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Artist Adventure Series, No. 4

5 Day Trans-Zion Backpacking Trek

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Day 1
We arrived at Zion last night and camped at Watchman. The weather was clear and crisp, and the mountains seemed very close and very small against the bright starry sky. This morning we met our shuttle at 6am at the East Entrance, where we left our car. The shuttle, designed for backpackers like us, drove us all the way to Kolob Canyon, 50 miles to the west, and there we were left, the only way home being through 50 miles of backcountry hiking to get back to our car.
Backpacking in Zion National Park

The ranger had warned us of a 30% chance of rain when we talked to him yesterday, which we are totally prepared for, but this shuttle driver is convinced that there will be an all-out snow blizzard on Friday, the last day of our trip, which has made us slightly nervous.

A note on bears: Statistics show that 6,000 cars are broken into each year by Yosemite bears, sometimes for as little as a gum wrapper. Supposedly the chances of being attacked by a bear are less than the chance of being struck by lightening. But how many people go out into the wild bringing tasty bear snacks with them?

Anyways, the ranger assured us that no bears had been sighted in Zion for 20 years-- except for last week when a brown bear was seen in La Verkin Creek, at the very campsite we are staying at now. So, my brothers (both Boy Scouts) and I are following good bear protocol: cooking away from our sleeping spot, carrying no food or wrappers on our person, and keeping all food and trash in our clearly marked bear "resistant" canisters.

Day 2
Made it to the Wildcat Canyon trailhead. We hiked all day on the high plateaus of West Zion. West ZionIt was a strange sight to see the flat grassy plains of the high plateaus end abruptly in mountain peaks that seem not half a mile away, but are actually seen across the steep valleys between the plateau and the mountains beyond.

At sunset, the grasses in the pine forest were the most amazing array of buttery colors: pink, butter yellow, pale sage green, and the most delicate shade of lavender. The sky turned a pure shade of purple after the sun went down, fading into lavender and a pale blue hue into the upper reaches of the sky. I will have to remember these colors to paint with, since my camera (or my skill using it) is not able to capture these delicate colors.

Sunset is at 5:30pm, sunrise at 7am. This is 13 hours of darkness, which seems to stretch interminably. We fell asleep soon after sundown, and now I am wide awake, several hours before dawn. There is not a glimmer of pre-dawn light in the sky, since darkness comes and leaves quickly, without much prelude or fanfare, up here in the high desert of winter.

I stare up at the starry sky, looking for shooting stars and moving satellite specs.

We sleep with our bivy sacks in a star formation, our heads in the center. I hear my brothers' soft breathing inches away, and I am at peace.

Day 3

We awoke before dawn and had a cold breakfast, since we were low on water and wanted to get to the springs at Wildcat Canyon and have a hot meal there.
Wildcat Canyon riverWe hiked through the tall pine forest with our headlamps on, their dim lights barely penetrating the gloom between the trees. Finally, after hiking in the dark for over an hour, I could see a line of lighter sky shining between the trees. By 7am the tips of the trees were glowing with golden light, and another morning was born.

Turns out the Wildcat Canyon river is dry as a bone, so we had to back hike to a mossy spring where a trickle of water could be coaxed into a Nalgene bottle. This will be our last water for two days, until we make it to the canyon floor of Zion, where we can fill up at The Grotto. A little bit of rainfall isn't sounding so bad right now.

We hiked 12 miles today, through increasingly bitter winds and threatening skies. The beautiful views of the West Rim Trail were dark with no sunlight to bathe them, making my photography less than impressive. We made it to our camp at 4pm, 2 hours before dark, but with raindrops beginning to fall. We had wanted to push on, to get closer to Angel's Landing before the threatened snow storm, but we were exhausted and ready to make camp.

By the time we had a hot meal and set up our bivy sacks, it was starting to hail, and we were very glad to be cozy and warm in our little tents.

Now it is 4am, and I have been awake for three hours. I am convinced these long winter nights are the bane of backpackers, just due to the sheer boredom of the long nights. We fell asleep at 6pm, and my brothers are still resting besides me. It has been raining all night on us (a funny feeling having rain fall on you inches away from inside a bivy sack), but I have not seen any snow. We have had no cell phone service with which to check the weather. Soon we will rise and hike the remaining 9 miles to the canyon floor, where we are going straight to the Zion Lodge for a meal and some fresh vegetables!

Day 4
Another morning on the trans-Zion trek. The cold front has hit, there have been snow warnings all over Utah and Colorado. It is 6am on day five, and I am warm inside the Zion lodge, getting ready for the last day of the trek: 2000 feet ascending the Weeping Rock trail, then 8 more miles across the white slickrock wasteland of East Zion, to finally reach my car, which has been so patiently waiting.

Day four was wet and wetter, alternating between rain and hail all day. Snowfall on the west rimThe views of the West Rim Trail were absolutely spectacular! The high storm clouds did not mar the beauty of the cliffs, but enhanced them by casting strange glowing light over the entire landscape as the sun rays angled through the mist.

I was very happy to see the cottonwoods had not yet dropped their leaves on the main canyon floor - capturing the fall colors was a big reason I went on this trip; and so far, at higher elevations, fall has turned abruptly and permanently into winter. These winter colors will inspire a new series of paintings, however, from the empty red and black and gray branches to the lavender fields of frosty grasses. The landscapes are empty and starkly beautiful, very still except the wind rushing high in the pines, not a single animal stirring, not a bird, not a fly.

It was funny to see people again, after days of isolation. The first people we saw were joggers wearing shorts and fanny packs, while we trudged past them in ski gloves and full winter gear, our packs looming above us covered in rain sacks. A strange contrast. As the morning wore on, we saw more and more people eagerly climbing the steep switchbacks going up to Angel's Landing, while we tiredly trudged downwards, down to warmth and hot burgers at the Lodge.

Day 5
The last day of the Trans-Zion trek was long, cold, and beautiful. Looking back at it, just a day later, it seems like a faraway dream, climbing those steep mountain switchbacks of the East Rim Trail through falling snow, watching giant, 1/2-inch snow balls falling from the sky, filling up my brother's footprints in front of me.

Erin Hanson and her brothers pause for breathWe started at the Weeping Rock trail, climbing 2000 feet into East Zion, then starting the winding, gentle decent to the East Gate entrance. The sun came out sporadically, clearing away the murky sky and casting long shadows over the gleaming snow. We didn't take time to pause for a hot meal, since our bodies would have rapidly cooled in the sub-freezing temperatures, so we kept moving except to sip from our water jugs or grab a snack. Finally, after following wildly wandering trails that seemed to go in every direction except towards my car, we arrived at the trail's end a half hour before dusk. We left our trusty walking sticks at the trailhead, carved with our initials, and climbed wearily into the car.

After Zion we are visiting Grand Canyon's north rim, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Park. With the temperatures dropping below zero at night, however, we will be avoiding camping on the ground, and so now begins the easy part of our trip. Expect to see many wintry Utah paintings appearing soon on my website! I am very eager to get home and start painting, inspired by new color schemes and wild desert vistas.


Erin Hanson ArtistERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a young artist, she worked at a mural studio creating 40-foot-tall paintings on canvas, while selling art commissions on the side. After getting a degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to paint one painting every week for the rest of her life. She has stuck to that decision ever since, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history. Erin Hanson's style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is now taught in art schools worldwide. With thousands of collectors eagerly anticipating her work and millions of followers online, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of contemporary impressionism.

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