May 10, Gooseberry Mesa
Mesa is Spanish for table. In the SW United States, a mesa is a large, flat-topped mountain, often with steep cliffs on the sides. Gooseberry Mesa is about 20km south and west of Zion National Park in southern Utah. The mesa is bordered to the north by the Virgin River, flowing out of Zion canyon and to the west a plateau and valley that drops down to the towns of Hurricane and St. George. To the south of Gooseberry is another valley, though which highway 59 runs SE towards Arizona.
Gooseberry Mesa, SW of Zion National Park
Access to Gooseberry Mesa is via a dirt road that turns off from highway 59, then goes north and west through the farms and pastures around the quaintly named town of Apple Valley. The road, like much of the land around here, is red dirt, and is dry and in good condition, but if the dirt is wet, it becomes impassable mud. There are clean, modern parking and outhouse facilities at the top of the Mesa, as well as free campsites, but there are no other facilities and no water, so you need to bring all the food and water you need. And bring an extra day’s supply of water and food in case you get stuck up there when a storm turns the road into mud.
After loading up on food, water and other supplies in St. George, we get to the top of the mesa in the early evening. The campsites are established branches off the road, with space for a vehicle or two, and usually a stone fire pit. There are plenty of empty spots to choose from, and we find one within a couple 100m of the outhouse, on the north side of the road. The big red peaks of Zion, just north of us across the Virgin River valley, are glowing in the evening light as we setup camp and make dinner. The sky is clear and the stars come out above us on this stunning location on top of this table mountain. Wow!
A thunderstorm rolls by on the southern horizon, with sporadic lightening filling the cloud, and the dramatic light show forces me to stay awake for another 1/2 hour to capture the spectacle of this desert storm. Photography note: this was not a very active storm, with lightening only every few minutes, and each blast only lasts 1/3 of second or so, too quick to capture by triggering the camera when you see the flash. So as I brushed my teeth and got ready to sleep I took frame after frame after frame of the dark storm on the horizon, each one an 8 second exposure, until finally capturing the cloud lit up by a lightening bolt.
The day starts off with some mechanical work on the bike to fix my chain, which broke last night on the way to the outhouse. Once the bike is running again we ride the Bowls and Ledges and North Rim trails. Fun and spectacular riding on blobs of white sandstone, then changing to moderately technical single track as the trail network takes us north to the edge of the mesa.
The desert on top of the mesa has plenty of cactus, and in mid May they are in full bloom, a spectacular sight in this dry and sparsely vegetated environment.
The north rim is spectacular, with long, convoluted ridges of white and red sandstone winding their way down and across the valley from the steep cliffs of beige sandstone that form the top of the mesa.
We continue riding along the stunning rim before turning south and following a trail that takes us across the mesa to the south rim. Along the way my chain breaks again and I’m forced to coast / walk the bike down the dirt road back to camp, bringing the day’s ride to an early end, bah!
We drive back to town to get a new chain and take the opportunity to pick up some more beer, chips and other supplies critical for desert survival.
After dinner I decide to move my tent to a slightly higher, less wind-sheltered campsite with better views of Zion and the other spectacular mountains for a night photo session. The alarm is set for 2am, but some cirrus clouds have moved in. Hopefully they will clear…
Up at 2 am and my first thought upon stepping out of the tent is “damn, the clouds are still here”. A few minutes later, after becoming a little more conscious, I realize those are not clouds, that’s the Milky Way arching across the eastern sky! Whoa!
Excited about the clear sky, I set up the camera and start shooting. The constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpious are sitting nicely above the southern horizon and the only light pollution is from St. George to the west and a faint glow in the north, perhaps from Cedar City, 60km away. The tourist town of Springdale also casts quite a glow on the red walls at the southern entrance to Zion canyon, but does not light up the sky.
The above image is a composite of 35 frames, each one a two-minute exposure, and covers nearly 180 degrees of sky, from north (left) to south. After the above wide-angle view, I switch to the 50mm lens to capture the core of the Milky Way in more detail, and spend another couple hours awake under the amazing skies.
By 5am the sky to the east above the big walls of Zion are just starting to brighten and the late show is over. Finish shooting the ground frames as the sky brightens, quite quickly, and by 5:30 I’m packed up and back in the tent to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the sun hits the tent and makes it unbearably hot.
After a groggy breakfast we ride out to the viewpoint at the far west end of the mesa, following part of the same trail network from yesterday. There’s a fresh chain on my bike and I’ve had a solid few hours of sleep, the riding is fun, the scenery spectacular, and desert is full of cacti in full bloom. What a place!
Riding the same trails twice is fun because you can work on cleaning sections that stumped you the first time, navigation is easier, and you get a more continuous ride, approaching the elusive state of flow, where all your awareness is in the here and now, your mind is clear and focused, and your bike and body are working as one.
One thing is for sure: achieving flow and coming back with lots of photographs are not very compatible activities. You are either in the zone, riding, or you are stopping to gawk at and photograph the scenery (which really deserves to be gawked at!), but not both. Today we ride. Well, ok, a quick few photos just need to be taken!
May 13, Zion National Park
Time for a short break from biking. We get up early, pack up camp and get to Zion around 10 in the morning, hoping to get one of the first-come-first-serve campsites. As we approach the town of Springdale, at the south end of Zion, we run into heavy traffic, and soon slow to a crawl, along with 100s of other vehicles all trying to get into the park. After the quiet campsite and trails on the mesa, the crowds in the park are a big shock, but we are early enough to get a campsite in the tent section of a big RV lot.
In the middle of the day the heat is intense, and we chill out in the shade of camp for the afternoon. After a quick, early dinner I catch one of the regular (free!) buses that ferry people up and down the canyon, planning to head up to West Rim and Angel’s Landing for the evening. Since the last bus runs at 8:30, I’ve brought my bike along for the ride back and some warm clothes and a headlamp for when the sun goes down.
Angels Landing is an extremely popular trail to one of the best viewpoints in the canyon, and even at this late hour it’s crowded with people. The upper part is narrow, steep and very exposed, with chains to protect hikers from the 300m drop. To avoid the crowds on this narrow trail, I take a left turn at a junction and head to the West Rim Trail, which climbs up on white sandstone to a higher elevation than Angels Landing. I only meet one other person on the west rim trail, while on the more famous Angels Landing there are queues of people at the bottleneck points. I’m moving at a quick but sustainable pace, and it feels great to be walking again after a few days of riding the bike and sitting in the car.
The cross-bedding in the sandstone is beautiful, there are small lizards running around, and the view looking 500m down to the lush, green canyon floor is just stunning. It’s also very impressive how life thrives in the harsh and dry environment high above the canyon floor, where it’s mostly bare rock.
Zion park is on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, a massive region covering 337,000 km2 of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The sand and sediments now exposed in Zion were deposited here starting around 250 million years ago, when all the continents were jammed together into the super-continent of Pangaea. What are now big cliffs of red Navajo Sandstone were accumulated over about 10 million years as thick sand dunes during the Jurassic Period, when a huge desert covered this part of North America. The canyon itself was carved relatively quickly, with the Virgin River cutting down 400m over the last 1 million years. The erosion is on-going, with the Virgin River moving an estimated 5000 tons of sediment daily.
Alone out here, surrounded by the immensity of the geology and feeling the incomprehensible span of time it took to first deposit and then carve out this landscape, I feel simultaneously absolutely insignificant and very fortunate to be here. A truly magnificent and special place!
After hiking along west rim for a ways, it’s getting late and I still want to make it up to the Angels viewpoint, so I turn around and head back to the junction. The historic Angels Landing trail, built in 1926, is probably the most famous hike in Zion and promises great views.
On the way up the Angels Landing trail I meet two park rescuers who are helping a guy who has slipped and broken his ankle. After running up to the top and snapping some photos of the stunning views up and down the canyon, I carefully pick my way back down the trail in the twilight.
On the way down I meet the rescue party again, who are now moving the victim very slowly down the trail. He can’t walk in this steep terrain, and is shuffling along on his butt, clearly in great pain, and secured to one of the rescuers. I ask them if they need any help, and then move past them to get down to easier ground before it gets dark. Those guys are going to be in for a long, slow descent.
They really should not call this trail a “hike”, because actually it is a very exposed scramble, protected by chains. Many of the people that I saw up there this evening really do not belong on an exposed scramble. When you are wearing flip flops, carrying a water bottle in one hand, and don’t have a backpack with extra clothes or a headlamp, this is not the trail for you, especially in the evening.
On the way down I meet up with other groups of hikers, none of whom have a headlamp, and we stick together, swapping travel stories as we hike down the trail in the dark. We meet a crew of at least six Park’s Rangers coming up the trail hauling a single-wheel stretcher, to carry the guy with the broken ankle down once the team of two rescuers get him down off the technical upper trail and onto the easy ground of the paved trail.
The others didn’t realize that the bus stops running, so they are in for a couple hours walk down the road back to town. After saying goodby, I hop on the bike for a stunning ride down canyon surrounded by towering red walls lit by the moon. Magical!
Another hiking day in this crowded but absolutely stunning place! Note to self: much as I enjoy meeting people, this place would be much quieter in the winter time. And not as hot!
To avoid the heat, we’ve chosen the Hidden Canyon hike, which starts at the Big Bend and winds up a series of switchbacks until entering a narrow side canyon. There the official trail ends at a big log, lying at a 30-degree angle, that needs to be down-climbed to continue up the canyon.
As we continue hiking there are several steep sandstone steps, between 4m and 8m high, that need to be climbed, either on the stone or using logs. These obstructions add some fun and excitement to the hike, while the tall, dramatic red walls rise up to end at a skinny band of blue sky. The depths of the canyon are shaded, making this is one of the most comfortable places in the park on a hot day.
The canyon can be explored for a few kilometers, but eventually you will run into obstacles (walls) that cannot be climbed safely without technical climbing gear. Remember as you explore up canyon that it’s always more difficult to climb down than it is to go up!
Once again I’ve taken the bike on the bus, so that I can ride back down the canyon, an absolutely stunning road ride through this surreal landscape of giant red walls. An added bonus is that the road is mostly free of cars, thanks to the bus-transport-only policy during the high season in this park.
We get back to camp in the late afternoon and settle down to make dinner. Storm clouds are moving across the sky, and we decide to head out after dinner for a quick bike ride up the canyon road, chasing the storm and the potentially beautiful evening light.
It’s difficult to drag yourself away from a beer and the comfort of a chair in camp to jump on the bike and go chase the possibility of a cool photo, but in a landscape as incredibly dramatic as this one it’s totally worth it!
Among all the great mountain biking in this part of the world, there is one more trail we want to hit before leaving the SW corner of Utah, and that is The Whole Guacamole ride just west of Zion park on highway 9. Getting there requires driving up a narrow and exposed dirt road that heads up a drainage to gain a plateau immediately south-west of Zion.
We have been using the fantastic MTB Project app to find and navigate bike trails in the area. The app combines Google Image display with crowd-sourced trail maps and usually includes a good description of the road approach to the trailhead, which is often not simple in this area. Most importantly, the app caches the map data, so it remains fully usable when you are out of cell range. Brilliant and highly recommended!
Being so close to Zion, we are expecting great views, but upon arriving at the trailhead parking lot we both gasp – the big peaks of Zion are right in your face, and off to the NW a volcanic cinder cone rises out of the plateau.
The trail starts on smooth white sandstone before moving onto rocky single track surrounded by blooming pink cactus. Then comes more single track before entering a region of 5-10m high blobs of white sandstone which the trail winds over, around and down.
The riding is continuously challenging, but never too difficult, making for big grins and lots of joyful whoops. We ride some sections repeatedly just because they are so much fun, and all the while the red peaks of Zion make for a stunning, colorful backdrop. Another wow!
At the edge of the white sandstone region is a series of fun, narrow gaps and wildly eroded nooks and caverns. The trails climbs a bit to get to the south edge of the mesa, where we take a quick lunch break and enjoy the view out over the Virgin River valley. Then super fun, twisty, swooping single track takes us back down to rejoin the main trail leading to the parking lot.
We get back to the car, tired and over-heated but just thrilled to have ridden this fantastic trail with superb views over a great variety of terrain. The Whole Guacamole absolutely gets 5/5-stars and my vote for Best Mountain Bike Trail in Utah!
Big fun in my favorite part of the United States!
– Darren Foltinek, 2016