It’s been a few too many weeks since I last actively participated in the blogosphere (as an excuse, I was finishing up final exams at Stanford) but I had a fabulous spring break last week that I want to write about. We had nine days, so my boyfriend Bryant and I hopped in the car and took off for the Southwest from Palo Alto. Our ultimate destination: the national parks of southern Utah and northern Arizona, none of which I had ever visited before. For those of you that know me well, you’ll know that I was thrilled about exploring this uncharted territory.

Our first stop was Death Valley in southeast California. It is the lowest place in North America, at 282 feet below sea level, and it is also the hottest place in the continental U.S. during the summer. We visited in late March and it was already 95 °F – needless to say,  we only stayed for a couple of hours. One highlight was catching the end of the super bloom of wildflowers that sprung up this spring due to the El Niño phenomenon (which you can read more about here), since more storms have brought more moisture, leading to a rare proliferation of beautiful flowers. We also stopped by Badwater Basin, a large salt flat that made me thirsty just looking at it. It was so dry that the ground crunched as we stepped on it, and we could see the salt layer on top of the dirt. Badwater is where you can normally see cracks in the earth during the summer – given the extreme heat we were already experiencing in March, we decided it wasn’t really worth it to visit when it was even hotter.

 

Next was Zion National Park – a gorgeous canyon slicing through the Utah wilderness, brimming with the reddest rocks I’ve ever seen in my life. We woke up in the Zion Visitor’s Center parking lot (this was my first real stint in car camping) and watched the rocks above glow in the early morning sunrise. On our first day in Zion, we took the park shuttle (a system which really impressed me, by the way) all the way to the end of the canyon, walked 20 minutes to a spot in the Virgin River, and hopped into the water. Yes, into the water. We were hiking The Narrows, a super famous hike that takes you to the most narrow part of Zion Canyon, complete with stunning lighting, small waterfalls, and an overall awe-inspiring experience. The catch is, there’s no land path that takes you there, so you have to hike up-stream in the river, which is freezing cold at this time of year. Luckily we had rented some dry suits, and although they took some serious work to put on, they kept us toasty warm the whole day. We don’t have many still photos from this hike, since we were often more than waist deep in water and bringing a DSLR camera along would have been super sketchy. However, we did make friends with a very nice, taller man who had brought a real camera along and he took a photo of us:

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On our second day in Zion, we did another very famous hike, but this time we stayed dry. Angel’s Landing is only 5 miles round-trip, but it took us most of the day because it took us through 21 switchbacks, collectively called “Walter’s Wiggles”, and up a steep, somewhat treacherous rock precipice to the top. A total of six people have died doing this hike since there is a 1,000 foot drop on either side of the path, but don’t worry, we’re safe and sound. The view from the top was completely worth it – a full view of Zion Canyon in all of its colorful glory – and we had Mac ‘n’ Cheese for lunch and took a siesta at the top, which capped it off. The hike was named after its incredible height, in that the top was so high that “only angels could land there”. I’m not sure if we qualify as angels, but it was an angelic and simply wonderful experience.

We said goodbye to Zion and drove three and a half hours north-east to Capitol Reef National Park. The interesting thing about Utah is that hardly anyone lives there – especially in the southwest corner, where we were, since the urban center is way up north in Salt Lake City – and yet it is one of the most gorgeous and at least geologically inspiring places in the country. Capitol Reef deeply echoes this sentiment. We drove around the corner and -BOOM- there were huge rainbow-colored rocks stretching as far as the eye could see. This area was formed many millions of years ago as part of a water-pocket fold, a “warp in the Earth’s crust” after the Rocky Mountains were formed to the east. We were there to meet up with my parents for a day and a half and explore this severely under-discovered national park. On our hikes the following day, we saw maybe ten other visitors. It was a bit colder there than it had been further south, and the infrastructure in the area is pretty skimpy, but you have to believe me when I say that Capitol Reef is one of America’s best kept secrets.

In Capitol Reef, we hiked to the Navajo Dome and the Hickman Bridge, two large and impressive geological features, and then stopped at this incredible non-profit tea shop to buy some of the best homemade pies I’ve ever tasted. On our way to the second hike, the Grand Wash (which had its own set of Narrows), we caught a glimpse of the old schoolhouse and orchard from the time before this was a national park. To cap off the day, we took a 20-mile scenic drive. I never knew rocks could be so many different colors, and these rock formations truly did look like a “reef”, with pinnacles and columns of all different shapes and sizes.

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After Capitol Reef, we continued on to Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, where we went off in search of a mystical place: Zebra Slot Canyon. Legend told us that this incredibly narrow canyon tucked into the hills had striped orange walls and rounded pillars, reminding us of something out of a Dr. Seuss book. We knew we were entering the true wilderness when the ranger’s instructions to find this trail were to drive eight miles down the dirt Hole-in-the-Rock road, go past the third cattleguard, and park on the right side of the road. We found the trail, or more of a “well-worn social path”, as they called it, snaking off to the left. We brought plenty of water with us and set off, determined to find this mysterious place.

The trail was pretty clear at first, but then we entered the first wash, or river bed, and the trail completely disappeared save for a few cairns, or rock piles, staged far apart, only slightly helping us. We did eventually find a slot canyon, but soon found out that it was the wrong one. It was called Tunnel Canyon, not Zebra Canyon, and we were relieved since it wasn’t quite as striped as we were expecting and the freezing, putrid water in the canyon prevented us from entering farther than a few feet. We continued back the way we had come, stopping the few people we saw and asking if they knew any folklore concerning the whereabouts of Zebra Canyon. They gave us directions to a clear path veering off to the right, and we followed it for a while until suddenly, it wasn’t so clear anymore.

The path split into two, sometimes three or four, and Bryant and I followed each separately, remaining within yelling distance of each other. We followed leads that turned into dead ends, retraced our steps, and felt like we were going in circles until we finally spotted the path about 200 feet away. Running like small, excited children, we turned the corner into a canyon that became narrower and narrower until it morphed into the crazy, Seussian wonderland we had imagined. We went into Zebra Slot Canyon as far as we possibly could without squishing ourselves, sometimes getting on all fours and climbing through it. The colors and round curves of the canyon were absolutely beautiful, and save for some other twenty-somethings from Oregon that we had met along the way, there was no one there except us.

 

After retracing our steps and finding our way back to the car, we drove down to Bryce Canyon in time for the sunset. It had snowed the day before, and the day we were there was very sunny, so the south side of the canyon was clear and the north side was still covered in snow. It was neat to get to see two different seasonal views of this gorgeous place. The canyon is more of a bowl, and is covered with hoodoos, or rock spires. We hiked down into the canyon before the sun set, winding our way around the hoodoos and getting interesting glimpses of the last light of the day. We cooked dinner overlooking the canyon, and to our surprise, the full moon rose just after. It rose in the perfect spot and it was extraordinarily magical to watch it literally creep up over the mountaintops, bathed in an orange glow.

 

We were beginning to see a canyon pattern in our trip. The next two days added two more canyons to the list: Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon, along with Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona. Antelope Canyon is a Navajo sacred site, so you have to buy a permit and go on a special tour to see it. And even though the tours are very stressful and have strict time limits, and there are always tons of people jammed in the canyon at once, it’s worth it to see the gorgeous billowing walls and focused streams of light entering the canyon. Our tour was even more high stakes – we paid more to go on a professional photography tour so that we could spend more time in the canyon and be able to take pictures without tons of people blocking the way. Disclaimer: Neither Bryant nor I are professional photographers. We tried our very best to hide this fact from the many intense, professional-looking people on our tour.

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After that adventure, we ate lunch by Horseshoe Bend, a picturesque spot where the Colorado River does a backbend on itself.

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We continued to the Grand Canyon, and made it just in time for sunset, as always. We watched the last of the sun’s rays fade away, cooked another fabulous dinner by the canyon, and watched an even more magical moon rise. We practically felt like the luckiest people in the world. The next morning we watched the sunrise and visited a few more lookout points before making the very long drive back to California.

 

For the last two days, we visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Kings Canyon was closed due to a wildfire that happened last year, but we got to walk amongst some of the world’s largest trees in the Giant Forest and see a beautiful view of the Sierra foothills from Eagle View Point. It was a perfect way to end a whirlwind, breathtaking trip.

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Sometimes I get carried away with wanderlust, wanting to travel to exotic and far-off corners of the globe, far away from where I live. But this trip has shown me that there are so many beautiful places right here in the U.S. I am eternally grateful that I’m able to travel and experience the breathtaking locations of the world, near and far. I am especially inspired by the enormous power of nature, shaping impressive landscapes and showing us that we are just one of trillions of creatures here on Earth. We must take care of this magnificent place we call home.

*All photos taken by Bryant Irawan and Emma Hutchinson