Photos by J.R. Robinson
Zion National Park
Zion National Park offers some of the most exciting and challenging hiking in all of the Southwest, all within a small area easily traversed in only a few days by foot. Its more famous trails, like Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, draw hikers from all over the world in droves of thousands every year. Through the Main Canyon along the Virgin River and beyond, into the dense backcountry with its maze of narrow twisting canyons and awe-inspiring overlooks, Zion offers a wealth of trails of all levels of difficulty. Behind the park’s imposing facade of towering cliffs and isolated peaks, lie a wealth of hidden alcoves, secret pools and waterfalls, and unique geological formations unlike those found anywhere else.
Zion is located on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, a geological fromation stretching from the base of the Rockies, to the deserts of the Mojave and Great Basin, encompassing the majority of the Colorado River Basin and numerous National Parks. It offers a unique opportunity to explore the desert ecology of three separate deserts, coming together and stacked upon each others like layers of a cake. At the southwestern edge of the park, the sparse desert of the Mojave flows up against the sandstone walls, while the Great Basin desert, with its changes in flora and fauna, join from the east. At every level of elevation, the park’s ecology shifts, from lush greenery along its rivers and streams, up to the dry and sparsely vegetated central zone, with its white sandstone flowing like waves from the upper reaches of the plateau, where pine trees cling like tufts of hair atop flattened buttes and eroded peaks.
The trails of Zion traverse all of these varied ecological spaces, occasionally passing through a zone en route to their destination, often focusing on the ecology as a destination in and of itself. In the eastern reaches of the park, herds of bighorns patrol the stream carved mazes and high plateaus, while in the Main Canyon, deer and turkey graze along the lush valley floor. On the western edge, the confluence of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts along the Kolob plateau offer a wealth of wildflowers and fauna, from insects to lizards to small mammals, all carving out a home amongst the narrow slot canyons and open dry desert.
Zion is a park that is at once deceptively simple, and manageably complex. Most of the parks trails are possible to tackle within a day, and most of its destinations require little technical experience, yet the sheer amount of secrets hiding behind those high red and white sandstone walls is enough to spend a lifetime uncovering.
Emerald Pools Trail
The Emerald Pools trail is one of the easiest and most forgiving hikes in the park, offering beautiful views of relatively permanent waterfalls, some of the few such features in the park, and an abundance of wildlife.
The trail begins at the Zion Lodge and crosses the river on a picturesque bridge before slowly rising up and into a forested grotto. The trail to Lower Emerald Pools is short, and before long it rises above the pool before dropping down through a sheltered alcove, where the dripping water of overhead seeps invariably wets the hair of any who hike underneath. The trail crosses beneath and behind a waterfall that, during periods of rain, can delight the hiker with a heavy flow fed by the Middle Pool above.
Climbing up from the Lower Pool, the trail cuts back into a less groomed section that traverses rock fields and forests, across the middle pool itself, toward the far walls of the west rim, where a cleft spills out the inconsistent flow of the upper waterfall, spilling below it into the Upper Pool. The Upper Pool itself is a beautiful green pond, colored by extensive algae blooms, offering a peaceful rest spot before returning to the main canyon below.
Angel's Landing Trail
The Angel’s Landing Trail is perhaps the most iconic, and most dangerous, hikes in all of Zion. Caution should be exercised at all times on this trail, as it is the most common location for fatal accidents within the park. Large crowds and steep drops await those who wish to attempt the hike.
The trail begins at the Grotto tram station, near the Zion Lodge, and starts out with a easy, paved trail leading up from the river toward a set of switchbacks known in the park as Walter’s Wiggles. The climb up is steady and constant, rising rapidly from the valley floor up 1500’ ft through the always cool Refrigerator Canyon to the saddle ridge of Scout Lookout. From the lookout, the trail continues on in either direction, up the West Rim Trail to the north, and toward Angel’s Landing, rising precipitously to the south.
The trail to Angel’s landing dips down a narrow trail along the knife-edged ridgeline and across a two meter-wide ledge with a step known as The Leap (requiring a leap of faith), where chains are set up to assist in the narrow traverse. The trail then winds up steep, chained switchbacks to the summit of Angel’s Landing itself, where expansive, 360 degree views await those brave enough to reach the top.
West Rim Trail
The West Rim Trail is an infrequently traversed section of trail that continues on from Angel’s Landing toward the eponymous West Rim, and beyond to Lava Point and the Kolob District of the park. Part of the Zion Grand Traverse, it is the linking trail from the western edge of the park to the Main Canyon. As a result most hikers on the trail will be coming from the rim, not from the canyon, making the canyon hiker feel a bit like a fish swimming upstream.
The trail winds its way through the white-sandstone of the Zion backcountry, along easily navigable and well maintained trails for several miles before eventually rising up a narrow, switchbacked ledge of a trail cut into the wall of the cliff face of the rim. The trail, though long and reasonably strenuous, is not exceedingly difficult, and rewards those few who wish to explore it with unique views along the northern reaches of the Virgin River and even a glimpse or two into the cleft of the Narrows further north.
Hidden Canyon Trail
Hidden Canyon certainly lives up to its name, carved into the back side of the Great White Throne, invisible from the floor of the Main Canyon.
Starting from the Weeping Wall trailhead, the trail shares a path with the Cable Mountain and Observation Point trails, until just before the outlet of Echo Canyon. Here the trail splits, and the Hidden Canyon trail veers south along the face of Cable Mountain, crossing a small dryfall before assembling a narrow cut ledge carved into the side of the rock face. Here, chains assist the hiker as they scramble up or down the ledge, a sheer, thousand foot drop on the other side.
The mouth of Hidden Canyon opens up just beyond the chained ledge, and rock stairs are carved into the canyon wall here to allow access to the narrow, short slot canyon. In the canyon, a small arch can be seen, as well as a small grove of cottonwood and scrub bushes. Numerous piled rocks and logs give evidence to the canyon’s propensity to flood when storms roll through, and it ends in a rock wall that can be scrambled for views of distant Deer Trap Mountain beyond.
Cable Mountain Trail
There are essentially two ways out to Cable Mountain, the large cliff face forming the eastern edge of the Big Bend in the Virgin River, one from the main canyon, and the other from a little-known trailhead behind the Zion Ponderosa resort.
From the main canyon, it is a 16 mile round trip hike up from the Weeping Wall trailhead, up the seemingly interminable switchbacks that lead to and through Echo Canyon. The trail levels out as it rises above Echo Canyon, though the trail becomes more indistinct as it progresses further into the backcountry. The final rise out of Echo Canyon is a difficult, steep climb up narrow, uneven trails and ledges to the top of the East Rim. Once connected with the East Rim Trail, the trail to the edge of Cable Mountain drops smoothly along the terraced plateau to the red-sanded edge of the cliff.
At the edge, the namesake cable-works sit looming over the canyon floor, rebuilt by the National Park Service after decades of neglect and disrepair. This is where logging pioneers in the 1800’s would lower fresh hewn lumber from the forests of the upper plateau down the 2000 foot drop to the river below, where they were floated out to mills in Hurricane and St. George.
Observation Point Trail
Like Cable Mountain, there are essentially two ways to reach the overlook at Observation Point.
The main canyon route, the most oft-traversed, rises up from the Weeping Rock Trailhead along a shared route with the Cable Mountain Trail and the Hidden Canyon Trail, up steep switchbacks and through the shadowed recesses of Echo Canyon. Just past Echo Canyon, however, the trail diverges, and climbs rapidly up even more switchbacks up the face of the East Rim toward the high plateau above.
The Trail follows the rim of the canyon as it snakes along the course of the river below, and stunning views of the entire valley stretch out below. Following the contours of the rim, the trail loops around a narrow canyon before coming back out to the point itself, at the north end of the canyon, looking out over Angel’s Landing and the southern stretch of the Virgin River below.
The second, easer route, comes from the upper plateau, from a trailhead just past the Zion Ponderosa, and is a level, easy, 4 mile round trip to the point and back. Those looking for sunrise, sunset, or night skys are best served using this trail, as it limits the dangers associated with hiking after dark in the canyon.
Other than perhaps Angel’s Landing, there is no hike in Zion that best captures the splendor of the park than a walk up the Virgin River to the Narrows. In fact, there are few hikes in the whole of the American Southwest that can match this hike for sheer awe-inspiring beauty.
Starting from the Temple of Sinawava, the trail starts as an easy River Walk alongside the banks of the gently flowing Virgin, through stands of cottonwood and past verdant rock gardens clinging to the numerous sandstone seeps. After a mile, the paved trail ends at a wide beach, and the Narrows hike truly begins.
There is no trail past this point, in as much as a trail can be defined. Rather, hikers beyond the end of the River Walk must wade upstream, through occasionally deep pools and stoney cascades, up a six mile section of the river that gets more beautiful with each twist and turn down the ever narrowing canyon. The goal, for most day-hikers at least, is an extremely narrow walled section called Wall Street, just past the junction with Orderville Creek, where 2000 foot walls of solid sandstone block out all but the narrowest sliver of sky above. Here the water and air are permanently cool and refreshing, no matter the time of year.
Left Fork North Creek
The Left Fork of North Creek is otherwise known as The Subway, named for a section of slot canyon halfway up its length that resembles a curving, man-made train tunnel.
Up the Kolob Terrace Road, two thirds of the way to Lava Point, the trail begins at the Left Fork Trailhead and passes through juniper covered high desert landscape before dropping down a sweeping dryfall to the narrow flow of North Creek. The trail here drops in and out of the creek, following it upstream as it snakes through a lush and vibrant riparian zone full of overhanging willows and cottonwoods. Flowers and insects abound at all years, as do birds and small trout, and the occasional frog or desert toad along the bank.
As you progress upstream, the land changes, and soon the creekbed itself shifts from silty desert sand to terraced slabs of red sandstone. As the streambed firms into a solid sheet of rock, waterfalls and rolling cascades become more prevalent. As the canyon narrows, the iconic fromation of the subway reveals itself, a narrow cavern sliced into the rock wall by centuries of flowing water.
At this point, without technical canyoneering gear, it is impossible to progress further, though those with the skill and tools to do so could invert the trail and drop down into the canyon from above. Either way, the Subway is one of the hidden highlights of the park, and worth a visit from any direction.
Right Fork North Creek
Less well known than the Left Fork, the Right Fork of North Creek offers a taste of solitude in the Zion backcountry not often found in the park, with the reward of a series of stunning waterfalls at the end. Starting from the Right Fork Trailhead, along the Kolob Terrace Road, the trail begins through a scrubby and cactus-choked section of desert, dropping into the creekbed a little south of the confluence of the two forks.
Following the streambed upstream, there is little trail to speak of, though routefinding requires little effort other than that required to wade through the swiftly flowing water. Broad desert meadows and thick stands of cottonwood and willow line the approach to the narrower sections of the creek, and deep pools occasionally require deep wading.
Halfway up, the Black Pool sits in a narrow slot canyon, a deep pit in the creek, within which a misstep could lead to an unfortunate submersion. A narrow stone bench is hidden along the left edge of the pool, however, and hugging the left side of the wall makes for only knee-high wading. The streambed narrows considerably here, though the canyon walls stand only a dozen feet overhead.
Beyond these narrows, the trail officially ends at the terraced Double Falls, though scrambling along the right side of the waterfall will lead to further waterfalls upstream.