Just back from a lovely week of camping and hiking with lnhammer.

We headed out a week or so ago for Great Basin National Park, just across the Utah border into Nevada, just off the first stretch of a road known as the loneliest road in America. I’m told the other stretches of this road are lonelier than the one we drove, which I’d certainly dub “a lonely road in America,” but not, quite, the loneliest. Too lovely (and green) a bit of sagebrush desert to feel truly lonely, in spite of the lack of any habitation for 80-some-odd miles.

Great Basin Park is in the Snake Mountains, amid pine and sagebrush slopes, a deep and broad range of greens. The wildflowers were in bloom, and their blues and reds and especially yellows stood out against the green. A river trickled behind our fairly secluded campsite; deer grazed just in front of it. Something about the combination of beauty and wildness reminded me of Ithilien, if Ithilien had somehow evolved in the American Southwest instead of middle earth.

Lovely, lovely camping.

If cold. Rounds of rain kept moving through, with the gray sky almost-clearing in between each bout. No snow down in our 7000 foot elevation campsite, but we did watch ice pellets falling at one point. Further up, the slopes of the mountains were covered with snow, and not only at the top of 13,000+ foot Wheeler Peak, where one would expect it. At one point, partway up to the peak viewpoint, we stood watching that snow fall all around us. Lovely.

But cold. Did I mention that?

The snow meant we couldn’t hike out to the bristlecone pines or to a closer view of Mount Wheeler’s resident glacier (or ice field, depending who you ask); those trails were covered in fresh snow. Instead we hiked along Baker Creek one day, and then up to Lexington Arch the next. The Arch is one of the only limestone arches in the country, and it blends with the surrounding limestone cliffs until one had almost reached it, at which point a bit of blue peeks through (because it was blue that day, not raining or snowing at all). The effect is quite startling.

The hike up had plenty of huffing and puffing (for me), but also stunning views down into a green sage-and pine valley as we switchbacked up a hillside.

We also (before the arch hike, actually), did the obligatory tour of Lehman Caves, which also was worth it. Much fun to poke one’s flashlight into various dripping, glittering corners as one followed the park ranger through the caverns.

Water was something of a theme, this trip: water in the caves, water that may have carved Lexington Arch. More on water, below.

We’d planned to stay the week at Great Basin. But after three days, as we realized the remaining, higher-altitude trails we wanted to hike were blocked–and that yet another winter storm was moving in. So we decided maybe it was time to head someplace warmer–or at least drier.

The question being where, given the busy Memorial Day weekend ahead.

The next nearest other national park to Great Basin turned out to be Zion National Park, which I’d never actually been to and which lnhammer had only stayed at one night, on the way to somewhere else, years ago. We both wanted to spend some time there, but unlike Great Basin, which is one of the less-visited parks (we both prefer parks like that), Zion is one of the most visited, and we’d always avoided it for that reason. But we decided we’d head that way, stay a few days if we found camping, move on and explore elsewhere if we didn’t.

We got to Zion around noon, and I think we found one of the last–if not the last–campsites left in the park. An RV site, not at all secluded, but we felt lucky just the same.

Zion is a park of depths rather than heights: deep pink sandstone cliffs carved out by the Virgin River. More water, acting in different ways.

Great Basin Park was lovely and peaceful. Zion Canyon was–glorious and soaring. I found myself muttering about the wonder of creation a lot, while there, and I normally don’t quite think in such terms.

Zion also felt less crowded than we feared–thanks to the shuttle system that now runs through the park, and to the fact that cars are no longer allowed on the main road. That shuttle seems to have transformed the park from unbearably crowded place we’d heard tales of to one that was merely busy, but not stressfully so.

The first day there we took the shuttle up the canyon, taking short side hikes beneath weeping rocks (water literally seeping through them) and above emerald (sort of) pools.

The next day we hiked along the canyon floor, into the beginning of the region known as the narrows.

Hiking along the canyon floor means hiking in the Virgin River, literally. We started early (wanting to beat those crowds), and we made our way back and forth across and (mostly) in the Virgin River, feeling our way over slippery underwater rocks. Above us, canyon walls narrowed and narrowed, until one just looked up and up, at soaring walls of pink and gray.

I don’t know that I can describe the full wonder of this hike. The narrow, high canyon was stunning, and the feel and sounds of the river made the way delightful as well. (Early on a woman we met looked to the towering cliffs and said to us, “This is God.” Listening to the river I thought: “Yes, and God understands joy.”)

We spent most of the day–seven or eight hours–walking amid those canyon walls.

The day after that was focused on views from above, rather than below: lnhammer hiked the steep trail up to Angel’s Landing, while I opted for a three-hour horseback ride along the canyon walls. Being tall on horseback while climbing amid the towering walls was glorious in its way, too. Most vividly remembered: a descent along a chalky green slope that allowed views out and up, showing the breadth and scope of the layered pink and white sandstone walls all around.

Ride and hike both took up the morning, allowing for some splashing around in the river through the afternoon. Then time lazing and reading before, the next morning (yesterday morning) heading home.

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