Zion—majestic, mystical, and full of Mule deer.
IT WAS A BLAZING HOT AFTERNOON, I was waiting in my car blasting some ABBA while waiting for each car to pass through the east entrance of the park. The car in front of me looked like it was filled with back-country hikers indicated from their excessive backpacks strapped on top of their Jeep. It seems to be their first time--they had their windows down and were taking pictures on their phone as the traffic to the entrance move inch-by-inch.
The car behind me was definitely a local. She was frustrated the entire time, wishing that she could honk her way to the front. Her Ford pick-up looked worn out and dusty with her annual pass lodged on her dashboard giving the impression that she used this road almost every week. After 30 minutes, I finally reached the entrance. I showed my annual pass* (which I highly suggest you get), and I was in. My time in Zion National Park, Utah had finally begun.
The long east road stretch was quite scenic but still underwhelming to what you would expect. A lot of cars are parked on each shoulder of this narrow road to take pictures of the park but also to observe animals that were spotted.
When you hit traffic for an unknown reason after passing the entrance, the probability of wildlife sighting is incredibly high. I spotted a flock of bighorn sheep, a group of deer, and falcons by just driving through and it felt as if I was in my own private safari vehicle scouting for wildlife. Then after a few miles of uncontrollable traffic, you hit Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel that’s been there since 1930.
Park rangers limit the number of cars going through the tunnel due to its age and also the narrowness of the road. I drive a Mini Cooper, and even for me, it was shockingly scary to pass by cars.
As I drove through this dark tunnel I was greeted by harsh sunlight at the end of the road and there it was, Zion. The mountains grew larger, the air felt cooler, and the history of the park unearthed. The view was incredible. I stopped at the very first pull-out to just observe its enormity. I was in awe. I wanted to take pictures on my first pull-out but I decided to keep the first steps for my own, a feeling that I want to grasp to myself.
I know it counter-intuitive to keep images to yourself as a photographer but these are moments that you just have to be in to feel it. An indescribable feeling of awe. My first day at the park is already off to a good start.
I drove to the visitor center only to see that that parking was much harder to find than a bighorn sheep. People crowded the center even amid the pandemic. I couldn’t imagine how this looked like before. I decided to park on those 15-minute spots to craft a game plan for my stay. I had NO plan besides going here.
The first thing I noticed is that due to the pandemic, shuttle service was limited and only accepted people who booked their ride two days before. I smacked my head and got worried that my drive to the park was going to be a bust, then I read on the park brochure that there were private shuttles that I could take (which probably broke COVID-19 protocols). I called one of the numbers and booked a shuttle for the next day that cost me a whoppin’ $40 for a round trip rather than a $1 bus to the main attraction. But I had no choice (or so I thought).
Day one was exhausting but I still had 4 hours before sundown so I explored the east road leading to the entrance, and I saw a highly dense trail that leads to one of the best views in Zion. I climbed the Canyon Overlook Trail which took me half a mile to do. The view was exceptional. It overlooks the road from the tunnel where every fresh eye turn in awe to the visitor center.
I spent most of my remaining time there since most of the trails were either in the main attraction or is too long for an hour hike.
Before the sun fully set, I drove back to the visitor center to shelter for the night hoping to get a good obscure parking spot where no park rangers can see me camping and also a spot where I can shower in peace. I parked near a bush where I can hide while I bathe and the more I stripped off my clothes to my bathing trunks, the more I realized that there was no chance I will bathe in silence.
I scooped water from my cooler with a large cup and doused myself to clean off the dust and sweat from the day, and with every douse, I could see cars passing by to this half-naked Asian guy soaped in the corner of the visitor parking lot. It was extremely embarrassing. But at least I was feeling fresh and ready for bed.
The next morning, I woke up to a rustling sound behind my car, I was surrounded by a group of Mule deers. I started my Jetboil and made hot tea from inside the car while I wait for the group to pass. Day two in Zion had begun. I made oatmeal and munched on some fruits for breakfast before I headed to the private shuttle that would lead me to the main park.
Seeing the visitor center empty was a sight, no one yelling at each other in excitement, no bike bells ringing every five minutes, and the early birds were just calm and drinking any sort of hot beverage before their hike. I drove to Zion’s town of Springdale, think of it as a ski resort but minus the ski lifts and adolescence. The private shuttle service was called ZionGuru and to be honest, without it I would be stranded in the visitor center wishing that I brought my roller blades to roll myself in the park.
I packed my bag with a checklist beside it: ✓Camera x2 ✓ Food x4 ✓ Extra batteries x4 ✓ Hand sanitizer ✓ Water x2 ✓ Tripod
I wasn’t much for a checklist guy but these were the essentials. I climbed aboard this unventilated van filled with people covered in sunblock and insect repellent. It smelled like stepping in the perfume section in a Macy’s department store. Thankfully my mask also rejected the smell so all I could smell was mint from the gum I was chewing.
As we passed through the gate to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, I noticed the drastic changes that COVID inflicted on the park's new policy. Biking to the trails was highly recommended, shuttle stops were decreased to only stop at main points, and the scarcity of people in the park itself in comparison to a normal pre-COVID day.
Regardless, the park was incredibly beautiful with its towering rocks and river flowing from the Narrows making it look like an entrance to Jurassic Park.
I got off the Grotto where I began my extensive climb to Angel’s Landing and Emerald Pools Trails.
The Angel’s Landing trail was heavily trafficked, and keeping a distance to each hiker group was almost impossible. Hiking with two masks on was necessary but also difficult for it cuts off a lot of the oxygen you’re taking in but I took my time and stopped when needed just to compensate for the lack of air. While climbing, I remembered thinking that every step forward was a step passed. I couldn’t help but look back at the path I crossed, not because of the magnificent view that the park has to offer but because I knew that there was a large cloud of uncertainty of when I will set foot on these very paths again. It made me feel reminiscent of a moment that I am still in. Every break felt like I stopped the ticking of time because I was in the moment. The trail was very steep and it kept going for a non-stop 2.4 miles. If you are afraid of heights, you will be hugging the walls to avoid eye contact with the high cliff.
When I got to the overlook, it was filled with tourists taking their lunch break and waiting for their turn to climb the Angel trail. The only way to climb Angel’s Landing was to hang on to these chains mounted on the rocks. The more I watched people climb the trail, the more I am against doing it due to health reasons. People climbing didn’t have gloves on nor masks that I was convinced that it wasn’t safe for me to hold it. It was also heavily trafficked where each person was almost in touching distance with each other. So instead, I just sat and watched people climbed only to dream what the view was like on the peak.
After climbing down the overlook, I immediately took the south path to the Emerald Pools. It was a much easier hike since it was mostly flat paths and descends. It was less dense but more kids were on it in hopes to swim in them only to find out that it was filled with hazardous bacteria.
The trail was more shaded which decreased my time resting in the middle. However, when I visited the pools, I was quite underwhelmed by the view. I imagined it to be like a geyser with clear waters but instead, it was literally a pool of water trapped in a sheltered open cave and people were throwing rocks in it, which was very disruptive that I decided to continue to the other pools.
The lower emerald pools were more of a surprise as there was a mini waterfall and a deer was drinking from the pools the waterfall created. It was very magical watching the waterfall from the upper pool. Then I didn’t realize that the descend to the Zion Lodge from the pool was minuscule that I had two hours to spare, so I decided to take that two hours and relaxed on the grass field while watching the clouds pass by the enormous rocks. I laid down the field with my bag on my head and my camera next to me. A few minutes later, I passed out only to be woken up by a group Mule deer surrounding me.
At first, I was nervous because a startle could make them attack me but the more I watched them feed on the mowed grass, the more I believe that they were so used to the people that they seem tame. It was a mother deer and a baby male deer roaming the lodge. The young male had horns as big as my pinky that he used to scratch his belly with. He seemed to be the most comfortable around people eating around them without flinching from the phone beeps and zippers.
It was a great moment to end my day. I started to walk to my shuttle pick-up station then headed back to town.
While driving back to my usual spot in the visitor center parking lot, I passed by a sign that says “public showers” and I thought to myself… damn.