Destination Zion

Engineering students venture to Southwest national parks during Ole Miss Outdoors trip

Jacob Noll (middle), Charli Kendricks and Spencer Johns visit Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. Submitted photo

Before COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt, four University of Mississippi engineering students enjoyed a memorable road trip through the majestic Southwest.

Spencer Johns, Jacob Noll, Mary Charles (“Charli”) Kendricks and John Perry were among 12 people who traveled to Zion National Park in Utah during spring break. Ole Miss Outdoors sponsored the trip, which included stops at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona on the way up and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado on the way back.

John Perry enjoys the view in Zion National Park. Submitted photo

“The highlights of the trip were Horseshoe Bend, a branch of the Grand Canyon we saw on the way up, and Angels Landing, in Zion, which was one of the most exhausting hikes and breathtaking views I’ve ever seen,” said Johns, a junior computer science major from Orange, Texas, who is also minoring in intelligence and security studies and mathematics. 

A frequent hiker, Noll said Zion made him realize how beautiful and powerful nature can be.

“I have done hundreds of hikes in places all over the country and world, and Angels Landing in Zion is easily amongst the top three hikes I have ever done,” said Noll, a St. Louis, Missouri, native and senior chemical engineering major with a minor in computer science.

“The view at the top makes it all worth it. You can see all of Zion sprawled out in front of you for miles and miles. The view really makes you appreciate the beauty of Earth and helps you feel at one with nature. I already want to go back and do that hike again.”

Kendricks, a junior computer science major from Oxford, agreed the highlight of the trip was the Angels Landing hike.

“It’s a fairly dangerous hike,” she said. “At its most difficult point, you’re walking on a ridge flanked by a thousand-some-odd foot drops. But I don’t think I’ve done anything more invigorating in my life. It helps that I’m not really afraid of heights, so instead of being fearful of the fall, I was awestruck by the view.”

Perry, a junior geological engineering major from Purvis, said he took the trip because he had never traveled farther west than Texas and had always wanted to see what was out there.

“It took over 25 hours of driving to get to Zion from the South Campus Rec Center,” he said. “We spent the first night camping at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. The second night was spent in Page, Arizona. The next morning, we went to Horseshoe Bend and then drove the remaining few hours to Zion.”

Upon arrivaI at Zion, Perry said he was blown away by the sheer size of Zion Canyon. He was also amazed by the bounty of wildlife in the canyon compared to the more barren surrounding area.

“The valley was home to many mule deer, Merriam’s turkeys and rock squirrels,” he said. “Another thing that made an impression on me was that there was still snow in some areas in mid-March.”

The students’ itinerary at Zion included the hike to the top of Angels Landing, which stands 1,500 feet above the valley floor. Some sections of the path run along steep cliffs, which required the hikers to hold chains bolted into the sandstone to keep from slipping and falling.

Another itinerary item was a hike to the Narrows, which is an area where the canyon walls run right alongside the Virgin River, with uneven ground.

“The water was incredibly freezing, to the point that you instantly went numb if you walked through it,” Noll said. “Obviously, a 20-mile hike through that water was not feasible.”

Undeterred, Noll, Kendricks and Perry (along with a few others) took off their shoes and socks and walked through the river for a little while.

“We were determined to say that we walked in the Narrows, so we gritted our teeth as the freezing water cut into our feet and threatened to make us slip on the rocks,” Noll said. “It was painful and exhausting, but at the same time, it was so satisfying and rewarding to at least do a small part of the Narrows.”

Scenery aside, Kendricks said the most meaningful part of the experience was the friends she made along the way.

“I already knew several people going on the trip, but I got to know a few others through this trip as well,” she said. “We ate together, threw a Frisbee around the campsites together, set up and took down camp together, and experienced the same amazing natural wonders together. It felt almost unreal to be having such fun and be so removed from reality during this trip with good friends.”

The highlight of the trip for Perry included seeing Horseshoe Bend, hiking to Angels Landing and driving through Colorado.

“All along the way, I saw many geological features that I’d learned about in class but never been able to see since rock outcrops are few and far between in Mississippi,” he said.

Johns said the most memorable experience for him was standing on top of Angels Landing with Kendricks and Noll.

“We had decided to go on this trip with little forethought, just a few texts saying, ‘Hey, we should do this. It seems like a great opportunity,’” he said. “None of it seemed real, and after a three-day drive and a hike that lasted the whole morning, the view was just breathtaking. I’m glad I got to experience it with them.”

Crossing the Rockies impressed Perry because he had never been at an elevation above 1,000 feet. In Colorado, the elevation is over 10,000 feet.

“One of the most memorable moments from this trip was crossing the Colorado line while finding out that spring break was extended for another week due to the first cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi,” Perry said.

“We were all excited, and we were having too much fun to worry about what that meant for the rest of the semester and the 2020-21 school year. Nothing makes you closer than driving 50 hours in a car and camping together for a week.”

Students who would like to get involved with Ole Miss Outdoors should stop by the South Campus Recreation Center and visit the office near the climbing wall. Information on adventure trips, events, gear rentals and more can be found on the Campus Recreation website.