Friday, August 28, 2009

West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, UT

Distance: 10 mi (16.2 km) round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 4300 - 6800 feet (1305 - 2075 m)
Season: March - November

Zion National Park may be our most favorite national park in the United States. That is saying alot considering I have been to 148 of them. While it may not be as large as many, Zion is just difficult to match in terms of incredible granduer, variety of ecosystems, interesting geology, and accessibility and approachability. While Zion Canyon may be 2000 feet deep, it just feels more inviting and doable than something like the Grand Canyon. It is also possible to visit both the rim areas and the canyon bottom in all seasons.

We love Zion so much that when we taught in Page, AZ for one year, we visited Zion a total of eight times. And, we love the West Rim trail so much, that we hiked it four of our visits. So, I am intimately familiar with this trail and love to share it with visitors.

To start the trail, park at the Zion Visitor Center and take the shuttle to The Grotto. From here, follow the trail across the Virgin River and then turn right. The trail initially starts parallel to the river and then begins climbing through a series of steep switchbacks along the cliff face toward Angel's Landing above. After climbing about 400 feet in elevation, the trail will turn into a cool narrow slot called Refrigerator Canyon.

The section of the trail levels out, offering a respite from the sun and the sweat of climbing. In this cool canyon, white firs, Douglas firs, and ponderosa pines find refuge from the hot summer sun. At the back of the canyon, the trail takes a sharp right and then begins a series of amazingly steep and tight switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles.

At the top of the Wiggles, you will meet the trail intersection with Angels Landing. Angels Landing is a narrow finger of rock that juts out nearly 1000 feet above the canyon below. It has chains in places to help you hold onto the extremely narrow trail, so that you do not fall off into the canyon. It is not for the faint of heart, that is for sure. It will take an additional 30 minutes or so to get to the top of Angels Landing.

If you plan to get to the very top of the West Rim, then stay left. The trail will continue to slowly climb. There will be an amazing observation point to the right that offers views of the Zion Narrows below and up the Virgin River canyon above that. The trail will climb until reaching a plateau of sorts and then briefly descends into a wooded basin known as Little Siberia at the base of Majestic Mountain. Here, the forests became thicker and dry streambeds are lined with beautiful bigtooth maples, box elder, ash, gambel oak, and other deciduous trees which add glorious color to the park in autumn.

The trail will continue moving west toward the white sandstone headwall above, gaining elevation all along the way. At the back of the basin, the trail takes a sharp right and then climbs along the very side of this sheer sandstone cliff. To the west, the 10,000 foot Pine Valley Mountains become visible. To the north, the views now open up to include the Pink Cliffs of the Virgin Rim at the headwaters of the Virgin River near Cedar Breaks.

The trail climbs until reaching the top of the Horse Pasture Plateau at nearly 7000 feet. From the top of the plateau, the views seem to go on forever, but the canyon bottom is not visible. There is a muddy spring at the top called Cabin Spring. The trail continues from here along the top of the plateau to Lava Point in another 9 miles. But, now that you have reached the summit of the West Rim, it is time to head back. Although the constant descent can be tough on the knees, the nice thing about the return is that you can see all of the canyons and cliffs you could not see behind you on the ascent.


Nicole and Erik said...

We are headed to Zion this weekend and plan to do the west rim trail in this fashion as an out and back. Thanks for the description and the photos.

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