Sunday, November 29, 2009

Backpacking Zion National Park in October 2009

Sunset from my camp atop The East Rim Plateau

Zion Canyon's from my West Rim Camp Site

The West Rim Trail ascending up to Angel's Landing

Me at my West Rim camp Site

The view up-canyon from Angel's Landing

On the way up the West Rim Trail

When I decided to backpack for two weeks in the Sierras during the month of October, I knew I was taking a weather risk. Any storm that comes through those mountains in October would be snow storms that would make hiking difficult to prohibitive. So, I had a plan “B” in place before I left for the Sierras, which was to head for the trails of Zion National Park. I had read that Zion was a fabulous place to backpack in October. After spending a serendipitous week in the Sierras my greatest fears materialized and the weather took a turn for the worse. It was time to pack up and head for Zion.

The drive from the Sierras to Zion was long - an overnight jaunt across the Nevada Desert - but I arrived with an eager heart to hit the trail again and continue my 2009 backpacking adventure. But, the thrill of my Sierra adventure was gone. Zion was my backup plan and not to be confused with the best of the best - the beloved Sierras! After all, this was plan “B”. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the wonders Zion had to offer the wilderness wanderer. Armed with a good map and several days to explore Zion, I quickly made a plan to see and experience the best that the Park had to offer. The plan was to hike out of the Zion Canyon up to the west rim of the canyon, then back down to the canyon floor, and then up to the east rim of the canyon to experience the other side of the Park. I set out for the West Rim Trail Head at around 11AM, after getting my permit at the visitor center. I took a shuttle bus to the trail head, which is the only transportation allowable in the Park. As I started out on the trail, it wasn’t but a few hundred yards before a steep zig-zagging ascent took me up and over the walls of the canyon. The trails that are accessible to day hiking are paved, since the crowds hiking them are large. The trails ascending up out of the canyon are spectacularly built and don’t give the appearance of over use. These trails had to be carefully blasted out of the sand stone cliffs in order to build them. I marveled at both the engineering of the trail and the geography of this place. Along the West Rim Trail the day hiker’s destination is Angel’s Landing; a pinnacle outcropping from the cliffs of the canyon just a couple of miles from the trail head. To get to Angel’s Landing the would be tourist leaves the West Rim Trail and climbs a knife’s edge access trail to Angel's Landing. A little scary, but plenty of safety precautions were in place, such as hand railing and steps cut in to the rock. It’s one of those experiences you don’t want to miss when coming to Zion. It's the best way to view the glories of the remarkable Zion Canyon. But, my destination was the canyon rim and once I passed Angel's Landing the throngs of people were left behind. In my estimation the scenery just kept getting better and better. The entire climb to the west rim was an arduous ascent of over 4000 feet in 6 miles. Once I got to the rim, I found my designated camp site and set up my tent with a glorious view of the canyon below. I then explored the entire west rim for the rest of the day. The rim trail skirts the edge of a massive and delosolate plateau, affording the hiker a constant view of Zion Canyon and it's appendage canyons. It was a spectacular sight. I kept thinking how different this place was in comparison with the Sierras, yet how equally wondrous. One of the stark differences between the two landscapes is water! In the Sierras there is a stream, river, or lake at nearly every bend in the trail. But Zion is a desert. There was only one water source on this entire trail and it was a little trickling rivulet of water serving the entire plateau, shared by hikers and animals alike. My camp site happened to be very close to the spring, so at dusk I sat quietly and watched the deer come down a ridge high on the plateau to access the spring that we all had to share. If I were a hunter it would been a shooting gallery, but I was pleased to observe the joy of wild animals anticipating their one chance at water that day.

The next day I descended back to Zion Canyon and got on the shuttle bus once again to head up the canyon one mile to access the next trail head – the East Rim Trail. The first couple of miles were just like the West Rim Trail, crowded with people ascending to a view point high above the canyon. Once I passed the view point the trail was completely empty. I didn’t see a person again until I came back to this point on the trail the next day. This was a more difficult trail than the West Rim Trail, but, the views were stunning and the experience felt a bit more, “wild” on this side of the canyon. The climb was similar, with another 4000 plus foot elevation gain over 6 miles, but it was again worth it to get up on top of the world. Once on the plateau of the East Rim I headed for the one and only spring to fill my water container. Just like the west plateau, there was only one water source for miles and miles around. When I was filling my container from the trickling spring, I had to do it while looking at a sign that said, “Beware of Mountain Lions”! Again, I was sharing a water source with all the wildlife in that area! I could only imagine a mountain lion or two watching me from the surrounding forest as I filled my container. On the east rim, the National Park allows backpackers to camp anywhere they desire. So, I spent some time finding the high point of the plateau to camp, which would provide me with the best opportunity for a great sunset and sunrise view. I have to admit, the whole experience was a bit eerie. I had not seen anyone since passing the view point many miles back. At times I felt so alone and vulnerable. But, the wildness and expansive terrain of this place kept me in such awe that I had little time to contemplate my aloneness. The next morning I headed back to the canyon floor and then on to Portland, having had my wilderness fix satisfied – but only for a little while!


Staubaloha said...

Joe, A great bunch of "wanderlust" photos you have here. Very awe inspiring on various levels. Thanks for sharing them with us. Your brother, John

sage said...

My old stomping grounds! A longer hike would be to start out in Kolob (off I-15) and hike the Kolob Arch trail to the Hop Valley trail and then over to the West Rim trail, take it to the valley and the up the east rim and follow it out the east end of the park. Climbing up to the west rim (or even down it) in the summer is brutal--I once went down it in 104 degree temps and fell into the Virgin River at the end. I've also been up those climbs in winter and it's good to have some mini-crampons as the ice can get bad. Great hiking, thanks for sharing (came here from the Ultralighter's shout-out)

Backpacking said...

If you are looking for a spectacular outdoor getaway, consider Zion National Park, one of nature's most majestic and pristine places!