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Sun-Mon: Phx to Zion Nat'l Park

Updated: Dec 18, 2022


I donned my red plastic sunglasses, snake-maus bandana and breezy long dress and missed sixth gear on Dad's Honda Accord. With the local hits station turned up and window cracked, I headed north on I-89 from Phoenix and turned right at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, a tiny little park of ash and stone. I bought my annual National Parks pass and hiked up the Lenox Crater Trail, a 1.1 mile stretch that's a quick, 300-foot climb to Lenox Crater, a giant depression left by Lenox Crater Volcano, which erupted thousands of years ago. I pressed my fingers to trees with puzzle skin bark, the kind that's smooth and breaks off in strange little pieces you want to fit right back in. Within thirty minutes I was back down at the trailhead and crossed the street to the A'Ah Lava Trail, a tiny little loop that immerses you in petrified lava estimated to be about 900 years old. The eerie black felt like hyena lands--desolate, dead. The basalt rocks were sharp like cinderblock and I kept wondering how many modern things people dropped in the ancient stone.

After a brief stop at Glen Canyon Recreation Area for a view of the ice cold Colorado River, I arrived in Kanab at The Cowboy Bunkhouse, a 4- to 5-star hostel converted out of an old hospital, with wide, noisy halls and rusty holes from hacked-away hardware. A young, tanned woman with beautiful curly hair checked me in to my private room, which had a bunk bed and two cots, a small sink atop a broken cabinet, an oversized dresser with a Bible and Book of Mormon, and a stracciatella-colored tile floor. I asked the young woman about restaurants and parks and bars--she said no alcohol was allowed on property and she wasn't sure there were ever bars in the area, did I know what she meant? She walked me over to pamphlets and told me she'd been working at the hostel for several weeks but hadn't made it to Zion or Bryce because there were enough places around Kanab that they should make the whole area a park.

I unloaded all my things, then hopped in the car to find dinner. I tried two restaurants, both with super long waits, so I drove to the local grocery instead and bought a bag of Panera ciabatta rolls, sliced deli turkey, packaged Swiss cheese, a couple apples and bananas, vanilla yogurt, a hummus and pretzel container, bag of Ruffles and some gummy bears. The young cashier complained about homework to her coworker against the background gospel on the radio.

Inside the hostel, a resident orange and white cat--ancient and almost wrinkly-- pawed at me for my meal. Across the room, a young bearded man with an old stickered Nalgene ate his homemade Indian food and said to the curly haired woman, "Did I hear you right that no alcohol is allowed on property?" Yes, she clarified, because of all the church-affiliated youth groups that rent out rooms. And then they made jokes about weed.

Monday Morning

Monday morning I drove just a couple blocks over from the hostel and attempted the Squaw and Cliffs hike a little after 8 am. I walked through the cold shade into the sun dressing the mountain slope, then up and over and eventually on sunny sand. The outlook had no clear signage; I wandered through short scrub at the top until I found the ATV road and checked my AllTrails map to make sure I was going the right direction. I was about 2.6 miles in and more than 700 feet elevation climb with five more miles to go (including two on the paved roads leading back to the car) when I arrived at the Cliffs Trail sign and searched for the path, already breathless and hot, sucking so much water from my Camelbak. I walked forward and then back & re-joined the ATV trail for higher perspective, but the only way that aligned with the AllTrails GPS dot was a short rock on the cliffside that would have required some balancing with no one to catch me if I stumbled. I hesitated and then turned back to go down the same way I came, defeated but lightheaded and deciding it was for the best. On an outlook on the way down, I snacked on a protein bar and FaceTimed with Oma and Opa, who kept saying oh wie schoen and their normal lines of "the important thing is that you stay healthy". I panned the camera to the cliffs and the town below and shouted above the cold wind that Dad let me take his car to Utah. They smiled and told me how wonderful it all was. On the way down the mountain, I poured sand out of my Reebok tennis shoes and watched a little lizard bask in the sun.

Monday Afternoon

I entered Zion from the less trafficked East entrance, driving down into the canyon on the narrow curved roads, totally out of service and wondering where all the people were whose cars filled up all the pullouts--according to my little paper map and road signs, there were no hiking trails around, not until the cars lined the soft shoulders. I took a chance and parked behind one of them, climbing up my immediate right to see a line of cars forming at the entrance of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. I came back down, realizing more and more people were walking down the road toward the tunnel, so I followed until I came to the Canyon Overlook Trail, a one-mile hike with less than 200 foot elevation gain. I passed slower hikers like I was on the highway still, gathering just enough speed. I managed to steal a whole slab of rock for nearly 20 minutes by veering off to the right, away from the overview sign, and out of view of the people below who laughed and introduced each other. I took off my shoes, snacked and stretched out, taking in the views, the little road snaking beneath the canyon, the towering cliffs, the swirling hawks. All around, frenetic chipmunks hopped between crevices; one scampered at my foot and briefly stared.

On the way out, a lone woman hiker said she had a chipmunk friend following her; around the corner, a man appeared carrying a miniature bike for his son. I told him I thought he was carrying a unicycle at first, and he joked about the circus; I passed him and his wife and his kid two more times that day; by the third time, I smirked and waved. Around the bend, as I waited for throngs of people to pass, I looked to my right and saw a bighorn sheep climbing through the trees! I tried to tell the old lady passing until she said "What, honey?" and gasped. She told her group, and they told others, and soon a whole crowd had formed. "There's a BABY!" one of the young women closest to me squealed. About 15-20 people fell quiet, watching the sheep family graze. The woman with the chipmunk friend said she'd never before heard such silence among such a big group of people. A man with a big camera told his wife how cool it was to see the baby perched on the cliff as I walked ahead and climbed halfway down a rock on the outskirts of the trail, waiting for the sheep to appear out of the woods.

After the hike, I drove through the mile-long, pitch-black stretch of blasted rock, cool and eerie like a cellar. I parked at the first pullout facing the big canyon wall where I just was and heard voices echoing from the tunnel, women screaming what may have been I Love You! As I stared ahead, I noticed movement in the ground to my right...loose dirt being kicked up and sucked under. I waited...waited...and then...

A POCKET GOPHER! For a few moments alone--the only human on Earth to witness this exact moment--I admired his little buckteeth and Whac-A-Mole head. But then a shuttle van arrived and a woman from Las Vegas loudly asked what creature I'd found. The gopher disappeared but then popped up again and again. I could've watched him for hours, but I was getting cold in the shade and hungry, too.

I drove slowly the rest of the way through the park, marveling at all the millions of kinds of camper vans. A man in a converted Subaru climbed out of the hatch of his car and stretched. I exited the park in Springdale, the gateway town bustling with tourists. I parked for free after 5 pm at the Bit and Spur restaurant and ordered a $17 chicken burrito with mayocoba beans, enchilada sauce, queso fresco, rice and pico de gallo. It was sort of watery but dripping with flavor and health. I almost ordered a margarita, but the restaurant patrons weren't the slow-relish kind and neither was I, sweaty and red-faced with tangled hair.

I weaved back through Zion just before sunset; right before one of the sandstone arches, a couple was cuddled in the back of their Subaru, the hatch open to the West, waiting for orange sky. A little farther down, a few cars stopped to watch a group of sheep on the rock. I pulled off and counted eighteen of them through Dad's binoculars, including several babies and one male with big horns, heavily collared with the park's tracking device. A whole slab of rock fell and crumbled after a sheep jumped on the brittle stone.

Less than ten minutes outside the park, I stopped at the old 1930s diner Thunderbird in Mt. Carmel for a Ho-Made pie. The headbanded hostess smacked gum like a vintage bully and seemed annoyed that I asked about anything, much less the chocolate fudge pie. I ordered it to-go only because she misunderstood what I wanted, and then I sped to the hostel. On the highway home, I noticed a truck pulled off on the opposite side of the road. And then I caught a glimpse of sky in my rearview and realized the man had pulled off to watch the sunset. I thought about this Westward spirit, how it pervades everything, the cars people drive and the shoes they wear and the directions they face as I watched the sun myself, leaning against Dad's Honda Accord at one of the entrance roads to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, forking whipped chocolate pie into my mouth. I poked through the Styrofoam container trying to break the hard graham crust as the neon orange sunk beneath inky clouds.

Back at the hostel, I washed and towel-dried the dust out of my hair, but the tile floor of my room felt sandy; I wore socks and waited until my shower shoes dried to walk in them again.

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