Ask Me: Looking For a 3- or 4-Day Backpacking Trip in Zion or the Southwest
Some friends and I are planning to do the Zion National Park thru-hike in October, partly inspired by one of your posts. We have a pact to do a significant multi-day backpacking trip every year in the fall, and this one would be great. The Zion National Park website says there may be prescribed burns during September-November, and the Wildcat Canyon Trail and the thru-hike will be closed when they burn. At this point, park rangers can’t promise our dates wouldn’t have burns. We’re flying out from Florida. Really want to do the Zion thru-hike. So thinking we’ll stick to that plan, but want to have a Plan B in the same area in case we learn that our trip will be blocked by a prescribed burn. Would love your thoughts on good 3- to 4-day backpacking trips—loop or point to point—in Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bryce, Capitol Reef, or Canyonlands.
Have been spending a lot of time reading through your site: awesome. Thanks a lot for all the info.
The nearly 50-mile, north-south hike across Zion National Park is one of the most awe-inspiring hikes in the National Park System. (See my stories about a family backpacking trip on most of the traverse and about dayhiking it.) October is a perfect time in the Southwest for temps and seeing nice fall color in the cottonwood trees. the Narrows in Zion is great for that color, especially the very bottom of it, which is full of cottonwoods and easily accessed on a leisurely, one-hour hike from the last bus stop in upper Zion Canyon. You also get a killer view of the bottom of The Narrows from Angels Landing. It’s a great trip and you might as well at least try to get a permit for it (although it’s popular and hard to get; see my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit“). You may need to rent dry suits and canyoneering boots (in Springdale) if you’re there beyond early October, because you’re mostly hiking in cold water, but it’s totally worth it.
On that same trip last November, a friend and I also got a permit to dayhike The Subway, a classic slot canyon in Zion, which I’ll also write about later. In fact, my first suggestion if you can’t backpack the full Zion traverse would be to try to get a Narrows overnight permit, dayhike the Subway (which does require knowing how to set up a couple of short rappels), and dayhike Angels Landing (see this photo and this one.)
If you strike out on The Narrows, and Wildcat Canyon Trail is closed, try for permits for back-to-back overnight trips on the best sections of the Zion traverse: From Lee Pass Trailhead in the Kolob Canyons, hike along La Verkin Creek as far as the campsites near Kolob Arch (make the side hike to see the arch), and back out again; and from The Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon, hike up the spectacular West Rim Trail (lead photo at top of story) to a campsite on the West Rim, which you should explore as far as Potato Hollow, then return to Zion Canyon the second day. Bonus: Make the side hike to the summit of Angels Landing; do that either early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
Although you’re backtracking both of those trails, I don’t think you’ll mind because you can hike them at different times of day, with very different light. See the photos and planning section of this story. To tell you the truth, the Wildcat Canyon Trail is the least-scenic section of the Zion traverse.
Another alternative overnighter in Zion: Hike the East Rim Trail from where it begins near the park’s East Entrance (above the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel on UT 9) down to Zion Canyon, with possible side hikes to Hidden Canyon and Observation Point, both very scenic. You would need a shuttle up to the East Entrance, then you can catch the free shuttle bus in Zion Canyon back to Springdale.
To answer your bigger question, these would be my top suggestions for backpacking trips of three to four days elsewhere in the Southwest, in no particular order:
Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, three days, plus dayhike the slot canyons Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch (late afternoon to avoid crowds and heat, they only take a few hours). See my story about both hikes, which also includes my favorite dayhike in Bryce Canyon.
The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park: You can make it a three-day trip by including Chesler Park, the Joint Trail in Chesler, the side trip to Druid Arch, then heading over to the pass between Big Spring and Squaw canyons (awesome spot), going down Lost Canyon and out-and-back on the Peek-a-Boo Trail. Great trip.
A three-day, mostly off-trail traverse of the Waterpocket Fold formation that forms the spine of Capitol Reef National Park. Truly one of the coolest, most scenic hikes I’ve done. You’ll need a guide but you would not regret the cost, and the guide’s a friend of mine, terrific guy, Steve Howe. See my story and photos.
Paria Canyon is a five-day trip, but well worth considering. I did it with my family and another family in late March (I’ll post a story, photos, and a video later; see this post), it’s probably top five among multi-day canyon hikes in the country. Start at Wire Pass Trailhead and hike down Buckskin Gulch if you can. The permit’s hard to get; see this link.
Lastly, have you considered hitting the Grand Canyon? October is ideal there, too, and of course, there’s no place like it in the world. Backpack off the South Rim for three or four days either the 29 miles from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail, or 25 miles from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead (which I dayhiked this past May). You can extend the latter trip to the South Kaibab Trailhead, which adds about eight miles.
Well, that should give you some ideas for the next five years!
Good luck and thanks for following The Big Outside.
Thanks so much for the reply—a huge help. Hopefully, they won’t be doing a burn during our trip, but if they do we’ll be ready with some killer alternatives.
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