Close Encounters of the Bighorn Sheep Kind

Bighorn Sheep - photo credit alyssa-teboda
A bighorn sheep grazing in a pasture.

As you get to know me, you’ll learn that I love to tell a good story. One of my personal faves is of the Bighorn sheep of Zion National Park (Utah). If this hadn’t happened to me, personally, I might not believe that it was true. Make no mistake, though… it happened.

I’ve done a handful of, what I call, BIG hiking trips. A few years ago, I signed up for an all-women hiking trip to Zion National Park (Utah) and Bryce National Park. At the time, I was barely over the “newbie” stage as a hiker, just on my way to moderately experienced. The sage advice from our guide, Karen, was, “Hike your hike and no one else’s.” which I now carry with me on every trail. Hiking is not a race. In fact, it’s more fun when you slow down to experience Mother Nature around you. Take in the blue or grey of the sky, the scent of the damp earth, the whispers of leaves when the wind blows. Touch a tree. Oh, who are we kidding, HUG that tree! There is a little-known secret that all people are “tree-huggers,” if they feel safe to do so. Why? Because it feels so good to wrap your arms around that ‘old soul’ and to share its energy for a moment. As it turned out, I was the slowest hiker in our Zion group, and that made all the difference. 

On the day of the encounter, I was chatting with another guide, Ann, bringing up the rear of our group. She was sharing tips on how to best use my hiking poles. It was a perfect Fall Day in Zion – bright blue sky, crisp air, and sunshine only strong enough to take the edge off the chill. The mountain cliff went up to our right and the steep drop down was to our left. As we were hiking, a handful of rocks tumbled down the cliff on our right, then a Bighorn sheep jumped down RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. It was about 4’ away – and that, let me tell you, is not far. This almost NEVER happens.  These animals are content to grip the side of a cliff with their miraculous feet in ways that make you think, “how the heck is that possible?” But there we were, the 2 of us, this massive sheep with horns heavier than all the bones in its body, and 4 hikers ahead of us who had turned around when they heard the thud of the sheep landing on the path. 

Well, y’all, we froze. I know a little bit about animals, having grown up in rural Texas, but not about this animal. Are they skittish? Will they charge? I had no idea. The sheep seemed to realize it was surrounded by 2-legged creatures, and it froze as well. Ann and I moved slowly, quietly until our backs were against the cliff in hopes that this 5’ animal would be on his way. The group ahead of us sat down on the trail to make themselves seem small and less threatening. To add to the highly charged moment, the sheep’s companion suddenly joined him on the trail. Almost immediately, though, this newcomer vaulted down the cliff to our left. It was a shocking visual, like “oh my God, did I just witness a sheep suicide?” But this was their territory and they know how to navigate these cliffs and rocks with a dexterity that defies logic. 

The first sheep remained, looking from us to the other group of hikers and back. With an explosive burst of athleticism, the sheep took off running up the trail toward the sitting hikers. They lowered their heads and he leaped over the top of them. WOW! What an experience! This entire exchange lasted maybe 4 minutes but felt like 20. I can see this scene replay in my head in vivid detail still to this day. Of course, that is my only option; there was no time for a photo and who knows how the animal would have reacted if we had fumbled with a phone. There are lifelong Zion hikers who have yet to get a glimpse of these gorgeous creatures. I was lucky enough to look one in the eye on my first visit.

Have you had a close encounter with a wild animal? Leave a comment on Facebook and let us know! Also tell us what animals you love to see out on the trails.

Y’all Stay Wild.