It was time to go, so we got up and went. We packed our bags, with as much warm clothing as we could reasonably carry, flew to Las Vegas, picked up a nice new rental car (what a nice car the new Toyota Camry is!), and drove northeast on interstate 15.
About 45 minutes out of Vegas, we took a back road recommended by my wife's colleague, which took us about 15 miles off the freeway, into a Nevada State Park named Valley of Fire. After a short stop at the Visitor Center to get our bearings, we found the picnic area named Mouse's Tank, populated by the boldest little ground squirrels you could imagine, practicing their cutest poses to try to convince us to donate some of our lunch to them.
After lunch, we took a short walk to admire the Valley of Fire petroglyphs, which are nothing short of astounding.
Then we were back in the car again, and soon back on I-15, and not long after that we were through Nevada, and had sliced a corner off of Arizona, and were solidly into Utah, before we left the freeway to take Utah State Route 9 east into Zion National Park.
The days are short, this time of year, so even though we got to the park gates at about 5:45 PM, it was already pitch dark, and we crept along the park road quite slowly, peeking around every corner for deer, trying to figure out where our turn was. Zion Lodge is located most of the way up the canyon road, deep in the main canyon, enjoying a location that can stand toe-to-toe with any hotel on the planet for claim to "Most Beautiful Lodge Location".
But, as I say, it was completely dark out, and we were exhausted, so we simply checked into our room (which was wonderful: spacious and elegant), had dinner at the lodge restaurant, and collapsed into bed.
Deep in the main canyon, sunset comes early and sunrise late, particularly this time of year. But up we got, the next morning, and bravely we set out to explore Zion National Park. Lo and behold, as the sun started to crawl slowly down the western walls of the canyon toward the valley floor, we found ourselves nearly alone in a place of tremendous beauty, with nearly as many mule deer as human visitors keeping us company on our explorations.
At the very end of the canyon road, one of the most famous trails is the Riverside Walk, which leads into the section of the Virgin River canyon known as The Narrows, launching spot for those interested in the sport of Canyoneering. We could barely imagine this, for at the time we walked the trail the temperature was 34 degrees, and a steady breeze was blowing, so we were fully encased in every shred of clothing we could layer upon ourselves, but at the trail's end there were nearly a dozen people, of all ages, clad in little more than long-sleeved swimsuits, waterproof hiking boots, and gaiters, setting off confidently into the rapidly-flowing, near-freezing waters of the Virgin River, headed upstream for adventure.
We had decided to work our way, slowly, back down the main canyon, and so we did, stopping to hike the Weeping Rock trail, the Emerald Pools trail, and the Watchman trail, among others, as well as stopping along the road for half an hour or so to watch people hiking up Walter's Wiggles (as well as rock climbing the cliff face below the Angels Landing trail).
By the end of our first day, we were well and thoroughly exhausted, but also extremely pleased with the day.
There's just nothing like the experience of spending an entire day in a National Park: waking up in the park, spending all day in and around the park, and then remaining in the park when all the daily visitors go home, and it's just you lucky few. And the mule deer.
Once again we woke up the next morning in complete darkness, and made our way over to the lodge for breakfast, with aching muscles yet still aching for more.
Zion National Park is fairly large, even though compared to some national parks it's not gigantic, and I was hungry to see as much of the park as I could.
We were well-prepared: we had brought our lunch, and, as it turns out, we had brought the right clothing, for by the time we reached the Northgate Peaks trail it was already in the low 50's, and by the time we reached trail's end it was in the low 60's. Sunny skies, perfect temperatures, no bugs, and a nearly-level 2 mile hike to an amazing canyon viewpoint: is there any better way to spend a day in the mountains?
On our way back down, we stopped at Hoodoo City and tried to follow the trail over to see the peculiar rock formations, but it was slow, sandy going, and the closer we got to the rocks, the more they seemed to fade into the distance. Our decision was made for us when we met a couple returning from the trail who told us they were pretty sure they'd heard a mountain lion growling just a few dozen yards from the trail.
So back down the hill we went, and decided to settle for a yummy dinner at the local brewpub.
All good things must come to an end, and it was time to return to civilization, so we got a good early start on our final day in the mountains and made a short stop at the third part of Zion National Park which is easily accessible: Kolob Canyons. Happily, we had just enough time to drive up to the end of the road to take in the truly remarkable views. The views from the roadside parking lot are superb; the views from the end of the Timber Creek Overlook trail are even better.
Back down I-15 to Las Vegas we went. My mother, who knows a lot about this part of the world, swears that U.S. 395 along the Eastern Sierra is the most beautiful road in the 48 states, and she's got a fine case, but I think that the stretch of I-15 from Las Vegas, Nevada to Cedar City, Utah is a serious contender, particularly on a clear winter's day when the view goes on forever (well, at least 50 miles).
It was as nice a way as one could ask to end as nice a weekend as one could hope for.
If you ever get a chance to visit Zion National Park in winter, take it.