Though not technically part of the Hayduke Trail, these two days were extensions of my adventure. I include them because they are like capstones.
First, drying out in a motel in Springdale was so wonderfully stabilizing. I left the next morning showered and laundered and with most of the mud knocked free. My plan was to spend the day hiking in the park. There is a very convenient shuttle system I could ride up to the trailheads I was interested in, and at the end of the day I would go to one of the park campgrounds and try to bum a tent site from an RV. I woke up achingly tired though, fatigue of many layers all into my bones, and I didn’t want to get up early and hurry. I lazed a bit. I had breakfast. I packed. Finally around 11am I left the motel to go catch the shuttle. What I didn’t consider, what never even occurred to me, is Memorial Day Weekend. Bumper-kissing cars inched down the road through town trying to get to the park Visitor Center (where surely they would be turned away because there wouldn’t be any parking). The sidewalks swarmed with people, and the Springdale shuttle buses were packed. I got on one and sat uncomfortably underneath my pack in a press of people, but the bus moved so slowly in the nearly-stopped traffic that I got right back off and walked into the Visitor Center instead. I needed to pick up my permit for the Subway first, where the ranger strongly advised me to bring a wetsuit. After the permit, I went to get on the park shuttle which drives up the main park road, but there was a line over a tenth of a mile long, and a half hour wait to even get on one of the buses. It was pandemonium. It was Disneyland. It hurt. I couldn’t even try to wait in line for thirty minutes to go hike in a park that was no doubt practically under assault by people. Originally I had hoped to hike during the day and go rent the equipment I would need for the Subway in the evening, but I decided to go back into town and rent stuff while the park was still busy and see if it opened up by the late afternoon.
I went to an outfitter, the only one in town I could find that would rent ropes, and picked up a seventy foot length of climbing rope, a harness, and an ATC. I also got one quick link in case I needed it and a pair of neoprene booties. I declined a full wetsuit. The guy at the outfitters didn’t think I would need one either, and I’ve been lied to by so many rangers about the dangers of my destination that I don’t ever believe them outright anymore. (They are speaking to a different part of the bell curve.) I went back through town and bought a dry bag, got a burger, went to the store, and by the time I was heading back to the Visitor Center it was close to four. The shuttle line was gone. I hopped on a bus. Time to hike!
I rode the shuttle all the way to the end of the road. The Narrows, a part of the North Fork of the Virgin River, started there on a paved trail. Other than the Subway, it was the hike I was most interested in in the park. I had applied for a permit for the top-down day hike in the lottery system but was denied, which ultimately didn’t matter because the road to the top of the Narrows hike was impassable due to all the rain. So I thought I would go bottom up, and still have a good time of it. But when I got off the shuttle at the last stop, there were people everywhere. I started walking down the trail in a line of people so thick I felt like I was on a Manhattan sidewalk. People hopped the rails of the trail, crushed vegetation, fed and tried to pet squirrels, were loud and obnoxious and I made it three quarters of a mile down the trail before I though fuck this. I turned around and walked back out, got back on the shuttle, and got the hell out of there. I have never seen such chaos in a national park. I hope never to again. Let me add my voice to those clamoring for more wilderness, more protection, more designation. At a time when our wild places are under greater threat than ever before, diminishing rapidly and permanently to development and resource extraction, the remaining scraps are in greater demand than ever. I can’t see how Zion can bear the force of this much humanity. Not that Zion is a scrap, of course. The flat-topped giant-walled rock buttes here practically stare down your soul. I think I understand why all the people come, assuming they are coming for that.
I bummed a campsite easily and hung out with my host, a full-time trailer-living nomad. We chatted as the campground hummed around us. I went to bed early.
The next day I packed everything inside the dry bag in my backpack and went to meet the private shuttle I was riding to the trailhead. I was expecting it to be full, particularly with other people doing the Subway top-down, but there was only one other passenger and he was headed for a different trailhead. Maybe I would have the Subway to myself. I was dropped off at the Wildcat Trailhead, right near where I hiked through on my last day. It was completely socked in then so I hadn’t known the splendor of the views in that area of the park. It was so lovely, cold and still wet there, and the morning sun was dense golden light spilled across the landscape. I hiked quickly to stay warm, on a trail for a mile and then descending a cairned route across a slickrock bowl in Russel’s Gulch, whose water course eventually drained into the Left Fork (the canyon of the Subway). The slickrock route eventually came to an end at a cliff where I dropped into the canyon on a steep but stable and blocky trail. And there I was, standing next to the creek, towering walls above me. It was full of lush growth, full of shadow, full of damp. I started downstream. Initially I tried to keep my feet dry but gave up when it was obviously doomed to fail, and I crossed or walked in the creek freely. Before long I came to the first rappel, down a twenty foot boulder choking up the canyon. The anchor was there, two bolts, a sling in good condition, and a quick link. I could have lowered my pack and downclimbed the boulder fairly easily, but I hauled the equipment all the way down there. I figured I might as well use it. I harnessed up, set the rope, and rapped down easily. This was the first time I had rappelled with such a heavy pack. Not that my pack was so heavy at that point, with little water and food, though still I had my entire backpack and all my stuff with me. But it was inconsequential. The rappel was short and and straightforward. On the ground I packed the rope back into my pack but I left the harness on and continued down canyon.
Soon the walls narrowed and potholes carved into the rock trapped water into pools. I got around the first couple without swimming. Then I had to swim. There was a pool thirty feet long, dark water obscuring the bottom. I stripped down to my underwear to have something dry to put on after, already feeling the chill of the canyon shade. I had a brief moment of WTF!? How am I going to swim this with my heavy pack?! But once I slipped into the water the secondary benefit of the dry bag in my backpack was immediately evident when my bag just floated there right next to me in the water. The water was painfully, shockingly cold. Not so cold it seared the skin, but the kind of cold that instantly starts feeding into your bones. I made the swim as quickly as I could and struggled out of the hole. And then I had another swim. Another one came right after, but I bypassed it by crawling on hands and knees under a low overhang for fifty wet rocky feet on a ledge above the canyon bottom. A few more rappels, two through waterfalls, and another swim later, I arrived at Subway. Just as I was unclipping from the last rappel, two hikers came up from the bottom, the first I’d seen on the route. I was so cold at this point I had to get into the sun–I was shaking, teeth-chattering–so I snapped a few pictures and continued down canyon until I found a patch of sun.
The rest of the walk out was lovely and I saw a lot more people. It seems most of the people with Subway permits this day were coming up from the bottom to avoid the technical parts of the canyon. Eventually I made it to the trailhead, dried in the sun, hitched into Springdale to return the equipment I rented with two Catholic Priests on a hiking vacation (interesting conversation!), and then hitched immediately to St George (got a ride in a few minutes with an Irish retired pro soccer player). I got a room at a cheap motel in St George and tomorrow I fly home to Seattle.
the shuttle line
hikers on the trail to the Narrows
morning at the Wildcat Trailhead
the shadowy dark of the Left Fork canyon
before the first rappel
the first swim
prepping for the first swim. why do i have an umbrella?
look for my rappel ropes to the right
downcanyon from the Subway
these are actual dinosaur tracks! in the rock! you have to look a little close, but they are there. very very cool.