[Zion National Park, UT]
When I read Observation Pont’s description in my guidebook, I completely skipped over the part where it says “Strenuous, 8 miles, 2105 ft elevation” in favor of the part where it says “best views of the park, Angel’s Landing overlook”.
I am kind of kidding. We knew full well what we were getting into. Already sore from 2 days of moderate to strenuous 5-mile hikes with 1000+ ft elevation gains, we decided it’s not a bad idea to tackle the trail that takes you to the highest point in the park. It’s one of the toughest day hikes in Zion!
Learning from our experience at Angel’s Landing, where our start was not early enough to avoid the traffic jam at the chain-assisted section, we were out the door by 6 am today and caught the second-earliest shuttle of the day. We went one stop further down the canyon this time, and our trail didn’t have the gentle walk along the river like Angel’s Landing did. On the contrary, it was steep switchbacks from the very get go. We brought breakfast wraps with us (it is difficult to eat breakfast when you get up at 5;30, yet you need fuel to tackle these hikes), so we stopped at the top of the switchbacks to eat. We watched the rising sunlight work its way down the gigantic rocks across the river from us, still in awe with the majestic views of this park even after having been here for 3 days already. The food worked its magic and we both forged ahead with renewed energy.
The next section of the trail leveled out and took us through Echo Canyon, a hanging chasm. The trail hugged the cliff on one side, with the tall flat face of Cable Mountain towering above us on the other side and the water-eroded chasm below. Going through this canyon was a sight to behold; we kept trying to do it justice in our pictures, and failing.
After this, the trail continued a relentless ascent on another set of switchbacks. The trail was exposed to a long drop but it was wide, and having the mountain on one side definitely made it less dizzying than the Angel’s Landing ascent. Our early start paid off, and this whole time we were in complete shade. The climb did take its toll on us though, and we started to take more frequent breaks.
Finally, a bit over half a mile to Observation Point, the trail leveled off again, and we skirted the edge of the rim to our final destination. We were eye-level with the other giant peaks that we’d seen from the canyon floor, and we kept looking at each other in awe that we’d climbed this high. When we finally reached the edge of the cliff, we were at 6500 ft elevation, 2150 ft off the canyon floor and looking 600 ft DOWN at Angel’s landing. The people at the top of it literally looked like ants, but we had a great perspective on the scramble we had done yesterday to reach it. Talk about a bird’s eye view! It was worth the 3-hour climb!
Our descent was just as hard, and it went on and on and on and on and on. In the sun. It was almost noon by then, and most of the trail was fully exposed to the sun. We did not envy the people we met going the opposite way. We did enjoy, however, going through Echo canyon again and enjoying the different shadows the sun had cast in the chasm.
It took us half the time to come down the mountain, and now that we’d been to the top already, we knew exactly which of the peaks above us was Observation Point, It was towering so high above us, we almost couldn’t believe we actually made it there!
I wish we could rest for the remainder of the day, but there is no rest for the wicked! After a shower and just a little bit of downtime, we grabbed lunch/dinner, rented our gear for the Narrows hike tomorrow, then took a drive and another hike in search for sunset views.
What one does not realize living by the ocean is how tricky sunlight can be when forced between giant rocks that go thousands of feet high. Sunrises and sunsets here are a theater of shadows. The sun rays work their way up the canyon in the morning, and retreat back at night; in the process, some rocks get the first and last rays of the sun, while others are completely overshadowed hours after sunrise and hours before sunset. Combine this with the many trails and canyons and overlooks available, and it can become pretty confusing when to be where for which rock to be in the right light. Chris had his work cut out for him trying to get a good sunset photo, but we were hoping to strike gold tonight.
First, we entered the park by car and drove the 4-mile stretch to the Mt. Zion-Carmel tunnel. This tunnel was carved out in a giant rock between 1927 and 1930. Cars were much smaller then, so today, over-sized vehicles have to get a permit and get a ranger on one side of the tunnel to stop oncoming traffic, thus turning the tunnel into a one-lane road so that the over-sized vehicle can pass. Luckily, we knew this as we had to stop at the south entrance and wait out a bus to drive through. Once in, we were in complete darkness for an entire mile – doesn’t sound a lot, but have you ever been through a tunnel that took more than, say, 20 seconds? Definitely don’t hold your breath through this one! It takes a good minute to go through! Along the way, we saw a few arched windows carved out on the side of the tunnel – those were used to throw out much of the 72,000 cubic feet of rock that were blasted away using 146 tonnes of dynamite (you can thank Lonely Planet’s Zion/Bryce guidebook for all this handy info).
Once on the other side of the tunnel, we got princess parking at a very small parking lot and got on the Canyon Overlook trail – an easy 1-mile roundtrip trail that was rumored to be great at sunset. Even though this was a super short trail and it ascended only 200 ft, it still managed long drop offs. At one point, there was literally no room for the trail, so a bridge was built around a cliff. Even a short, unassuming trail in this utterly majestic park is not for those afraid of heights.
When we got to the end, we were basically at the other side of the tunnel again and had sweeping views of the canyon, The sun was right across from us, and that was great for watching the sunset… not so much for photographing it. All the giant rocks along the canyon were in the shadow because the sun was behind them. That’s when we realized that a good sunset spot for the general public vs. a photographer were two different things!
At this point, it was already getting late but we took a stab at getting to another supposedly good location – a bridge over the Virgin river that looked down the canyon. We got there with 15 minutes to spare – just enough time to see the last little bit of sunlight retreat from the canyon. Chris knew he was in the right place when he saw a half dozen other photographers with their tripods already on the bridge.
You may think by now that we’ve done the biggest, baddest trails in the park. Not so! Tomorrow, we’re heading to the granddaddy of them all – The Narrows!