Last weekend was an official farewell to my beloved southern Utah before my wife Britnee and I leave for a year of travel abroad. This year-long trip is one we’ve been saving for and looking forward to for two years, but now, so close to our May 26 departure, I’ve felt rushed to take in as much of my beloved Utah as possible.
With that in mind I teamed up with my brother, Peter, and two friends, Dan and Mike, to backpack the Zion traverse in late April, a 50-mile farewell to one of my all-time favorite places.
We met at the Kolob Canyon visitor center on a Wednesday with plans to end the journey at the east entrance of Zion on Sunday. After sorting and sharing gear in the parking lot to lessen our loads, we hit the trail by 1 p.m. at Lee Pass and followed the relatively flat trail along La Verkin Creek for our first six miles or so.
Enjoying beautiful clear skies and a cooling breeze we took in the stunning beauty of our surroundings as the trail followed the clear, green waters of the creek between towering red cliffs.
On night one, after a quick detour to visit Kolob Arch, we camped beneath old cottonwood trees close to the turnoff that would take us south into the second leg of our traverse the following morning -- Hop Valley.
Early on day two we climbed up and over an unexpectedly steep hill into Hop Valley, but the view from the top made it all worthwhile. Far below, a meandering stream -- quite wide but shallow, (and undrinkable because of heavy cow pollution) -- cut a flat, green valley between tall sandstone cliffs, a hidden gem concealed by the climbs in and out.
After covering several miles along the bottom of the valley we began a slow and steady climb out that eventually landed us, rather tired, at a parking lot by the junction to our next trail. Here we were offered a ride by other backpackers to skip the 4-5 miles of connector trail, but we declined despite lacking water and no known springs on the route ahead. There would be no skipping sections of the traverse!
Crossing the connector trail into Wildcat Canyon, we then paused to look for a spring marked on the map with no luck and pushed on into dusk before making camp. However, on Friday morning we celebrated on the trial after finding a crystal-clear spring flowing from a rock and filtered water to fill our bottles. Then onto Lava Point where our support crew, my wonderful parents, met us with a resupply of food, water, clean clothes and a change of footwear for my blistered feet.
They also brought us a weather report that predicted up to 50 mile-per-hour winds throughout the afternoon and an 80 percent chance of rain and snow that night. With many miles still ahead of us on the West Rim trail, I rushed our team on a bit too much, fearful of the worsening weather, as they tried to take in the endless, breathtaking views high above the park.
Meanwhile the wind continued to strengthen from the southwest, howling up and over the ridge, and dark clouds gathered overhead. At camp, come 3 a.m. it was raining steadily and by 6 a.m. it turned to heavy snow. This worried me as the next mile or two of trail descended several hundred feet of cliff in narrow switchbacks cut into the rock. But after trying to wait out the storm in our tents for a couple of hours, we eventually packed up our soggy tents in the snow and started down.
Dan didn’t seem too worried, walking confidently ahead of the group, but I cursed at every wet, slippery step as I struggled to find traction in my old, worn-out shoes. Through snow, slush and running water we slowly made our way down the rocky path and I swear my trekking poles saved my life more than once.
With a great sigh of relief we left the treacherous cliff trail behind us, (which now looked more like a running stream and waterfall), and continued through snow and rain to Scout Lookout above Angels Landing. There the clouds parted for us to provide a stunning view of this, the most magnificent place, and we continued down hoping for sunshine to dry us out.
While it did warm slightly upon our arrival at the Grotto in Zion Canyon below, it wasn’t enough to dry our wet tents. Sitting beneath the shelter of a bus stop, we unloaded half our gear with our support team and decided to push on up the East Rim and finish the traverse that night, putting our Saturday total at 17 miles. Better that than spend another cold night in damp tents.
It was quite daunting to think of hiking up into more snow, wind and eventual darkness, (especially with my blistered feet in such poor shape), but thankfully Dan cracked the whip by insisting he would finish, one way or the other, that night. And just like that the decision was made for all of us.
At first we enjoyed some sunshine and warmth as we walked the paved road to the Weeping Rock trailhead and up steeply into Echo Canyon, then the snow and wind returned once again. Trudging on, each focused on the final goal, we ended up making good time with few rest stops. By approximately 5 p.m. we were standing atop the East Rim.
From there on out we were slowed by heavy mud that weighed down our feet with every step, passing the turnoff to Cable Mountain, which we promised to return to in better weather. The last few miles were by far the hardest; cold, wet and with my feet in miserable, blistered pain, the end was in sight but still so far away. In order to descend the last few hundred vertical feet, we had to make one last, long switchback over a few miles before finishing at the east entrance of the park. Thankfully we did it all in the daylight, calling for a pickup shuttle at 7:20 p.m.
We were happy and incredibly proud of the accomplishment, having covered 50 steep miles in three and a half days. Yet all we could think about at that moment was a big dinner in Springdale and a warm bed that night as we wound our way back through Zion on paved roads in the deepening darkness.
That was nearly two weeks ago and my feet are still recovering, (with some help from a pedicure), but oh what a sendoff for this beautiful landscape, my Zion. While both my wife and I have talked about moving elsewhere after this upcoming year of travel, I honestly want nothing more than to settle into a simple life surrounded by the rusted red rocks of southern Utah. Who would have thought that after moving here 21 years ago as a grumpy, homesick teenager, I would fall so deeply in love with the place.