Roadtrip, Part 1: Mojave, Vegas, and Zion

The morning after Christmas I picked up a rental car, said goodbye to my family, and headed East. It was tough to leave, knowing they would all spend a week together in the Bay Area, but I haven’t spent much time in the southwest and I wanted to check it out.

I’m not sure how the idea hatched, but last fall I started thinking about and planning a road trip. I wanted to see a few national parks, do some hiking, and see my friend Beth who moved to Phoenix last spring. Originally, I was going to do the trip solo (much like Iceland) but then my hiking buddy Amina said she wanted to come along, and suddenly I had a travel buddy.

I drove from San Diego to Twentynine Palms on Saturday, and spent a miserable night in a sort of disgusting motel with no heat. I could have kept going on to Vegas in the dark, but I wasn’t too excited about seeing Sin City (it’s never appealed) and I really wanted to see the Mojave desert, so Twentynine Palms it was.

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I was on road by 6 a.m. on Sunday, and watched the sun rise over the desert as I drove. It was very pretty, but I couldn’t help think about how hard it must be to live in a corner of the world that’s so hot, barren, and dry.

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Everyone seemed to be just passing through, though considering that its North America’s driest desert, I suppose that’s not a surprise. I stopped briefly to admire the Joshua trees, and then continued on my way.

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Shortly after 9, I crossed over into Nevada, and had just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before Amina’s flight landed. We wasted no time getting out of Vegas and pretty soon we were ooh-ing and ah-ing over the landscape as we dipped into Arizona and finally Utah.

Zion National Park was our first stop. While waiting for Amina to get her baggage in Vegas, I scoped out hikes. While some people might have planned a more detailed itinerary, I wasn’t sure what the weather would be like in Zion in late December and didn’t want to get my heart set on a hike, only to have to bail because of snow. This way, I figured, we could make the best choice for current conditions. The Hidden Canyon trail, which starts from Weeping Rock and heads to the right, seemed like a good one.

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Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken the time change from Nevada to Utah into account (oops), and we ran out of daylight after about an hour. Fortunately, that was enough time for us to scope out the trail and decide we needed some sort of traction device for our hike the next day, as the trails were covered in packed snow and ice. Our second stop in town was the Zion Adventure Company, where we rented the gear we’d need for the next day.

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The alarm went off early Monday, and we were out the door just after sunrise. While most head to Angel’s Point, Amina had just hiked that trail a few months earlier, and I wasn’t to keen to do it with all the ice on the trail. Wed decided on Observation Point instead, a four-mile out and back trail that offered fantastic views.

The trail leaves from the same parking lot as Weeping Rock and Hidden Canyon, but veers left after about a half a mile. There were several people in the parking lot when we arrived, in various states of preparedness and physical ability. I always hike with day pack stocked with a first aid kid, space blanket, snacks, and water, but some people on the trail were in shorts (it was 30 degrees) and carried nothing.

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The trail is listed as strenuous, but the incline isn’t as bad as many of the trails in the White Mountains, and it’s paved almost the whole way. My sense is that book times and ratings are based on summer conditions, which are unrelentingly hot. In December though, the trail was just steep enough to keep warm (though I wore a fleece and buff the whole time).

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The views on the trail started out good and only got better. While it mostly looked out over the main road and the Virgin River, the movement of the sun meant that the scenery and colors on the cliffs were always changing. The trail was often covered in packed snow and ice, but the traction devices helped, and it was wide enough that the switchbacks up a sheer rock wall were more or a mind mess than actual threat. Still, it was a bit scary walking on snow and ice just a few feet from a cliff edge.

We made it to the Observation Point outlook (4 miles, with 2,100 feet elevation) in two hours. We lingered at the top, enjoying delicious pb&js (my go-to hiking sandwich) taking obligatory photos, and bantering with a very fit family from Florida whose kids basically ran up the mountain.

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With the hike taking only about half the day, we had plenty of time to see the park’s other sights, poke around Springdale, shower, and have dinner at the Zion Lodge.

Observation Point trip details:
Length: 8 miles (round trip), 2,100 feet elevation
Time: 4 hours, 3.5 hours hiking
Temp: ~30 degrees
Gear: heavy base layer, fleece, down jacket, buff, hat, gloves
Other stuff: space blanket, water, snacks, headlamp, first aid kit

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