Ah, a sunny perch off the horse trail for our lunch on a cool day.
Zion & Valley of Fire

Zion National Park, Utah
(January 2012)

Off-Season Challenges
Zion National Park, an hour’s drive east of St George, Utah, greeted us with a little snow, a little ice, occasional chilling breezes, and “abundant sunshine” as the local meteorologists are fond of saying--a phrase we never hear back home. Those conditions described much of our week-long journey from Portland to the southwestern corner of Utah but in Zion those conditions overlaid stunning scenery worthy of National Park status instead of gracing miles open range land.

Neither of us had been to Zion before though plenty of fellow snowbirds had urged us to do so. The end of January wasn’t the ideal time to visit but it was better than early December when we were deflected by intense wind storms that were terrorizing much of the West. In hindsight, fall looks like the best time to enjoy Zion but a January stay does mean rubbing elbows with far fewer of its over 2 million annual visitors.

Rather than the cool temperatures, it was the snow and ice on the better trails that were the shortcomings of being off-season guests. Map Man Bill was blocked left and right by the frozen stuff with every hike he planned though I was happy just to be staying within the beautiful park. But as chief planner, he scrambled to keep coming up with “Plan B’s” day after day.

Spring foliage will obliterate these delightful roadside views.
We didn’t even need to get out of the truck at the deeply shaded trail head to Hidden Canyon at Weeping Rock to see that that steep hike was a loser--we later learned that the thick ice we saw continued for a full 3 miles. But fortunately Bill had inquired about a nearby unlabeled route on the park map and learned it was a horse trail. The loop was shorter than we sought, but being on the favored south side of the canyon meant only traversing a bit of snow in deeply shaded areas and we enjoyed the sun's warmth for most of the outing.

Bill had thought going to the far end of the park the next day to rise up onto the top of the plateau would spare us the ice sheltered by the deep canyon, which was true, but the higher elevation meant that we would be walking on sunny trails buried under snow. Fortunately the scenic drive to the trailhead was in itself worth the time spent. Abandoning another planned hike, we drove to lower elevations at the opposite end of the park for a snow-free hike up a dramatic wash and admired the Zion canyon's colorful rocks from afar.

Fortunately we’d been warned by the Ranger that icy conditions existed on the popular trail to Angels Landing and we’d carried 2 styles of tractions devices for our feet the day we went there. We managed to get to our destination, Scout Outlook, without digging to the bottom of our packs for our Yaktrax’s, but we were happy to take the time to locate them for the much more dangerous descent. Our first experience with the Yaktrax’s on minimalist shoes was a success and the dead deer on the trail with the broken neck was testament to the difficult conditions.

It was frustrating to be limited to the shorter, lower elevation hikes and to always be ready for slick ice on the trails but after all, it was the end of January, we were over 3,500’, and it was relentlessly sunny. In addition, being avid museum goers, we were disappointed that the park museum was closed for the season. But as the days marched by I also realized that, along with the fewer fellow tourists, the lack of foliage was another advantage to an off-season Zion visit. Cottonwood trees line the banks of the Virgin River and in the summer their leaves would limit the canyon views from the road for both motorists and cyclists. Instead, the stark white-gray bark and dendrite branch patterns created a stunning visual experience when seen against the red canyon walls. The complex shapes of the overlapping branches added a dash of foreground interest to the intense visual experience at the floor of the deep canyon.

Luckily 6 small scissor jacks were all we really needed to support Fox's belly bulge when off the truck.
New Tricks & Tactics for Our New Lifestyle
Camping at Zion gave Bill his first opportunity to test his new plan for unloading the camper from the truck for an extended stay even when we lacked water and sewer hook-ups. Doing so had been one of our main reasons for selecting a camper over the other options but after buying it, we were told that the belly of the camper couldn’t independently support the weight of the needed full tank of fresh water--harrumph.

A call to the camper manufacturer in late fall about winterizing the water system had me tossing in an “Oh, by the way....” question about the support system needed to prevent the water tank from busting out the bottom of the off-loaded camper. Dave was The Man, the man who resolved the contradictions between the drawing in the owner’s manual and the text. Dave said all that was needed was to provide support at 6 specific points whereas the drawing indicated 6 points plus three 1' high by 4' long wooden cross supports. Suddenly there was a vision of a blocking system we could squeeze into our scant storage. We could weasel-in 6 scissor jacks somewhere--it had been the piles of lumber spanning the 3 pairs of jacks that was overwhelming. For $90 Bill scooped up 6 small scissor jacks that we squeezed into the back seat of our truck to bring south with us.

“Squeezed in,” well, with the 6 new jacks it was more like “piled on”. It had felt like our back seat area was overfilled on the way home in December but we hauled even more essentials back with us for our 4 month stay in the SW. I had been delighted to discover that I could buy my favorite Turkish bulgur in Portland and so I brought 40 pounds of it with us to cover our lunches for the duration. Bulgur is hard to locate in the SW and the flavorful Turkish import is what I’ve come to expect when in Europe so 20 2-lb bags of bulgur were wedged into the nooks and crannies under the seat hardware and between the 6 jacks. We’d decided for safety reasons we should have 4 sleeping bags with us: 2 for extra covers on cold nights in the camper and 2 in the truck at all times for roadside emergencies. That strategy of course meant that we took 2 bags home with us for safety on the road and had to bring 4 back.

Who knows what was the last straw, but Bill individually bagged each of the 4 sleeping bags and the 2 pairs of snow shoes and stuffed them into a duffel bag which we locked onto the bed of the truck for the drive south. With the tail gate permanently off of the truck for carrying the camper, a huge concern was having the bag go airborne. By selecting light, bulky items to ride in back we both gained more room inside the truck and made it easier to secure the load on the outside. Surprisingly, the duffel didn’t get dislodged and neatly rode where it was placed under the back window the entire journey. And we only foolishly forgot to bring it in for the night once. The bike lock was a secure way to attach the duffel to the truck bed but a thief could easily unzip the duffel to steal the contents. Luckily the little bit of snow and absence of rain meant that we hauled a dry, not wet, duffel into the motel room at night.

Surviving outdoor dishwashing in near-freezing tempatures.
Moving a duffel’s worth of gear to the bed of the truck and packing the interior with the benefit of 1 road trip behind us, we were able to bring our individual extravagances along, plus extra maps, a few more articles of clothing, and toiletry items bought on sale. Oregon is the only state in our traveling radius without a sales tax so it is always compelling to bring a stash of non-food items, like toiletries, with us rather than pay an extra 8-10% in taxes. Just like when traveling in Europe, we know which items we’ll pay a premium for when on the road and therefore try to carry them with us.

Bill’s "squeezed in" scissor jacks were a success when installed under the camper and 5 nights passed without loading it onto the truck to dump waste water and resupply with fresh water. We primarily used the campgrounds flush toilets rather than our onboard toilet and did all of our dish and produce washing at the cold water, outdoor sink. Our goal was to save our tank reserves and capacity for brief hot showers everyday, which we achieved.

We learned some new, sort-of ‘dry camping’ tricks along the way. It finally dawned on me that one woman’s rubber gloves did more than keep her hands lovely, they also kept them warmer in the snow-melt water. Those faucets at outdoor kitchens always splatter, so wearing my raincoat to do dishes both kept me dry and shielded me from the wind in the near-freezing temperatures. Going to do dishes meant remembering the detergent and sponge plus the raincoat and rubber gloves. We also refined our shower routines, learning to use water in the tiny bathroom sink to take a sponge bath that was finished with a full rinse from the shower head in our wet-bath or 'all-in-one' bathroom.

Less successful was pouring toted water into our fresh water tank--that operation needs more work. We’d bought 3 collapsing 5-gallon water jugs and had a funnel, but it was still too tedious and too awkward as a way to add water to our tank. A campground neighbor showed-off the water pump system he’d jury-rigged to add fresh water to his tank without going to the dump station, but we are hoping to do the job without acquiring more bulky stuff to stow.

The situation with smaller rigs reminded me of the situation with bikes. I once read that all bikes weigh the same: folks with 15 lb bikes have to carry 15 lb locks to protect them; people with 30 lb beater-bikes carry a lock that weighs next to nothing. In the camping world, fellows like the one with the water pump pull small trailers with a van or truck and canopy filled with extra water jugs, carts to haul the water jugs, pumps, ladders, mats, chairs, and the like. We are definitely in the small rig crowd but are fighting tooth and nail not to carry a truck-load of extras. Of course, our rig selection also left us without the option of another place to stow the overflow, so we have to select the mini-sized versions of things like jacks, pack tightly, and search for highly space efficient solutions.

It was hard to think about anything but the scenery when biking in this canyon.
Remembering Why We Bother....
We dutifully hauled our first pair of touring bikes in the small back seat area of our extended cab truck for 2 months in the fall and only rode them once. There is an annoying barrier to riding them when traveling in our camper. First we must work in tandem to dislodge them from their crammed-in positions and then we have to reassemble them and collect the speciality gear, like helmets, sport glasses, gloves, cycling sandals, panniers, locks, and altimeter. It would be easier if everything was neatly stored together but the intense competition for space in our camper means that everything is scattered to where it will most efficiently fit. The single ride we did last fall, which was in Death Valley, counted as a ‘good to do’ cardio workout rather than as a stunning experience and it didn’t spawn another ride.

Knowing that we were scheduled for 3 months of cycling and hiking in Europe this summer, I’d asked Bill to include more cycling time in his late-winter and spring trip planning to prepare us for it. He immediately obliged and at the end of our first week on the road with our camper he planned a short ride between 2 hiking days while in Zion National Park.

Being in the deep canyon of Zion instead of the desert expanses of Death Valley made all of the difference in how the 2 rides would be remembered. And the annoying hour+ spent reassembling the bikes for riding and fumbling to find our gear were ancient history immediately after mounting our steeds. Our National Park campground was flanked by the stunning red sandstone cliffs and was at the starting point for the 1.8 mile bike path that then joined a dead-end road. Being completely out of traffic initially and already in the canyon made for a punchy start to a dazzling ride.

My arms are always the first to complain after de-conditioning for cycling and they wasted no time in registering their protests but I couldn’t be bothered with their whining. Instead, all of my attention was funneled upwards to the colorful canyon walls. We’d driven round trip on parts the river road parallel to the bike path and beyond it 3 times but it was like we’d just arrived. For me, that’s the magic of cycling: being on a bike can create a captivating new experience out of a familiar scenic area.

Apparently danger lurked everywhere in Zion's canyons.
Once again I delighted in having the video running at just the right speed for the pleasure centers in my brain when on the bike. We’d seen some of the same postcard images as hikers on the trail and as motorists on the tarmac but the video tour lost its punch when going at walking speed and was too much of a blur at driving speed. Tootling along at biking speed was perfect: the scenes changed quickly enough to keep the sense of drama high and yet not so fast that we couldn’t absorb the details that grabbed our attention.

The two and a half hours we spent cruising went by too quickly and hardly registered as exertion by our bodies because our minds were so fully engaged. We’d needed to have pushed harder for the mostly flat event to have won high marks as a cardio workout but we categorized it as prudent pace given it was our second bike ride in 5 months. But better yet, the ride reminded us as to why we bother with all of the falderal involved with cycling: there is no better way to experience a parade of natural scenic beauty.

Unlikely Mix
It took us a while to get our heads around the hiking conditions in Zion. On one hand we read about canyoneering, which is a popular sport in Zion in which people use some combination of hiking, wading, swimming, climbing, and rappelling to progress up or down canyons. The standard National Park tabloid was more stern than most, detailing the stories of sports people who had broken their pelvises while rappelling or fractured an ankle by jumping instead of rappelling. Then there were the stories of GPS units unable to make the distinction between this-and-that fork in the canyon (a problem we've experienced), forcing families to overnight on ledges after being unable to retreat or advance. We aren’t canyoneer’s but it got our attention that Zion could be a very dangerous place, especially if caught in one of these difficult-to-follow canyons during a flash flood.

In contrast to the canyoneering horror stories, we headed out on a trail labeled as strenuous only to discover that it was paved almost the entire way. Paved. Weird. Not what we expected for a 1,000‘ elevation gain wilderness trail. But then you get to the fork for the last 1/2 mile to Angels Landing and remember the “Oh, by the way” comment at the trail head which indicated about once a year a hiker falls to his/her death from the final stretch of trail before us. Hmmm. A paved trail ending in an unpaved segment from which people routinely kill themselves. Hmmm. Weird...especially in a heavily regulated National Park.

The views were thrilling enough without taking unnecessary risks.
We of course were faced with the go/no-go dilemma. There is always a sense of failure in not completing something and yet we make it a practice to avoid taking unproductive risks. There was a sturdy chain handhold at the base of this dangerous last bit of trail that was beckoning--how hard could it be with a good hand grip? But there was no indication as to how far the flexible railing continued and we noted that the visible part of the trail was in the deep shade, which would predict ice and we were already standing in snow. The posted warnings indicated that it was especially dangerous if there was snow, ice, wind, or darkness. We already had two-and-a-half out of 4 conditions and decided to save our chits for a dangerous segment of trail that connected the dots rather than squander them on an out-and-back. We cringed at the defeat but recalled that other risks we'd taken delivered a lot more than this additional viewpoint would afford. (A week later, it was curious to note that the leading cause of death in Death Valley National Park is single vehicle accidents, despite all of the appropriately dire warnings about dehydration and heat exhaustion hazards.)

Being passionate about wearing our minimalist shoes with an excess of road feel, we were wildly disappointed in Zion’s paved hiking trails. Given the Park receives over 2 million visitors per year and they arrive by the bus load even in the depths of winter, hardening the trails only makes sense for the especially fragile terrain. But dancing in the rocks and tramping in the dirt is part of the fun for us so we were disheartened by the practicality of the paving. That being said, some of the shorter and less popular trails that weren’t paved were outstanding because they were usually powdery sand over a fairly firm base. I loved the silky feeling and the soft landings and if it hadn’t be for the goat’s head and other spiny plants I would have happily hiked barefoot, even in January.

The Journeys of Others
I absolutely loved being in Zion and one of my little pleasures was briefly standing in the shoes of others. One group of these ‘others’ were the folks, usually half our age, that were traveling in rented RV’s. A little less than year ago that was exactly what we were doing and doing for the very first time.

I jolted a little each time I saw the rental logo on a slow moving RV. I recalled the tension of driving on narrow roads as we saw them creeping along. And when we’d spot one at a tourist point, I reflected on the thrill of hauling our bulky temporary home to similar places. I remembered proudly taking pictures of the rig in dramatic settings just as they were doing. What a treat to both be enjoying the sights from the ease of our own rig and having flashbacks of being in our rental unit.

We were surprised to see how many rental units were out and about in the cold January temperatures but we were even more stunned to see a half dozen huge tour buses rolling along the narrow roads of Zion each day. We wondered what marketing spin had lured tourists so far when the potential for truly awful weather was so high. But my curiosity turned to jittery delight when one bus unloaded a large group of excited Asians and a second discharged its load of grinning eastern Europeans.

Being in Valley of Fire feels like being in rock outcroppings instead of being in a valley.
I was so happy for them--for them to be gambling on what was likely a deeply discounted, low-season holiday and to be seeing such a spectacle as Zion on stunningly beautiful days. Seeing these international tourists felt like payback for the dozens of times we lectured Europeans “If you only make 1 trip to the US, visit the desert SW because there is nothing else like it...” Of course, none of these were people we spoke to but it was exciting to see that a similar message had been received.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada (near Las Vegas)
We tensed as we approached the Valley of Fire campground in the mid-afternoon on a Friday because we vividly remembered being shut-out of the partial hook-ups area on our first visit in early April of 2011. On that day, all 22 fresh water and electric sites were taken and we’d been counting on those services for our rented RV; we feared the same would happen this time because of it being a weekend. But what a difference 2 months can make: in early February we had our choice of all but 3 slots in the hook-ups area.

We happily slid into the space we’d carefully scouted last fall--a less cozy than an in-the-rocks site but a site that maximized the hours of sun we received. It was sunny, it was warm, and it was hard for us to imagine why there weren’t a press of week-ender’s streaming into the campground especially since there was a winter storm warning in effect 50-100 miles to the east.

It only took minutes after completing our hook-up, leveling, and registration routine before we both noticed how tranquil the campground was. I loved our week in Zion but being at Valley of Fire was instantly so, so....relaxing. Bill commented that “This is the place to come to write a book.” It was one of those potent experiences that was hard to precisely describe but the calming quality was unmistakable.

Possibly percolating iron was staining this amazing looking rock.
Perhaps it wasn’t any one thing but instead a happy collision of forces that soothed our beings. Zion had been sunny but the ‘comfort index’ always registered on the chilly side, usually because of the winds. And the morning we left Zion and drove to Valley of Fire, it had been downright cold: 22º for our pre-breakfast run. In contrast, the few folks in the campground at Valley of Fire when we arrived were wearing shorts. The 10º warmer shift in the highs and the lows between the parks was part of why we were stopping over in Valley of Fire.

The topographical differences between the 2 valleys was likely an important factor contributing to the ambiance differences too. Zion’s campground is at the entrance to the Virgin River canyon and dazzling cliffs rise up on 3 of 4 sides. We loved watching the colors on the red cliffs change as the sun rose and disappeared each day but we were definitely down at the bottom of the valley floor looking up. In contrast, being in the Valley of Fire campground feels more like being in a shallow rock outcropping in the desert than in the bottom of a valley. One has the delight of being in a maze of low, brilliantly red rocks but they don’t tower over one in a commanding way--enchanting but not domineering like Zion’s canyon walls. Plus at the Valley of Fire, one can gaze out the opening between the rocks and see for miles and miles in one direction, which isn't the case at Zion.

But even with the tranquility difference between the 2 parks, Zion was a superior package because it had a decent bike ride or 2; numerous nearby hiking trails; fun trail running opportunities from the campground; and an abundance of dazzling scenery. We stayed a week at Zion and we’ll be back some fall for 1-2 weeks. But there just isn’t a lot to do at Valley of Fire: there are few hiking trails but the lengths of many are measured in minutes, not hours. And neither the biking or running opportunities are beckoning. Valley of Fire is a place to gawk and be in awe; it’s a place we layover for 2 or 3 nights on the way to other destinations, not a place we go for an outdoor gym. But we’ve duly taken note: if we need some psychic R&R, Valley of Fire is a soothing place to recuperate. And we hadn’t even made breakfast the first morning and Bill was already proposing to extend our stay another night--sunrise exercises in the Valley of Fire are positively intoxicating.

Next Up
Death Valley National Park, California was in our sights when we left Valley of Fire. The challenge there would be to make it fascinating. We knew from experience that the "Valley" part of Death Valley was pretty boring because of the sparse vegetation and because most of the interesting geology was always "way over there" in the little canyons, far from the few roads. Unlike driving through Valley of Fire or Zion, there usually wasn't much to see from many miles of the Park's roads. But we looked forward to the pleasure of being even warmer outdoors in early February and vowed to make this visit special, though we didn't quite know how we'd do it.