Zion adventures: filthy hands, clean heart

Zion adventures: filthy hands, clean heartA retelling of a faraway Neipp Family adventure

Seven summers ago, our family went on an ambitious 8-day driving tour of 12 national parks and monuments in the U.S. southwest. We drove 1,800 miles across six states — it was the trip of a lifetime. Our biggest regret, at the time, was that for our first stop — Zion National Park — we had allotted only a few hours. Since then, we've been promising ourselves we would go back. This was the year.

It’s impossible to capture the scope of beauty and wonder yielded by hiking four days across 50 miles. The best way to sum up our experience is pointing to the name of the park itself.

I looked up the definition of “Zion,” and one of the meanings is “Heavenly City.” That’s exactly how it felt driving through windy roads hemmed in by rocks of impossibly rich color and texture. The azure sky, emerald trees and red-striped rock should get boring after so long, but they managed to captivate us through the entire hour-long passage.

The tiny glimpse into this fabled wilderness, viewed from the windows of our car, stirred in me such exquisite anticipation I was afraid the experience could not possible live up to my expectations. Ultimately, our tromp through the park exceeded my lofty hopes.

Once we were greeted by Disneylandesque lines for the shuttle that carried us into the depths of the park, I had to laugh at all our fellow hikers who described Zion as a “desert” getaway. (Seriously, folks, come visit us in the Mojave to see how broad the definition for this biome truly is.) Sure, Zion is arid enough to reduce our risk of lyme disease, but the waterfalls, rivers and riparian forests put the environment in a category of its own for anyone from our corner of the world.

Some of our favorite trails were The Narrows – a slog through the Virgin River hemmed in by aptly-named canyon walls — and Angel’s Landing. The latter takes intrepid hikers up a strenuous (and sometimes dangerous) trek to a centrally located peak that gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the canyon. For the less courageous among us, Weeping Rock, Court of the Patriarchs, Emerald Pools and Pa’Rus (to name a few) still offer rewarding vistas at the end of shorter, less perilous, trails.

I highly recommend visiting the museum to view the 22-minute film that highlights the natural and cultural history of the park. The formation of the plateau and the persistent Virgin River’s eons-long endeavor to carve deep recesses into the rock is a fascinating story of our planet’s ever-changing face.

From the engineering marvels like the 1-mile tunnel carved through solid rock to allow southeaster access to the paradise to the forward-thinking actions of President Taft (for whom I have a newfound respect) to preserve Zion for the public, I had to thank the forces of mankind that saw the benefits of protecting this natural wonder for future generations.

After collectively exploring every available trail in Zion, our family was ready to move on to our next adventure on Day 4. But we had to drive through the canyon one last time to say good bye (for who knows how long) to this beautiful haven.

On our eighth pass through this scenic wonder, the beauty was only enhanced, not diminished, by our growing familiarity. I found myself anticipating the views just around the corner and being pleased to rediscover the enduring majesty. We rolled through the tunnel one last time so our kids could roll down the windows and hoot. And we stopped this time at Checkerboard Mesa (one of the unhikable wonders in the area). The white sandstone mountain stands out from its red counterparts even without the curiously quilted squares carved into it by the elements.

Before heading south, we decided to explore Kolob Canyon. While still technically a part of Zion, the comparatively modest beauty and remoteness tends not to draw as many crowds. After being buried in the swarms of Zion proper, this was the most appealing aspect to me.

We opted for the moderate-level, 5-mile trail to the “Double Arch” at the end of Taylor Creek. After marching alongside hordes of other tourists on the sidewalks in the mountains of Zion proper (apparently paved for rescue efforts as much as accessibility), the return to more rugged wilderness was a welcome one.

Kolob took me right back to my hiking roots — solitude, broken trails, hundreds of stream crossings, punishing sun, a heavy pack and a water supply that threatened to run out. Everything reminded me of the time spent exploring our own Sierra Nevada.

After a long, hot trudge, the sight of the promised treasure at the end of the trail validated the effort. The enormous cavern seeping moisture that fed moss and plants growing out of it looked like a mighty ancestor of Weeping Rock.

Have you ever noticed that your hands never quite feel clean during a backcountry adventure? No amount of soap, water, antibacterial gel or baby wipes can quite eliminate the food and grime that seem to accumulate. Even the fine dust of the outdoors seeps into the crevices of your fingerprints until your body simply absorbs it. But it doesn’t matter, because the wilderness has the inverse effect on your soul. All of that worldly detritus that clutters up the filters of your mind and spirit are cleared away as you stand in the presence of a majestic and terrible natural world. If gyms are for sweating away the excess weight of our bodies, the trail is for sloughing off the invisible burdens that encumber us.

— Rebecca Neipp

Pictured: Thanks to the kindness of a fellow hiker, the Neipp family is captured in one frame at Double Arch.

Story First Published: 2019-07-19