While there is technically not a “bad” place to hike in Zion National Park, many of the park’s signature hikes present a number of challenges. Angel’s Landing, for example, tests an individual’s fear of heights. The Narrows, as yet another example, tests an individuals willingness to wade in cool to chilling water. Further complicating Zion’s hiking is the fact that as one of the National Park service’s signature - and most popular units, hiking in the main areas of Zion requires additional planning, from parking one’s vehicle outside the park, and riding the shuttle to a number of areas in the valley. While some of these issues can be avoided by going in the off-season, or into other areas of the park, the fact remains that some of the best views in the park can be found outside of the main valley of Zion at the Canyon Overlook with little to no effort.
The best example of this is that at every National Park, there is at least one trail that is accessible to all, and provides a great experience and introduction to nature and that specific park. These trails are gateways to nature – literally – as they allow all parties the ability to experience something that they would not otherwise experience. For Zion National Park, that trail, or trail system is the Emerald Pools Trail network.
Don’t go any further, you’ll die. Today’s quiz, hotshots, is what you would do if you heard this phrase on the trail. Would you turn around, or would you keep going? It’s also a statement that’s led me to pen this mini-diatribe. Before I go any further, I can already hear you asking, “Wait – what’s the situation? The terrain? The temperature? I can’t answer this question until I know these things.” Fair enough, let me give you the relevant background details: it was a partly cloudy day in Zion National Park. The cloud deck was resting at around 7,000 feet, and the ambient temperature at the Weeping Rock Trailhead (Information here) was around 20 degrees, although it could have been slightly colder as there were intermittent wind gusts of around 10 mph. For the last two days it had been snowing down to approximately 4,500 feet, but at the lower elevations there had been some melting and re-freezing. These were the conditions I found when I arrived at the trailhead one Sunday in mid-December of 2012 at around 7:30 a.m.
Did you know that over five million people visit the Grand Canyon on a yearly basis, and most of those people visit the South Rim? If you’re even remotely interested in hiking and wilderness activities, you probably did, as the Grand Canyon is one of the top National Parks every year. But – did you know that only 3% of Grand Canyon park visitors (approximately 150,000 people) head below the rim of the Grand Canyon? I’m guessing that you didn’t, because I didn’t know it, and I know a lot of arcane wilderness lore. Let me give you some disclosure though: I don’t know where Bill Ferris got that statistic – I Googled it for a little bit, and I didn’t come up with anything.
Last week, I was talking about the signature hike of Zion National Park, Angel’s Landing. As I mentioned last week, Angel’s Landing is not just a signature hike for Zion, but for North America too. However, there’s a downside for being the signature hike of Zion – crowds. If you’re someone who likes to hike to get away from your fellow man, Angel’s Landing probably isn’t for you, unless you’ve managed to find one of those rare weekdays during the off-season where the trail is relatively empty. So, if you like solitude – or if you like even more of a challenge than the distance present in the Angel’s Landing hike, the Observation Point hike is the hike for you.
I’ll never forget the first time I hiked out to Observation Point – I was young, and capable of covering distance in huge chunks. I got an early start on the hike, and by the time I was halfway through Echo Canyon, was feeling confident and cocky. In my head, my inner monologue was already crowing that the hike was not strenuous and not difficult at all. Then, the mid-morning temperature spiked into the low nineties and by the time I was heading up the final ascent of the White Cliffs, my legs were burning, and my inner monologue was strangely silent. While this hike may not be “strenuous” like the National Park Service says, at eight miles roundtrip it is not an easy walk in the park either.
Directions: Zion Canyon is only accessible by foot, bike, or the National Park Service bus service that runs the length of the canyon. Unless you are looking for a real challenge, I suggest that you take the NPS bus to the Weeping Rock Trailhead. From the trailhead, the trail immediately begins to head uphill through a series of switchbacks. At half a mile (.5), you will have ascended several hundred feet, and will have great views of Angel’s Landing and the Virgin River below (although, there are better views to come!). It is at this point the trail forks, and if you have the time, you can head into Hidden Canyon. Unless you get an early start, I’d recommend against the side trip into Hidden Canyon, as you still have 7.5 miles of hiking left to do to get up to Observation Point and back down! Having said that, if you’ve got the time Hidden Canyon is a pretty spot with great slickrock hiking and views.
Once you are past the Hidden Canyon trail junction, the trail winds around into Echo Canyon, which aside from the views at the top is probably the best feature of the hike. Echo Canyon is a great spot to stop and linger before you head up the remainder of the switchbacks through the White Cliffs. At one and a half miles (1.5), there will be another junction to the East Rim Trail, which will take you to Cable Mountain and various other points deeper in Zion’s backcountry. Stay on the Observation Point Trail, which is well marked by the National Park Service and continue up the remainder of the switchbacks through the White Cliffs.
Depending on what time of day it is, these switchbacks may seem pretty brutal as you may be slogging uphill under clear blue skies, sun, and hot temperatures, so plan accordingly and bring plenty of water. The good news, however, is that once you reach the top of the White Cliffs, you will find yourself on a somewhat sandy mesa, and the remainder of the hike along the top of the canyon to Observation Point is largely level.
From Observation Point, you will have a fantastic view of Zion Canyon, and Angel’s Landing and the Virgin River below. Once you have had your fill of the view, follow the trail back down the way you came up for a total distance of eight miles roundtrip, and an elevation gain of 2,148 feet.
Tips: I’d say that the best time for this hike is anytime but July or August when it is hot. However, should you be in Zion during those months, you shouldn’t avoid the hike just because it’s a little warm. If you plan accordingly, you’ll have a great hike through Echo Canyon and great scenic views from the top, along with some much needed solitude.
More Information: http://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=533013, http://www.naturalbornhikers.com/trails/observationpoint.html, http://hikearizona.com/decoder.php?ZTN=2723, http://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/obspoint.cfm, http://www.zionnational-park.com/zion-observation-point-trail.htm
As I’ve mentioned before, every National Park has its own signature hike or moment. For Yosemite, it’s the Mist Trail (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2011/12/14/the-mist-trail-to-vernal-falls-summer.html); for Death Valley, it’s Golden Canyon (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/3/6/golden-canyon-to-red-cathedral-death-valley-national-park.html); for Mojave National Preserve, it’s the Ring Loop Trail (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/10/ring-loop-trail-mojave-national-preserve.html); for the Grand Canyon, it’s the South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2007/6/15/bright-angel-trailsouth-kaibab-trails-grand-canyon-national.html?SSScrollPosition=0); and for Zion National Park, the signature hike is Angel’s Landing. If that didn’t get your attention, this will: in my opinion, Angel’s Landing is not just a signature hike just for Zion, but a signature hike for all of Utah; and is definitely one of the top hikes in the United States.
Since I'll be talking about one of my favorite hikes in Utah tomorrow, I thought I'd throw up a few pictures from back in the day - 2001 - of how the hike looked then. Since most of the hike is over ancient and well formed geologic features, you'll be able to take a look and see that while ten years is a long time, it's just a drop in the bucket of history.