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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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Along the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.

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.

Shelli Johnson and David Ports fording La Verkin Creek in Zion National Park.

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.

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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.

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David Ports on the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Mid-Life Crisis: Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion In a Day”

  1. Michael,
    I have a blogpost request, if you haven’t already written it: I would love to hear about how you got into backpacking and other outdoor adventures/activities and maybe even how you came to make a career out of it over the years. Any other reflections would be welcome as well!

  2. Michael,
    What an adventure! Sorry about your IT band issue but you had fantastic trip with great friends nonetheless.

    1. This trail descends overal from beginning to end. Do you consider much of it gradual descending (in terms of knees and quads?
    2. Can you get to Lee Pass Trailhead and Hop Valley Trailhead 24/7? (Are the gates closed overnight?)
    3. On West rim, do you recommend hiking on the (westerly) trail that goes by all the campsites or the easterly trail breaks off near campsite 6 and then rejoins the trail again near Cabin Spring?
    4. Northgate may be a good short hike that we can do after setting up camp near where the trails intersect. Is it a scenically view that’s worth checking out?

    • Thanks, Brian. Yes, it was a wonderful, long day.

      1. Much of that traverse is not steep, though there are steeper sections, primarily climbing up from La Verkin Creek to the Hop Valley (but up isn’t hard on knees); the descent off the West Rim to the magnificent stretch of that trail above Angels Landing (but there are switchbacks, it’s not too bad); and hardest on knees is the steep, paved lower section of the West Rim Trail, below Walter’s Wiggles and before you reach the valley bottom. Use poles there.

      2. There aren’t gates blocking the roads to Lee Pass and Hop Valley trailheads when those roads are open. They only close when there’s damage or seasonally, which isn’t usually an issue by mid-spring. See nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/conditions.

      3. Definitely stay on the West Rim Trail, which passes by all the campsites. It’s very scenic. I believe the other trail you’re referring to is Telephone Canyon, which has been closed so often because of damage that I’ve never had a chance to hike it.

      4. Northgate Trail is short, easy, and flat and in the woods until you reach the end of it, which is a nice overlook of the maze of canyons in that area of Zion. I’d recommend it.

      Thanks for the good questions.

      • Thanks for your helpful answers, Michael!
        I’m really glad to know that you are still out having big adventures at about age 60 (if I did the math correctly?). I know that’s not actually old at all and you have several more years of adventure in you. I just started backpacking with my teenage son two years ago, almost 30 years since I had last carried a backpack in the wilderness. During that 30 years, I never really knew for sure if I would get out on the trail again. After three fantastic trips with my son over the last two years (and purchasing a bunch of new equipment), I am excited to be backpacking again and I hope to do it into my 60s and 70s, if my body will allow.

        Thanks for the inspiration as well as the education that you have provided via your articles and reviews as well as the custom trip that you put together for me and my son for Zion next month. Backpacking gear has really changed in 30 years and you have really helped me as I have been updating my gear to become a modern backpacker. You have many years of trail experience and you really do an excellent job of reviewing gear and educating fellow backpackers and hikers. Thanks for all that you do.

  3. The twisted allure of the lunacy makes sense to me. I’m over also 50, can’t afford the Italian sports car either, and am also married to too good a woman to ever consider leaving. In my case, another friend over 50 invited me to do a long distance swim with him and a group of mostly over 50 guys a few years ago – 100 x 100 yards in 100 second intervals. 10000 yards in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. The distance is about 2 1/2 times the swimming leg of an ironman. One of the guys (that’s also into running marathons) said that he thought it’s about like running 20 miles in the same length of time. Its close to the limit of my capabilities, but I’ve done a few of those swims now. They get harder as I get older, but I think I still have some craziness left in me. I don’t tell anyone anymore that I’m going to attempt one of these because I always get the same response, “Are you out of your mind?”. My wife doesn’t understand at all, and I don’t know how to explain the lunacy of it to anyone. But every year there are some other lunatics to whom it makes some kind of twisted sense that want to swim it too.