Sunday, January 5, 2014

Zion National Park: Observation Point Hike in Winter

Zion NP Hike: Observation Point
8M RT, 4.5 hours

After the previous day's longer hike, we decided on a nice half-day hike.  J and I had never been to Zion NP, so we were eager to check it out.  Yeah, when it comes to solitude and most of my exploration, I'm drawn toward Wilderness Areas, and I've been disappointed at times when development and crowds frustrate the natural beauty of National Parks; at the same time, not only do they generally have absolutely sublime terrain, but I also ironically enjoy the connectedness of sharing a common experience and place.  And, even the kitsch of the Visitor's Center -- if we could make it before the 5pm closing.

Moments after entering the park, and shelling out for a new annual pass, the splendor of Zion was apparent.

In the summer, we'd have to take buses, which attempts to alleviate the traffic congestion in the Virgin River Valley.  (If only Yosemite would do the same!)  Being the off-season, however, we had the advantage of being able to drive on park roads.  Hopefully this would mean less crowded hiking as well.

One of the more popular hikes is Angel's Landing, which provides a spectacular vertical gain and views, with some exposed scrambling at the top.  This was closed earlier in the week due to snow and ice, and it was ambiguous if it was "open" again, but would have been dicey even so.

We opted for the mellower, yet higher hike to Observation Point, which leads to a mesa viewpoint high above the park and Angel's Landing itself.  Much of the trail was carved by CCC workers right off the side of the sheer walls.  Still, when we asked about Observation Point, the Entrance Station ranger warned us about ice and falls, and "didn't want to read about us later."

This trail was to have mild exposure, but was at least as wide as a sidewalk.
But, an icy sidewalk.

Because of the shaded aspects and foot traffic, much of the trail was bulletproof ice.  This isn't what I intended as leisurely hike.  In fact, I had 3 pairs of traction devices (Microspikes and Yaktrax)...back at the cabin, precisely because I knew we weren't looking for a hike where they were "necessary."  (In hindsight, this was dumb, still, because I had plenty of room in my pack and wasn't in a hurry, and at least one pair could always be useful in some sort of unplanned emergency situation).  Everyone else had at least one hiking pole, which was helpful for them.  I felt solid in running shoes, but a few steps here and there required attention (I had no desire for actually running the worst spots).

So it began as a luge run with careful steps.  With each switchback, we hoped it would get more clear, but mostly it didn't.  This was more obvious when viewed, later, from above:

Still, people were game to keep going up a bit to see if it would clear up.  The iciest patches were flat, fortunately, and the steepest pitches seemingly had patches of rock or soft snow.

Finally, after the first couple miles, the trail got flatter, drier, warmer, and slottier.

Then, things opened up more as the sun crested the surrounding walls.

A bit of stress at the beginning was now well-worth it, and things just kept getting better as we enjoyed another sunny day.

We saw several other parties on the trail, but only a handful, including a few that came back down from the top.  Certainly much less crowded than it would have been in other months.  After another set of switchbacks, now mostly dry, we enjoyed a final flat traverse to Observation Point.

With a half-hour lunch break in the sun, we had the area to ourselves.

And then, back down, where the first half went quickly and we hoped the ice softened up a bit.
It didn't, much.
Two Canadian ladies breezed past us, one with an ultramarathon (Frosty Mountain?) shirt on.  I chatted with them a bit as we approached the snowier sections, where they smartly put on their Microspikes and took off with ease.

But with careful steps, and perhaps a bit of whiskey, we were able to remain upright, until a final few intentional butt-glissades near the bottom.  (Other visitors and kids had been playing/sliding on this section for days, making it a solid sheet of ice).

We most certainly hope to be back at another time of year for classic hikes like the Narrows and Angel's Landing.   But as it turns out, this was a great hike at a great time of year.

As a bonus, we made it to the Visitor Center before closing, where we were able to browse Chinese consumer goods, and I added unnecessarily to my coffee mug collection.

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