After catching a spectacular sunrise in Joshua Tree, I'd finally made it to Zion National Park, in southwest Utah.
I'd been here before, but under very different circumstances. The law firm at which I'd worked as a summer associate after my second year of law school goes on an annual "firm hike", almost always always on an epic scale. In the summer of 2012, the firm chose to tackle The Barracks--a remote, out-of-NPS-boundary, hike that is essentially a souped-up, harder version of the ever-popular Narrows. It was the most incredible day hike I've ever done, and also the hardest. We tackled record-breaking summer temperatures that made for a hard (and, frankly, dangerous) hike. But everyone made it out alive, so all's well that ends well.
I'd had my Zion experience from down in the canyon, but now I was back to see the place from a different perspective. This time, I wanted to be up above it all, on the famed Angels Landing.
The drive, at 360 miles, was long--a harbinger of the even longer driving days to come. That meant I didn't arrive at the park until almost 4 p.m.
I set up shop at my site in the Watchman Campground. I'd just spent the night at Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree--the first campground that was a destination in itself--so I was even more surprised when I saw how beautiful the scenery was here in Watchman.
Because I'd arrived far later than expected, I didn't think it made sense to tackle Angels Landing on the same day. Part of my hesitation was due to logistics. Unlike most parks, Zion prohibits private car traffic on the main canyon road during the busy season. Visitors get around by using a very efficient shuttle bus system. I couldn't rely on simply driving right up to the Angels Landing trailhead. I needed to factor in the transit time to get there by bus. It just didn't make sense to start such an ambitious hike so late in the day. Moreover, I was two days away from arriving at the Grand Canyon and I didn't want to rush the run and end up fatiguing myself for the Rim-to-Rim.
But I wasn't about to do nothing, either. I decided on a compromise solution: I'd hike something easy today, and then tackle Angel's Landing early tomorrow morning. That way, I'd feel like I hadn't wasted a day. I opted to hike the Emerald Pools Trail. I hopped on a shuttle bus, got off at the Zion Lodge stop and began the 3-mile roundtrip hike.
The beginning of the hike took me along the banks of the Virgin River. It was this river that had, over countless years, carved out the epic canyons of Zion. That fact was hard to believe, because the river looked weak and powerless--a mere trickle!
As I meandered along the river, I saw an emaciated mule deer. I felt really sorry for it. It was feeding, but clearly it wasn't doing a good enough job of it. I wondered if he or she was sick.
On a hike, I obviously have more opportunities to soak things in. I suppose I'm slightly more aware of my surroundings than when I'm running. It was a nice change of pace. At that moment, I was thinking very much of the time of day. The sun was beginning to set, and that meant that the inner canyon would be lit up differently. It was cool to see those differences, as they really highlighted certain features.
The hike itself continued up a gentle slope and passed a few of the emerald pools, which I found, quite frankly, unimpressive. I think part of the issue was that the water level was very low, so there weren't really much in the form of pools to look at to begin with. Any water that existed didn't really even look the color emerald.
One thing that impressed me, however, were the hanging gardens and other canyon-based plant life. Basically, there were parts of the canyon walls that had seeping water. And anywhere that there was water seeping out, there were plants.
At the Upper Emerald Pool, there was little puddle on a big rock. I tried to take a photo of the Zion canyon wall's reflection in the puddle.
The hike ended pretty quickly. And then it was time for dinner. I wanted to catch the ranger talk that evening. Having just spent time at Astrocamp in the San Jacintos, I was particularly intrigued by the topic (i.e., "The Great Journey: A Glimpse Across the Galaxies"). To ensure that I'd make it back to the amphitheater in time, I ate at a Thai restaurant just a half-mile outside the park in Springdale.
The talk itself gave me flashbacks to the couple astronomy classes I took in high school. They were very rudimentary, but I realized I knew far more about the night sky than a lot of the audience. I've thoroughly enjoyed the ranger talks, partly because you never know what to expect from each ranger, and this one was no less enjoyable. The main takeaway: we humans are a really, really, really small part of the universe.
After the talk, I went back to my campsite and got ready for bed. I was planning to wake up very early and catch the first shuttle bus to Angels Landing. Further, my goal was to be the first person reaching the top that morning. I figured that, as long as there wasn't any super-crazy ultra runner on the same bus, I'd easily beat everyone to the top. Before going to bed, I tried taking a few photos in the moonlight. I captured the stars (and clouds) directly above, as well as several of the Watchman, a 2,500-foot tall jagged spire. The combination of full moon and long exposure time created a funky set of photos.