We had already experienced National Parks Version 2021, with seemingly the whole country deciding at the same time that the only safe Covid vacation was hiking in our national treasures. Still, Zion was really another level of madness.
Either due to the pandemic, or to the general lack of parking, Zion Valley was now off limits to all but park shuttles. My past experience with busy park shuttles was in Yosemite – another popular park – where things often got a bit pushy in the scrum to board the next bus, since there was no real queuing system at stops. But, there would be a next bus. And you could pack people into them like a Tokyo subway car, with little worry about catching a nasty virus from your fellow hiker.
In Zion 2021, things were a bit more regulated.
To start with, you needed a shuttle reservation, which sounds straightforward enough until you find out that getting one is like scoring row 10 seats to a Beyonce concert in Brooklyn. We literally witnessed people in the visitor center plaza, fully decked out in their just-rented canyoneering gear (waders, river staffs, etc.), ready for their epic day in The Narrows, that had only just then discovered that all the shuttles for the day were long since spoken for, and they would need to waddle back to the parking lot in their river booties and presumably smash their car windows with their river staffs in frustration.
If you knew your park dates weeks ahead of time, you could try to get your tickets when the release for that day came. But if you missed that event by even a few minutes, they would be all gone. After that, you had to go for the batch of tickets they reserved for night before release. For us, that meant that every night at the precise stroke of 5PM MST (using the atomic clock buried under Fort Knox) when the new shuttle seats were released for the following day, Lori and I would simultaneously begin hammering away at our phone screens on the recreation.gov app, clicking, refreshing, back arrowing, refreshing, cajoling and so on and so on, while simultaneously cursing our shitty Verizon 2-bar coverage. (btw - the maps they show you on the TV when you are watching football, that indicate a continent absolutely saturated in cell towers? Those are lies, or as I call them: marketing). At the same time, somewhere down valley, perhaps as far away as Las Vegas or Los Angeles, far savvier seekers were on their T1 fiber optic internet pipes, with juiced laptops running quad processors on a Cray computer and using a variety of hacks to jump the queue, that we could only dream about, to score their tickets.
Meanwhile, up in camp, we pecked away. Occasionally, the screen would indicate, “yes, we do have 2 tickets for the 9AM shuttle, would you like to book these?” Hearts lifted; we would frantically click the “Book Now” button. Then we would see the spinning wheel indicating the small phone brain was working with the big internet brain, and hope remained intact. But inevitably, it would return with a message saying “We’re sorry but those seats were already sold,” followed by another helpful message about the fact that these were popular times and had we considered booking another time slot? And back we would go: refresh, click, backspace, click, refresh, curse.
What saved us was a “pro tip” from one of the rangers. Long before 5:01PM, every seat on every shuttle was gone. But if you kept at it, sometimes, people would abandon their shopping carts, probably because another person in their group scored the same shuttle on their phone. Especially, right around 5:15PM, peoples’ shopping cart would automatically return their seats to the pool if they hadn’t executed their checkout by then. And we pounced. At 5:16 on the nose, we scored 2 prized 7AM seats. Yessss!!!!
And, as it is Tom & Lori, we were in line at 6:25AM sharp the following morning, steaming Yeti mugs of coffee, bananas and chocolate chip muffins in hand. The first ones in line, though not by much. By 6:40AM the line stretched across the plaza. By 6:55AM the rangers were assembled and there were hundreds of people lined up as the first shuttles of the day rolled into the station. Hiking is now competitive.
The objective for most of these people, and the thousands that would follow throughout the course of the day, was one of two legendary hikes: The Narrows and Angel's Landing. The Narrows, as the name implies, is the uppermost part of the Virgin River where it slices a slender slot canyon through 1000 foot cliffs that hikers can forge in knee to waist deep waters as far up as they dare, or as in our case, until you are swimming. As we were the first on and thus the first ones off the shuttle, we were the first ones in the water (well, almost, it was later that we learned about the private shuttles that start before 7AM; membership has its privileges). And for about 5 miles, we pushed our way through pools and rapids exploring the river’s secrets like a couple of national geographic photographers in the jungles of Borneo. Magical. Epic. All of that.
On the way down, it was a slightly different experience. The Virgin River is no virgin. Her moist canyon has been plied by many. By the time we reached the lower portion of the river, near the shuttle stop, the scene resembled Miami Beach. Or as my good friend Feigs would say “a circus, freak show atmosphere.” One young reveler was even holding his boom box on his shoulders as he waded over the slippery, uneven rocks. I considered gently tipping him over and dousing his electronics for his rude interruption of my wilderness solitude. But he was blasting Black Sabbath War Pigs; so I had to cut him a little slack for the throwback selection.
The next day’s objective, after going through the identical shuttle bus ticket scramble that night, was Angel’s Landing. The Landing is a half-mile long buttress of rock that juts out over the valley floor with 1500-foot shear vertical drops off each side of an arrestingly narrow ridgeline. To assist climbers in particularly precarious spots, the park has erected a steel chain-link lifeline that runs between posts embedded into the rock. It helps. But, unless you are a serious rock climber, or a window washer in Manhattan, I think it’s fair to say that the exposure alone makes this a mildly terrifying ascent for most people. A sign greets you at various points on the approach warning of the large number of souls who have perished making the climb. Which is, of course, why thousands of people want to attempt it every single day.
If you’ve ever read about Everest ascents, you’ve read about the Hillary Step, named for Sir Edmund Hillary who first encountered it. The Hillary Step is a narrow rock chute just below the summit. It’s not overly difficult to climb (I say this like I’ve done it), but it’s one very slow, very tired climber at a time, up or down. Thus, it’s an infamous bottleneck as the South Korean team is trying to descend at the same time as four other teams are trying to ascend, and everyone is a bit nervous about running out of oxygen, or say falling 5000 feet off the side of the mountain. Angel’s Landing, or Millennial’s Landing as a I dubbed it based on their enthusiasm for this particular adventure, is like this for a half-mile. By 9AM there are up to 200 people lined up at the first section of chain, waiting impatiently as a few dozen more are already trying to come down. At some particularly precarious points, you find that you are encircling your arms around a stranger who is pinned to the chain, so you can maintain contact with it, but still pass by them. You pick you way up, saying “excuse me” a lot, while trying to avoid becoming a soft-tissue projectile that lands on a shuttle bus roof in the distant valley below.
At the top, it’s Instagram city with all the summiteers posing, checking their shots, posing again, and then changing their backdrop, pose, or grouping for another round. One thing I’ll say for the younger generation, they know how to dress for hiking. In my day, the cute girls wore practical boots, long-sleeved shirts, sun hats, maybe some Gore-Tex, and sensible shorts over unshaved legs with plenty of pockets that could hold a bag of Gorp, a Swiss Army Knife and maybe a rain poncho.
Now, well, just check out Instagram and see for yourself. Try @sexyfithiker or @nearlynakedinthenarrows. It’s hard to keep your eyes on the extremely narrow footing of Angel’s Landing.