The Angels of Hell Canyon

Greetings!

Today started out like one of those days when one may be a bit irritated with the challenges of living a mile high in a northern clime. The promises of spring are here, yes, but on any given day they may be snatched away by winter’s firm grip.

Thirty-nine degress Fahrenheit with snowflakes flitting down. As you might guess, their appearance beneath the looming clouds was most unwelcome:

Like a swarm of mosquitoes. Toilet-water raining down from an airplane.

…Or a stranger breaking the distance barrier at the grocery.

Since this quarantine-thing has started, our family has persisted in making sure we get out each and every weekend for some sort of hike. Today was my turn to pick, and so I chose my local favorite: Hell Canyon.

When he heard about my choice, knowing how many birds we’d see along the way, Panther—our two year old cat affectionately known as Fuzzy, or Nid—didn’t want us to leave him behind.

Panther wearing my backpack in anticipation of what surely would be the ultimate bird-stalking adventure.

Although it was 11:00 am, the high had already been reached, and there was nowhere for temps to go but down. After packing a simple lunch consisting of cheese-and-crackers or crackers-and-peanut butter, we loaded up in our car and set out for a short ride to the Hell Canyon trailhead, about ten miles from the house.

Seriously, you gotta take me.

We are fortunate to live near one of the gems of the Black Hills. Half of the trail is situated along the bottom of a canyon, where thickets of shrubbery grow in abundance: chokecherry, serviceberry, red osier dogwood. Trees of birch, aspen, and box elder are prolific, and a small intermittent stream weaves through part of the canyon.

Starting out on the Hell Canyon Trail traveling counter-clockwise.

Hell Canyon is a nirvana of shrubbery, a haven for birds such as spotted towhees, warblers, and chickadees. In much of the Black Hills, the deer populations have mauled the native shrubs (the whitetails and mule deer are browsers, which mean they enjoy getting their daily dose of fiber from twigs of shrubs and trees). Hell Canyon is a beautiful anamoly and is one of the all-too-few places in the southern hills where shrub habitat remains intact.

It didn’t disappoint.

Near the start of the trail, along the creek, an orange-crowned warbler was flitting erratically amongst the dogwood bushes. I was barely able to glass it before it flitted away, down the creek. These small birds are transients in the Black Hills, loading up on insects as they continue their flight further west or to Alaska or Canada.

Orange-crowned warbler
Credit: USFWS, D. Menke

Hiking with family is a catch-as-catch-can birding experience; one doesn’t have the luxury to stop and gape at the bushes for five minutes, in search of an LBJ (little brown jobbie)—or, in this case an LYJ (little yellow jobbie). There isn’t enough group-patience for that, so I try to limit my hey, come look at this!‘s to a few times a trip and a more cooperative subject.

Fortunately, birds each have a distinctive call: if you can recognize what it is you’re looking for, it is much easier to know where to find it. As we were hiking, three different wrens (feisty little LBJs) called from somewhere in the canyon: canyon wrens, rock wrens, and a house wren.

Canyon Wren
Credit: Public Domain/D. Faulkner
A subtle arch along the Hell Canyon Trail; if you blink, you might miss it!

Also along the way, a gallery of floral beauties presented themselves:

(Clockwise from upper left: star lilies, phlox, violets, and pasque flowers)

These are just a sample of the amazing flowers blooming along the trail, yet they don’t measure up to one thing that happened on the hike. On the way into the canyon, my husband turned around to say something to me, but then he looked up at the sky and pointed.

Rainbow-amped sky

Of course this photo doesn’t do it justice. Not even close. It looked like a rainbow had been doused with sugar, transforming it into celestial sherbet. I was tempted to Photoshop the image to coax out the colors as we experienced it, but I didn’t want to make it look artificial.

Seraphims were flitting and floating and singing, Gabriel trumpeting his horn, the air euphorically thrumming holy holy holy…(ok, not quite, but it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected). It was that kind of moment, when you’ve swallowed a lungful of Helium (don’t try this at home) and any moment now your feet are going to leave the earth.

Wishing you a day with that kind of experience. Filled with faith that God is indeed good. And His love endures forever.

No matter what.

You don’t have to be an angel to read this post (but it helps to have wings)

View of Angel’s Landing from the West Rim trail

Do you like to live dangerously: sky dive after sunset, swim in a river with piranhas, or…

eat jarred pickles one year after the expiration date?

Do you think of yourself as a balanced individual?

If so, you are the perfect candidate to experience the premier hike in Zion National Park: Angel’s Landing.

My family and I went up there recently, and I can vouch that it is an apt name for that particular hike. Only angels would be comfortable fluttering to a perch on that fin of rock so high…so narrow.

Angels—or condors.

Picture of soaring California condor; these birds have a wingspan around 109 inches, or just over 9 feet)

On the brink of extinction in the 1980’s when only about twenty-two birds survived, intensive recovery efforts of condors have led to a global population that is around 400 (about half of these are in the wild vs. captivity). Nearly 70 condors call wild parts of Utah and Arizona (including Zion National Park) their home. Currently, the biggest threat to their recovery is the use of lead shot by hunters (condors are scavengers, and suffer from lead poisoning after eating animals killed by lead shot).

Apparently, these enormous, magnificent birds like to soar near this prominent massif. Although we didn’t see the condors near Angel’s Landing, we did have turkey vultures circling above us; either it was the sound of the wind fluttering through their wings, or they were chanting something that sounded a lot like:

fall, fall, fall.

Yes, fresh from the hike, I have a few phrases to describe it:

An intense cliff-hanger.

A southwestern desert lover’s utopia.

Heart-pounding…or, if you have a fear of heights, heart palpitating (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase)…I kept my eyes open the entire time…let me tell you about the sights: I had a great view of the tan and blush-colored sandstone, my daughter’s blue sneakers, and the silver chain nearly the entire way up. Also, when I looked back, I saw some guy behind us who was wearing a funky totem pole bird-head like figure on his white t-shirt.

Exhilarating.

Shushh…the sound of the Virgin River’s lullaby from wayyy down below.

Other thoughts also come to mind:

Spooky (especially as a parent).

Crowded.

Alarming.

Many opportunities to commiserate with other people who had the same (healthy) fear of heights.

(did I already say spooky?)

View from the top of Angel’s Landing

An adrenaline rush upon arriving at the top, yet the knowledge that one would soon be going back through the lines of people near the edge of steep dropoffs loomed like a great shadow. But I found that dread to be unfounded. Maybe knowing we made it up installed the confidence that indeed, we could descend in similar fashion. The view of the valley below was amazing!

Although the hike was wonderful in a twisted sort of way, it’s not an experience I want to repeat any time soon because of the sheer volume of people that undertake the climb. (No offence, people, but South Dakotans tend to get a bit nervous in crowds…where we’re from, there’s lots of space).

An early start to the Angel’s Landing Trail

Although we started the hike around 8:15 am and there was plenty of spacing between upward-bound hikers, once we reached Angel’s Landing, we were amidst throngs and throngs of people going up and going down. There’s only one chain, and the width of the cliffs vary from one person can safely pass to a width of I-guess-I-can-let-go-of-the- chain-for-a-little-bit-and-hope-I-don’t-have-a-buffoon-moment-and- trip, or that no one is tumbling down the mountain above me and going to take out myself or my family.

That’s not to say it’s not worth doing. If I were to go again, I’d want to be one of the early birds and go up at 6 am just for the safety factor of being around so many people while we’re tiptoeing along the edges of cliffs.

Hang on!

We went with a ten-year-old and thirteen-year-old, sandwiching parents between each. I had to threaten my supremely confident ten year old mountain goat that his non-bovid mom would have a heart attack right then and there if he did not hold onto the chain.

Seriously.

Fortunately, my thirteen year old had no issue with that edict.

Oh yes, from a mom’s perspective, I had thought a different trail, the Observation Point trail sounded much more attractive and reasonable for our family to undertake, since that one isn’t fraught with quite so much excitement and offers similarly spectacular views. Unfortunately, my plans were thwarted as many of the trails in Zion National Park were closed due to rockfall, excess water volume (the Narrows), and or road construction (without undertaking a two hour and change car ride), so there we were.

These desert beauties, Indian paintbrushes, are in full bloom.

And there I was. Praying. You can do that as you walk, you know? I don’t think God cares whether you’re kneeling our standing, as long as you’re reverential.

Waiting for the free park shuttle from Zion National Park Visitor Center

Zion National Park has become one of the U.S.’s Disneyland Parks, meaning that if you want to experience the most popular trails, you can expect to wait in line. And if you want to do some of the most popular off-trail hikes (like the Subway) you need to apply something like three months in advance to do so (we entered a last-minute lottery for any leftover permits remaining, but weren’t selected).

Fortunately, my prayer was answered and our family survived to hike another day (much to the chagrin of my son; he thinks mountain biking is a far superior activity). Maybe, someday if/when we return…we’ll be one of the lucky ones and see the condors.

After all, with its vertical cliff faces and prominent hoodoo at the top, Angel’s landing is perfect for them.

But not for me…I’m no angel.

Have a good one and thanks for reading!

Sources:

https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/condors.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/California_Condor/