This Ain’t Jersey!

The first full day of my visit to Zion National Park started with completely overcast skies. I took the opportunity to sleep in and just relax. It remained cloudy for the entire day, so I spent it exploring parts of the park that I’d never seen. Zion is broken into three different sections, each with its own entrance. Most visitors only see the part of the park that Utah’s state route 9 runs through (that includes the magnificent canyon), but the two remaining areas (Kolob Canyons and The Kolob Plateau) are well worth visiting.

I drove up to the Kolob Canyons area, hoping for a break in the clouds by late afternoon. Hiking to the top of an overlook was good exercise, but by the time I reached the end, I could see the wall of clouds to the west was not going to break. In fact, it looked like a big storm was moving in. I decided to head back to the Kolob Plateau and find a place to camp.

The sign at the Hop Valley trail head said “No Camping”. It had already started to rain and in the morning I wanted to photograph the nearby sandstone hoodoos that stood above the valley. There were no other vehicles at the trail head and no ranger station in this part of the park. I thought to myself “on a rainy night like this, I won’t be in anyones way if I just sleep in the back of my Nissan Pathfiner LE (2 wheel drive in Avalanche White). Besides, I’ll be out of here before the sun comes up in the morning. I made dinner, had a couple of beers, crawled in the back and stretched out.

Strong gusts of wind rocked the vehicle as the steady rhythm of the pouring rain began to lull me to sleep. But just as my eyes were getting heavy, I noticed lights moving in the distance. They weren’t the headlights of a vehicle, however. The were headlamps that hikers wear on their heads. Who would be up here in this remote corner of the park at 10:00PM, walking around in a pouring rain? It had to be park rangers! I was busted! “Sh*t! How am I going to talk myself out of this one????”, I thought. They approached the Pathfinder and tapped on the glass. I lowered a window just enough to see that they were not Park Rangers. Two soaking wet young men looked in and asked me where the nearest ranger station was. It turned out that they were college students visiting from New Jersey. They had started a hike that morning in a distant corner of the park and made it this far, but for some reason, no one was here to pick them up and bring them back into town. Except me.

I might have thought of turning them down, but one of them was showing signs of hypothermia and I knew that the chances of another car going by on the main road at this time of night were slim to none. I told them to go wait in the primitive outhouse at the trail head while I rearranged my gear inside of the vehicle to make enough room for them. I had to leave a one large plastic container out in the rain, but I was finally able to get just enough room to fit them both in the front passenger seat. One would have to sit on the others lap.

Strong gusts of wind and pouring rain made the drive down the narrow mountain road a challenge. Visibility was near zero at times, and there were not many guard rails or markings to designate the edge of the pavement. We finally arrived in Springdale and I dropped the two grateful hikers at a hotel. “This ain’t Jersey!” I joked as we parted ways.

The drive back up the mountain was just as challenging as it was coming down, but as the elevation increased, I encountered intermittent hail storms. Visibility was so bad that I even passed the turn off for the area that I was camping in. I turned around and finally found the small turn off.

I awoke the next morning to at least an inch of accumulated pea sized hail on the Pathfinder and in the area around me. It was still a completely dark and cloudy day, so I went back to sleep for a bit. When I did rise, I had breakfast, assembled my gear, and headed off to scout the area overlooking the valley. I was busy taking test shots of different subjects when the clouds started to dissipate, eventually revealing fresh snow covering the rugged mountain peaks in the distance.

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