Day 31: Zion National Park, UT + Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ by Wookie Kim

Today was two days before my attempt to run the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim. I wanted to take it easy. Because I'd arrived late to Zion the day before, I was doing Angels Landing this morning, before heading to Page, AZ to see the physics-defying Horseshoe Bend. I'd end the day early and stay at an Airbnb right below Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I wanted to shower and sleep in a bed right before taking on the R2R.

I woke up super early--early enough so that I was at the shuttle bus at the Zion visitor center by 6:45 a.m. The first shuttle came around at 7 a.m., and I made sure I got onboard. There were a surprising number of hikers at this time. I guess it made sense; this morning was the first day of the fall season. During the summer, the first shuttle had left at 6 a.m. Now, people wanting to do some of the longer hikes (e.g., in the Narrows) would have one less hour to spend in the canyon. It would be imperative to get on the 7 a.m. shuttle.

After 20-30 minutes, we were at the Grotto stop. This was where the Angels Landing trailhead was. As soon as I got off the bus, I wasted no time. I deployed my trekking poles, tightened my fastpack, and immediately got into my running stride. I wanted to get out slightly in front of the pack of hikers that had already gotten onto the trail. But, critically, I also did not want to go at a hard--or even medium--pace; saving energy for the Grand Canyon was my biggest priority.

Yet I found my heart rate creeping up more than I'd hoped. It was simply too much of a thrill to see a tall platform way up above me. I really wanted to get up there--and fast.

I briskly ran the first 3/4 mile or so, which is almost entirely flat alongside the Virgin River. After that, though, the trail turned into a series of mean switchbacks. I knew that if I tried to run these, I'd be adding fatigue to my legs--the very fatigue I was trying to avoid two days before R2R. So I ended up power-hiking, and relying on my poles far more than I normally do. I looked down. Only one person was anywhere close to me. Everyone else had yet to even hit the switchbacks. And I wasn't even sweating.

But then I got to what's knowns as Walter's Wiggles. Walter Ruesh was Zion's first superintendent, and he created this switchback staircase to get up to Angels Landing. It looked a bit out of place, but I marveled at it from an engineering perspective.

I was making good progress, and I knew that no one would catch me. In other words, I'd be the first one to the summit. But I also realized I had another thing to worry about--the sun. I wanted to be on top of Angels Landing before the sun's rays hit it. Basically, I wanted to watch the sun light up the canyon. As I continued the ascent, I could see the sun beginning to light up other parts of the canyon.

Soon enough, I reached the beginning of the notorious final half-mile stretch to the summit. This section has you crossing a narrow sandstone isthmus with a 1,200-foot drop on one side, and an 800-foot one on the other. The NPS had installed support chains that you could hold onto, but I had a feeling it would be as scary as people had said it would be.

When I began, I was definitely nervous. I was envisioning sections of the trail where you necessarily had to hold onto the chain. 

But as I ambled along, I realized that that wasn't the case. The chains were definitely helpful at every point in that segment of trail, but it was never, to my mind, necessary. And that just meant that I could let go from time to time. Of course, each time I let go, my palms started sweating.

In 49 minutes, I'd comfortably made it to the summit. The sun was lighting the tops of the canyon walls, but it had yet to hit Angels Landing. I'd succeeded in beating the sun! I took in my first views of Zion from high above. It was as impressive as I'd heard.

l forgot to mention, though, that I technically was not the first person to reach Angels Landing that morning. Benjamin Rusnak, one of the artists-in-residence in Zion; his wife; and a friend were already on the summit when I arrived. I couldn't figure out how they'd made it, since private cars can't drive on the canyon road. It turns out Rusnak's housing is right at the Grotto; they didn't need to wait for the shuttle. Another group of hikers were ahead of me on the trail, but I caught up and passed them. I was still confused as to how they got there. Let's just say they used creative means...

I spent a lot of time up there. One of the best parts of climbing mountains and getting up high is the time spent staying up. Looking down, you could see how effective the shuttle bus system was--there were no cars clogging the road, and the sole vehicle on the road was a shuttle bus.

Soon, Angels Landing was starting to fill up. The fit hikers trickled in, and then, all of a sudden, in the span of 10 minutes, a dozen more hikers made it. Naturally, it got noisier and less serene. But I guess that's the trade-off when you go on one of the most popular hikes in the entire NPS system.

There were also more than humans up at the summit. There were a bunch of chipmunks scurrying about, trying to catch falling crumbs from the bars that everyone was eating. They were pretty sneaky. I found one darting all around my pack (luckily he didn't get inside). At one point, I thought out loud that this place should be called "Chipmunks Landing". Several hikers from Australia laughed and agreed that that would be an entirely appropriate name.

There was also a fun little rock pyramid on the far end of Angels Landing. I climbed up it.

I was hoping to stay longer, but I did have one time constraint: I needed to check out of my campsite by 11 a.m. It would take time to descend, take the shuttle bus back to the visitor center, walk to my campsite, and break camp. So after about 45 minutes--too soon to see even one third of the canyon light up--I said goodbye to everyone I'd met at the top and headed back down. On the way down, I made sure to check out new views of the canyon. On this trip, I've been surprised numerous times by how I see different things and see things differently just by reversing direction.

Another fun aspect of seeing the same thing again is how the time of day evolves and affects your view of the landscape. Shadows are one of the most obvious things that shift over the course of the day and dramatically alter one's perception of a landscape.

Height has an effect, too. On the way up, it was hard to get a sense of the scale of Walter's Wiggles. On the way down, they looked like an absurd human conveyor belt. I forgot to mention that, by the time I was back down on the Wiggles, the trail was packed. There were dozens and dozens of people slowly hiking up to Angels Landing. I was glad I'd gotten up there quickly--and left relatively early too.

On the way back, I stopped at the museum and watched the park video (I figured I could sneak it in before needing to vacate my campsite). I learned more about the geology in the region and how the Zion Canyon formed out of the Colorado Plateau (this feature, by the way, was entirely new to me).

At 10:45 a.m., I was back at the Watchman Campground. I once again processed just how awesome the campsite's location was, and then I packed everything up and got ready to hit the road. Oh, I had a homework assignment to complete first, which involved taking a selfie, so I did that before leaving.

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I realized that I hadn't eaten lunch. Normally, I would've just nommed on bars and snacks until I got to a town that had food. But today was not a normal day. It was two days before my R2R attempt. I needed to be fueling up--packing on the calories and just feeling well-fed at all times. I decided I'd backtrack towards Springdale and eat lunch there. I had a delicious wrap at a cafe there, but when it was time to enter and pass through the park to get onto the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway, I encountered an insane amount of traffic. I tried to imagine what Zion would be like if private cars had unlimited access to the canyon road. It would be a nightmare.

Eventually, I made it back into the park, and I proceeded onto the Mount Carmel Highway on the east side of the canyon. I've gotten really good at taking no-look, blind photos while driving.

Soon, we entered the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which, when completed in 1930, was the longest of its kind in the U.S. It was an engineering feat, one made even more impressive by the various galleries that let drivers catch glimpses of the canyon while driving (perhaps a dangerous distraction?).

When I popped out on the other side of the tunnel, the whole landscape looked different. It just felt different.

I also saw my first bighorn sheep. They'd been eluding me all summer--I'd finally seen one!

I continued through smaller tunnel segments. This was a really scenic and fun drive--one of the best to date.

Almost at the end of the scenic highway, I came across a pullout spot right by Checkerboard Mesa. And then it hit me: this was the exact same spot where we'd finished the hike in the Barracks. I'd somehow made it out of the canyon and up to this pullout, where buses were waiting with endless supplies of water. In short, seeing this pullout brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad.

And then I was out on the open highway again, this time off to Page, AZ.

Just about the only thing worth doing in Page is visiting Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This feature was simply stunning, jaw-droppingly so. I wanted to linger, but it was scorching out, and I didn't want to generate any more fatigue in advance of the R2R. So I left pretty quickly.

I made more one more stop before checking in at my Airbnb. That was Lake Powell. What's mind-boggling about Lake Powell is how much water there is in it, even though everything else in the area is parched. The lake shone--it almost glowed--in the strong sunlight.

It was late afternoon now. I proceeded to my Airbnb and met my host, Janiece. After showering and unwinding for a couple hours, I realized that it was the night of the blood moon lunar eclipse. I sat on the porch to observe. I caught a glimpse of the eclipse as it was happening.

Unfortunately, as the eclipse continued, the clouds began rolling in and obstructing a clear view of the moon. So, when it actually turned blood orange, I could barely see it. It was an ironic end to the day. I was in one of the most isolated parts of an already isolated area, and therefore was in prime stargazing territory. But I ended up basically not being able to see much of the details of the eclipse. Sometimes that's just the way things work.

Day 30: Zion National Park, UT by Wookie Kim

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.

On rest. by Wookie Kim

One thing that separates good runners from great runners is each's approach to rest.

The good runner never actually rests. For the good runner, the "easy" days are still just a tad too hard to be classified as easy. As a result, the good runner simply stays good, and never becomes great.

The great runner, by contrast, treats rest as seriously as one would, say, a track workout. For it is only by pausing after a period of stress that one's body has the time to rebuild itself--and to do so in a way that makes one stronger, fitter, and faster.

I've always thought of myself as a runner who takes rest seriously. But frankly, it has been hard to do that on this trip, partly because I logistically don't have the time to rest, but also because I don't want to rest. Each day on the road, I encounter too many things that I want to do. And it's sometimes hard to resist doing them.

This weekend, I need to do whatever it takes to win that fight and rest. Less than 3 days from now, I'll be running the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon--a 25-mile run that will take me from the North Rim down to the Colorado River and back up to the South Rim. The weather at the rim will be cold. At the bottom, it will be scorching. And then I'll have to climb roughly 5,000 feet back out of the canyon. To add to things, because I'm catching the last available transcanyon shuttle at 1:30 p.m., I expect I'll hit the trail no later than 5 a.m.

I've been doing my best the past few days. I've scaled back my runs, picking only 4-5 miles of trails per day, and hiking proportionally more than I normally do. Spending two days in Los Angeles with friends helped; spending a day in the San Jacinto mountains did not. Arriving in Joshua Tree National Park and stepping out into the baking desert heat helped return me to the driver's seat; seeing a bunch of rocks to climb did not. Today, in Zion, I'm doing a short and easy hike--Angel's Landing (it's a little crazy that I now consider a hike like that easy!). Tomorrow, I'm basically just seeing Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell. Monday, I'll be camping at the North Rim, where I'll do a short run to preview what I'll be tackling early Tuesday. It's a struggle to rest, but I'm doing my damnedest to do it.

This battle to rest happens elsewhere, too. These days, it's too easy to get so wrapped up in one's pursuits that one forgets to rest. I've definitely had moments in my "regular" life when I've been pulled in many directions, unable to cut those commitments that need not actually be commitments. In the same way that great runners take rest seriously, we would all do better if we found ways to pause our oftentimes overly busy lives and do the same. Our bodies--and our minds--would appreciate it.