Saturday, July 25, 2015

Backpacking Zion National Park's West Rim Trail

Zion' National Park's 229 square miles (147,000 acres) range in elevation from 3666 feet above sea level to 8726 feet. Its name is a Hebrew word referring to a place of safety or refuge and was given to the canyon by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s. In 1909 it became Mukuntuweap National Monument and in 1919 became Zion National Park.

The West Rim Trail is the premier backpacking trail in Zion and is rated as extremely strenuous when hiked south to north (mostly uphill) and moderately strenuous north to south (mostly downhill).  I hiked it so it was mostly downhill with an elevation gain of 1265 feet and an elevation loss of 4825 feet, most of which occurs in the final 5 miles. The access road to the trailhead was closed due to a washout which made the hike about 18 miles in length.

In 1999, I began at Lava Point trailhead. The first 5 miles across Horse Pasture Plateau skirted close to the rim and gave great views of the canyons and monoliths to the west.  It was partially forested as seen below and devoid of other people. Two of the three water availability sites occur in this 5 mile stretch, Sawmill Spring and Potato Hollow Spring. The third is West Rim Spring at mile 9.8, just after the long downhill starts.

As in most national parks, you are assigned a campsite and no at-large camping is allowed.  My  campsite, number 5, was a bit rocky, but I managed to find an area for my tent avoiding the rocks.  If you like solitude, this trail is for you. Other than a trail crew early on my hike, I saw no one the first day and a half. At this point, I'm still on the West Rim with the downhill into the canyon beginning tomorrow.

My campsite was just a few dozen feet from the rim's edge, and this was the view looking west. Someone had build a large arm chair out of rocks which I sat in as I drank in the seemingly endless vistas. However the stone chair, though cute and cleverly constructed, quickly became uncomfortably hard so I walked along the rim instead.

The next day, I quickly reached the end of the rim and the trail descended a sheer wall of sandstone in a series of five or more long and steep switchbacks carved out of the mountainside which provided constant outstanding views to the north. The labor to create this portion of the trail is inestimable. Yesterday's top section was built first back in the 1920s, and this downhill section was a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1935. What an arduous job that must have been, although seeing these views on a daily basis must have been a fringe benefit beyond recompense. In this photo I turned around and took the photo of where I had just descended...


...and this photo shows a level spot and the majestic views provided along the trail. Amazing!

After you descend several miles, you approach Scout Overlook which provides this glimpse down to the canyon floor with the Virgin River and the park road winding through the valley.

At this point, you begin encountering multitudes of people coming up from the valley and headed to Angels Landing from The Grotto Trailhead. I wasn't about to attempt that climb to Angels Landing with my 45 pound backpack, and I was fearful of leaving all my gear at Scout Landing as I climbed, so unfortunately I choose not to climb to Angel's Landing, figuring I'd do it another time. Big mistake, since it's still on my bucket list!

Next comes "Walter's Wiggles," a series of a 21 steep switchbacks descending into Refrigerator Canyon.

The trail then proceeds through a narrow cleft and finally descends another series of switchbacks to the floor of Zion Canyon. This section of trail is a high use area swarming with people hiking up to Angels Landing, and only patience got me this photo of Walters Wiggles without loads of people on it.

I hiked up the Virgin River in the section called The Narrows on a subsequent trip, and here's the video of that fun adventure.  The 16 mile hike through The Narrows involves walking in the Virgin River and can be dangerous due to flash flooding. You may do a short day hike without a permit as I did, about three a half hour hike out and back. An overnight hike require a shuttle and a permit. Yes, the water is cold and the rocks slippery, but it's one of my all-time favorite hikes!

Nearly 800 native species of plants call Zion home, as well as 75 species of mammals, 271 birds, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 8 fish. Sightings of mule deer, rock squirrels, lizards, roadrunners, and songbirds are common. Rare or endangered species include peregrine falcons, Mexican spotted owls, spinedance fish, and the unique Zion snail.

Kolob Arch is the world's largest with a span of 310 feet and can only be reached by hiking in from either the Hop Valley Trail or the LaVerkin Creek Trail.

Temperatures range from 72 degrees to 110 degrees between May and October. Winter temperatures often reach 40 degrees, and little snow reaches the Canyon floor, though accumulations can occur on the plateaus. Average annual precipitation is 15 inches.

A backpack permit cost me $5 in 1999 for a one night stay. You must declare which campsite you will use in the backcountry. Only 2 trails lend themselves to backpacking: the 11.6 mile East Rim Trail and the 14 mile West Rim Trail. Both are ranked as strenuous.


I am occasionally asked if I would suggest if people should backpack in Bryce or Zion National Park if only one hike is available. I would definitely recommend backpacking in Zion. The Zion West Rim Trail is far more strenuous than the Below-the-Rim Trail in Bryce, but has fewer people on it and provides outstanding panoramas of the mountains and peaks and valleys of Zion Canyon. Zion has a hiker shuttle available by reservation. Also, although Bryce's trail provides outstanding forest travel, Bryce's main claim to fame is its hoodoos, which are visible from up on the rim, not from the bottom of the canyon.

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