearing me out. Fine. Well-deserved. Finally, after what seemed like a very long 2 miles, we eclipsed the ridge and things flattened out. We entered a grassy landscape, a mountaintop prairie if you will. We came to a junction for a random offshoot trail and, just to be sure, Harrison constructed an arrow out of sticks. We continued on. Less than half a mile later, just a couple hundred yards down the Deertrap Mountain Trail, we came to what had to be the talked-about campsite at 5:53pm. There was the mini waterfall with a pool at its base. Above it, under a grove of trees, was a flat area perfect for tents. We didn’t have the expansive views of the night before, but this would do! It was still quite warm out, too. Things were shaping up beautifully.

Drew headed back toward the junction to make sure Steph and Aleta took the right turn, and just a few minutes later we were all reunited. With camp set up and feeling dirty, I decided to follow Harrison’s lead and take a dip in the pool. Actually, I went full-immersion. But not before a couple swigs of the remaining bourbon for warming purposes. Man, the water was so refreshing and, dare I say, cleansing. I felt really good as I emerged from the pool, but then Steph said she had taken photos instead of a video, so I dipped back in. “I did it twice!” I exclaimed as I shivered and reached for my hiking towel. Slipping into fleece pants after that dip never felt so good.

We were all in great spirits, and for good reason, our final night of the trek. Under another picturesque starry night, we devoured final dinners, snacked on whatever we had left that we wouldn’t want our last morning, and Harrison and I engaged in a chess marathon game for the ages. Checkmate didn’t occur until darkness had enveloped our site. Everything was quiet. The next day would bring a celebration, but in that moment and as I prepared to enter the tent in Zion for a final time I was perfectly content where I was. The end could wait

MILES HIKED: 12

Friday, April 21 — Stave Spring to East Entrance, 5.7 miles
I’m not sure why, but I slept incredibly well my last night in Zion. Maybe it was the sense of accomplishment, having done so much with just a waltz in the canyon between us and the end. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather. Or yet another star-filled sky. Whatever the reason, I didn’t wake until 8:30am. In fact, we all slept in and enjoyed a slow, lazy morning as the sun drenched our campsite with light and warmth (I lost a heartbreaker in chess to Bryce; the cards never made an appearance during the trip).

We hit the trail at 10:48am, first ascending just a tad but then beginning to descend a series of switchbacks. We had a long way to go down. The trail was more popular than I’d expected, as at least a handful of groups passed us. And on a few occasions, day hikers looked at my still-large — if not as heavy — pack and asked what we’d done. I happily responded, telling our story to each person who inquired. About midway through the 5.7 miles, I rounded a corner and there it was — one heck of a waterfall. Bryce, Harrison and Drew were sitting just a few feet from the pool of water spewing over the sheer rock face down a hundred feet. I immediately grinned. You talk about a great last-day hang spot.

We spent a good half an hour sitting by the edge, eating our last food items (well, for me at least; Steph and Aleta still had snacks for days!), and taking a bunch of photos. I continued to completely use Steph and her tremendous composition skills for shots of me hanging over the edge. Thanks, Steph! Finally, as much as I detested the decision, we threw our packs on one last time and began the final descent. We wouldn’t drop them again until the end. The final stretch of trail was beautiful, the rock colors and composition eye-poppingly beautiful even in the midday, no-good-for-photos light. As we got what had to be close to the end, a familiar sense of dread filled me. Yes, the sense of accomplishment would be amazing, but how could we possibly match this experience back in reality? Once phones were back on. Once cars were again a factor. And people in the way, distracting from the beauty?

Well, we wouldn’t. But as I saw the gate marking the trail’s terminus — and thus 54 miles of trekking in four and a half days — I knew this would just be the first of many backpacking trips. I’ll just get a lighter, more comfortable pack for the next one.

We finished (at 1:46pm). We celebrated (briefly). And then we packed into the unscathed Elantra. It was time to head to Bryce. But first, FOOD.

No more freeze-dried meals. No more cheese and crackers (for a day). We were going to eat like kings and queens, we just weren’t sure where. As our car of six smelly humans cruised into Springdale, someone (there’s much debate ongoing as to who) pointed to the right and a place called “Blondie’s Diner.” The outside said something about burgers. We were sold. An hour later, our stomachs stuffed to the brim with bison burgers and fries — probably the most fries I’ve eaten in years — we stuffed ourselves, still stinky, back in the Elantra and made the hour-plus drive back to Lee Pass, on the other side of the park, and the van. It was very much still intact, too. Win! From there, we game-planned. With Bryce Canyon, two hours to the north, only having two campgrounds in the park, we wanted to get there as soon as possible to try to snag a site. We weren’t overly optimistic. So the boys went ahead. And Steph, Aleta and I stopped in Cedar City on the way to pick up some dinner supplies. Hot dogs! Chips!! Salsa!!! S’mores supplies!!!! Oh, my, what luxuries. (Side note: we also got beer, but there’s nothing gluten-free in Utah grocery stores. No cider. Nothing. So I drank glutenous beer that night. My stomach wasn’t pleased.)

The drive. OH, the drive! We drove up, and up. And the temperature dropped, then plummeted. It had been 80 at Blondie’s. As we crested a hill and looked down on a snowy landscape, the car’s thermometer read 48. I stopped at a pullout and we got out of the car, in sandals, to briefly gaze out hundreds of miles to the south and balmy Zion. Where were we? THE NORTH!

The spectacular scenery didn’t cease the entire drive, with snow-capped mountains here and endless canyon walls there. We could see Bryce’s salmon-orange rock walls for probably 30 miles before we reached the park. As we were nearing the entrance, Steph texted with the boys to find out that they had snagged one of the last three available sites at Sunset Campground. While North is the preferred campground because you can walk out of your tent and be on the rim in two minutes, Sunset is just across the road from it. Not bad at all.

By the time we set up tents, the temperature had to be south of 40 and dropping rapidly. We hurried to pack up some snacks and jumped in the van. We didn’t want to miss sunset. I’d equate Bryce’s East Rim to a very mini Grand Canyon. After parking, as we approached the edge, I felt that same sense of anticipation that had overtaken my body when visiting the Grand Canyon’s south rim for the first time. And then, it opened up before us: miles upon miles of hoodoos. Yes, hoodoos. As we would learn, hoodoos — also called goblins, according to the Internet — are tall, skinny rock spires found throughout the Southwest but especially in Bryce. The park’s signs do a good job of letting visitors know NOT to climb on the hoodoos, as tempting as it is, because you’ll cause erosion. I held myself back. Plus, they’re just so damn fun to look at.

With the late-evening light reflecting on the rows and rows of hoodoos, of all different sizes, laid out beneath us, it was hard not to be in awe. Zion was expansive. Zion was absolutely incredible. And now Bryce felt otherworldly. Magical. We walked along the rim path, taking in a few perspectives and also looking up to a few spots maybe at 9,000 feet where snow lingered. We clearly hadn’t missed the white stuff by much, but we wouldn’t take a single step in it all trip. As darkness enveloped us and our bodies froze, we returned to the van, cranked on the heat for the 2-minute drive and headed back to camp where we gorged. On a fire. On a huge dinner. On beers. On marshmallows. It’s a wonder any of us made it into our tents or were able to emerge the next morning. Between Blondie’s and that dinner, we had feasted like people who just spent five days in the wilderness. Oh, wait…

Saturday, April 22 — Fairyland Trail, 8 miles
It was even colder when we got up at 6am for sunrise. Frigid. The van read 28 degrees as we made the short drive. The temperature didn’t stop a large crowd from coming out for sunrise, though. We joined the masses at Sunset Point and waited for Bryce to thaw. I boiled water in the Jetboil and then gulped it down as fast as one can gulp hot water. Anything to warm the body. I think the biggest win of the morning was Harrison getting his timelapse to work, as it showed the change in light reflecting off the canyon’s walls. Once the sun was in the sky, there was no instantaneous warming effect. Rather, upon returning to camp a little after 7, everyone returned to their sleeping bags. I didn’t emerge from the tent until I felt like, in all my layers, I’d be able to sit at the picnic table and comfortably eat breakfast. That was at 8:40am. Harrison and Bryce, perhaps smartly, stayed in their sleeping bags, standing up, to eat. The oatmeal was OK. For the first time in a week, I thought that just maybe I was getting tired of oatmeal. I looked forward to Helgard and Carl’s meal the next day.

Unfortunately, Aleta’s blisters were no good, but she gave us the go-ahead to take on our one trail of the day, the Fairyland loop, before we’d all exit the park and our adventure (insert sad emojis). And how do I, how can I, describe the 8-mile loop we went on? OTHERWORLDLY. Seriously. I could’ve stopped and shot photos at every turn as we first descended into the canyon, then enjoyed some level hiking before going back up. I stopped on one hill and peaked through a window in the rock. Around another corner, Steph led the way up a hill of loose sediment toward a single, lonely, fatter hoodoo with a blue sky backdrop. These sights were endless. We saw probably more than 50 people during the loop, and not surprisingly. The going was relatively easy. It was everything I could have asked for — a cheese and crackers lunch included.

Finishing the loop was sad, as was exiting the park, but between the sunset, sunrise and hike, I pulled out of Bryce feeling like we’d gotten at least a nice sample size of the national park. Until next time, Bryce.

— — — — — — — — — -

Utah is incredible. I knew this going into the trip, but every day in the state just reinforced it. This included the 5-hour drive back to Ogden that final night. There’s such a thing as a rough return to reality (driving from Yosemite to Sacramento comes to mind), and then there’s easing back in. That’s what that drive resembled. The highway was empty. I drove 100 again. And the horizon was scattered with snow-capped peaks all the way to our final destination. A stop for some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had only added to the experience. And when we finally pulled into Helgard and Carl’s driveway, just as Kawhi Leonard missed a potential game-winning shot for San Antonio (there’s your NBA reference of the blog), we were escorted directly to the dining room table for yet another feast.

Many stories and glasses of wine later, followed by some hot tub action, I allowed myself to take my phone off airplane mode for the first time in almost a week. It was OK to reconnect. I, and everyone else, had many stories to tell and pictures to share.

Until next time, Utah

— Jake

Epilogue: A special thank you must be given to Carl and Helgard, who opened up their incredible home to a bunch of strangers, then fed us, gave us beds, and regaled us with myriad stories. Somehow, they even took us back a week later. And then Helgard took Steph, Bryce and me on a short hike our final day in Utah. A great home base makes such trips that much more feasible.

And thank you to my hiking partners. Ever since Harrison got #ZiOnMyMind, I wanted to make it happen. This trip wouldn’t have become that reality and gone so smoothly without five extremely smart, dedicated and fun people alongside me.

Until the next one…