Road trip without a plan full of memories ZION CANYON, Utah – Winging it, you might be surprised to know, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I’ve always considered it an art form. Anybody can do it, but few do it well.
Admit it. How often do vacations turn into a strict itinerary of sites to see, photos to take and things to eat?
There’s not really anything wrong with this. It’s just that when you get home you often realize that the highlights were the things you didn’t plan: The people you met, the things that went wrong and the Plan B that scored straight A’s.
In recent years, a friend and I have worked to master the art of winging it, getting a little better every trip while amassing volumes of stories. Recently Brian Devereux and I challenged ourselves with a five-day trip to Utah.
We planned only a 24-hour window in which we’d watch my alma mater’s football team (Washington State University) embarrass itself against Brian’s old school (BYU), then we’d climb nearby Mount Timpanogos.
We’d let the people we met along the way determine the rest of our trip. Starting when we arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Aug. 30 through the end of our Timpanogos hike we asked just about everybody we saw to cast a vote.
Brian kept a running tally on his iPhone and we agreed we’d explore the place that got the most votes.
It sounded like a pretty good idea at first, but I quickly had second thoughts when the guy sitting behind us on the plane suggested we head to Snowbird’s Oktoberfest where there would be loads of beer, apple strudel and yo-yo demonstrations. There are many reasons I feel drawn to Utah. Beer isn’t one of them and neither are yo-yos. (Although, I would go almost anywhere for strudel.)
The suggestions quickly improved. Responding to a tweet, a Utah weather service recommended a waterfall in Escalante. A young couple at the game suggested mountain biking in Moab. A guy skiing for the 47th month in a row on a tiny Mount Timpanogos glacier urged us to go canyoneering in Central Utah. And more than a half dozen people suggested hiking Arches, Bryce Canyon or Zion national parks.
We borrowed a car from Brian’s grandparents in Ogden and headed south. By the time we got back we’d found ourselves hiking in thigh-deep water, essentially booted from a national park, camping with strangers on the side of a road and hiking a trail that’s killed nine people.
While our journey confirmed there is, indeed, no plan like having no plan, we determined there are four keys to winging it well.
1. PICK THE RIGHT PARTNER
Winging it isn’t for everybody. Things will go wrong, so you need a travel partner who can take almost anything in stride.
How do you know if you have the right person? Well, I knew Brian was the right guy a few years back when we found ourselves lost on some forest roads. When we pulled over to more closely examine the map, I said “Oh man, looks like we’re in the wrong state.”
My wife, kids and most of my friends would likely abandon me after inflicting some kind of physical abuse.
In fact, the idea to let strangers determine our path on this trip was his idea.
Votes tallied, we started south with every intention of going to Bryce Canyon then some slot canyons in the middle of the state.
But about 100 miles down the road I noticed the once promising forecast had taken a turn for the worse. It was supposed to rain in Bryce.
A good travel partner isn’t afraid to admit he really doesn’t want to go backpacking in the rain. We decided to let the weather man cast the deciding vote.
We checked the weather from Arches to Zion and even places in Colorado and Nevada. The forecast looked best in Zion, so that’s where we went.
2. HAVE A GOOD ATTITUDE
The rain meant canyoneering was now off the agenda. It’s dangerous exploring Utah’s narrow slot canyons with rain in the forecast. Even on a sunny day, rain elsewhere in the watershed can result in deadly flash floods.
Not only was canyoneering out, but at Zion we’d find ourselves in a situation I almost always try to avoid: A national park on a holiday weekend, people everywhere and only the beaten path in front of us.
I resigned myself to have fun anyway. The hike that caught our attention was the park’s second most popular trail, Angels Landing.
Angels Landing is a 1,400-foot rock formation in Zion Canyon that, from below, appears to require rope and rock shoes to climb.
However, after two miles of relatively standard uphill hiking, the final half mile up a narrow ridge includes fixed chains to help visitors avoid plummeting to the valley floor.
It struck me that these chains might encourage people who might otherwise never attempt to scramble along a ridge like this to go too far. In fact, Zion National Park spokeswoman Aly Baltrus later told me nine people have fallen to their deaths on this trail since 1919. Of those, six have died since 2004, according to a trailhead sign.
Despite the obvious hazards, the trail felt like a line at Disneyland. We passed elderly hikers, children, a barefoot girl, an ultra-fit Ironman finisher and a college kid in flip flops.
Such a crowd usually makes me feel as if I chose the wrong hike, but the beauty of the sheer red rock cliffs and the views of the Virgin River snaking along the canyon floor seemed to make the masses fade into the background.
3. MAKE DUE
After our morning outing, we decided to try one of the park’s other classic hikes, The Narrows.
The Narrows is a section of canyon where hikers walk in the river with 1,500-foot-tall red rock walls on either side of them. At some points the walls are less than 12 feet apart. The park says good shoes and a walking stick are a must.
I had neither.
Brian has feet like a mountain goat so he wasn’t worried. I have ankles like basketball legend Bill Walton, so I was concerned.
During the mile approach we realized almost everybody had rental hiking poles and many also wore canyoneering shoes. The soles on my minimalist shoes are about a millimeter thick so I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to go well for me.
Before entering the river I found a tree root, the perfect length to use as a walking stick. The only problem was that it weighed about 10 pounds. Still, I knew walking on the loose rock without the extra support was inviting injury.
Our hope was to wade up the river far enough to get away from the crowd, but after a few minutes it was clear that would be easier said than done. I was moving at a snail’s pace, each step more and more uncomfortable on my feet. After an hour, my makeshift trekking pole had raised a blister on my right hand and we probably hadn’t even traveled a mile yet. I wanted to turn back.
But from his pack, Brian pulled a pair of mangled red sneakers. I slipped them on and the improvement was instantaneous. Suddenly we were cruising, passing the masses. We veered off the main route and up a side canyon and after walking a mile in another man’s shoes we found ourselves momentarily clear of the crowds and standing in knee-deep water at the base of a small, very cold waterfall.
4. RELISH EVERYTHING
A private waterfall is a pretty sweet reward for winging it well, but some rewards can be found in much less majestic places.
The morning we headed south we helped Brian’s grandfather buck hay for his horses. The least we could do for the guy that let us crash at his place and drive his car across the state. Somehow getting to play cowboy and tossing bales around became a trip highlight for me.
It didn’t bother me in the least that this made for a late start and by the time we arrived at Zion, the Wilderness Information Center was just five minutes from closing.
The volunteer ranger behind the desk clearly had a long day and was frustrated with the woman in front of us. When it was our turn he informed us he wouldn’t issue us a wilderness permit because we weren’t allowed to hike at night. This isn’t true and I knew it (and a park spokeswoman later confirmed this).
When I explained we were experienced, well-prepared, from out of town and his denial would essentially boot us out of the park (the campgrounds were full) he shrugged and said, “I think you can come back tomorrow.”
I didn’t react very coolly to this, loudly offering him tips for improving customer service as I headed for the door.
Every campground and hotel in the area was booked but a local climbing guide directed us to a makeshift roadside camping area called Coal Pits Wash. No bathrooms, just patches of bare red earth between the bushes that allowed enough room for a car and tent.
Here I did something you just don’t do when you’re winging it. I complained.
“Hey,” Brian said with a firmness I assume he usually reserves for his sons. “We are having fun.”
We sat on the hood of his grandparent’s car with a bag of pistachios, cracking the shells as the open space around us filled with other travelers. At one point the father of a large family from Las Vegas walked over with a couple of beers. An hour later, a couple driving from Berkeley, Calif., to Banff, Alberta, brought over a couple of more beers and we shared stories for a while.
I don’t drink and had never actually consumed an entire beer. But on this evening, as we watched the sun set, I had my first.
I have no idea what good beer is supposed to taste like, but I was certain of this much: No matter how fancy the stuff was they were serving back up north at Oktoberfest, it couldn’t top this.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
“Fall is one of the best times to visit Zion,” said Aly Baltrus, the park’s chief of interpretation. The temperatures are cooler, the likelihood of rain is less and the crowds are much smaller.
WHERE TO GO: The two most popular trails are The Narrows and Angels Landing. The Narrows requires wading up the Virgin River in a narrow canyon. In some areas you might have to swim. Angels Landing is 4.8-mile roundtrip hike up a rock formation. For the final half mile chains are fixed to the rock to help hikers avoid taking a fatal fall. If you don’t like heights, skip this one, Baltrus said. If you’re not sure she suggests a practice hike on the shorter (2.4 miles) and slightly less scary Hidden Canyon Trail. She also recommends hiking in Kolob Canyons on the west side of the park.
THE TUNNEL: Baltrus recommends taking the time to drive through the 82-year-old Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The 1.1-mile tunnel connects the canyon to the east side of the park. It is closed to cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles 13 feet, 1 inch and taller. Some large vehicles may require a $15 tunnel permit.
FEES: $25 per vehicle per week. The park’s shuttle service is free.
MORE INFO: Go to nps.gov/zion.Craig.firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8497 blog.thenewstribune.com/Adventure @AdventureGuys