The Watchman Trail
Saturday, September 28
Back at our campsite, it was now about 5pm on a beautiful sunny afternoon. All of our "prep" duties for the day were over. We were now free, released to start enjoying the park.
Given that it was somewhat late in the day, we needed something convenient and short. Fortunately, there was just such an attraction just minutes away from our campsite: the Watchman Trail. It's a 2.5km (5km / 3mi round trip) route up to a lookout on a bench on the eastern side of Zion Canyon. It was just the right length, and would likely give us a very nice sunset view over lower Zion Canyon and the town of Springdale.
A short five-minute walk from our campsite brought us to the signed start of the trail, which was located along the campground entrance road where it crosses the Virgin River (in case you don't already know, the Virgin is the river that flows through the bottom of Zion Canyon).
We started off along the trail at just after 5:30pm. The first little bit is nothing more than a wide flat walking path along the eastern banks of the Virgin River. Even this was very pretty; a large open field to the east meant that there were unobstructed views to beautiful banded and craggy walls of sandstone.
In about ten minutes, the wide and flat path turned away from the river and headed eastward. Soon it crossed a park service road, and immediately after, started uphill for the first time. Rounding a corner, the trail entered a short side-valley headed by the towering bulks of Bridge Mountain and another un-named desert peak next to it.
Once around this corner, we seemed to leave the busy valley center behind. It was much more peaceful, secluded. As a result, the impact of being back amongst beautiful desert scenery was much stronger here - arid hillsides, skittering lizards, patches of cactus, sagebrush, all framed by red-streaked sandstone walls and a clear-blue sky above. It was nice to be back in the desert!
The trail wandered along the bottom of the now-dry side valley for only a minute or two, before starting a shallow diagonal ascent up the left-hand slopes. We couldn't quite make out where the trail went, for all we could see ahead of us was the head of the valley, not far away and bounded by the imposing walls of Zion Canyon. That's part of the fun with these sorts of trails, though, isn't it? How will a trail make it through the upcoming obstacles?
Climbing through the Kayenta
The Watchman Trail continued diagonally up the valley side's slopes. It was in good shape - well-carved into the side of the slope and with a good, non-rocky tread. As it rounded a slight left-hand bend, we could now see the trail's attack plan: a set of well-engineered switchbacks through ledgey bands of Kayenta Sandstone. Along the switchbacks were some very nice sections where the trail runs under overhangs of sandstone. These nice sections, in combination with the direction of the sun afforded by the late time, resulted in some very pretty along-the-trail views.
Soon the switchbacks had brought us to the top of the Kayenta ledges. Atop the ledges the terrain moderated into a sloping bench. It was along the bench, we could now see, that the Watchman Trail continued, winding in and out of little hollows mostly on the level. At several of these little hollows, a little trickle of runoff supported a patch of riparian (riverbank) vegetation. Walking through these little hollows was fun, as we'd quickly transition from dry and hot to cool and moist, and then back again.
We'd pretty much finished all of the elevation gain on this trail (all 350 or so feet of it), and it was now a very easy walk, almost on the level to, to a large flat section of the benchland. Already we had a broad view of all of lower Zion Canyon, from the broad and multi-tiered 7800+ foot West Temple on the far side, to the castle-like columns of The Watchman itself, situated on the eastern side of the canyon close to us.
Jenn and Andrew, Watchman Trail
At this point, the Watchman trail splits out into two branches that loop back together. The loop runs around the edge of a peninsula-shaped section of the bench. This we chose to do, admiring the rapidly changing light as the sun approached and then hid behind the western rim of the canyon.