Climbing Scout Lookout to Angel's Landing; Great White Throne peeking left.
I must admit that I have had a long-standing love affair with Zion National Park since I was a kid, when as a family we did the traditional drive-in drive-out park visit. But I really did not experience Zion until at 22, I trekked to Zion’s Great Western Canyon.
Standing on top of Angel’s Landing face to face with the sheer wall of white Navajo sandstone that is the Great White Throne, I was awestruck. As I finally turned away I had the feeling that there was more to this park than I had ever considered. I had the itch to go back-country.
Road trips and day hikes are just a tiny part of the real Zion experience; it is the back-country adventure that makes the difference, and there is no better time than Fall to head out. If your Scouts are bold and travel a few steep miles further, they will see things where no car or ATV can go.
One of my favorite Zion trips was a week-long backpacking adventure that connects several of the park’s trails from the west side to the east side; it is called “Trans-Zion Trek” and can be hiked either direction or from the center out in both directions. We went in April, but Zion in autumn is even more beautiful. For most Scouting groups you should plan on average between three to five days, so fall break is just right.
The climbs and descents on this route take you deep into Zion’s most awe-inspiring and remote scenery. Like I wrote above, you’ll experience places day-hikers never see; but make no mistake, this is no hike. It is a real trek. This trek will be a challenging adventure for most youth and nearly all adults, but well worth it. Add some park service and two or three side hikes and this 47 mile trek will qualify you for BSA’s 50 Miler Award.
Before attempting this hike, get in shape, both feet and heart. Help your youth work out the logistics of getting back-country permits, planning your campsite spots for each night, parking your cars or taking shuttles, and planning what water sources you’ll use (caching water and/or using available springs and streams). This takes some serious planning, which should give your Scouts or Venturers a chance to flex their organizational skills.
The west to east route begins just off I-15/US 91 at exit 40 and ends near the east park entrance. To get started, take exit 40 and check in at the Kolob Canyon visitor center, where you can leave last-minute hike plans with the park. Then drive about 3.8 miles along the Kolob Canyons Road from I-15 to the La Verkin Creek Trail head for Kolob Arch. The stop is at Lee Pass. This is where the trail-head begins. There is some parking along the road but it would be good to plan your own shuttle (our shuttle and parking cost us nearly half a day) or arrange for one from the outfitters in Springdale.
As you start, the trail leads south and quickly drops into a valley where you pass by the open finger canyons of nearby cliffs along Timber Creek. After coming around the corner and within view of La Verkin Creek, the trail takes you down the slope to the creek bottom on a hard-packed trail.
Once on the creek bed, the trail heads upstream, offering amazing views of the surrounding cliffs. The trail is about 7 miles from Lee Pass to Kolob Arch. It was here we made our first camp, but campsites must be reserved in advance and the largest can only hold 12. Camping is in designated sites only and is available for reservations online or on a walk-up basis.
For me, the short side hike to Kolob Arch, one of the nation’s largest freestanding arches, made our first day complete. The spur trail to the arch is north and about half a mile long, heading up the side drainage known as Icebox Canyon or Waterfalls Canyon. This trail is not as well worn as the La Verkin Creek Trail and as Joe Braun’s Guide to Zion National Park describes, “[It] involves a wee bit of scrambling, soon enough you will reach the end of the trail and a good viewing area of the impressive Kolob Arch.”
This is a great area to spend an extra day if you are not anxious to move on. I was glad for the rest. We missed Beartrap Canyon and Willis Canyons, which are both up the drainage and make good day hiking options if you do stay on. When you are ready to move out, the junction for the Hop Valley Trail is just past the Kolob Arch spur trail.
Head south to follow the Hop Valley Trail up and out of the drainage. Some hikers say that Hop Valley is not a destination, but when we traveled through it I saw nothing but quiet beauty. The solitude made it seem like a place no man had been and I imagined that dinosaurs had lurked here, which gave me an eerie feeling.
From the Kolob camping areas, this section of trail is about 6 ½ miles. Climbing in and out of Hop Valley, you will encounter steep climbs, nearly 1000 ft from bottom to top. There are a few campgrounds at the far end of Hop Valley but we passed them by, moving on to the Kolob Terrace and junction with the Kolob Terrace Road.
Since I did this route, the park made a new 4 mile Connector Trail to Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, which keeps you nicely off pavement. Braun explains the route: “After crossing the Kolob Terrace Road, head east on the more faint trail as it wanders through the open valley, then heads up to the forested plateau and the junction with the Wildcat Canyon Trail. Elevation gain of 500 feet.”
He continues: “Wildcat Canyon Trail (Wildcat Canyon Trailhead junction to junction with West Rim Trail: 4.7 miles): A mostly level section of trail that wanders through a beautiful pine forest, an open meadow, then skirts around the White Cliffs above Wildcat Canyon to join up with the West Rim Trail. Roughly 5 miles with an elevation gain of 500 feet.”
My group, however, had a cache at Lava Point, so we stopped there for supplies before hiking on. With the six available campsites there we could have easily made this our next camp, but we moved on to Potato Hollow. Braun says, “Lava Point isn’t actually the starting point of the West Rim Trail; the trailhead is located about a half-a-mile southeast. Lava Point is, however, …the highest point in Zion, the view from the lookout is a great teaser that hints at the great scenery in store. To the southwest, you can see Wildcat Canyon and the Great West Canyon in the distance and to the southeast, you can see the White Cliffs above the Zion Narrows and the main canyon. The West Rim Trail takes us south along the plateau between those two large canyon systems.”
The first few miles of hiking to Potato Hollow was pleasant travel along the upper plateau. Braun reminds us: “At three miles, the first notable viewpoint is the ‘SGA teaser viewpoint’ that gives a view straight down the Left Fork of North Creek to the majestic South Guardian Angel mountain in the distance. Over the next two miles, the trail makes a gradual descent into Potato Hollow, a good spot for a quick off-trail jaunt to get a good view into the mysterious Imlay Canyon to the east. (Imlay is one of the more treacherous technical canyons in Zion.) Note: Potato Hollow can be a source of water but in the dryer months, the spring is particularly murky.”
It was Potato Hollow where we spent our second night on the trail, just five miles from Lava point. There are two campsites at the hollow. Water was good because we were there in April.
The deer, however, were trouble. They were apparently tame; our team allowed them to eat from their hands and then we could not keep them from our tents and packs, so remember not to feed the animals.
The next morning we continued along the West Rim Trail. Braun explains the visual treat waiting: “Beyond Potato Hollow, we have our first short stretch of uphill hiking that takes us to the ‘Hammerhead Viewpoint’ where the scenery starts to become magical, showing clear views of all of the amazing formations of the Great West Canyon: the Right Fork, Greatheart Mesa, Ivins Mountain, Inclined Temple, etc.…One more more uphill push takes us to the top of Horse Pasture Plateau where the trail hugs the western rim and it is non-stop amazing views for several miles. … Spend as much time here as possible to soak in the amazing views!
We took Braun’s advice and instead of hiking all 14 miles to the Grotto, we stopped at the Campsite 2, close to Cabin Spring, secluded back from the trail. Here there was water and views into the main canyon. Then we retraced our steps to enjoy the Great West Canyon. My group stalled here for pictures and sketches.
I have always asked team members to bring sketchpads; you’d be surprised what they see and draw in the breathtaking solitude of this part of Zion Canyon. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, and though it is wider, it is not better when it comes to vistas. The colors and scenes of Zion are better, nearer and more vibrant.
Sitting on the edge of the cliff, allowing the sun to set behind me and mentally recording the color changes in the canyon was a singular experience each time I hiked the West Rim. Before hiking out of the forested upper plateau to Scout Lookout, try sunrise again the next morning for a whole new color palette.
The trail begins descending as it heads east, away from upper plateau. These next miles of trail Braun says “are much more dramatic as the CCC-constructed trail makes its way down through the chiseled White Cliffs and the …slickrock wonderland to make its final descent into the main canyon. [But] soon enough we get a full view into the main canyon and Angels Landing can be seen below to the south.” And that is just how I remember it.
At this point, you are well into the day’s hike, so take an hour at Scout’s Lookout to make a side hike to Angels Landing (you will need it to get the total 50 miles your are aiming for). This is one of the most popular hikes in Zion, but it is usually done as a day hike from the Grotto, just an hour by foot from below. The towering fin known as Angels Landing will be among your most cherished memories.
My excursions into the park with Scouts in the 1970s and 80s always included this side trail. In each of three trips it was either the last or first leg in a three-day park trek (you can read more about it here).
As you may recall, this is the place I wrote about in the first paragraph. Though it will take a bit of effort (and grit, if heights bother you), it may be the highlight of your Trans Zion Trek!
When you work your way back to Scout Lookout, the next descent is just plain fun. Fully paved in red asphalt, first comes the Walter’s Wiggles followed by the narrow and chilly Refrigerator Canyon. It is hard to keep Scouts from a joyful and exuberant jaunt top to bottom, switchbacking your way down in a rambunctious romp to the canyon floor at the Grotto Trailhead.
It was there, in the main canyon, that we made our next camp at the Watchman Campground. There are six group sites there. Reservations should be made early as South Campground and Watchman Campground are near the south park entrance at Springdale. The Virgin River runs along the edge of each campground; there are a few riverside campsites, but none have shade.
The next day we took our final cache and headed back to the Grotto Trailhead to take on the Weeping Rock Trailhead, which was just over a mile.
Sadly, I was back at camp the next two days with a camper that had lost four toenails from blisters beneath. (I cannot stress enough that your feet need to be fit, your boots need to fit and you need to learn how to lace them for ascent and descent). Because of staying back I’ll have to rely on our friend Joe Braun for the rest of this adventure:
East Rim Trail (Weeping Rock to East Entrance Trailhead): 9.8 miles. From the Weeping Rock Trailhead, hike the steep trail up the east side of the main canyon. At the trail junction in Echo Canyon, choose the less-traveled trail to the East Entrance that will wander across Echo Canyon, then zigzag all the way to the top of the east plateau. After several miles of mostly flat terrain on top of the plateau, the trail will then work its way down into the Upper East Canyon near the East Entrance. Elevation gain of 2000 feet during the steep ascent to the east plateau, then a gradual descent of 500 feet into the upper East Canyon.
This is a five-day trek plan for older Scouts, Varsity Scout or Ventures, but could be done in three days if you have enough mojo. Scouters must get fit well before the trek—my first time in, we went the reverse direction and I had to lay down on the trail for 45 mins to recover before making camp at Cabin Spring. I warned you about the blisters and lost toe nails—feet and heart both need to be ready. You must also seek permits and submit plans to park headquarters well in advance.
As with any other overnight hike in Zion National Park, you must get a permit for the Trans-Zion Trek. Stop by the Zion Backcountry Desk or the Kolob Visitors Center to get your permit(s), reserve designated campsites, and check on current conditions. (See the official Zion Backpacking page for more info on permits.)
Group Size Limits
In Scouting we work to “leave no trace.” Large groups result in large impacts. All groups traveling in the Kolob Canyons Wilderness must follow the group size limit for that area. Group size limits are strictly enforced. Permits will be denied and violators will be cited if limits are exceeded.
Groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people that share the same affiliation (e.g., school, church, club, Scout or Venturing group, family, friends, or a combination thereof). Groups that exceed these limits may not split up and visit the same drainage or wilderness trail on the same day, but may split up and visit different areas.
Of all the backcountry treks in my 58 years of Scouting, this is number one—even better than Philmont, at least for me. When you take your crew or team, tell us about in the comment section below.
So what are you waiting for?