I had the urge to do the 47 mile Zion Traverse (or Trans-Zion Trek) ever since my sisters, father, and I were rained out of the park five years ago (in a storm which destroyed part of the canyon road in Dec. 2010). The traverse is the longest linkage of trails in the park, point to point. It takes you along the northwestern section of the park, crosses into the main canyon, then up and through the southeastern rim area.
Joffrey and I knew we would want to do this route over a couple of days to get a really good feel for the entirety of the park. You miss a lot of the extensive landscape if you limit yourself to the main tourist drag in the canyon, even if you climb Angel’s Landing. The park is 229 square miles (146,560 acres!) for a good reason, rather than just the 15 mile long canyon that the road runs through. We started planning and doing some quick reads on the route a few weeks ago, but not nearly early enough to grab online permits. Permitting goes up three months in advance, and the online system seems to be a pain to use. I tried to call the ranger station, but Zion is so busy this time of year, I only got the answering service. We decided, given our flexibility living out of a van, that we could roll up, walk in, and see when they might have permits over a week long period.
Shockingly, the ranger was able to find three campsite permits for the routes starting the following day. We paid $15 for the permits, and serendipitously were able to secure a shuttle from the Zion Adventure Co. We got the last two seats on a shuttle that was transferring 10 other hikers to the trailhead. I give huge kudos to the staff at the Zion Adventure Co. for not speaking to me like I was crazy when calling for a shuttle less than 24 hours in advance.
We spent the rest of the day packing up. We took generally light gear compared to most others we saw on the trail, but I have to admit that I’ve made Joffrey less of a die-hard ultralighter than he used to be. My overly concerned self always packs just a little bit more clothing, and a lot more food, than I ever really need. Last minute trip packing compounds this issue. Food is estimated, grabbed and stuffed into packs; rather than weighed, calorie-counted, and carefully considered. The weight adds up though, and I plan on continuing to reduce and analyze unused weight after trips over the course of the next few months. On this trip, we took our Feathered Friends Spoonbill UL in order to give it a second trip before the weather gets too warm. Forecast lows were in the low 20s F, so it was a better choice than our 30ish F individual bags.
By the next morning, we were packed, rested, and at the East Entrance trailhead early to put the van in a safe spot. The park (and parking) fills up quickly. We had some mild anxiety when the shuttle didn’t show up right on time, and the 8 others were were supposedly looking for at the trailhead also didn’t arrive on time. Eventually, everyone arrived and we started the hour and half drive to the Lee Pass trailhead. We chatted with the big group of 8 doing the traverse as well – they were from New Orleans, have been friends for over 20 years, and have been doing short section hikes of the AT for the past few years. They were 250 miles into the AT, and decided they were tired of the green tunnel, so they planned the Zion Traverse to spice up the scenery.
We hit the trail running… actually at a slow, casual saunter. The awkward thing about NPS campsites in Zion is that they are really bizarrely spaced. There are 13 campsites along La Verkin Creek Trail, but no campsites along Hop Valley. This meant that our first day consisted of 6 ½ miles to La Verkin Camp 10 (the closest site to the intersection with Hop Valley). We started our hike at 12:30, and we arrived significantly before dinner.
Joffrey even swam in an excellent swimming hole next to Camp 6. We also did the 1 ½ extra miles out to Kolob Arch. Which was… not our favorite arch ever. When Joffrey went to get water, he met a really nice Atlanta/Austrian couple, who were out for a trail run, and talked to them for a while. Our site was tucked away in the trees on a hill above the trail and La Verkin Creek. There were high rock walls all around, giving a great desert canyon ambiance to the site. We had a cold, clear night, perfect for our new sleeping bag.
Day 2 was much longer due to the campsites we managed to get. We were headed to Camp 5 along the West Rim Trail. This entailed hiking along the Hop valley trail, the Connector Trail, the Wildcat Canyon Trail, and most of the West Rim Trail for a total of 23 miles to the day. We woke before dawn, and were on the trail as soon as we could stow our headlamps. Luckily, we were in those wonderful 12+-hours-of-sunlight days that make long distance hiking such a joy.
The traverse is doable with a maximum 15 mile day if you plan your campsites carefully, and camp much earlier on the West Rim, but this would make the next two day splits really short and awkward, especially if you don’t like sitting in your tent for long periods of time. The 23 miles was actually quite pleasant, though we were relatively out of shape for long days. We had some climbing to do in the early morning through Hop Valley, but it was cool and there was a lot of water around. We didn’t see a single person on this section, so it felt nicely remote.
The Connector Trail was easy to follow, but completely dry. It runs near a road, and there was a strange (and huge) house on a bluff that we walked past. It was interesting terrain, but the least scenic section of the hike. The Wildcat Canyon trail was where we began to see a lot more people. It took us through pine forests, and then contoured around a beautiful valley towards Lava Point. There might be dispersed camping allowed somewhere along the trail here, but a call to the backcountry office would clarify that. We found multiple good water sources along the Wildcat Canyon trail, where we filled up for our last 9 miles to Camp 5, plus the water needed for the hike down into the main canyon the next morning.
The end of this day was where the hiking became really spectacular. We had appreciated the other trails for giving us a wide taste of Utah’s landscape and ecological diversity – forests, canyons, creeks, grasslands, valleys, hot and cold. But the West Rim trail was astounding. We contoured along a ridge, enjoying views of red and white cliffs and rolling hills off to our left, and strange bulbous, tan sandstone formations to our right. The Great West Canyon should not be missed.
We arrived right before sunset, set up camp, watched the sun set over the Canyon, made dinner just after dusk, and promptly fell asleep to strong winds coming over the ridge.
The next morning set us on a quick pace to descend the West Rim and make it to the Grotto, our next water source. Again, we saw no one for most of the first section of the West Rim. We enjoyed spectacular views of sandstone hills and canyons, but Joffrey bemoaned the cement paved trail. This pavement continued all the way to the main canyon floor, and all the way to the East Rim.
We may have been the first backpackers coming through that morning, and we encountered a lot of questions from day hikers/tourists who had found themselves climbing the trail past the Angel’s Landing intersection. Was there water at top? What was the trail like? Should they go further? It’s really hard to answer questions from people who seem unprepared; and yet I don’t want to judge or discourage anyone from having a wonderful hiking experience. The crowds were tremendous as we came into Angel’s Landing. We had planned a quick run up, but there was literally a line of people slowly crawling up the narrow ridge. It would have taken hours to get through all those people, and it didn’t feel worth it, so we continued to the bottom. We had a good rest at the picnic tables at the Grotto, before doing the road walk and long slog of switchbacks up the East Rim Canyon Trail.
The East Rim Trail was also paved a portion of the way up. Joffrey couldn’t stand the pavement, and it wasn’t that pleasant to me either. He jokingly complained that the whole hike was sand or pavement. In reality, there had been a lot less loose sand walking than I had guessed. The hike was a good mix of walking on hard packed trail, slick rock, some sandy sections, and yes, some pavement around the main canyon.
On the way up the East Rim trail, we ran into the Austrian/Atlanta couple that Joffrey had spoken to a few days earlier. They met us again when were smelling pret-ty ripe from days of sweating. I felt a bit self-conscious! But they were really nice and told us that the spring on the East Rim was actually trickling. We were a bit surprised since we were hauling up two days up water given the information from the backcountry office. We decided it wasn’t worth dumping, though, since we only had a few more miles to go before camp and plenty of time left.
The east rim switch-backed up the canyon with lots of foot traffic, until it separated from the Observation point trail. Then we headed into a bowl-like area with nice rock formations and walls coming up all around. It then traversed the bowl and followed a ridge up to the top of a canyon, putting us into a pine forest on the plateau. We wrapped around the edge of the canyon with a couple of views down off the wall. Shortly afterward we arrived into a meadow near an intersection where we decided to set up camp, just shy of the spring.
We only had six more miles to go before the trailhead and our van. This trip could easily have been done in three longer days, rather than the four we allotted, or even two very long days. We ended up reading a lot, eating a wonderful dinner, and sleeping soundly. We woke up late the next morning, but finished the six miles in a few short hours despite lots of stopping for morning snacks and views.
The East Rim Trail is quite different from the central canyon area, and is more similar to the higher elevation areas in the west. It sits above the canyons, and offers fewer views of soaring walls and spectacular colored sandstone. Much of the sandstone exposed in the eastern section of the park is light colored or white. Unfortunately, the East Rim Trail does not take the hiker through the rolling hills and domes of the south-eastern portion of the park. This section (which we drove through several times on Highway 9), has gorgeous slickrock for miles, and reminded us of the highlands of Yosemite. There are several trails that break off from the East Rim Trail that head back toward Zion Canyon and provide spectacular views over the main canyon, but we were ready to be off the trail, and skipped those spurs.
After the hike, showers and food in Springdale, we retreated to our dispersed camping site on BLM lands just east of Zion to enjoy the sunset.
NPS Zion Weather Page (the Kolob Canyons, Zion Canyon, and East Entrance links are good for gauging the weather across the trek, as it may vary considerably)
We used, but, as usual, did not love the Nat. Geo. Zion NP map