Zion National Park
Utah, USA
9 days - Oct, 2016


Despite we had bought round trip flight tickets to Las Vegas, our journey to Zion began by crossing 560 miles from California to Utah. That's because, although Zion was our target in 2016, we had decided to take the opportunity of a new trip to the USA to also visit some other National Park. Because of the proximity, the natural choice would be the Grand Canyon. However, getting backcountry permits for the Grand Canyon is not easy at all. Actually, we did tried, with no success. We end up choosing Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP. Turns out that both are located in Sierra Nevada, California.

Driving through Death Valley
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

We opt for buying our flight tickets via Las Vegas because this route, as usual, offered the lowest prices. To best fit the weather window, we chose to visit the Sierra Nevada's parks before Zion. So, we disembarked in Las Vegas and drove almost 14 hours to California. In Kings Canyon, we did a four days backpacking circuit and spent one day visiting Sequoia (I wrote another article about these visits). Then, we took the road back to Utah. In the return, as if we hadn't got enough road to burn up, we took the wrong way into the Death Valley. Eventually, we reached the tiny town of Shoshone, where we realized our mistake and corrected our route to Zion.

Unexpected visit to Shoshone
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

It was night on the road when, for some reason, we decided to double check our Zion campground reservation. For our surprise, we found out that it was booked for one day prior to our actual arrival. Our last hours in the road were tense! We didn't know if we were going to have a place to spend that night, or worse, if the park would have canceled the reservation for the whole stay.

Finally, we made it to the park, in the middle of the night, after 16 hours in the road. To our relief, our campsite reservation had been kept. At the park entrance, closed at that time, we found a note attached to the window and addressed to us. The note was welcoming us and had some check-in instructions. We finally breath in relieved and headed to set up our tents. In spite of the high temperatures during the day, it was cold that night. Some people were wearing beanie and gloves. That was a little preview of the contrasting weather that we were going to face up to the next days. We went to get some sleep as we were going to start our first hike early in the next morning.

Angel's Landing

Zion Canyon view from the top of Angel's Landing
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

Angel's Landing is among the most famous day hikes in the park, not only because of its amazing views, but also because of the adrenaline rush promised by the exposed sections at the edge of the cliffs. The trail begins at The Grotto, one of the most crowded spots in the park and, after gaining more than 1300 ft of altitude, reaches the top a rock pinnacle over the Zion Canyon. The view up there is breathtaking. This first contact with the park was very exciting!

The first section of the trail is very structured. Certainly NPS had to carry out a careful maintenance work to deal with the high amount of visitors, not only in Angel's Landing, but also in the West Rim Trail, which also shares that stretch. As the trail climbs up, it gradually gets more dangerous and its look get wilder. The most exposed stretches have thick metal chains acting as handrails. These sections are not technically difficult at all, but for sure will be uncomfortable for the ones who have fear of heights. Angel's Landing made us very pleased with our first hike in Zion. We definitively recommend this day hike if you don't have much time in the park.

Zion Traverse

Angels Landing was a good introduction to Zion and, in the next morning, we were ready to face up to our first backpacking trip. It was still dark when we left Watchman campground and drove to the East Rim Trailhead. Our car was going to be parked there for the next 5 days, waiting our return from the Zion Traverse. The place was empty, surrounded by deep darkness. In the previous day we had to face high temperatures during the hike, but now it was just a few degrees over freezing. We stayed shut up in the car, unsure about the exact meeting point for our shuttle. Fortunately, it didn't take long before the sprinter arrived. We departed at 5:50 AM to Springdale, where we made a quick pit stop to pick up other hikers and got back to road. Short before 10 AM we were dropped off at Lee Pass Trailhead, a remote place at park's very northwest, where we were supposed to start our hike. We had a quick breakfast with some items we had brought specially for this occasion and, wearing jackets and gloves still, started the traverse.

Leaving Wildcat Canyon in the morning of the third day of the traverse

Looking back on this trip, I would say that our first day in Zion Traverse was the less exciting of the itinerary. But at that moment, we were enjoying the hike a lot, still getting used to the different rock colors and the vibrant fall foliage. We got surprised when we realized how close to the beginning of the trail were the first campsites, and relived knowing that we have managed to book a more distant one. Still, we finished the hike very early, at 12:50 PM. With time to spare, we took the opportunity to have a look at the Kolob Arch, less than 1 mile from our camp. The Kolob Arch is the sixth longest natural arch in the world. Yes! There exist people who study and classify such a things! We didn't find the visit that impressive, specially because the viewing angle from the trail is not the best. For our surprise, in fact, there are people who walk all the way long only to see the arch. We got back to camp, at the La Verkin Creek margin, to cook dinner and rest for the next day.

Zion's center-west area from the West Rim Trail. On this area are located some of the more remote attractions of the park, such as the South Guardian Angel and The Subway, the last hike of our trip.

Our first day of traverse wouldn't tell anything about the challenges to come. The privilege of camping near a good water supply would not happen again. The daily mileage, of only 7 miles so far, would turn into a 12 miles per day endeavor, at least for next 3 days. Likewise, the daily elevation gain and loss would be increased. Everything spiced up with the unpredictability of the water sources, that would make us to be always carrying a extra supply. Our second day in the traverse was 13 ¼ mile long. We reached the Wildcat Canyon, where we set up camp and went to look up the water spring of the area. Located ¾ mile from the camp, the spring is partially hidden in the back slope, in a hole, where it was needed to stretch the arm to keep a small bottle in reach of its lazy dripping water. It took us 1 hour to fill up our reservoirs. This spring supplied us with water not only for that night, but also for the next whole day and half of the day after.

Climbing the east rim of Zion Canyon, on next to last day of Zion Traverse

On the third day of traverse we left Wildcat Canyon and headed to West Rim campsite #6. A 10 miles stretch full of alien landscapes, simply magnificent. I remember getting pretty tired to the camp at the end of that day. I lay over a log for a while to regain energy to cook dinner. The landscape around the campground was stunning and the sunset was gorgeous. Fortunately, an enhanced meal and a good night of sleep did the trick and reset my body for the forth day of traverse.

In turn, this was probably the most freakish day of all. We left the top of West Rim heading to the Zion Canyon floor. We hiked down 3300 ft, including the section shared with the Angel's Landing trail, where we had been a few days before. Down there, we ran into the crowds walking around The Grotto. There, we could finally fill up our water reservoirs again. We walked 1 ¼ mile along the road to then start hiking up the opposite canyon wall, recovering a fair chunk of the elevation we had just lost. Altogether, it was a 15 miles hike until we got to our last camp.

Last stretch of East Rim Trail, finishing the Zion Traverse

We made it to the East Rim Camp Area with a great sense of fulfillment and glad for the amazing landscapes we had the opportunity to see during the day. Both the West Rim descent and the East Rim ascent were gorgeous. We set up camp and went to look up Stave Spring, the water source that could provide us with an extra comfort that night. We managed to find out the ground level pipe that, fortunately, was (poorly) flowing.

Our fifth and last day of traverse would demand us only a 6 ¼ miles hike. Despite the incredible landscapes we had seen so far, this relatively short stretch offered beautiful views still. There are many ways of hiking the trails that compose the Zion Traverse. We chose doing it thoroughly, crossing the park from one corner to the other. This achievement was pretty rewarding. Not only because of the unique landscapes we have witnessed but also because of the personal satisfaction from this accomplishment. The Zion trip is, for sure, among the most interesting trips I've made. And the Zion Traverse was a extremely valuable learning experience.

The Narrows

Fall-colored vegetation on the first day of The Narrows

Immediately after our return from the Zion Traverse, we had four main concerns: take a shower, have a good meal, get permits for the next hike and rent extra gear for it. Our second hike was going to be The Narrows: A two days traverse that takes place fully on the riverbed of the Virgin River, mostly constricted by the walls of a slot canyon. At the Zion Adventures, in Springdale, we rented dry pants, canyon shoes, neoprene socks and wood hiking poles. Initially, we were unsure about the real need for these gear, but at the end of the hike, we concluded all were worth it.

Close up of vegetation on the first day of The Narrows

The dry pants are made of a very water resistant material, ensuring it wont be saturated after a long time under water. Furthermore, at the end of each leg, it has a latex gasket that fits tightly around the ankles preventing water from getting inside. Its high waist helps preventing water from getting inside from above. The neoprene socks don't keep your feet dry, but do guarantee a warmed water layer that provides a good thermal comfort. Remember the water in the area can be pretty cold and, combined with the diminished sunlight inside canyons, creates the perfect conditions for hypothermia.

The canyon shoes provided excellent grip for walking over the wet rocks. The shoes don't prevent the water from getting inside, instead, they are designed to allow a quick water flow through the boot, keeping the feet from getting soaked. The walking poles are made of wood, so they can float on the water. Thanks to its thick end, they can be used to probe the riverbed, as well as to support your body weight, without getting stuck within the pebbles, as usually happens to the traditional hiking poles. As water levels were not that high, we chose using our conventional backpacks, just protecting sensitive items with dry bags.

Second day of The Narrows
Photo by: Alexandre Ciancio

Once again, we left Watchman campground before daybreak, and headed to Zion Adventure, where we parked our car and got in the shuttle to Chamberlain's Ranch, our trailhead. The trail starts going along the river through open fields, a scenery pretty different from the classic pictures of this hike. Anyway, the landscapes are amazing. We were particularly impressed with the stunning colors of the vegetation along the river. As we moved on, scenery transformed and, still on the first day, the river begins getting constricted by the tall canyon walls.

We spent the night at campsite #9, a small bench on the left margin, already pretty confined inside the canyon. For the most of the next day, our visual field was dominated by the towering canyon walls, making up an immense rocky corridor illuminated exclusively by the sun light coming from the upper crack. In the latest moments, near the Temple of Sinawave, the canyon begins slowly widening and we began running into the day hikers, who can only access the final stretch of the trail.

Leaving aside the high potential risks, The Narrows is, technically, much more simple to execute than Zion Traverse. Its relatively short duration might be very useful to fit the itinerary of those who hasn't much time to spend in the park. We fell very privileged to have gotten the permits required for executing this hike thoroughly. We visited a place of indescribable beauty, that will be always in our memories. Once finished the hike, we took the park's shuttle bus to get as close as possible to Springdale, where we recovered our car and rented the gear for the next day hike: The Subway.

The Subway

Approaching The Subway

After the good experience with the rental gear in The Narrows, we decided not to take unnecessary risks and to go prepared for The Subway. Different from the previous hike, in this last hike we knew that we're going to face mandatory swim in the cold waters of the canyon. We opted again for the canyon shoes and neoprene socks, but we chose the wetsuits over the dry pants. Besides, we were carrying the climbing gear we brought from Brazil specially to this hike: 20 meter rope, harness, accessory cords and belay devices for rappelling, plus carabiners and extra slings for any improvisation that could come in handy.

One of the mandatory swims of The Subway

Our last day of activity in the park started early once again. We drove to Springdale and, at 6:30 AM, joined the Zion Adventure sprinter, that escorted our car to the Left Fork trailhead, where we were supposed to finished the hike. There, we parked our car and got in the sprinter. The sprinter took us to the Wildcat Canyon trailhead, the start point of our hike. The beginning of the trail is pretty clear and soon joins a section of the Zion Traverse. We went 1/8 mile up the previously hiked trail then took a fork to the right. From then on, the trail tread begins to fade out and the route becomes more difficult to follow. Indeed, that was one of ours concerns in regard to this hike. We knew this route would require some navigation skills. Most part of the route is over rocky terrain, particularly, near the canyon entrance and exit. So, there is no tread to follow and the GPS is almost useless inside the slot canyon.

One of the final sections of The Subway

Fortunately, before the canyon entrance, we found some well placed rock ducks. The canyon entrance is through a steep rocky slope. We didn't use the rope, but it was needed some careful scrambling to get down. Down there, we counted on the descriptions we've read in the journals, as well as in expected direction of navigation according to the map, to find our way to first big boulder, which required us to use the rope.

We were watchful, and from then on, we moved ahead following the visual clues described in the guides. These natural landmarks are hard to miss, making us more confident in the navigation. In a short time we were at ease down there, enjoying the experience a lot. The technical sections are not to be neglected, though. We used all climbing gear we had. That's the last place where you want to have an accident. The wetsuits came in very handy, keeping our body temperature comfortable inside and outside the water.

Quicksand inside one of halls of The Subway

The section before the canyon entrance is gorgeous. We crossed rocky terrain with amazing patterns and textures, which when illuminated by the morning sun made us fell like walking on the surface of another planet. Inside the canyon, the surreal environment thrilled us several times. Sometimes, not only because of the beauty. We had a little scare when one party member fell into a quicksand poll. The worst is that he himself had pointed out the danger to the group and, a few seconds later, has partially disappeared in the ground, in front of our eyes. Fortunately, he managed to pull himself out easily and, after the scare, we could laugh together. I was surprised when I found out that, early last year, a couple ended up calling 911 to get rescued from another quicksand incident, also in The Subway.

Great West Canyon view from the end of The Subway

The most iconic view in the hike takes place at the end of the slot canyon. A natural tunnel that takes the visitor to a pretty green and humid forest that contrasts with the monochrome environment inside the slot canyon. Once finished the slot canyon section, neither the amazing views nor the challenges were ended. We still hiked 3 ¾ miles to get back to the car, including a long stretch along the Left Fork of North Creek and a 330 feet ascent to the canyon rim. Up there, we were gifted with a nice view of the surrounding mountains, topping off our unforgettable visit to Zion National Park.

Las Vegas

Hoover Dam view from the road

Once finished our last hike, we spent one more night at the Watchman Campground and, in the next morning, took the road back to Las Vegas. As part of the group haven't visited the city yet, we decided staying some days before returning to Brazil. That was cool to walk down the famous Strip visiting the casinos hotels with extravagant decorations and all its lights.

Nonetheless, I believe the most interesting part was the visit to Hoover Dam. I strongly recommend the complete tour, that comprehends both the external area and the interior of the powerplant. The place provides plenty of opportunities for learning, both from historical and scientific perspectives. Besides, it is also a outstanding construction in a very beautiful location. If you need some equipment renewal, Las Vegas has two REI stores, not to mention the Las Vegas Premium Outlet South and North. We got great deals on garments at Columbia in the Outlet North. For a future trip to Las Vegas, we put on our wishlists the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It seems to be a nice park with good opportunities for rock climbing.

By: Angelo Vimeney
Published: Apr 28, 2020

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