West Rim trail (Zion National Park)

The West Rim trail is one one of the longer day walks in Zion National Park, descending from Lava Point along the Horse Pasture Plateau to the floor of Zion Canyon.

The West Rim trail is the main objective of my visit to Zion National Park, after driving through the park from Bryce Canyon and taking the short but scenic Canyon Overlook trail yesterday.  I’d booked an early-morning shuttle up to the trailhead at Lava Point a few weeks ago, which would get me to the start of the track by about 8am. Although my guidebook suggested it was one of the most popular backpacking trails in Zion, there was just one couple who were taking the shuttle to Lava Point, and doing the walk over two days.

The track is well-sign posted as it heads across the Horse Pasture Plateau, past a turn-off to Wildcat Canyon (Lava Point to West Rim is part of a much longer multi-day walk, starting at Lee Pass on the western side of Zion National Park). It’s easy and pleasant walking along the plateau.

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In stark contrast to my hike at Bryce Canyon the previous days, there’s a plethora of flowering plants along the trail. The sego lily, native to a number of western states, is also the state flower of Utah. Very common and almost out of place along the verdant path is the Engelmann prickly pear. The most impressive are the white flowers of the yucca baccata, one of the most common yucca of the southwest.

After a few kilometres, there’s the first glimpses in the distance of some of the more dramatic cliffs and formations of Zion National Park to the east.

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Quite unexpectedly, a lookout provides a view to the west down the Left Fork, with the South Guardian Angel peak directly ahead. After a somewhat dull start (in terms of scenery!) the Zion landscape starts to reveal itself…

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After this tantalizing glimpse of the Zion peaks, the track continues down the middle of Horse Pasture Plateau, still descending gradually. It’s a very easy hike so far!

After four miles (6.4km) Potato Hollow is reached, one of the camping sites along the track. The track climbs briefly from here over a small ridge, from which there are views over the grassy meadow of Potato Hollow and the surrounding hills.

From the ridge above Potato Hollow, the track turns south, drops into a small valley before climbing up to another ridge. There are great views along the trail – apparently the result of a fire caused by lightning in 1980 that burnt most of the trees.

At the top of this last ridge is the junction with Telephone Canyon Trail, which is a slightly shorter route (it rejoins the main West Rim Trail 1.8 miles further on). There’s really no option though – the main West Rim Trail follows the edge of the escarpment and offers spectacular views. It’s worth the extra 1.4 miles!

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The views are fantastic along the entire section of this track, changing subtly as different mountains come into view. The earlier views (above) take in the white cliffs along the Right Fork of the North Creek and South Guardian Angel. As the track continues, Heaps Canyon can be seen, the Mountain of the Sun and Twin Brothers peaks in the distance, and the flat-topped Mount Majestic and Cathedral Mountain.

There’s an abundance of flowers along the trail, keeping the local bees and insects happy!

Shortly before re-joining the Telephone Canyon Trail, the West Rim Trail bears north-west as it rounds the southern tip of the plateau.

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As the trail continues to descend, it passes another couple of camping sites and a spring, which is right at the edge of the cliffs above Telephone Canyon (bottom right). The water is just a trickle and really needs filtration, so I just take a quick photo of the valley below and continue down West Rim Trail…

Not long after the spring and junction with the Telephone Canyon Trail, the trail starts to descend with vigour… We’re heading more or less straight down into the Behunin Canyon below.

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The track descends steeply through multiple switch-backs down the sheer sandstone cliff, before reaching the head of the valley below.

At the bottom there’s some patches of welcome shades from the tall trees – spruce and Douglas firs grow here, rarely found at such low elevations (I read this later!) but able to thrive due to the shade provided by the surrounding cliffs.

Unfortunately the shade doesn’t last long, and the track soon leaves the forest as it descends around the base of Mount Majestic before reaching a very solid bridge at the base of a side-canyon.

The track then starts to climb, as it passes the base of Cathedral Mountain (bottom left) and traverses a rocky outcrop. This section of track is quite undulating and hot in the midday sun.

I’m relieved to see Scout Lookout below, as the track descends down the steep ridge, with Angels Landing rising high above it.

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There’s impressive views for the last half a mile, down to the base of Angels Landing.

From Scouts Landing, there’s two options: continue down to the base of the valley, or follow the chains up to Angels Landing, along a narrow ridge that looks impossible to traverse.

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I head towards Angels Landing – it seems a fitting end to the day. Although there are hundreds of people with the same idea, and many look like they probably shouldn’t be here…

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The views down into the Zion valley are spectacular, even from the base of Angels Landing.

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I turn back well before the top – I’ve been once before, when I left very late in the day and had the trail almost to myself. Unlike today, where there’s a queue to the top. Trying to pass people who were already struggling well before the peak isn’t my idea of a fun afternoon! So, it’s down Walter’s Wiggles, the incredible set of switch-backs that goes to the bottom of the valley.

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It’s an impressive feat of engineering, named after Zion National Park’s first superintendent Walter Ruesch, who in 1926 constructed the trail to Angels Landing.

I’m glad I’m going down and not up; it’s still pretty warm and there’s not much space on the track down.

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Emerald Pools

After reaching the Virgin River (and having a quick swim to cool off), it’s still only mid-afternoon so I extend my hike by visiting The Grotto and Emerald Pools. (Interestingly, more people have died on the Emerald Pools trail than on the Angel Falls trail.) The Kayenta Trail follows the river downstream from The Grotto, where the West Rim Trail ends.

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It’s a relatively easy “extension” : although the trail undulates a little, there’s no steep sections.

The trail is pretty busy, being one of the more popular short hikes in Zion, as I make my way to the Middle Emerald Pools. There’s a bit of a flow, but nothing spectacular, and a few kid are swimming or wading in the small pool.

A little further on, the Lower Emerald Pools are a bit more impressive, with the trail passing under a long overhang.

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Water drips over the top – something in between a “drip” and “cascade” – and falls into the pools below the cliffs.

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From here it’s a paved path back to Zion Lodge, where there’s another bridge over the Virgin River.

Zion Lodge is a hive of activity, and I’m not too unhappy to catch a shuttle bus back my car which is parked at Springdale. I’ve enjoyed the walk, especially the middle bit, where the scenery is spectacular and I’ve encountered just a handful of people. Unfortunately, finishing at Angels Landing in peak season is a bit of a let-down after the serenity of the rest of the walk… it would be perfect to have done the walk in the opposite direction, getting to Angels Landing before the crowds. But getting a shuttle back from Lava Point would be pretty much impossible. Still, I’m not complaining – Zion National Park for the second time has not disappointed with its incredible scenery.

Location Starts at Lava Point and finishes at The Grotto (trailhead) or Zion Lodge. Shuttles can be booked from Springdale to Lava Point.
Distance Approx 14.5 miles (24km). 18 miles (29.7km) as walked with Emerald Pools, finishing at Zion Lodge
Grade Moderate (615m elevation gain / 1500m elevation loss)
Season/s Spring to Autumn (snowbound in winter)
Maps National Geographic “Zion Canyon” topographic map
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)

 

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