Take a Hike to Celebrate US National Parks’ 100th Year Anniversary!
Article & Photography by Jennifer Merrick
If you want to worry less and feel good, take a hike.
Studies have proven that simply taking a walk in nature produces brain waves similar to those that occur in meditation and significantly reduces stress, boosts immune function and improves memory and mental ability.
There are many places to lace up your boots, but to celebrate America’s National Parks’ 100th birthday, I’d like to share with you a couple of phenomenal hikes I recently had the pleasure of doing at two of the United States’ most iconic natural wonders–The Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
South Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon
I have to admit that my first impression of the famous canyon wasn’t as grand as I thought it would be. Walking along the rim on the evening we arrived, there were so many people. Yes, it was gorgeous, dramatic and certainly a sight, but it didn’t take my breath away. I wasn’t filled with the awe I thought I would be. Perhaps it was just too vast, the multi-colored rocks too faded from the distance. Or maybe my expectations were just too high. Luckily, my first impression wasn’t my last.
Early the next morning, taking the shuttle bus from the visitors’ center, we set off on a hike on the South Kaibab Trail. As we descended into the canyon, the awe that had been missing the evening before began to fill me. After an hour’s hike, we reached Cedar Ridge Point, and ventured onto the pick rock that jetted out into the canyon. For a while, we sat completely alone, just us and the canyon that grew more magnificent by the second. The colors of the layered rock formations changed continuously, sparkling in the sun, revealing a glimpse of its millions of years of geological history. Here the Grand Canyon exceeded all of my highest expectations.
Back at the top of the South Kaibab Trailhead, we walked part of the Rim Trail, a 12-mile accessible path that runs from this trailhead to Hermits Rest. This section of the trail was also virtually empty; and once again I was filled with wonder and glad we took time to explore a bit instead of just passing through.
If you go: We stayed at the Best Western Premier Grand Squire Inn in the Grand Canyon Village, approximately 7.5 miles from the park’s entrance. Helpful staff and ultra-comfortable beds made it an ideal base for our hiking trip. We also loved the vintage photos of early tourists exploring the canyon in the rooms and hallways.
Accommodations inside the park include the historic El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodges. For the true adventurer, there is Phantom Lodge that lies at the bottom of the canyon. Reservations are necessary and can be made up to 13 months in advance.
The Narrows at Zion National Park
Unlike the Grand Canyon, I knew very little about Zion National Park in Southern Utah. But as I planned our Grand Canyon road trip, I came across stunning photos of this wilderness area and knew it was somewhere we had to include in our road trip.
Zion was named when Nephi Johnson, the first permanent European- American settler, declared, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.” Its heavenly landscape does look like it’s been carved from above with its fiery red and orange sandstone cliffs and canyons. Warning: It’s very hard to keep your eyes on the road as you drive through it.
Hiking in the 229 square mile national park can range from easy paved trails like the Lower Emerald Pool Trail to the challenging Angel Landing, where you’ll have to navigate steep switchbacks and vertigo inducing cliffs to reach the summit and the reward of a jaw-dropping vista of Zion Canyon.
We decided to do one of the parks most famous hikes, The Narrows, an excursion that’s different than most as the trail is a river. With cold water that can be up to waist-high deep and varying currents, it’s essential to prepare for this hike. Fortunately, there are several outfitters in the nearby town of Springdale that can set you up for a Narrows hike. We visited the Zion Outfitter, just outside the park’s entrance, and came out wearing a bib dry suit that looked like rubber overalls, neoprene socks and water shoes and holding a wooden walking stick. Among the other visitors wearing shorts and a t-shirts, I felt somewhat conspicuous as I boarded the park shuttlebus to the Temple of Sinawava, our point of departure and last stop of the shuttle. “They’re doing The Narrows hike,” I heard one woman whisper to her friend.
“That’ll be the day,” I heard the friend whisper back. Although she could have said, “I’d like to do that one day”. I was a little worried about what I was getting myself into.
The hike began with the Riverside Walk, a paved trail that follows the Virgin River. But instead of turning back at the end of the trail, we stepped into the water and proceeded from there. Because of the currents and varying depths, we’d often wait for others to cross before we tried to traverse a particular stretch. Other hikers did the same and at one point, where the water seemed particularly fast, another couple stopped. We all looked at each other with the unspoken question hanging in the air: “Who’s going first?” It didn’t matter in the end, since not far behind us were a group of young college students who crossed effortlessly. I tried to follow their lead, but my knuckles were white from gripping the walking stick so tightly.
It was well worth the effort, however, for the incredible soaring views. The deep orange cliffs towered above us at heights of up to 200 feet and the width could taper to 20 feet at spots. I felt completely dwarfed by the grandeur of it all. We trekked for about two hours before turning back, but more ambitious and athletic hikers could go as far as Big Springs (a five-hour hike) without a permit.
However the hike was enough time for me to forget any problems at home, work or what’s on the nine o’clock news. Enough time to appreciate just how incredible these National Parks are. And to know that I need to spend more time hiking.
If you go: We stayed at the Best Western Red Hills in Kanab. Once again it was a comfortable base for our South Utah excursions, and the helpful staff gave us excellent recommendations for dining and hiking within town. The town of Kanab is an ideal hub for exploring as it’s in easy driving distance of some of America’s most scenic wonders including Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument and, of course, Zion National Park.
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