“This is a great way to get hypothermia!” David shouted from behind us. He was out of sight behind a bend in the sandstone walls. “Kevin, this is a bad idea and you know it!”
Kevin and I chuckled. David is one of our smartest friends, but he’s also legendarily risk-averse. Honestly I was surprised he’d made it as far as he had. Under normal circumstances it’s not particularly challenging to reach the end of the Zebra slot canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante, but a few days earlier a rainstorm had flooded the narrow passageways with muddy, frigid water, chest-deep in places, which complicated things.
“We’re turning around!” David announced. He and Rob (a friend who shares my name but is far cooler) slogged back to the canyon entrance. Kevin later said he would have turned around too if he hadn’t been worried I’d keep going, break my ankle, and get stuck.
I’d only been to Zebra once before, this past spring. The canyon was dry then, aside from one section at the start, and I hadn’t expected to find so much water this time. October weather in southern Utah tends to be mild, but a cold front at the start of our trip brought rain and sent temperatures plunging. Nights dropped below freezing and even the sunny days struggled to reach the 50s.
Still, Zebra is a short canyon, and the end – by far the most photogenic part – is quite a bit higher than the entrance, which gave me hope it would be dry. And sure enough, we hit solid land when we climbed up to the final section. Relieved, I took some shots of Kevin surrounded by the striped sandstone walls that give Zebra its name.
Chilled but otherwise intact, the four of us hiked back to the car and continued down Hole in the Rock Road to the trailhead for two more slot canyons: Peek-a-Boo and Spooky. By the time we reached the entrance of Peek-a-Boo my teeth had finally stopped chattering and the adrenaline buzz had subsided. For the moment, at least.
“Peek-a-Boo is full of water,” a fellow hiker warned us. “But Spooky is dry.”
Crap! We debated our options. Should we skip Peek-a-Boo and just hike Spooky? “I say we give Peek-a-Boo a try,” Kevin declared confidently.
Rob and I said sure. All eyes turned to David, who cycled through an impressive series of sound effects and facial expressions before finally caving in to peer pressure. “OK, let’s do it,” he agreed.
We’d worn our regular hiking shoes (instead of water shoes), so I decided to tackle Peek-a-Boo barefoot. There were pools of muddy water throughout the canyon, but they weren’t deep and it turned out to be a lot of fun to navigate all the different obstacles, with or without shoes.
Spooky was as dry as promised. At one point we had to negotiate a steep drop (without the helpful rope that had been there in the spring), but otherwise the challenge of Spooky was just squeezing sideways through claustrophobically narrow passageways.
Some days stick with you. This one was particularly memorable in part because we’d earned it. Bad luck threw us a few curveballs that could have derailed our trip, but we’d kept the wheels turning.
Originally we planned to hike California’s Lost Coast. Kevin, a friend since high school, saw photos from the Lost Coast hike I did in 2019 and asked if I’d be up for doing it again, which of course I was. Kevin then recruited three more of our high school friends who like to hike – Gordon, David, and Rob. A work conflict forced Gordon to drop out, which was a bummer, and then the Bureau of Land Management announced a ban on all fires – including campstoves – along the Lost Coast. The BLM ban prompted me to check the tide charts (something I should have done much earlier), and on our chosen dates the tides would generally be high when we needed them to be low. All of a sudden our plan for the Lost Coast looked shaky.
Pretty quickly we shifted our sights to southern Utah. None of the other guys had explored Utah’s five National Parks, so I’d get to introduce them to some of my favorite places. We’d start at Zion and work our way east to Arches. Smooth sailing!
Or maybe not. The weather turned out to be less than ideal, but the bigger problem was Southwest Airlines. David flew United and I drove, so we were able to meet in Salt Lake City on Sunday night as planned. But Kevin and Rob flew Southwest, which chose that weekend to have a systemwide meltdown. Kevin dealt with flight delays and missing luggage but managed to make it to Las Vegas by Monday night. Rob had the worst of it – with his original direct flight cancelled, his best alternative included a layover in Seattle, which deteriorated into an overnight stay at the airport. On Tuesday morning Rob finally made it to Vegas, where Kevin picked him up for the drive to Zion National Park.
That gave David and me some extra time. On the way to Zion on Monday we stopped to check out Kanarra Falls, a relatively short hike to a small but scenic slot canyon that I first visited in 2011. And when we arrived in Zion we made the obligatory pilgrimage to my favorite tree.
On Tuesday morning David and I hiked to Zion’s Emerald Pools, and that afternoon Kevin and Rob arrived on the scene. Our first order of business as a full group was Angel’s Landing, a sometimes-harrowing hike out onto a vertiginous strip of sandstone that towers above the valley floor. For a long stretch the drops are so steep on either side that chains have been drilled into the rock for handholds.
David never balked, despite the non-zero possibility of a fatal plunge, and we reached Angel’s Landing with plenty of light left in the day. As we admired the views, three California condors (parents with their child, we later learned) appeared in the sky above us, soaring on thermal updrafts. Given that California condors almost went extinct and are still among the world’s rarest birds, it was a rush to see them so close.
We spent a cold night in our tents and woke up early to catch the first shuttle to The Narrows, one of my all-time favorite hikes. Erosion-smoothed sandstone walls rise to ridiculous heights all around you, and often the trail is the Virgin River itself, forcing you to walk in icy water that can be waist-high. We knew it would be a cold morning, with air temperatures in the 30s, and I had fun teasing Kevin and David for resorting to wearing neoprene socks (aka “baby booties”) for extra protection.
Zion lived up to very high expectations and we were sorry to leave. On the way to Escalante we made a short stop at Bryce National Park to take in the views.
After Zebra, Peek-a-Boo, and Spooky, we camped for a second night near Escalante before driving through Capitol Reef National Park to Arches National Park, where we hiked to Delicate Arch and then explored Double Arch at sunset.
We spent that night warm and cozy on bunk beds at a quirky hostel in Moab, and the next morning – our final day of the trip – we woke up early for sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. It was crowded, as expected, but still awesome to see the sun rise over the desert landscape on a perfectly clear morning.
“Do you know the story of the American chestnut tree?” David asked thoughtfully as we made the short hike from Mesa Arch back to our car. He’s the only person I know who would have asked that question, and I hope he never changes.
From Canyonlands we drove north and said our goodbyes at an In-N-Out Burger near the Salt Lake City airport. Kevin, David and Rob caught their flights and I drove home. The last part of my drive took me through Yellowstone, where a black bear welcomed me back to the park.
I don’t take trips like this for granted. I was beyond fortunate to make such good friends in high school, and it’s truly incredible that 30+ years later we can have that much fun sloshing through icy water and shivering in tents. It meant a lot to me to be able to experience those special places with the three of them. (And Gordon you were missed!)
We’re already planning get the band back together next year for another shot at the Lost Coast.