Zion Wilderness, 2018

Trans-Zion With Masses, But Nightly Solitude

I have hiked Zion National Park since teen years in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our 1970s-80s trips to West Rim from Lava Point, Kolob Canyons and a snowy December slog up from Zion Canyon offered solitude; campgrounds and trails were busy only in the spring season.

Not so in 2018! Our November “Trans-Zion” backpack from West to East offered staggering views, cold weather and hundreds of hikers. Zion had 4.5 million visitors last year. Even in mid-November, the visitor center parking lot was packed and cars lined Mt. Carmel Highway another mile. Few cars are allowed in Zion Canyon; day hikers must use the free park shuttles—monster buses which deposit clumps of 15-20 hikers at every trailhead.

Rustic motels in nearby Springdale have been replaced by luxurious mega-hotels; and a cottage industry of outfitters ferries hikers to West Rim, East Rim and Zion Narrows.

The official Trans-Zion trek is supposed to start at Kolob Canyons (along Interstate 15) but Park Service had closed the road several months for a reconstruction project. Our modified Zion trek was “out and back” hike into LaVerkin Creek via heavily grazed Hop Valley then along Wildcat Connector trail, lightly used contour along rimrock (above famous “Subway”—a popular rappel and 9.5-mile hike down lower end of Wildcat) to meet Lava Point Trail.

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The only sad sight was a mega-house above the Kolob Terrace Road which could be seen from many points (I even saw the light from our last camp across Zion Canyon on East Rim!).

On our hike down Lava Point Trail to West Rim, we were passed by a jogger and a dozen day hikers racing into the main canyon, but we had only deer for company at our evening camp on the Rim. Next morning we descended on switchbacks blasted into a cliff (West Rim trail was built in 1925-26—84 years before most of Zion was designated wilderness in 2009).

We met the masses hiking to precipitous Angel’s Landing, took a park shuttle one stop to join more hordes ascending to Observation Point, then hiked a mile or so up East Mesa Trail for a quiet camp on rim in juniper. Next morning we met two happy canyoneers preparing for 15 rappels down Mystery Canyon into the Narrows. We headed back down to Echo Canyon and up slickrock East Rim route to meet more hikers and horses on the rim, headed to jaw-dropping views at Cable (where early pioneers clear cut the ponderosa pine stands on the East Rim and sent it by cable into the canyon) and Deertrap Mountain. Pine and juniper sheltered our camp; next morning a cold front hustled me out wearing three layers of clothes and a windbreaker!

We dropped plans for a finale hike down the Zion Narrows, chilled by prospect of slipping on icy river rocks. Maybe next summer with 80-degree temperatures and a few thousand hikers!

We saw only 10 backpackers total (most doing shorter trips) and had every campsite to ourselves. Maybe the yearly 60,000 wilderness permits issued are mostly for popular Zion Narrows and Subway? (Wilderness permit required to hike the 16-mile Narrows “top down” even without camping).

The Kolob Canyons road reopened February 7, 2019.

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