Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery
By Michael Lanza
At the Lee Pass Trailhead in the northwest corner of southern Utah’s Zion National Park, a strong, chilling wind blasts us with air that feels more Canadian Rockies than canyon country. It’s noon on the first day of October, and while the air temperature hovers around 50° F here at just over 6,000 feet, and the sun beams down warmly from a bulletproof blue sky, we’re dressed in pants and fleece jackets.
It’s not quite what I’d expected after tracking Zion’s weather for the past week from home: Up until a few days ago, the highs were hitting the 80s up here and topping 90° F in Zion Canyon, about 2,000 feet lower than this rim. But it’s hard to worry much about wind when you’re staring at an extended forecast for sunshine and the kind of scenery greeting us at the trailhead. Fanned out before us like a royal flush of diamonds is an array of 700-foot, red and orange cliffs forming one end of the finger-like Kolob Canyons. The red hues contrast starkly against the strip of greenery tracing the stream channel in the canyon bottom and the yellow in some leaves still clinging to trees.
And that’s just the opening shot.
My wife, Penny, our son Nate, recently turned nine, and our six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Alex, accompanied by a small cadre of stuffed animals, are heading out for a four-day, 28-mile traverse from Lee Pass to the Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon. In many ways, it’s an ideal backpacking trip for a family with young kids, in particular because it offers several itinerary options. (See the Make It Happen section, below this story.) But for anyone wanting to see the best of the Southwest’s canyon scenery, this trek is a must-do, and one of the most spectacular backcountry trips in the entire national park system.
While Nate has done hikes of this length, it will be Alex’s most ambitious yet. But we’ve been working her up to this, with trips incrementally more challenging, so I’m confident she’ll do fine. And our first-grader will demonstrate her fortitude after a surprise, scary incident on our second day out here.
Penny and I have hiked in Zion before, the first time years ago, before we were married, and most recently with the kids and some of my family when Nate was five and a half and Alex barely three. But on both of those previous trips, we’d only dayhiked around Zion Canyon, to popular spots like Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point. Now, ironically, with our kids still young, we’re diving deeper into Zion’s backcountry than ever before.
From Lee Pass, we descend steadily on the La Verkin Creek Trail to Timber Creek, which has dried up this autumn. Cottonwoods up to 80 feet tall line the sandy banks, scattering occasional, small patches of shade onto the trail. With little wind here in the canyon bottom to offset the afternoon sun, we strip down to shirts and pants. Except for occasionally pulling on a fleece, this will be our hiking attire most of the time over the next four days.
After three hours of easy walking, we arrive at campsite four, among pine trees a minute’s stroll from La Verkin Creek, which runs shallow but strong, clear, and loud. As Penny and I pitch tents and cook, Nate and Alex while away a couple of timeless hours engaged in their favorite backcountry activity: playing in the creek, constructing marvels of hydro engineering with sticks, rocks, and mud. Evening brings a display of alpenglow on the towering cliffs flanking both sides of the broad canyon, until night arrives, bearing cool, calm air and a black sky sprayed with pinholes of light.
The desert Southwest’s bizarre, vividly colored geology ignites wildfires of the imagination. Rock sculpted in ways unseen elsewhere in America—at least not so extensively—inspired a vocabulary and place names to equal the haunting and compelling allure of the land. So we have terms like hoodoo and slot canyon, and natural features called The Great White Throne, Thor’s Hammer, and Angels Landing, to name a few. Each of the region’s national parks and monuments possesses a unique character; each is worthy of getting to know at a level of intimacy only acquired in the same way that we best learn a new language: complete immersion. That is, by walking some miles, sweating, feeling the coarse sandstone crumble in your fingers, and hearing the wind blow through voids undisturbed by the sounds of machines.
But even in a region where the extraordinary becomes ordinary, Zion stands out. Perhaps that’s why it was Utah’s first national park, designated in the same year, 1919, as Grand Canyon National Park. Others may abound with natural arches, spires, or ancient cliff dwellings, but none really matches the scale of Zion’s grandeur—the sensations of awe, disbelief, and smallness evoked by a succession of 2,000-foot-tall cliffs stretching for miles, the rock’s purity of white and blood red, or patterns of striations rippling across a span of stone that would dwarf Man’s greatest buildings and monuments. It’s easy to understand how the first Mormon settlers here, who named many of these features, saw the hand of God applied more lovingly in Zion than in other parts of Creation.
Pulling on a wool hat and down jacket when I emerge from the tent early in the morning, I put the temp in the high 30s. But it warms up at least 10 degrees by the time we finish eating, loading packs—and, for Nate and Alex, playing more in the creek—and start hiking around 9:30. We follow the sandy, nearly flat trail along La Verkin Creek, which pours over occasional foot-high ledges and waters a lush—by desert standards—bottomland of cottonwoods, ponderosa pine, and prickly pear and other cacti.
The sun must scale a high canyon wall to reach us, so we walk in cool shade until late morning, a welcome postponement of the coming dry heat. But the sun has roundabout ways of infiltrating this deep recess, including what might be called a Boomerang Effect: The light scorching the south-facing canyon walls high overhead on our left gets bounced across the canyon, as if reflected off an angled mirror. This softer light diffuses onto the shadowed cliffs on our right, deepening the reds in sharp contrast to the greenery of trees and bushes clinging to ledges. The cliffs may be a great canvas, but light is the paintbrush.
Despite having bluebird weather at a prime time of year to hike in Zion, we see just a half dozen other people throughout our two days in the Kolob canyons. All are dayhikers, most of them making the 14.4-mile out-and-back jaunt from Lee Pass to the view of Kolob Arch—which, at an estimated 292 feet, vies with Landscape Arch in Arches National Park for the title of the world’s largest. While the kids opt for more creek time, Penny and I take turns hiking the half-mile spur trail to the view of the arch, which clings to the canyon wall high overhead.
A bit more than an hour later, we’re ascending the hot, dusty path toward Hop Valley. Two minutes ahead of us with Nate, Penny gets stung by a wasp, but they continue on without realizing they’ve apparently disturbed a ground nest. When Alex and I reach the spot moments later, the wasps are ready for vengeance.
In an instant, they swarm upon us; Alex is screaming, and I’m swatting wildly and urging her forward. We scurry some 200 yards up the trail before finally outrunning the cloud of wasps. Alex has a painful-looking, swollen lower lip and another sting between two fingers; but fortunately, no more than that, and she shows no signs of a dangerous allergic reaction. I’m not sure how many stings I have on my burning arms and legs.
I apply an old home-remedy salve remembered from childhood—toothpaste—to my upset daughter’s wounds. She sobs for a while and accepts some comforting hugs, but shortly we’re walking again, our six-year-old seeming to accept that the wilderness has thorns to match its roses. Weeks from now, the kids will recall the incident with the same “remember that?” tone they use in resurrecting shared moments, confirming to me that the wasp attack had evolved from trauma to just another piece of our family lore.
We tramp through the boggy Hop Valley, a corridor of grass and a few small, lonely trees between 400-foot-high, sheer red walls. Several lost-looking cows graze here—it’s allowed. Nate and I stop to examine the desiccated remains of one, reduced to a skull, leg bones, and a big leather skin spread neatly over the ground like a throw rug.
After nine sandy miles, we reach the car at the Hop Valley Trailhead and discover the national park is conducting a controlled burn. Park officials have temporarily closed the West Rim Trailhead, several miles up the road, where we planned to start the second overnight leg of our hike. But the kids’ weariness and the wasp incident had already sealed our decision to take advantage of our route’s flexibility. We’ll bed down in a hotel tonight and resume our trek in the morning, in Zion Canyon.
On our third morning, we step off the park’s free shuttle bus at the Grotto Trailhead into T-shirt-and-shorts weather, and join the conga line of people ascending the paved Angels Landing Trail, which attracts hundreds of hikers on a nice day. I’m plodding along and sweating barrels under a pack that’s way too heavy for an overnight hike, mostly thanks to the addition of eight liters—17 pounds—of water. Alex shows sympathy and slows down to keep me company.
But once we’ve passed Angels Landing—two and a half miles and 1,500 feet uphill—it’s as if we’ve slammed a door behind us to lock out the hordes. Continuing up the West Rim Trail (we’re at its southern end, not the northern end that’s temporarily closed), we see perhaps a dozen other hikers all afternoon, while walking through a landscape as fascinating and mind-bogglingly gorgeous as any I’ve laid eyes on.
Following the trail along a narrow spine of sandstone, we tiptoe cautiously up to the brink of a dizzyingly sheer, thousand-foot drop to the Virgin River. Zion Canyon sprawls out below us, with walls rising 2,000 feet or more to an opposite rim higher than our overlook. We continue at a leisurely kids’ pace up a side canyon where conical cliffs with diagonal and horizontal striations look like giant beehives, or the work of a painter sweeping an enormous brush randomly back and forth across the rock. Streaks of salmon and burgundy drip down clean white walls. Stunted but stubborn pines, small bushes, and some grasses and wildflowers spring improbably from pockets of thin soil, but mostly we’re walking through a micro-environment of barren rock.
The trail wends a circuitous route through this vertical maze, zigzagging innumerable switchbacks. I gaze up at a headwall that we have to scale to gain the West Rim, wondering where this footpath could possibly breach that rampart—then discover the answer as we ascend another exposed, narrow ridge and follow a sidewalk-wide footpath blasted out of cliffs.
As usual, we see few kids on the trail, and no backpackers as young as Alex and Nate. But we meet some adults who feel compelled to give us advice about backpacking with our kids. I’ve run into this before. It’s as if they’re perplexed that we’d be taking young kids out here, or presume that if we’re doing something this crazy, we must be in need of their unsolicited advice—which generally falls into the categories of glaringly obvious or naïve. They warn us that “the trail gets steep,” that “it’s going to get very cold tonight”—and my favorite all-purpose tip for parents: “You should be careful.”
After leaving these people behind, we make up responses we’re tempted to give, like, “Well, if it gets cold, we’ll just burn the kids’ clothes to keep warm.”
That evening, inside our tents pitched in the sparse pine forest at 7,300 feet on the West Rim, we play card games and read books, listening to the roar of the wind. Gigantic gusts build for several long seconds, sounding like they’re coming simultaneously from different directions, before crashing through our campsite with the volume and tonal quality of a jet taking off just overhead. It’s mild, in the 50s, as a full moon plays peek-a-boo through breaks in the clouds, intermittently throwing haunting, twisted-finger shadows of tree trunks and branches onto our tent walls.
It’s all a little exciting for Nate and Alex, but not enough to keep them awake—mountain winds and creepy shadows on tents are an old show for these veterans. Besides, like their parents, these two appreciate the value of a long night’s snooze in the wilderness.
On our fourth and final morning in Zion, I awaken well before my family for a first-light, out-and-back hike along the West Rim Trail. Minutes beyond our campsite, the footpath emerges from the pines to a sweeping view west of a labyrinth of deep canyons glazed in red, orange, and white, flowing to a distant horizon. Isolated green mesa tops seem to float in the air like lilies on a pond, their walls dropping into incredibly tight slots that pinch funnel-like down into dark cleavages. It conveys a sense of incredible depth to the landscape, of a surfeit of dimensionality, especially once the rising sun pierces broken clouds to cast a beautiful, dappled light onto the scene, spotlighting east-facing sandstone walls while leaving other slots and cliffs in shadow.
Looking at my map to identify these features, I can’t help but smile at their names. Phantom Valley. Church Mesa. Castle Dome. Inclined Temple. Mount Majestic. Others who came long before me felt the same way I do.
The full moon still hangs overhead. It’s loudly windy, the temperature in the 50s. I see one animal in two hours out here, a bird flying, or rather, struggling against the wind, moving rapidly but swooping wildly on the turbulent air, reminding me of a downhill skier at the very edge between control and disaster. In a copse of pine trees, where the trail starts dropping toward Potato Hollow, I turn around and head back to our camp.
It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to call it magical—this solo foray as well as the entire four days. And despite a couple of tiring days and one unpleasant incident with the wasps, the payoff has been equal for adults and kids.
Nate and Alex have fed their jones for creek playing and rock scrambling. And on our descent back to Zion Canyon on this last day, they’ll shout and laugh chasing a chipmunk that’s determined to raid food from the packs of dayhikers at Angels Landing. They will climb up inside cave-like grottoes in the sandstone walls of Refrigerator Canyon. They will ham for my camera, poke grinning faces out through a small window in the rock, and generally have those child-like moments when they appear to care about nothing but the joy of this, here, now, an experience that eludes easy capture in adulthood but returns in places like the backcountry of Zion.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers of any skill level, including families with children who are capable of hiking five to seven miles with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain and loss per day. Trails are generally well marked and easy to follow (although the trail through the Hop Valley gets faint in spots). Backpackers should understand the challenges of hiking in the desert and how to manage heat and water (see Concerns, below).
Make It Happen
Season Prime seasons are spring and autumn. Summer temperatures frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., and winter brings snow to higher elevations.
The Itinerary One appeal of this trek is the multiple route and distance options, most of which require using a local commercial shuttle service (see below) and the park’s free shuttle buses in Zion Canyon. The classic full traverse of Zion, from Lee Pass Trailhead in the Kolob Canyons area to the East Entrance Trailhead on Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is roughly 50 miles. In Zion Canyon, ride a park bus a few minutes from the Grotto Trailhead to the Weeping Rock/East Rim Trailhead.
The Trails Illustrated map indicates the distance from Lee Pass Trailhead to The Grotto is 36.4 miles. My GPS showed 38.9 miles (not including any side trips, like Kolob Arch, Northgate Peaks, Angels Landing), a discrepancy of 2.5 miles. The map also gives the trail distance from Weeping Rock Trailhead to East Entrance Trailhead as 10.5 miles, and friends of mine who hiked it, while they did not carry a GPS, all felt it was at least 11 miles.
The park’s website (nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/zion-backcountry-trails.htm) gives slightly different mileages for some sections, saying the West Rim Trail is 14.5 miles (the TI map says 14.9), and the East Rim Trail from Weeping Rock to East Entrance is 10.6 miles (the TI map says 10.5).
Make it a 28-mile hike (my original plan, before we adjusted it for the controlled-burn trailhead closure) by shaving off the Connector Trail and Wildcat Canyon Trail stretch; this requires shuttling your car pre-trip to Hop Valley Trailhead and driving mid-trip to the West Rim Trailhead near Lava Point (where there’s a campground), then getting another ride to retrieve your car at the trip’s end. That option also allows having a mid-trip food resupply waiting at your car.
You can also turn the 28-mile hike into back-to-back overnight trips (as we did) by driving from the Hop Valley Trailhead to a local hotel that middle night and embarking on the West Rim Trail the next morning. Similar combinations using the East Rim Trail are possible, too, as well as out-and-back hikes from Zion Canyon on the West Rim and East Rim Trails, which eliminate the need for vehicle shuttles.
Read my story about hiking this same 50-mile traverse of Zion in one day.
Getting There Lee Pass Trailhead is about eight miles up Kolob Canyons Road from exit 40 on I-15. The eastern trailhead of the East Rim Trail sits just inside the park’s East Entrance on Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (UT 9). The Hop Valley and West Rim (Lava Point) Trailheads are 12 miles and 23 miles, respectively, up Kolob Terrace Road from UT 9 in Virgin. The Grotto and Weeping Rock/East Rim Trailheads are serviced by the park’s free and frequent shuttle buses operating only in Zion Canyon, which can be reached on free town buses in Springdale.
Permit For spring and fall dates, reserve a backcountry permit two months in advance. See the park’s website (below) for details.
Map Trails Illustrated Zion map no. 214 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
• Plan water carefully. La Verkin Creek runs year-round, and Beatty, Sawmill, and Cabin springs are usually reliable, though they recharge slowly at times. Stave Spring, near the East Rim’s campsites, may dry up. Check with the backcountry desk and carry extra water on the West and East Rims.
• La Verkin Creek can run deep and fast and be dangerous to ford in spring. Ask the backcountry desk for current information on its level. Usually by summer and fall, it is easy to cross.
• Temperature range varies with both season and elevation; know the elevation-specific forecast and prepare accordingly for the hottest and coldest temperatures expected.
• Wasps abound; carry an anaphylaxis kit for anyone who’s allergic.
Contact Zion National Park, (435) 772-0170, nps.gov/zion.