Mid-Life Crisis: Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion In a Day
By Michael Lanza
La Verkin Creek, swollen and bellowing with spring snowmelt, charges past us like a stampeding herd of bison—with a force and noise level that can make a reasonable person question the wisdom of stepping into its path. Deep in the Kolob Canyons in the northwest corner of Utah’s Zion National Park, it’s tearing enough dirt from its banks to turn the water muddy brown, making it impossible for us to gauge its depth. The pitch-darkness of shortly after 5 a.m. doesn’t help in that regard, either.
We need to get to the other side.
Seven of us are just two hours and a bit over six miles into an ambitious plan. If all goes well, our odyssey will culminate about 18 hours from now on the other side of Zion, with us hiking a bit over 50 miles—traversing the entire park in one day.
So we point headlamps at the torrent and look around for a safe place to ford, everyone fully aware of the dangers of a fast-moving creek.
As some of us discuss possible crossing points, we notice that Mark Fenton has taken off his shoes and socks and slowly waded in alone. Conversation stops as everyone watches him probing with and leaning on his trekking poles, taking slow, difficult steps forward. The creek rises to his knees, then his thighs, then his crotch. It escapes none of us that Mark, while one of the strongest hikers in our group of friends who have all logged 30-mile days and longer, suffers from a form of vertigo that causes him to stagger down a trail when hiking by headlamp in the dark.
Now he’s fording a raging creek… by headlamp in the dark. I don’t think I’m the only one among us contemplating what to do if Mark gets knocked over and swept away.
Two-thirds of the way across, he stumbles in the pushy current, struggling to stay on his feet. With visible effort, Mark makes the final few steps across and pulls himself onto the opposite bank.
Giving voice to the palpable relief we’re all feeling—and speaking the words no one wanted to utter while Mark was still in the creek—Todd Arndt jokes, “Who thought it would be a good idea for him to go first?”
The rest of us find a wider, slightly shallower spot just upstream and ford La Verkin with less excitement. In this spring of high runoff, this crossing posed a bigger challenge than we expected and will prove to be the technical crux of our hike. But more than anything, it illustrates an important point: Given the absurd, sheer audaciousness of our objective today, there is plenty of time and distance for problems to arise. This is wilderness, after all. The unexpected happens.
Still, we all understand that the factor likely to dictate whether we reach the other side of Zion National Park—more than 50 trail miles away—will be whether our bodies hold up.
Why such a ludicrously long dayhike? For a certain type of hiker or trail runner—highly motivated, obsessive-compulsive, choose your descriptor—it holds a twisted allure. It attempts to answer the question: With the right training and preparation, how far can I go in one determined, singularly driven day? After all, beyond the significant hurdle of endurance, perambulating much farther than 50 miles would require more than a day for most even very fit people. And if walking that far in under 24 hours is hard, continuing into a second day, with the serious sleep deprivation that entails, raises the suffering stakes to a whole new level.
But that only goes partway toward explaining my motivation—and, I confess, this lunacy was my idea. I turned 50 this spring. The psychological significance of this event eludes easy explanation to anyone who hasn’t reached it yet. I’m okay with it; my life is good. But I found myself thinking that this birthday demanded doing something equal to the magnitude of tagging the half-century mark.
I immediately ruled out the two traditional male outlets for a mid-life crisis: I can’t nearly afford an expensive Italian sports car, and I have too good and tolerant a wife to consider leaving her for someone half my age. Still, those two things set a high bar for someone contemplating the right moves to wrestle this bear named Fifty to the ground. Compared to laying out the equivalent of a house downpayment for a car or showing off a trophy girlfriend, celebrating with a couple of beers seemed a little blasé.
That’s when I came up with the idea for a 50-mile dayhike.
For a few years, I’ve also had in my head the idea of hiking north to south across Zion in a day. Having hiked sections of it before, I knew the 47-mile traverse from Lee Pass Trailhead to East Entrance Trailhead—all on trail, with a short shuttle-bus ride in Zion Canyon from The Grotto to Weeping Rock (location of the East Rim Trailhead)—takes in some of the most amazing scenery in the Southwest: deep chasms with burnt-red and white walls, soaring cliffs and beehive rock formations, and edge-of-the-rim walks high above labyrinths of slot canyons. Throw in a few very worthy, short side hikes along the way—Northgate Peaks, Angels Landing, and Hidden Canyon—and you log 51 miles on one of the most incredible days of hiking I can imagine in the national park system.
It would be the farthest any of us has ever hoofed in a day, but arguably not as difficult as the 44-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhike of the Grand Canyon that six of the seven of us made a year ago (in two separate groups on different days)—which entails 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, roughly half again as much as the Zion traverse. And as a pure test of endurance, this one huge day across Zion does not touch the seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail that two of my companions today and I knocked off five years ago.
The first challenge of an ultra-dayhike is recruiting the right people as partners—individuals not only capable of either completing it or getting themselves out safely if they can’t, but who are also going to be good company. I’m fortunate in that regard, having a surprising number of friends who are skilled, fit, and crazy enough for such an undertaking. As is often the case when I organize an adventure, some of these people will be meeting each other for the first time. One of the biggest thrills for me is bringing together great people, knowing that their positive energy and dynamic will largely dictate how much everyone draws from the experience. See “The Cast of Characters” sidebar for more about the six people who agreed to help me celebrate this birthday.
So, after what seemed like a book-length exchange of e-mails, we agreed on a weekend date in mid-May—late enough for snow to melt out on the canyon rims, early enough to avoid brutal heat in the canyon bottoms. And we all vowed to commence three-month training programs… that we were too busy with work and family to follow through on. I think only David and I logged as much as 20 miles in one training run-hike. Mark arrived in Zion lamenting that he’d fit in few regular workouts in recent weeks. Todd confessed that he had managed nothing longer than an eight-mile trail run.
As much as past experience gave us the confidence to try a 50-mile hike across Zion, our inadequate training had each of us quietly wondering who among us might become the next Everett Ruess, the 20-year-old solo adventurer who infamously disappeared in 1934 in the unforgiving Southwest desert country.
A hike this long is no leisurely stroll. I had laid out target times for reaching key points: meeting up with Mark’s wife, Lisa, their daughter, Skye, and friend Amy Mingels, who would have water and food for us when we reached Hop Valley Trailhead at mile 13 around 7 a.m.; meeting them again at Angels Landing by around 4 p.m.; and reaching a water cache on the West Rim Trail by mid-afternoon and an energy-drink cache on the East Rim Trail in the evening. My friend Mark Godley hauled both of those liquid loads into the backcountry yesterday and plans to rendezvous with us in Zion Canyon to hike the final 11 miles tonight.
We made good time hiking by headlamps after starting at Lee Pass Trailhead at 3:10 a.m. on a calm, partly cloudy night with the temperature at a very comfortable 54° F. The delay at La Verkin Creek sets us back about 45 minutes. A little while later, walking through the chilly Hop Valley shortly after dawn, between soaring cliffs of red rock, four of us waste another 20 minutes getting sucked onto a user footpath that leads nowhere, forcing us to backtrack to find the faint trail.
At 10:30 a.m., just past mile 17, Shelli, Todd, David, and I reach the junction with the out-and-back trail to the Northgate Peaks, one of our planned side trips. Shelli decides to skip this 2.2-mile addendum and push ahead. The three of us drop our packs, and Todd jogs out the flat trail through open pine forest to “stretch my legs,” he tells us. David and I walk briskly, joking that it will be “the last we see of anyone else!”
Little do we know.
Jon, Mark, and Carl pass us on their return from the Northgate Peaks overlook; minutes later, Todd jogs past on his return. David and I reach the rocky point at the trail’s end, take a few minutes to soak up the view of white beehive formations of rippled sandstone, then turn around to resume our long march.
A tightness high in my left I.T. band, an overuse injury I’ve dealt with on and off for years, starts declaring its presence to me as David and I continue on the Wildcat Canyon Trail. This time, unlike anytime before, stiffness begins developing on the outside of my left knee. I keep flexing it normally and tell myself that I can walk through the pain for more than another 30 miles, no problem.
The two of us reach Blue Creek, which flows strongly but is an easy, calf-deep ford. Near mile 20, we’re both famished and eager for a short respite from our shoes. I thought we might catch up with some of the others refilling water here, but they have all moved on. My left knee has grown stiffer; David has blisters sprouting on both feet. We stick our bare feet in the icy water for as long as we can stand it, feeling the numbing effect drain away the ache. We eat and eat more and 40 minutes tick past before we’re hiking again—twice as long as we intended to stop for.
Compared to the rest of the traverse, the stretch between the Northgate Peaks and Potato Hollow on the West Rim Trail suffers from a deficit of scenic inspiration—and comes at a time when our energy levels are waning and our spirits need a lift.
Then we climb through switchbacks out of Potato Hollow and hit the payoff stretch of the West Rim Trail, one of the park’s most popular footpaths among backpackers. The trail justifies its name, tracing the edge of a canyon rim overlooking a wilderness of majestic oddity that beggars description. Isolated green mesa tops float in the sky like lilies on a pond, above a labyrinth of white-rock slot canyons. We know we need to make time but can’t help pausing to shoot photos.
The West Rim Trail descends through switchbacks blasted out of a sheer sandstone cliff hundreds of feet high. Tiny wildflowers bloom from cracks in the rock. We pass below giant, stationary waves of white sandstone streaked with orange and crimson that appear to have been molded on a potter’s wheel. Ribbon-like waterfalls pour over salmon-colored walls. We walk along the brink of a thousand-foot drop into upper Zion Canyon, with a view of some of the park’s most famous features: the Temple of Sinewava, the Great White Throne, Angels Landing.
Unfortunately, as we descend toward Angels, my left knee feels like nails are being pounded into it; David’s feet are fairly trashed with blisters. We slowly come around to the idea that hiking all the way across Zion is not in the cards for us today—that we will exercise the bailout option of catching a park shuttle bus in Zion Canyon back to our hotel in Springdale, just outside the park’s south entrance.
Apparently, one thing that might keep you from hiking 50 miles in a day is an overuse injury. Go figure.
David and I reach The Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon at 8 p.m. after nearly 17 hours. My GPS shows 41.1 miles with 5,736 feet of total ascent. We will discover tomorrow that Jon Dorn and Mark Godley waited here for us until 7:45 p.m., so we missed them by 15 minutes—also missing sandwiches that Godley had brought from Springdale for us. But for David and I, this is the end of the trail, and it was a helluva day.
All five of our comrades will continue late into the night to complete the full traverse around midnight (some before, some after), in roughly 21 hours, toasting their achievement with celebratory beers that Lisa and Amy deliver when picking them up at the East Entrance Trailhead. That makes me feel pretty good about this team of friends that came together to demonstrate that a 50-mile day is a feasible objective for fit, experienced hikers. Meanwhile, I’ll go home and reignite my longstanding love-hate relationship with my foam roller.
No, an ultra-dayhike is not for everyone. But there is something unique and special about marrying athletic challenge to natural splendor, and it’s not about rushing through the wilderness, as some critics like to say. It’s about experiencing as much wilderness as you can in a day.
More important than how far we hiked, though, we reminded ourselves that the key ingredients for an unforgettable outdoor adventure are great scenery, the right companions, and setting a goal at the outer limits of your abilities. Nail something you might not have thought possible—whether you’re an ultra-hiker or runner gunning for a 50-mile day or taking a kid out for his or her biggest day to date (as I also did recently with my son)—and you create a powerful sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. That feeling endures long after many of the details of the adventure fade from memory.
NOTE: For information about backpacking this traverse of Zion National Park, see my story about a family trip on part of it.
The Cast of Characters
• Todd Arndt, of McCall, ID, is a family doctor and competitive runner who, by showing up for another of my hair-brained schemes, proves that having an M.D. after your name doesn’t mean you’re smart.
• Jon Dorn, of Boulder, CO, my boss as editor-in-chief of Backpacker, is an adventure racer—a fact that speaks for itself.
• Mark Fenton, of Scituate, MA, is a consultant on making communities more bike- and pedestrian-friendly and former member of the U.S. Race Walking Team. Mark has joined me every time I’ve hiked more than 30 miles in a day—a fact that speaks for itself.
• Shelli Johnson, of Lander, WY, is a consultant, writer, and life and leadership coach who can eat eight s’mores in succession, do 21 pull-ups, cross-country ski 50 miles in a day, and type more than 100 questions in e-mails when preparing for a big hike; she blogs at http://havemediawilltravel.com.
• David Ports, of Auburn, CA, is a resource director for YMCA of the USA and multi-sport adventurer who—I can vouch—once pulled a sled loaded with (partly) beer through the wilderness of Yellowstone.
• Carl Schueler, of Colorado Springs, CO, works in land-use planning, made four U.S. Olympic race walking teams, and beat me to the half-century birthday by a few years.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers with experience knocking off long day trips in the wilderness and desert hiking experience. It requires knowing how to prepare with the proper clothes, nutrition, fluids, and training. Most of these trails are obvious and well-marked (unless covered by fresh snow), except parts of the Hop Valley Trail, where you will have to be careful to avoid deceptive user paths that lead nowhere. See my story “Cranking Out Big Days” for tips on how to pull off long dayhikes.
Make It Happen
Season Prime months are May through mid-June and mid-September through October. Summer temperatures frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., and winter brings snow to higher elevations.
The Itinerary The north-south traverse from Lee Pass Trailhead, in the Kolob Canyons area of the park’s northwest corner, to the East Entrance Trailhead on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (UT 9) is nearly 50 miles on trail (see “Note on Mileage” below). You will take a five-minute ride on the park’s free shuttle bus from The Grotto Trailhead to Weeping Rock Trailhead in Zion Canyon. Going north to south, the hike links up the La Verkin Creek, Hop Valley, Connector, Wildcat Canyon, West Rim, and East Rim trails.
There are several possible out-and-back side hikes, but I recommend doing:
• Kolob Arch (1.2 miles round-trip), although if you start in the middle of the night, you will reach the Kolob Arch Trail in the dark (we skipped it).
• Northgate Peaks (2.2 miles round-trip).
• Angels Landing (0.8 mile round-trip).
• Hidden Canyon (one mile round-trip).
Angels Landing and Hidden Canyon are both typically very crowded, but with a 3 a.m. start like we made, you’ll get to them in late afternoon and early evening, when there are few other hikers.
The route can be hiked in either direction, but going north to south makes sense in terms of giving you a bailout option in Zion Canyon at 41.1 miles, where you can catch a free shuttle bus to park campgrounds or lodging in Springdale. You can also hike sections of varying lengths of this traverse, with Kolob Terrace Road allowing access to two trailheads along the route, Hop Valley and the north end of the West Rim Trail.
NOTE ON MILEAGE: 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 the side trips to Northgate Peaks or 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 while none of my companions who finished the hike carried a GPS, they 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). So according to our group’s hard data and estimation, the trail distance from Lee Pass Trailhead to East Entrance Trailhead, without any side hikes, may be closer to 50 miles.
Getting There A vehicle shuttle is required; commercial shuttle services are available (see below) and needed to get to Lee Pass Trailhead (unless you have multiple vehicles). It is easy to hitch a ride during the day from East Entrance Trailhead down the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (UT 9) into Zion Canyon. Lee Pass Trailhead is about eight miles up Kolob Canyons Road from exit 40 on I-15. The East Entrance Trailhead sits just inside the park’s East Entrance on Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (UT 9). The Grotto and Weeping Rock trailheads are serviced by the park’s free and frequent shuttle buses operating in Zion Canyon, which can be reached on free town buses from Springdale.
See info about the shuttle buses in Zion Canyon and the gateway town of Springdale at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/shuttle-system.htm. 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 (west of Springdale).
Permit A permit is not required for dayhiking.
Map Trails Illustrated Zion map no. 214 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
Concerns Check with the backcountry desk on the conditions at the springs and creeks before your hike. La Verkin Creek runs year-round, but could be very gritty during high spring runoff (as it was when we crossed it). 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. In May, we found good creeks between Hop Valley Trailhead and the Wildcat Canyon-West Rim trails junction—Blue Creek was strong and clear—but we avoided drinking from the shallow, slow river in the Hop Valley because cows graze there. A friend stashed a 10-liter water bladder for us on the West Rim Trail and bottles of energy drinks on the East Rim Trail the day before our hike.
Contact Zion National Park, (435) 772-0170, nps.gov/zion.
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