Zion National Park
We’re back! After an extended period without a backpacking trip (work, wedding), we finally made it out to the trail. And our 5-day, 50-mile trek through Zion NP in southwestern Utah is sure to be one of our favorite backpacking trips of all time. This park is exceptional in so many ways. The vast wilderness areas and towering rock formations radiate a powerful energy that leaves you feeling both infinitesimally small and incredibly honored at the same time.
Our hike, nicknamed the “trans-Zion,” was not for the faint of heart, especially when you do it in reverse like we did. The terrain is challenging, the conditions can be extreme, and the trails are strenuous and often a little dangerous. But if you accept the challenge, you are rewarded with an experience that you will never forget.
About the Park
People have occupied Zion for thousands of years. Over 12,000 years ago, Native Americans hunted mammoths, giant sloths, and ancient camels in and around these canyons. Later, farming communities grew crops on Zion’s mesas and plateaus. In the 1800’s, Mormon pioneers settled the area and named the canyon “Zion” after the Old Testament of the Bible. However, settlements were difficult to maintain - being destroyed by flash floods, droughts, and other harsh elements (some of which we experienced during our trip). So, the area became a sanctuary for wildlife and a place of relatively untouched beauty. In 1919, it became the shared property of the People of the United States of America.
The park’s wilderness areas are breathtaking. Elevations in Zion range from less than 4,000 ft above sea level to almost 9,000 ft above sea level. This difference makes the park predictably challenging for hikers but allows for a vast diversity of wildlife. More than 1,000 species of plants, 67 species of mammals, 29 species of reptiles, seven species of amphibians, nine species of fish, 207 species of birds, and countless insects call the park home. Zion is even home to the endangered California Condor, which we had the privilege of observing during our adrenaline-ridden climb to Angel’s Landing.
The geologic formations of Zion, for which the park is known, display layers of rock formed over 250 million years ago. Being there is like looking at the Earth’s record of ancient history, printed on 2,000-foot walls, all around you, all the time.
Katie and I made this journey with four other backpackers, most of whom you are already familiar with: Jake (Smoky Mountains Trip), Jenny (Smoky Mountains Trip), Hillary (Manistee Trip, Isle Royale Trip), and one new backpacker: Sam. The dog was our driver's.
We started off in the southeast corner of the park at the East Rim Trailhead and ended up 50 miles of trail away at the northwest corner of the park at Lee Pass Trailhead. Since we could not do the Narrows (the famous slot canyon hike for which a lot of media features Zion NP) due to the snow melt this time of year, we decided a cross-park jaunt was the next best thing.
Our elevation ranged from 4,075ft in Zion Canyon to 7,646ft along the West Rim Trail. We gained almost all of that elevation on the second day of our trip.
Day 1: Winter Wonderland
After camping on nearby BLM land for the night, we left our rental vehicle at Lee Pass Trailhead and took a shuttle down to East Rim Trailhead (5,700ft) to start our journey. It was a rainy day at the trailhead, which would turn to snow when we got higher north on the trail. We followed Clear Creek NE on the East Rim Trail and got our first taste of Zion backcountry around Jolly Gulch.
We gained about 1,000ft of elevation this day, which wasn't insignificant, but the real challenge came from the weather. It was cold and wet the entire day. Our hands and feet were numb, and if it weren't for our rain gear, we would have been soaked to the bone from all the rain, sleet, and snow we encountered. The steady drizzle turned into a snow storm once we got into Echo Canyon.
The canyon walls created a wind tunnel in one section, and we were awestruck at the power of the storm hitting us. This trail was amazing. We encountered waterfalls, steep drop-offs, vast canyons, and views that were rivaled only by what we had yet to encounter. We saw several mule deer trying to find their way in the winter storm. They were much better than we were at navigating this cold environment, but we were having more fun.
We hiked a total of about 8 miles this day into Echo Canyon, where we found a suitable campsite that was a little bit out of the wind. We huddled in Katie and my tent for some warmth and to reminisce about the “winter wonderland” canyon experience we just had. When we had warmed up and ate some dinner, our spirits were high, and we were ready for the next day, which would be our most challenging by far.
Day 2: The Climb
We were initially scheduled to hike 15 miles this day. That was not going to happen. Our trail took us out of Echo Canyon, except that we took a camper’s trail instead of the main East Rim Trail and ended up doing a mile-long "sightseeing tour" that landed us back at our campsite.
It was a little bit late in the morning, at least for a 15-mile day, when we finally got on the right track. We hiked through Echo Canyon and to the main Zion Canyon. This route took us through some narrow passes and beautiful scenery.
We encountered “the masses” as we got closer to the road and hiked down to 4,267ft at the canyon road. We took the shuttle to the Grotto (Angel’s Landing), got some water and began our excruciating 3,000-ft elevation gain hike. At least the weather was good today. Tourists were consistently amazed that we were hauling our big backpacks up Angel’s Landing. Many of them could barely do it with no extra weight at all. One kid commented to Jake, “I think you brought too many supplies,” to which Jake replied, “You’re probably right!”
Everyone wanted to know what we were doing, where we were camping, etc. We were mostly too out of breath to answer their questions. We got up to Angel’s Landing, hiked passed “Scout Lookout” and took a breather on “The Pulpit.”
We had to catch our breath to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. It was a truly incredible place. The final 2 or 3 miles of what would be about an 8-mile day was unsparing. No amount of physical conditioning would prevent you from being exhausted from making this hike with a 5-day pack. Some of our group members were more tired than others, but everyone was “feeling the burn.”
We took the West Rim Trail up to campsite #1 and decided even though we hadn't booked this site on a reservation, we were going to have to take our chances because making the extra 6 miles to campsite #8, where we were reserved, was not going to happen. We were lucky. The people who booked #1 were college students from Cornell University who were happy to share the site with us. We marveled at the magnificent views from the location and rested with pride after our remarkable physical and mental accomplishment of making that type of elevation change in one day.
It was another cold night, but at least it was dry. We were all tired, to say the least.
Day 3: Test of Endurance
Since we did not make our mark (or even close) on Day 2, we had a lot of ground to cover this day. By the end of the day, we would be almost as tired as the day before. We hiked NW along telephone canyon trail, stopping for water along the way.
Our scenic views were not as good on this side of the plateau as they would have been on West Rim Trail, but we wanted to make up some time and this was a shorter route. We encountered Ponderosa Pine along the way, many of which were burned.
The trails were very, very muddy, which made each step take at least twice as much effort. You don't know how many muscles you have in your legs until you have walked uphill through mud over several miles with a heavy pack. This was enervating work, and we were sore.
Still, we encountered some great views and spirits were high as a result of the great weather.
We continued N on the West Rim Trail until we reached Wildcat Canyon. We followed the canyon SW after stopping for water at Blue Creek. We could see why they called it Wildcat Canyon - there were mountain lion tracks everywhere along the trail.
We were hard-pressed to find a campsite, as other hikers had warned us, but we finally found a quiet spot in a depression to the south of Pocket Mesa. There was some standing snow melt there, which we used to cook dinner, and we were serenaded (if you can call it that) by a grouse drumming on the ridge above us.
This was a long day, and we were once again tired. It was another chilly night, and we all went to bed early.
Day 4: From Frostbitten to Sunburnt
It is hard to believe that we could encounter a snowstorm and also a hot, arid desert all in one week and one place. But that’s what happened. Today was another long day - over 14 miles - and hot. We left Wildcat Canyon and hiked along the Connector Trail towards the Hop Valley Trail.
I was feeling a little tired today because my sleeping pad had sprung a leak last night and in my efforts to fix it, I had torn my down sleeping bag and released the feathers of what seemed like a flock of geese into my sinuses. There were feathers everywhere in our tent, and I was more than a little frustrated with my predicament. I was able to get the pad and bag fixed using duct tape and patches. We met a fun couple from Michigan on the trail. They talked with us for a while, and we compared all the places we had backpacked noting some of the same such as Shenandoah and the AT.
Some more mule deer walked by us as we were conversing and bedded down not more than 40 yards away. Wildlife is just not as scared of people in a National Park. We crossed Kolob Terrace Road and continued until stopping for lunch in another canyon along the Hop Valley Trail.
We commented that our surroundings looked like something out of a grade school science book.
Hop Valley was incredible. Part of the route passed through private land and whoever owns that space is a lucky person. We walked by Horse Camps A and B and located the La Verkin Creek trail.
After a little more uphill hiking, we arrived at the beautiful Campsite #9 right next to La Verkin Creek. What a phenomenal spot. Towering formations and Ponderosa Pine surrounded us on all sides and crossing La Verkin Creek was necessary to get to our site.
We were lower in elevation now at about 5,000ft. Tonight was our first and only warmer evening, and we took advantage of it. We played games around a lantern that substituted for a campfire since we were not allowed to light a fire anywhere in the backcountry of this park.
Day 5: The Hike Out
After a good night’s sleep listening to La Verkin Creek, we packed up and headed out for our final hike.
While the group stayed back, Jake and I decided to check out Kolob Arch, since it was only about a mile round trip from our campsite. It felt good to hike without a pack. The arch was high up and massive. It was actually kind of easy to miss since there is no distinct viewpoint, just a spot where the trail kind of ends and a sign tells you not to travel further.
We took some pictures and hiked back to meet up with the group. The hike out was flat at first, but Zion wouldn't let us leave without one more uphill battle. We got to the trailhead and shared some beers at the car.
This trip was too packed with experiences to possibly accurately account in one conversation, blog post, or even a book. The backcountry of Zion is an indescribable place, and you truly have to experience it yourself to understand. The route was very challenging - one of the most challenging we have ever done - but also one of the most rewarding. I can’t wait to return to Zion one day. This was going the be the trip of a lifetime, and it was. We were all tired and happy to be done, but we were also sad to leave.