The Long Descent
Friday, April 13
We've worked out an arrangement with Luke: We will get up early and drive around to the north end of the trail, and leave our Jeep there. We'll then hike south, down into Zion Canyon. We'll then take the public shuttle bus from the southern trailhead into Springdale, where Luke and I will meet at 5pm. Luke will then drive me back up to fetch the Jeep. While we're hiking, they will rent bikes and hit the Gooseberry Mesa mountain bike trails. Sounds like a plan!
Pre-dawn West Temple
We get up early, under clear skies, and drive up to the northern end of the West Rim trail. The drive up is spectacular - it goes up a very scenic road in the Zion Backcountry called the Kolob Terrace Road. Up, Up, up, we drive, climbing to about 8,000 feet in elevation, to a place called Lava Point. Well, not quite actually Lava Point, because the last mile or so of road to it is still closed, due to SNOW. It is indeed chilly up here, probably around freezing, and there is a biting wind.
Chilly morning start
It is mostly all downhill from here at 8,000 feet, to the Grotto Trailhead down in Zion Canyon at just over 4,000 feet. It is very.... I don't know, different, up here. I'm used to a Zion with deep canyons and warm temperatures and cacti. It feels very different up here, more like a high-altitude gently rolling northern mountain landscape. There is far reaching scenery, alpine grasses, and no sign of canyons. I think the contrast between this spot and lower Zion Canyon, and the fact that the trail we will be on connects these two very different zones is part of what makes this situation seem so interesting and neat. I'm very much looking forward to how the trail takes us through big changes in landscape.
Road to Lava Point
We are bundled up in fleece and balaclavas as we start our walk down the mile or so of closed road to Lava Point. When we reach the trail, it starts off through alpine meadows and fields, and through open forests of tall pine trees. The crisp morning sun shines down on us, and there is no sign of any other hikers (and I don't imagine there will be for the first half of this hike). Beacuse of the long distance, flat-to-downward aspect of this trail, and good footing, we again decide to hike in sandals and sneakers to improve our hiking speed.
For the first couple of hours of hiking, we enjoy strolling through the country, through a broad forested area called the Horse Pasture Plateau. We enjoy wide-open spaces and the un-desert feel. We can see north to further high country and ranchlands north of Zion -- there's even some visible snow in the higher elevations. Closer at hand, the ground is dotted with arid and semi-arid plants, including a lot of bright green Manzanita
The path is wide and flat -- wide enough, in fact, to walk two abreast easily. Ewart and Jenn spend much time chatting as they hike, and I take many pictures.
After an hour or two of hiking, we get our first views into the depths, with a view southwest into the 'Great West Canyon' (also known as the Left Fork of North Creek). This is where the infamous 'Subway' slot canyon route is located (See here
for a brief image gallery of a 2000 descent of that route). These are only tantalizing glimpses, and we know much better views await us.
The clear sunny day quickly warms up, and soon we shed our wintry fleece.
"there are many stupendous views to the west, down into multi-thousand foot V-shaped slickrock valleys that narrow to impossibly tiny widths."
After walking on the half-forested and half-open broad plateau and ridge, we suddenly descend through tight oak thickets into a woodsy hollow. There are a lot of old, burned trees around, and this is a neat little spot. The little grassy valley is known as Potato Hollow, and it has an interesting, quiet, remote, grassy, lazy, and almost melancholy feel to it. It is closer in here, with no distant vistas. It is very much in line with the type of transitions and contrasts that I had looked forward to experiencing on this hike.
This is an excellent place for a break, and so we drop packs and have a very pleasant mid-morning snack on some old logs.
The West Rim trail continues south through Potato Hollow, then climbs steeply up to a wooded hill, through thick stands of Gambel Oak. Cresting this hill, we get another and better view west into the drainage of the Left Fork. We see peerless slickrock, ranging from white to salmon colored, and shaped in all sorts of rounded forms. The scale is larger than in the Escalante or Canyonlands, with drops into the depts of several thousand feet. The rock is almost exclusively Navajo Sandstone, textured by the slanted cross-bedding and joints characteristic of this rock unit. This kind of stuff is the Zion I'm familiar with!
After a few more ups and downs, we reach the highest part of Horse Pasture pleateau, and the start of the true 'West Rim' portion of the hike. There is a junction here, where a trail runs through nearby Telephone canyon, shortcutting an arc in the West Rim trail. But we're interested in the spectacular views of the West Rim, and so we do not choose the shortcut.
The trail leads along the western edge of the Horse Pasture Plateau, and there are many stupendous views to the west, down into multi-thousand foot V-shaped slickrock valleys that narrow to impossibly tiny widths. There are striking flat-topped towers and buttes -- remnants of the once continuous high plateau that covered this area (and in fact we are walking on a remnant of this plateau right now). Ewart takes a fancy to one flat-topped tower in particular, known as the 'Inclined Temple', and exclaims that he'll be building his retirement residence there.
South on the West Rim Trail
We start to encounter the odd other hiker here and there, since we're getting within reasonable dayhike range of Zion Canyon itself. There are several good marked backcountry campsites up here, too, and this would indeed make a scenic spot to camp.
We're making good time in an absolute sense, but we still must watch the clock, because we need to engineer things so I'm not late for my rendezvous with Luke. I remember that the bus service in Zion Canyon is deathly slow.
A video account of the first half of our north-south traverse of the West Rim Trail, from Lava Point to Zion Canyon:
West Rim Traverse Part I - Click on video above to start
After hiking along beautiful lookout after lookout, the trail starts to descends and swings east, following the south edge of the Horse Pasture Plateau. I'm looking forward to showing Ewart some of the coolest trailwork around : the incredible carved switchbacks of the trails in Zion Canyon.
Soon we're descending into upper Telephone Canyon, and we meet the other end of the Telephone Canyon shortcut trail. From here, we're on our final, real descent, and starting to lose major altitude. The trail cuts downwards and across the steep white navajo slickrock, making long traverses between switchbacks.
Having completed the first major descent, the trail briefly contours along a low point into neighbouring Behunin Canyon (home, apparently, of a very good canyoneering descent), before switchbacking back into Lower Telephone Canyon, where a few more minor switchbacks bring us to the bottom. The trail then winds through semi-forested canyon bottom for a while. It is now much warmer here, and this area definitely has the feel of Zion Canyon. We've transitioned!
Approaching Telephone Canyon
First glimpse of Angel's Landing
We are now down into the domain of slickrock that we viewed from above hours before (well, not the exact spot that we viewed before, but the same sort of terrain). Surrounding us are slopes of cross-bedded and jointed sandstone -- white, pink, salmon and yellow. The trail is literally a true sidwalk at this point, with a cement-like surfacing. After a brief rise, the tower of Angel's Landing and the incredibly narrow fin leading up to it come into view. Ewart expresses some feelings of trepidation.
We get some unique views of Walter's Wiggles and of the landing itself before arriving at Scout Lookout -- a place we've been many times before on the standard ascent from the Grotto Trailhead. We're quite close to the end of the trail now.
I glance at my watch, and I see we're quite tight for time if we do the side trip to Angel's Landing. We decide to do it, because we can't have a newbie come this close to Angel's Landing and not give it a go. Ewart is cautious, and in a few spots, he balks (like the spot where there is a two-foot wide ridge and dropoffs on either side), but with a little encouragement and a tight grip on the chain, he's quite ok. We pass a few slowish people and a few scared-looking kids, and we make it up reasonably quickly. It is breezy, which Ewart and Jenn do not appreciate.
At the top, I contemplete the time situation, and realize that the rate at which we'll descend will be a bit too slow for me to arrive back at the motel at the appointed time. So, I decide to go on ahead, and I'll tell the Motel that Ewart and Jenn will be along after me, and to let them into the motel room.
Down Zion Canyon
After quickly scrambling down the ridge to Scout Lookout, I start jogging back down the paved trail to the Grotto Trailhead. The steep grade, hard pavement and heavy day pack are pretty hard on my shins and feet, and I need to take a few breaks to give them a break. I make it back to the Grotto Trailhead at about 4:15 pm, just as the latest bus is going past.
The next bus comes quickly, though, and I get on (the Zion Canyon shuttle is free). It is indeed deathly slow, and I sit in the front of the bus, trying to will the driver to go just a wee bit faster than the 18mph indicated on the speedometer.
Finally arriving at the visitor center, I transfer to the town of Springdale Shuttle bus (also free) and arrive at the Zion Park Motel at 4:55pm. Close! I check into a motel room for the night (we've rented a room for our last night of the trip in order to get cleaned up and packed), and Luke arrives moments later. They (Luke, Sophie and Catherine) have had a great day mountain biking.
I hop in Luke's Jeep and we make the 45 minute drive from Springdale to the trailhead at Lava Point. In the late day light, the Kolob Terrace road's scenery is even more beautiful.
Zion highcountry in late day
in seeing more of our West Rim Trail traverse? Click
to go to a special
"focus on" page that contains 23
West Rim Trail pictures, as well as interactive track maps
and gps-derived elevation profiles.
A video account of the second half of our north-south traverse of the West Rim Trail, from Lava Point to Zion Canyon:
West Rim Traverse Part II - Click on video above to start