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WOW: Misadventures in Zion National Park

We entered Zion National Park with great expectations and without a whole lot of research. Zion is one of the few parks on our trip that I had visited before, with my parents when I was 16. All I remembered was tall canyon walls and walking in water a ways, and it was that experience I most wanted to give to my kids, especially on a hot summer day.

The first mistake I made was ignoring the yellow flashing signs. I saw the signs leading into Zion that said “Zion Parking Full; Take Shuttle from Springside,” but we arrived later in the day; surely people had left the park already and freed up space inside. We drove with many oohs and ahhs at the landscape and the many, many cars everywhere, keeping an eye out for the turn toward The Narrows, the place I remembered hiking when I was a teen.

The second mistake I made was missing the fact that you can’t drive up to The Narrows. You can’t even drive up to the Temple of Sinawava, where the Riverside Trail begins and leads back to The Narrows. The Temple of Sinawava is a massive natural red stone amphitheater, the hallmark of the park, and it is shuttle stop 9. You can’t drive past Canyon Junction, which is shuttle stop 3. 

No worries, we said, we are resilient and overcome challenges with grace and dignity. We’ll find a parking spot nearby and walk to shuttle stop 3. So, we drove past the turn for The Narrows and continued up switchback after switchback, up and up and up, with nary a parking spot in sight, until we reached the tunnel I didn’t know existed. Built in 1930, the tunnel is one mile long and weaves in and out of the side of a canyon wall. Signs warned before the entrance to turn on your headlights, take off your sunglasses, and don’t stop. We entered the tunnel. 

“What’s wrong with the headlights?!” Brandon said, panicking. It is pitch black inside the tunnel, except for several carve outs where natural light can leak in. I had the same panic attack in Yellowstone a week earlier, trying to figure out why my brights wouldn’t turn on only to realize that somehow the automatic light turn-on-er (official term) was turned off. I wondered, maybe this had happened again? I looked around, confused, because the headlights seemed to be fine. Brandon messed with the dashboard light a few more seconds, and then, “Oh, I have my sunglasses on.” 

We made it through the tunnel. On the other side, there’s more rock, and daylight, and the ability to turn around and try again with the whole parking thing. On the way back down, there weren’t any parking spots again. But there were people walking towards their vehicles, so we turned around and tried again. Winner! A parking spot! Brandon managed to parallel park the truck without it skidding down into the ravine, and we all teetered out, careful to not die. At last! Now, we will make our way to The Narrows trail via shuttle stop 3!

The third mistake I made was thinking that you could be picked up to go to The Narrows via shuttle stop 3. You can’t. Shuttle stop 3 is an outbound shuttle stop only. You have to take the shuttle from shuttle stop 3 back to the visitor center, disembark from the shuttle, and board another bus that is going into The Narrows.

No worries! We said, with less enthusiasm and more weariness, it’s the federal government, of course it’s this cumbersome. So, we rode the shuttle to the visitor center and boarded a bus to the Temple of Sinawava. Since the Temple and The Narrows are the most popular part of the park, it is no surprise that there were lots of visitors on a Saturday, but let me tell you, there were TONS of visitors. Thousands. Because of our many back-and-forths inside Zion, we arrived at The Narrows about two hours later than when we first entered the park, so we passed most of the people who had already been in the Virgin River, but there were still more entering with us.

We hiked the paved Riverside Trail one mile to the trailhead for The Narrows and then entered the river, walking for about a half hour up river, the sun cascading off of rocks, the river cool and rushing around our legs, the five of us experiencing varying degrees of delight and anxiety.

“The last time I did this, I was courting your mother,” Brandon told the kids.

After 11 days apart from my daughter and husband, it was so good to be together again, the five of us, our family unit that gets each other’s sense of humor and shares the same neural pathways, thinking the same thoughts, often saying the same things, being a part of building the same lifelong memory. I waded in joy. I wept with gratitude. I grinned and tried not to slip on rocks.

After a half hour, we turned around, aiming to time out our trip back to the place we were going to stay so that we’d arrive right around, oh, say, 7 o’clock, not too late, early enough to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant since I’ve been convinced to stop trying to cook over an open fire this trip.

The fourth mistake I made was assuming there was only one exit to Zion, and that our destination was out the way we came in. I caught this mistake before we exited the park entirely, but it was close. No cell service did me in, again. We turned around and made our way back to the switchbacks, up and up and up, through the tunnel and out the other side.

The fifth mistake I made was thinking that, because of the concentrated number of people in the main area of the park, Zion was small. Zion is huge, and stunning, and magnificent, with red canyon walls for miles and miles. The road out of Zion is one incredibly long, huge expanse of space. Once we got our GPS back, I realized just how far we were still from Pinewoods Resort, miles and miles still, so we drove and drove, finally entering Dixie National Forest.

This is another aspect of our trip that has taken me by surprise; it isn’t just national parks. Our nation has set aside thousands and thousands (millions!) of acres of national forests and other preserved land, and it’s just as amazing as the national parks. I love these wide open spaces, these pine forests, these barren hills dotted with sage brush. I’m so grateful our country’s leaders had the foresight to preserve this land. Oddly, though, the sign for the national forests had a tagline, “Land of Many Uses.” The value of creation is not in its usefulness; it is valued because it exists. Because it was created, beautiful and wild.

I bought a t-shirt in Yellowstone that says, “Not all who wander are lost,” but sometimes, you are lost. Despite our family’s resilience in Zion, getting turned around and forgetting to find the directions before you start out on your journey wastes so much time just driving around, when what you really want to do is put your boots on the ground. I have done a decent job until now, knowing where we needed to go, but not in Zion. Sometimes, you wander. Sometimes, you get lost. Sometimes, you make mistakes. But ultimately, the journey is more than the final destination, and I’m grateful to be journeying with this particular set of people.

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