Desperately wandering in the contrast of burning red rock, sheer black mountains and intense patches of greens in Zion National Park are four 17-year-old boys. They’ve hiked an exhausting 16 miles in a single afternoon, drank the last of their limited water hours ago and lost any hope of cell phone service needed to help them get home.
It’s turning out to be one of the greatest trips of their lives.
After graduating from West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2019, Nick Walton, Chris Hales, Sebastian Serbinowski and Diego Galindo ventured on the ultimate senior trip: camping for two weeks in Zion National Park. For them, best friends and the desert were the only necessary ingredients in the recipe for an unforgettable experience.
“The dynamic of our group is very much that no matter what we’re doing we’re having a fun time because we’re with each other. So then when you put that in a place that’s ridiculously gorgeous and has a lot to do, we’re just nonstop having a good time,” Walton explained.
Walton, now a freshman studying music at Southern Utah University, began his SUU experience long before entering the classroom. Although he was questioning where to continue his education after high school, this trip quickly confirmed his choice.
Mornings were for hiking unknown paths in the park. Afternoons were for smoothies and swimming in a hidden water hole. Evenings were for playing board games under the bare sky on a makeshift table from a cardboard box.
The high school graduates set up camp on Kolob Terrace Road in Springdale, Utah, right next to a stream perfect for skipping stones and hanging hammocks. Each day promised leisure under the glaring desert sun, as well as moments of unexpected excitement.
“We woke up one morning and cows had gotten loose from some guy’s farm and were just all over our camp, so we had to chill in our tent because they were running around… I’ve never been that close to cows in my life,” Walton said.
As the days quickly passed on their journey into independence, they knew the trip had to go out with a bang. On a whim, the best friends picked a challenge for their last day: the West Rim Trail.
The hike is 16 miles one way and is considered to be one of the most difficult within the park. It allows hikers to see unforgettable paintings of the canyon in red, yellow, green and blue.
“The pinnacle of the trip was absolutely the West Rim Trail,” Hales said. “It’s incredible how the hike goes from a very desertous Zion feel to a very Californian forest area… and then once you reach the top you’ve just got these very epic plateaus.”
They planned to hike the rim from bottom to top, which they prepared for by parking one car in the general parking lot of the park and another at the top of the hike, so as to simply drive back to the start of their day.
Although prepared for the trail’s stunning views, the boys never expected the daunting adventure waiting for them. It began with a miscalculation of the hike’s length and a lack of supplies.
“We got up, we only packed, I don’t know, six water bottles and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s probably good enough,’” Hales said.
While hiking during the middle of a summer day, the temperature began to rise above 100 degrees. After a tragic accident involving a spilled water bottle, the boys lost a large portion of the small amount of water they had prepared, and soon realized their preparation was not “good enough.”
However, they persisted and completed the most rewarding hike of their lives. With deep breaths and a final look at the artistry around them, it was time for a well earned steak.
There was just one problem: Galindo’s keys weren’t in his pocket. Instead, they sat peacefully in the seat of the car parked in the visitor’s center lot, miles away from where the boys currently stood.
“Diego knew that he had locked his keys in his car at the 8 mile mark, but he didn’t want to tell us… I hadn’t exercised for like, three months, and I was never more willing to give up on anything in my whole life than towards the end of that hike, before I even knew that we had no way to get down,” Walton painfully reminisced.
To make matters worse, the group had only thought to bring one cellphone between the four of them, which proved to be useless without any service. Through a drowsy haze, a plan was crafted.
Walton and Serbinowski stayed at the end of the trail while Hales and Galindo went on a quest for service. If they could call for help, they would be able to retrieve the car keys that would take them back into town and a much needed shower. It seemed simple enough.
After a 45 minute nap fueled by pure exhaustion, Walton realized Hales and Galindo hadn’t returned. Serbanowski, being his school’s fastest cross country runner, sprinted after Hales and Galindo, hoping to catch up, but they were long gone. Panic began to set in as the solid group of four had suddenly dismantled into messy groups of two.
“What happened when you went to get cell service, Chris?” Walton asks with a pang of sarcasm. The two laugh to cover the awkward pain of the memory.
While Walton and Serbanowski sat in a pool of anxiety and sweat, Hales and Galindo walked along the highway, hoping for a ride to service. A young couple in a Jeep stopped, but with a catch.
“They said to us, ‘Well, we don’t have any space in the Jeep, but if you’d like to, you can hop on the bumper on the back of the car and hang on to the top,’” Hales recalled. “There wasn’t a handrail or anything on the top, so we just kind of tried to hang on as best as we could.”
While Hales and Galindo continued their hitchhiking shenanigans, bouncing back and forth between strangers’ cars to reach the bottom of the canyon, Walton and Serbanowski decided the waiting game wasn’t working.
With a bit of luck, Walton and Serbanowski met an elderly couple willing to help them find their missing halves.
“They were this adorable couple who were professional climbers in California. It was really awesome that we got to meet them and that they were willing to help us out,” Walton said.
Three and a half hours later, after an encounter with an unfriendly park ranger, the inability to remember each other’s phone numbers and several more miles of walking during the peak heat of the day, the group was finally reunited at a gas station outside of Springdale.
Besides the relief of finding each other, the only thing on their minds was steak at a local restaurant, The Bit and Spur.
“While we were hiking, I was like, ‘Okay guys, we need to wash off before we go because it’s a very nice restaurant and I don’t want to be stinky and dirty.’ But by the time we got done, nobody cared… We spent like $100 there. It was amazing,” Walton said.
Despite a complicated and unforgiving last day in Zion, the group of best friends now laugh and reminisce over the trip as a whole. For Walton, the opportunities for more canyon nights, camp-invading cows and lost car keys are endless.
“Living in southern Utah allows me to explore and do whatever I want to outside. I think that was a very big factor in determining if I wanted to go to SUU. This trip helped me realize how amazing Zion and southern Utah is…so to have a school that’s in that same place is just amazing.”
Story by: Amanda Walton
Photos courtesy of Nick Walton and Chris Hales