While many stayed home during COVID-19 isolation orders, we ventured to Southern Utah for an unplanned visit to quiet Zion National Park, a spectacular Wire Mesa mountain bike ride, and Snow Canyon State Park.
Related: Angel's Landing in Zion: Not for the Faint of Heart
Canaan Mountain via Squirrel Canyon
Zion National Park - Double Arch Alcove Hike
Utah Mountain Biking - The Cowbell and the Cryptobionic "Highway"
Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah
Snow Canyon State Park - April 1, 2020
The spring of 2020 will always be remembered as the time of the Coronavirus pandemic. After Fred and I did more research than usual, we managed to get away on our annual Southern Utah trip despite Idaho's order to self-isolate. It states, “The isolation order does not prohibit outdoor activity such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but a safe distance of six feet must be kept between those who do not live in the same household.” Utah’s orders were similar. We are very experienced in the art of social distancing - it comes naturally. This time, however, as we planned our getaway from Boise to sunnier climes, there was a lot more to consider: where could we stay? Could we bring our trailer? Are the Utah state parks and Zion National Park closed? Can we go on trails? Can we go at all?
Visions of red and orange rocks, azure skies and red-blooming cacti outweighed the risks, so off we were, with assurances from the manager at the Marriott Hotel in St. George that we wouldn’t be sent home after the 9-hour drive. We had to leave our tent trailer behind as all parks and campgrounds were closed. Into the truck went hiking boots, bike helmets, backpacks, clothes for a few weather conditions, food and clean bikes. The promise of gear-grinding, rock-hopping, open-air adventures and the freedom to explore awaited us. Just a few more rules this time.
The chilly morning lent crystal crispness to a clear sky; on our bikes, we faced the yellow and rust-red sandstone towers standing like sentinels along the gravel road in Snow Canyon State Park. The occasional CLINK of small rocks hitting my bike, the crunch of gravel under tires and the pleasant “good morning” greetings of couples walking along the road were the only sounds. Breathe deeply that clean desert air. We stash our bikes at the end of the road and walk a small distance up a narrow white ledge-lined canyon, following a sand wash with smoothed boulders. In the shade of a towering wall the temperature cools suddenly. I catch that unmistakable scent that only desert washes can produce – a sweet mixture of mesquite, yucca and sage, and the earthy scent of damp sand underneath.
Snow Canyon State Park is a beautiful place to bike, walk and hike. We like to ride West Canyon Road and then find a high sandstone lookout and scramble up the slickrock for our lunch. This canyon was used by Anasazi and Paiute Indians; more recently, its beautiful ancient sand dunes were featured in Hollywood movies such as Jeremiah Johnson and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While looking for lost cattle, Mormon pioneers discovered what is now Snow Canyon in the 1850's. Be sure to check out the black basalt that fills some of these canyons, filling what used to be a topographic low (stream), but is now a topographic high due to the great volume of the flows.
Current restrictions as of 4/17/20: Governor of Utah's directive entitled "Stay Safe, Stay Home" which prohibits anyone from going to Snow Canyon State Park that does not live in the county in which it resides (Washington County). All users are to be ready to verify residency.
Map of Snow Canyon State Park
The Geology of Snow Canyon State Park
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Bridge Mountain on east rim of Zion Canyon
Zion National Park, April 3, 2020
“Sulking indoors for the duration of this crisis is an obnoxious thought”, said Paul Theroux, Wall Street Journal travel writer. In his article addressing the stay-at-home directives, “A Wanderer’s Guide to Staying Home”, he mentions past famous people who wrote from home or nearby, like Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. He says, “to self-isolate means confinement; for habitual travelers it is something like punishment”; then he concludes that the “ultimate freedom in travel lies in the road trip – setting off in your own car.”
My bare hands stung in the freezing wind blowing through Zion Canyon’s morning half-light as the hulking sandstone giants lining the eastern side shut out the sunlight to the canyon bottom. Fumbling with my camera and tripod, I spent no time looking for gloves, as the light on Bridge Mountain, a massive, cross-bedded ancient sand dune was changing. The visitor's center was abandoned, all parking places empty. Part of me felt jubilant that I should have Zion all to myself, to photograph without constraint; the other part felt a slight uneasiness at the absence of people in this place that is visited by four million people each year. The sun now sat on top of Bridge Mountain's ridge; it was time to move on.
We weren't surprised when we saw the sign "Angel's Landing Is Closed." It is probably the most famous hike in Zion, and for good reason; to get to a breathtaking view of Zion Canyon, you hold onto bolted chains much of the way while climbing up a narrow fin of sandstone, walls dropping straight down for hundreds of feet on either side. The sign read, "Violation of this closure may result in a fine of up to $5,000, 6 months in jail, or both." I have seen a line of people waiting to ascend but today it was eerily vacant. We continued past this and walked the West Rim Trail to where plants grow on sandstone walls overlooking Telephone Canyon. When we went to the only open shop we could find to get ice cream afterwards, the employee there told us that Zion National Park was closed just one-half hour ago. We'll always remember this lucky day when under sunny skies and perfect weather, we were able to hike Zion on nearly empty trails. Too bad we couldn't do Angels Landing!
Zion National Park info and map
Indian Paintbrush in Navajo Sandstone
From East Rim Trail looking at the Virgin River, Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain - Zion National Park
From the Kayenta Trail looking up toward Castle Dome and Mount Majestic - Zion National Park
Angels Landing on the right; Great White Throne on the left - Zion National Park
West Rim Trail - Zion - 10 years ago after a March snowstorm
Emerald Pools Trail - Zion
View of Mount Kinesava from Eagle Crags Trail south of Zion National Park
Wire Mesa Mountain Bike Ride, April 4, 2020
The Wire Mesa loop is a 7.6-mile rock-navigating, killer view single track source of joy. We rode counter clockwise, having prominent Mount Kinesava with its vertical cliffs and other Zion Canyon temples in view until we reached the end of the mesa and the trail contoured to the west. Most of this trail winds in and out of junipers, up and down over forgiving sandstone rocks, close to the mesa's edge. We were surprised at the number of groups of hikers, campers, and bikers practicing their own wilderness social distancing. The steep road up to the mesa from Rockville is best attempted with a 4WD vehicle. Deep tire ruts attested to those who had traveled this clay-soil road probably the week before when there were downpours.
Utah mountain bikers are technically skilled, focused on mapping a route up and over sandstone. We got better at this skill as we rode, but we did end up walking our bikes over many "steep" rocks.
After this ride, we hiked in the Canaan Mountain Wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management, near Wire Mesa. We encountered many cheerful hiking families and couples. The BLM's current Coronavirus Advisory states "Please follow recommendations from the CDC and your state and local health authorities before visiting your public lands..."
It will be interesting to find out what directives and orders we must follow for our hiking and back packing trips this summer while we do what we love to do - "natural" social distancing. Meanwhile, the red sand on our bike chains attests to the great adventures we had in Southern Utah.
MTB Project - REI - Wire Mesa Loop Information
Wire Mesa Trail - Mount Kinesava on left, along with temples and mountains in Zion Canyon
A great camp spot on Wire Mesa Trail. Mount Kinesava on left
The art of "social distancing"
Ahhh, that beautiful red clay/sand soil of Southern Utah!
Map of Wire Mesa Trail south of Zion National Park, north of Canaan Mountain Wilderness
Click for larger image
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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