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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 18: bryce canyon, zion, king's canyon

bryce canyon

bill: bryce canyon is really high. it sits on the top of the “grand staircase”, a series of mesas that rise step by step all the way from the grand canyon. on the way in we hit our highest point to date: 2650m while driving over a pass. i did not expect the highest point in our trip so far to be in the van, and i never expected to be driving a carbureted vehicle 2.6km in the sky. a little sluggish going up the hills but not bad.

bryce itself sits at 2400m and there is still lots of snow on the ground. there are these beautiful ponderosa pine trees everywhere with long, fluffy bunches of needles. trees are a real rarity in the desert and we are very happy to see them.

the “canyon” itself is not a canyon at all, it is just the drop-off of the staircase, carved by ice melting and freezing. this process paired with the high winds and acidic rains of this elevation create the most amazing collection of rock structure i have ever seen. the pillars are called “hoodoos”, and while we have seen lots of arches, towers, mesas, and buttes, we haven’t seen anything like the sheer number of hoodoos here. there are thousands visible in a single glance. it’s almost like you tried to open one picture of a hoodoo but your computer froze and you kept clicking until it opened the same window 1000 times.

Amy: Due to its elevation, Bryce is a lot colder than other places we’ve visited in Utah. Although it’s warm during the day (17ish degrees) it dips below freezing at night (-3!). We were surprised to trek through a bit of snow during our hike around the rim of the canyon. It was a relatively flat and boring walk, but had some great views of the amphitheatre and thin, spindly hoodoos.

We wanted to see the hoodoos up close, so the next day we hiked the Queen’s Garden and Peekaboo Loop trails (12km, 700m). The path cut down the steep walls of the canyon, through towers of ombré rock, past a hoodoo that vaguely looked like the silhouette of the queen, though a patch of ponderosa pines (which smell like a hint of butterscotch) and across peaks and valleys of hoodoos. This was the most fantastical hike we’ve done to date. While some places we've visited felt like another planet (Joshua Tree, most of Utah), this felt like a total fantasy universe. It was like we stepped into one of my D&D (Dungeons and Dragons - yes I'm a nerd) games. I was half expecting a bearded dwarf to pop out and warn us about rogue centaurs wandering around the maze of hoodoos. Definitely one of the most unique landscapes we’ve seen.

bill: american national parks are very different from canadian parks. they are set up mostly around natural objects of interest, with a very “drive here, look at the thing, check it off the list, and keep going” kind of feeling. unlike say, algonquin provincial park, there aren’t endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, and often there are only a few trails and lots of rv parking. at this point this “checklist” style is getting a little tiresome and we are constantly surrounded by crowds doing the same thing, but we have one last park in utah to check out, the ultimate in crowds and checklists:

zion national park

bill: zion feels a lot like disneyland. you can’t even drive into the main part of the park because there are too many people, so they have a shuttle system that runs up and down the scenic drive that plays pre-recorded narrations about the park the whole time. the lineup to get on the shuttle can be a few hundred people long. there are people crawling over every inch of this park, and the trails are all paved (?!?). many of the hikes involve waiting in queues to get through narrow sections, and it is very hard to find a quiet place to sit and admire the view without listening to some frat boy's story about who is going to dj his hot tub after party.

the scenery however somehow makes all of this worth it. the walls of the canyon are 1200m tall and tower over the lush, green river valley in the middle. the scope and scale here is just so much more dramatic than any other park we have been to in utah. it really is amazing.

checkerboard mesa

Amy: Despite the traffic, limited parking and lineups, Zion is famous for a reason. Mountains of sheer red/orange/white/brown varnished rock rise elegantly out of the valley carved by the Virgin River. Checkerboard mesas (rock with a distinct crosshatch pattern) appear around random corners. And the valley floor is green and alive - birds chirping and deer grazing everywhere. Bill and I only had the day to explore Zion together, so we chose one of the park’s more challenging and famous hikes: Scout’s Lookout (which leads to a permit-only hike called Angel’s Landing). The first section of the hike was super busy, but as we continued along the West Rim, we had the trail to ourselves. We made it up a peak of equivalent height to Angel’s Landing, admired the view, sniffed a few vibrant red wildflowers, and headed down.

looking down to angels landing

bill: amy and i spent an afternoon here, then i drove back to vegas to swap amy for zak for the weekend and came back. we did the hike up to the base of angels landing, the most famous hike in zion, but the last few hundred metres are a scramble protected by chains, which is fine for us, but given the crowds and the popularity (and the “checklist”), people who are thoroughly unprepared to deal with the 1500 feet of exposure or underequipped for scrambling (we saw lots of hikers in cowboy boots or sandals, jean jackets and purses, etc.) often do this “hike” and end up falling to their deaths, so often in fact that zion has started a lottery system to reduce the total number of hikers per day to keep traffic to a minimum. we weren’t able to win a lottery permit, so we had to skip it. oh well. it does look pretty cool, climbing a thin rib out into the middle of the canyon with really excellent exposure on either side.

emerald pools

weeping rock

to beat the crowds, zak and i booked a backcountry permit to stay on the west rim trail. we didn’t think to much about it after that and after a long day of taking it easy and drinking ipas at the zion lodge, we set out at about 3:30pm to hike to what i assumed was just past angels landing, a quick 500m part way up the canyon. turns out that the west rim really means the west rim of the canyon, and we had to knock out about 1200 vertical metres in a couple of hours, our packs heavy and full of beers, with very little water. our campsite was about 3km away from the ruddiest puddle imaginable, and we forgot to fill up on our way past it. thunderstorms threatened around us all night while we camped under the last two living trees on the bare exposed canyon ledge, all of the other trees having been struck by lightning and burned down. not our best conceived plan, but overall very worth it; we didn’t see another soul and had the vistas all to ourselves, and the views from on top of the canyon were unmatched.

lots more up to go

it is getting insanely hot in the desert. like 36 degrees hot. the inside of the van is well over 40 and the air conditioning doesn’t work, plus the engine isn’t way up front, it is literally between the two front seats. the 3.5 hour drive back from zion was thoroughly unpleasant. to get the ac working i probably just need to refill the refrigerant, but it turns out at some point in the 90s the whole automotive world switched from r12 to r134a refrigerant and so it is very hard (and expensive) to come by the right fluid for such an old van. oh well, guess we will just cook.


bill: back to vegas for the third time this trip, to pick up james and amy. in joshua tree, some fellow travellers had given us some advice: to best get to know a city, choose one thing that you really care about and seek out that thing in each city you go to, and you will see a much more real side of the city than if you just stick to the tourist stuff. say for example; if you like ice cream (amy's choice), you could go find the best ice cream in each city you visit and probably have a great time. for me, that thing is dive bars. and it turns out vegas has some of the best dive bars i have ever been to.

we started the night at “hogs and heifers”, a biker bar, where the bartenders berate you with a bullhorn and both goths and 60 year old ladies in sundresses dance on the bar; the air is thick with cigarette smoke and the behind the bar are various taxidermied animal trophies so covered in bras that you can barely make out their faces. this place was very rowdy even at 4:00 on a sunday afternoon. 5 stars.

next we got some extremely good pizza and stopped at a couple of anthony bourdain’s favourites: atomic liquor and the huntridge tavern. the huntridge tavern is definitely a competitor for best dive bar ever; first, look at this banquet seat:

the walls are decorated with neon signs for “bud dry” which doesn’t even exist anymore and tasteful accents of crushed velvet, all caked with decades and decades of second hand smoke. real, authentic sleaze.

next was a close second: champagne’s cafe. a slightly classier dive joint with intact banquets and much more velvet on the walls, with a bartender who can make a good martini and karaoke in the front room hosted by a man with the silkiest voice i have ever heard.

we rounded out the night at the “fun hog ranch” a very divey gay bar where leather is encouraged, then at 430am headed to white castle for the single worst fast food any of us have ever experienced. we stayed at caesar’s palace and it was oh so nice to be able to stretch my legs out while i sleep.

the next day, all fairly tired and hungover, we landed on a quick day of single pitch sport climbing to show james and zak red rock canyon. zak even did his first lead climb ever! on the way back we finally got shake shack and it was insanely good.

Amy: (Un)fortunately, I missed much of the dive bar debauchery, but was happy to spend a few nights in a hotel with a real bed and pool (!!). We also devoured some pretty stellar food (read: Shake Shack and some Guy Fieri-endorsed mexican food), and showed our friends the wonder that is Red Rock Canyon.

bill: when we were planning this trip, amy had wanted to come to vegas and i was thoroughly opposed to the idea, i didn’t see any appeal to the vegas strip or the machine gun shooting ranges, but it turns out that vegas is actually very hard to hate; whatever you are into, vegas has it, and probably the world's second best version of it, which is pretty good. it has actually started to feel like a home in a way, we have come back three times now and so it is very familiar, and it is so full of amazing things, mostly the climbing and the dive bars. but sadly, now we must leave for yosemite, but we will very likely be back to vegas every winter from here out for a warm, cheap climbing vacation.

king's canyon

Amy: South of Yosemite lie Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks - home to some of the largest trees in the world. We had to stop and see these giants. Unfortunately, Sequoia Park was closed due to winter storm damage, so we headed to Kings Canyon. Sequoia forests only grow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains at around 1500m, so the temperatures here are a lot cooler. In a few hours, we went from hot 30 degree temps around Fresno, to 15 (and snow!) in Kings Canyon.

Driving into the park was unremarkable: regular looking trees, squirrels, bushes. Then we spotted one through the foliage. It looks too big to be real. It was at least 20 times larger than all the trees around it, magnified in an unnatural, magical, unbelievable way. Seeing photos and reading about sequoias do not do them justice. They are massive - as tall as a 25 story building and as wide as a city street. They’re not the tallest trees in the world (coastal redwoods take that title) but they are the largest by mass (thicc) and some of the oldest. The General Grant tree in the grove we explored is estimated to be nearly 1,700 years old!

We hiked among the trees, many burned by fire damage (not a bad thing - this is how the sequoia pinecones open and proliferate). Naturally, I hugged one - partially to see how far my arms could get around its massive trunk, and partially to feel the life and spirit of the tree. The reddish bark is soft to the touch and quite spongy. Looking up from the base is awe-inspiring. You really feel like you’re in the presence of something ancient and great.

Unfortunately when these groves of sequoias were discovered the 1860s, they were logged to near extinction. Thankfully, a handful of trees were spared, partially by the creation of these national parks. We explored a bit more and enjoyed the sierras at golden hour/sunset.

amy dwarfed next to a sequoia

bill: the trees at kings canyon are insane. like 40 feet around, 1000s of years old. they are so big we even walked and climbed up the inside of a few. it is so nice to be back in a proper forest again after 4 months in the desert, the damp forest air and the scent of pine trees is so welcoming. even the gnats are nice to see. it is also mercifully much colder at the altitude of kings canyon, and so it feels so familiar and like being back in canada, but some sort of theme park caricature with massive cartoonish trees. we even drove down to the first lake we have seen in a long time and watch deer graze among the pine trees. we easily could have been in the lower mainland, which was so lovely compared to baking in the deserts of nevada.

next stop: yosemite!

no video this week because i put it all in last week's video!




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