Rains have been moving in and out of the area this past week as a result of hurricane Florence’s impact in the Carolinas. The moisture kicked up by the storm has been moving west and has been hitting our area with strong intermittent thunderstorms. It hasn’t been as bad as predicted and thankfully no lives were lost this time. Southern Utah wasn’t so lucky 3 years ago when a similar weather pattern caused by another hurricane caught 7 hikers in a slot canyon flash flood in Zion National Park and a van load of people in Hildale, UT.
After last weeks traffic jam of people trying to enter the park I decided to leave earlier this morning in hope of getting a good parking spot and climbing Angels Landing. But I’ve kept my options open with a multi planned day depending on traffic and people. Eight years ago when I first started taking Fridays as a personal recovery day, I often had the park to myself. Semi empty shuttle busses and never a problem with parking in the visitors center. Not any more, now Friday’s seem as busy as long weekends used to be and visits of 75,000 people backing up shuttle lines for hours on long Memorial Day weekends are the norm now.
Thankfully the entrance line is short as I pay for my new 1 year All Access Pass, but signs have already indicated that the parking in the Visitor Center is full. Scratch option 1. Option 2 is look for a parking spot near the shuttle stop at the junction of Utah highway 9 and the main canyon turnoff. I near the 90 degree turn and notice that parking on the west side of the bridge is already overflowing and I know before I make the turn that option 2 is not going to happen. I’m okay with this, as the shear number of people moving around on an early Friday morning would make hiking Angels Landing miserable. I move on to option 3 which is at the other end of the long 1.1 mile tunnel connecting the main canyon to what is known as east Zion.
East Zion is a scramblers paradise and back country hikers dream. It is filled with canyons, sand stone peaks and slabs that measure in the hundreds of feet. This is one of my favorite sections of the park and I have my eye set on Gifford Canyon for option 3. I’m concerned that this option might be low as I pull to a stop long before the tunnel waiting for oversize vehicles to exit the tunnel. This many vehicles and the chance to get a parking spot in the small parking lots on the other side of the tunnel are nil. The view across canyon of East Temple in the morning sun is worth the wait and I roll down the window and enjoy the fresh air.
The line starts to move and I turn on my lights as we enter the long tunnel. I can’t help myself and honk the horn a few times in the confines to hear the echo. Usually a car or two respond in kind, but today people are to busy and probably think I am honking at them to hurry up. As I exit the tunnel my fear is fulfilled as the small lot is full and a line of cars waiting to enter the tunnel from the east side is stretched around the turn.
I move up toward the second lot when out of the corner of my eye I see an empty stall. There is a small break in the line as I attempt to turn into the lot. I have to perform a two point turn but I am amazed to get a parking spot here. I had a few more options further up the road, but this is good as I pack additional water and get my hiking pole.
To enter Gifford Canyon is a tricky affair and I am glad of this because it keeps the foot traffic to a minimum. Behind the small parking lot bathrooms is a “river access” trail designed primarily for canyoneers to enter Pine Creek which runs west along the outside wall of the tunnel. I turn left at the creek and hike upstream a few hundred feet. I say tricky because Gifford Canyon ends with a dryfall. The canyon can still be accessed by climbing a steep dirt / rock ledge to the left of the canyon and following the hikers trail found there. I would rank it a class 3 scramble by itself and seems to get harder every year due to run off and changes to the Pine Creek Canyon itself.
I scramble up and drop onto the wet sandy bottom of Gifford Canyon now above the dryfall. Having hiked this canyon many times in the past I am grateful to see foot prints in the sand. They are from late last night or very, very early this morning. I’m grateful because Gifford Canyon is known for its soft sink holes and quicksand catches and it’s never fun to be the first one in. One of the main reasons I’m carrying a hiking pole is to probe the sandy bottom to avoid sinking up to my knees.
I’m making okay time and thanks to the foot prints I only have to double back a couple times to avoid soft areas. When the foot prints disappear or the sides of the print are not firm that is a good time to prod with the pole to make sure it is stable footing. This takes time, but it is better than having a sandy wet shoe on my foot or worse yet to be stuck. I read an article one time where a guide had gotten stuck for over an hour in a bog and without the help of the group he would have been in serious trouble. He commented that his biggest error was stepping into the quicksand and waiting for someone who wanted to take a picture. By then, the pressure had settled in and he couldn’t escape.
The canyon is getting narrow and I decided to hike up a side dryfall. This is an early exit from the canyon floor but I have hiked this direction before which connects to the main trail. It is steep and requires a general knowledge of the direction of travel as I wind around a ledge and into another dryfall area. I see footprints in the sand and realize I have come to the main trail.
Trail is not exactly the right word, but it is a climbers trail which works its way through a series of cliff bands and makes for a fairly easy ascent up the western side of Gifford Canyon. I once watched a group struggle with bushwhacking and doubling back after getting cliff bound who apparently didn’t know about the trail. It’s hard to spot unless you know what you are looking for and you have to be aware of some natural formations to follow directions from beta given about the area, but it can save hours of frustration if followed.
I take a break at the top of the climb and marvel at the view. Looking north is one of my favorite views of Deertrap mountain. I can pick out the summit of Progeny Peak and Anthill. Others exist in this section of the park and I have extremely pleasant memories of my climbs here over the years. I stand up to put on my pack and about fall over. I’ve mentioned my plantar fasciitis issue is previous posts and it has taken it toll out of my hiking / climbing plans this summer. But armed with new inserts it has steadily improved over the past few weeks. I’ve been feeling a pull on the tendon as I climbed the slickrock, but it is back with a powerful pain that I stretch and move hoping to work out. It calms down some and I make my way to the slickrock bowl. I had planned on climbing Roof Peak today and I’m not even halfway there yet, which means I’m about a forth of the way in my planned hiking for today. I’m starting to limp. Not good. I sit down on the slickrock bowl and consider my options. I don’t really have any as I know I can’t continue with as bad as my limp has become. I had planned to hiking down Gifford Canyon not re-descend the cliff face I just came up, but without much choice I turn around and start my descent.
I don’t think anything is torn as I can still walk, but my limp now affects my knees and hip. I don’t think I’m a wimp, but this really hurts. I hobble back along the sandy bottom of the canyon grateful I wasn’t further along on my hike than I was. But ending with the realization that this is the first time ever the pain of hiking (due to plantar fasciitis and knee issues) has been greater than the joy of hiking. Usually the joy of hiking / climbing far out way the minor inconvenience or occasional annoyance of heel, hip or knee pain. Not today.
As I reach the end of the hike, 4 stunning Big Horn Sheep are standing at the top of the dryfall which enters Pine Creek. I stop to admire them as their attention is focused on the parking lot. One turns and spots me as they move up the hillside to the left. I make my way down the hillside to the right and I get a glimpse of once again the joy of why I love to hike.