“Nope, no way, I’m not climbing out on that rock so you can take a picture,” was the last thing I said before climbing out on that rock just off the Observation Point Trail in Zion National Park. Confession time, “The Active Explorer” is afraid of heights, not all heights, just natural ledges when I’m not on rope. So, when my hiking partner George, suggested I walk onto a rocky outcropping for a photo, I balked. But I’ll get back to my photo-op-rock experience later…
Zion Nation Park is hard to describe because of the sheer magnitude of its geologic formations. The park encompasses over 229 square miles of land sculpted by a combination of uplift, sedimentation, erosion and lithification (the processes by which loose sediment is hardened to rock). In Zion Canyon, 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs rise from the canyon floor, carved by the Virgin River over the course of 250-million years. Unless you see it with your own eyes, nothing I can say can relay how it feels to gaze up at the towering red cliffs. At the top of the cliffs, the earth flattens into high plateaus carpeted with low grass, juniper, pine and manzanita scrub.
We wanted to hike to Observation Point from the floor of Zion Canyon to get another angle on the red rocks. Pulling into the trailhead at the Weeping Rock Picnic Area, I realized with some apprehension that the trail was carved directly into the side of the cliff.
We set out hiking up switchback after switchback and the parking area quickly fell away below us. Strangely, the trail was mostly paved, perhaps to prevent erosion. Luckily, it was wide enough that my fear of heights didn’t rear its head. The trail finally leveled out and rounded a corner into steep-walled Echo Canyon. “Wow,” was all we could say. Judging from the hikers behind us, it was a popular phrase on that part of the trail.
Sun reflecting off the sandstone walls washed the scene in reddish light. Although the temperatures were in the 40s, everything felt warmer. This section of the trail was by far my favorite. Poking around, we spotted three good anchor points for a future rappel into the slot canyon below the trail (yup…already planning a return trip).
Continuing through a narrow slot, the trail left Echo Canyon and quickly resumed its upward journey. Overall, this trail gains 2,148 feet over four miles utilizing well-planned switchbacks. Rated as “strenuous” on the Trails Illustrated Map, it’s not a bad hike for the moderately fit.
Just over halfway, George spotted the rocks jutting out over the canyon. All I could think was…oh no. He headed straight out on to them and asked me to snap a photo. It wasn’t the first precarious spot he’d climbed out on, but certainly the most unnerving to me. Just 30 minutes earlier, he had a petit old woman mumbling, “Please be careful…” as he climbed a rocky pillar. I felt like a wimp.
After I shot several photos, he returned to the trail and tried in vain to get me out on the rocks. It wasn’t happening. I stubbornly pointed myself up trail and began walking. “Maybe later,” I said, successfully postponing the decision.
By the time the trail topped out at the plateau, my legs were tired. It continued for roughly another leisurely mile toward Observation Point where several groups had already gathered for lunch. I couldn’t help but laugh at a hiker taking pictures with her iPad. Don’t judge me, please, it was just such a classic example of our technology ridden lives.
The view of Zion Canyon from 2,000 above was worth every step of our hike. I could see why it is considered one of the best views in the park. Steep red cliffs shadowed the canyon while the Virgin River meandered silently down its length, continuing to carve away at the sandstone as it had for millions of years.
In one of those special hiker-bonding moments, several of us started swapping food like a bunch of kids in an elementary school lunchroom. Cracked black pepper cheddar, baguette, apple, and Boudreaux cookies made it around, but someone held out on the Reece’s Pieces. Dang it!
On the way out several side trails led to more views of the canyon from different angles. We even took the obligatory shot of our boots off a rock precipice hanging thousands of feet in the air. Surprisingly, I only had a short moment of apprehension. Hmmmm…maybe I’m doing better, I thought.
Back at the photo-op-rocks, he asked again. After one last objection, I gathered myself and took the first step out onto the rocks for a picture. Feeling the firm ground under my feet I continued. Nothing felt like it was going to crumble away or tumble down the ravine, it was solid, as had been for generations. My fear vanished, and it really wasn’t as scary as I expected, although I did plop down on my butt near the edge. The spot wasn’t dangerous, just unnerving, and the unobstructed view was spectacular. Admittedly, the push to explore the edge of my comfort zone was exactly what I needed.
We finished our hike back at Weeping Rocks with the usual, “I’m beat…Why didn’t we park closer?…I need food now…Wow, that was awesome,” moment. If you hike much, you know what I mean.
Climbing out on photo-op-rocks was just the first step in confronting my fear of heights. Much of my hiking has been solo, so I’ve never had the nudge to explore at the edge of my comfort zone. In fact, I’ve always felt it prudent to be even more cautious as a solo hiker (and still do).
Have you ever tried to combat a fear that limited your activities? Please share your experience below.
If you go – This 8-mile, out and back hike gains over 2,000 feet of elevation, and is exposed at the top, so make sure you pack layers and plenty of water. During the busy season, the trailhead is only accessible by park shuttle.
For detailed trail reports simply search the web for “Observation Point, Zion National Park.” I see no reason to repeat here what others have covered extensively. My goal is to inspire you to add this amazing hike to your Zion itinerary. It’s worth the effort!