A Zion Christmas

A memorable Christmas Day on the hiking trails of Utah's Zion National Park

Here & Where: Eclectic Travels With the Creative Director of Where

It’s a snowy Christmas Eve. The lights strung outside the window are a multicolored blur in the frosted windowpanes. A night for hot soup, for sure. A delicious hot and sour soup, prepared by a Vietnamese chef in a Thai restaurant that’s open late, even on Christmas Eve.

Where is this multicultural holiday scene? No, not New York or San Francisco or LA.

No, we are in Utah.

Just outside the gates of Zion National Park. We just drove in. We flew from LA to Las Vegas yesterday for a night of Cirque du Soleil + José Andrés (dinner and a show—on steroids), then made the easy afternoon road trip up here today.

I was raised on traditional Hallmark-card-meets-Norman-Rockwell Christmases. But now with my parents gone, the alternative dreamer I’ve become thinks outside the gift box these days. I find myself reimagining Christmas in creative destinations. Thus here we are, nestled in the little town of Springdale, set at the foot of impossibly massive rock plateaus.

Light snow dances in the middle of the two-lane highway as we head out from our motel to a most unexpected and well-stocked natural food store and one Thai restaurant still aglow against the charcoal night sky.

“The chef is Vietnamese!” my travel companion declares with his first sip of the steaming, ample bowl of soup at Thai Sapa.

“It says ‘Thai restaurant’ on the sign and menu,” I venture.

“It’s a Thai restaurant,” he replies, “but the chef is Vietnamese. This soup tastes just like my mother makes.” His mother, from South Vietnam, makes a memorable turkey curry at Thanksgiving, and, en général, I defer to his expertise on all matters pertaining to cuisine.

Hot and sour soup, Thai Sapa, Springdale, Zion National Park, Utah
Hot and sour soup at Thai Sapa (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)

In no time, the chef and her co-owner/husband are sitting at our table, chatting away in equal parts English and Vietnamese—a friendly exchange of pork recipes and park recommendations. We leave full and already informed of what we’ll be ordering for dinner tomorrow night when we return for more.

And we WILL return, with tall tales of teetering hikes from our first day in one of America's most amazing and accessible (and virtually uninhabited on Christmas) national parks.

A holiday morning has never been so quiet. The air is crisp and still. Our car’s windshield is a frozen etching that will need to be defrosted before we can drive the few miles into the park for breakfast at the lodge.

It’s the ONLY place open and we can’t wait to get there. The car heater eventually creates two portholes through which we can navigate. The lodge comes into view as the road aligns with the bend in the creek at the central hub of the park.

“No Weapons,” a window decal authoritatively declares at the lobby entrance. Our unarmed arrival is uncharacteristically early and the restaurant is not open yet, so we amble over to the gift shop (where all roads eventually lead in our travels) and start checking out the local fashions. I spend some time in the shoe department studying the advent of strap-on spikes. Just yesterday, at a Las Vegas casino, I had willingly slipped myself into a bathtub-size pink stiletto pump for a photo op, but today I don’t fall so easily for fancy footwear, nor their seasonal accessories. I give Zion’s strap-on spikes the brush-off, a mistake I will come to regret repeatedly throughout the day.

I soon learn that there is a practical, if not essential, need for strap-on spikes in a place where towering cliffs shade the frozen ground late into the morning. Add an incline to the picture and, well, let’s just say that one may admire unexpected views of the sky when one’s spikeless hiking boots fail to maintain one’s footing on frozen patches of nature’s trails.

Our hearty holiday breakfast comes with a side of recommendations as to which hike would be best on this icy morning. Overfed and well-informed, we set out to see all we can of Zion as the morning light slants slowly into the narrow valley.

Rock facades, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah
Massive rock facades, Zion Canyon (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)

Our first trail choice is a popular one, Riverside Walk, alongside Zion’s gentle North Fork Virgin River. However, today it comes to an abrupt and uncharted end less than a mile into the hike due to a mini glacier crossing. We encounter our first fellow hiker there on our return to the trailhead. If this were a summer morning, we’d have seen a hundred hikers on this trail by now. Such is the serene, solitary beauty of Christmas morning in a national park.

North Fork Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah
North Fork Virgin River (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)

One trail everyone at the lodge breakfast agreed on is the long, winding path up to Angels Landing.

“How lovely and appropriate for Christmas Day!” I muse.

It’s actually one of America’s most challenging public access trails. At one point there is a chain mounted into the rock slope to hold onto for dear life should your angel wings fail you. Standing at the foot of the trail, I read the disclaimers out loud to my hiking companion, after which I lower my guide book, raise my head and follow the trail with my eyes as far as I can see, up into the glare of heaven’s sunlight. In spite of the advisories, we agree to head where angels dare to roost.

Angel's Landing Trail, Zion National Park, Utah
Angels Landing trail (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)

A few thousand steps into the first third of the climb, the sun comes in full-strength, and I begin to shed layers of my brand-new-for-this-trip ensemble: a Michelin Man-style puffy down jacket, vest, gloves and a scarf. My national park fashion statement is “black for day, black for night.” The short winter days go quickly, and with all the trail trekking, bird-watching and photo ops, there’s little time for a proper costume change. Exploring Zion is no Diana Ross concert.

A few minutes later, the path proceeds into a narrow, chilly ravine aptly named “Refrigerator Canyon,” which is framed by two giant walls of layered rock. My layers return, gloves and all.

Then comes Walter’s Wiggles: A vertical squiggle of switchbacks, named for the first superintendent of Zion who designed and engineered this part of the climb, pretty much straight up. Here is where my earlier fashion reticence in the gift shop betrays me. Strap-on spikes would be really good right now. No sun on this side of the canyon, ice patches at every turn and every one of those “wiggles” is on an incline.

Walter's Wiggles, Zion National Park, Utah
Walter's Wiggles (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)

 When a hiker falls in the forest and there’s no one around to witness it, does his crash landing make a sound? Yes. A humiliating thud. And even though the trail is virtually uninhabited today, when one falls, suddenly there are three people offering help. The Utah sky is a vivid blue as seen from the ground looking up, and unfortunately I will have the accidental opportunity to enjoy that view again before I reach the summit. With my pride strewn several wiggles below, we finally arrive at the breathtaking summit called Scout Lookout. Oh, the thrill of reaching the top! (Until we discover that this is not THE summit and Wiggles was the easy part.) The final leg is yet ahead, the part where you hold on to the chains, along an even more slippery slope. 

Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park, Utah
Taking in the view from Angels Landing Trail (©Haines Wilkerson/Huy Chau)
 I actually did attempt to join the “chain gang,” but there was just no way I was going to dangle from an old chain, drilled (God knows when) into a slab of stone, with my feet flying out from under me on the ice like a marionette. Instead, we enjoyed scouting the views from Scout Lookout, making bird’s-eye-view videos and photos of the ridge and valley.

Up here, angels, eagles and gleeful hikers convene this Christmas Day, trying to comprehend the height we’ve climbed to reach the near-apex of Angels Landing. This unarmed, unchained and spike-free hiker will indeed have some tall tales to share tonight over dinner at our favorite Vietnamese-influenced Thai restaurant in Utah.

Haines Wilkerson is the creative director of Where worldwide. Follow him for more eclectic travel reports.