Backpacking West Rim Trail [Day 1] – Zion National Park

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Our second day in Zion brought us back to the main canyon, but already hiking nearly 8 miles that morning meant we first needed a significant lunch. One thing I can tell you about the small town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion National Park’s Zion Canyon is that they have overpriced fish tacos. Who would have thought? $30 for fish tacos in the desert? I didn’t have forethought to put this all together at the time because my hungry body was willing to get tacos at nearly any price. Unfortunately, they were a let down. I boxed them to go though like I was actually going to eat them on the trail or something, but I think I did this because I felt guilty for not eating all of my tacos. Leaving one and a half large tacos behind was like leaving $15 of tacos and would have brought me more guilt. So I brought them from Springdale into park with me.

Entering the park from Springdale is a full-scale logistical transportation operation, quite different than Kolob Canyon and any other National Park I’ve been to. Because the park has a singular road connecting the Springdale and East entrance to all trailheads (ending at the start of The Narrows), they restrict car access during the busy months and use shuttles. This means you have to park in Springdale and catch a shuttle to the start of the park shuttle or get lucky in one of the lots near the visitor center. In our small rental Nissan Versa, we made our own luck and wedged in a lot by the visitor center. Logistical arrangements aside, it’s actually quite nice to be in a park without traffic and excess cars everywhere.

We parked and packed our packs and hitched a shuttle to The Grotto. This shuttle stop, just past Zion Lodge, serves as the trailhead for trail & locations such as Angels’ Landing, the Emerald Pools, and The West Rim. From The Grotto, the trail is steadily up and you think you’ll have a good sense of how much more you have to go because you can see the high edge of the Rim, but I assure you it’s all kind of a delusion.
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A look at the trail ahead cut into the wall.

DCIM100GOPROAbove is a look back toward our start at the bottom of Zion Canyon and the squiggle of West Rim Trail.

After a while of zig-zagging up the canyon wall, the trail cuts narrowly into Refrigerator Canyon and then it begins to switchback up and out even higher than you can see.

I’d never been to Zion before, so it was bit hard to tell how many switchbacks a squiggling line on a map was really going to translate into. I think this is why people started congratulating Diane and I on the trail. That or because they were impressed that we were carrying things on our backs up a mountain to sleep on it? Whatever the case, Diane and I lapped up the praises and used them to fuel the general badass demeanor we developed to help motivate our legs for more elevation gain.

DSC04163These 21 switchbacks, called Walter’s Wiggles, are nearly one on top of the other, zigzagging every 15 feet. When you hit these, know you’re almost out of Refrigerator Canyon and really close to the junction with Angels’ Landing Trail. At the junction, there are porta-potties, but only use them for emergencies. They actually have to heli-vac the poop out, so try your best not to contribute to such an operation.

From this point, most day hikers continue up to Angels’ Landing and West Rim trail traffic significantly thins out to nearly no one. A few may venture on a little bit for more great views, but we maybe saw 5 other hikers from that intersection all the way to our site on the top of the West Rim 3 miles away.

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We followed the trail north along a vast ridge through CCC-created paved sections (built to prevent erosion, but it was weird), soft sand, and smooth sandstone. From here you can take in incredible sights of the valley floor and the eastern edge of Zion Canyon. The Great White Throne towered to our right while still higher mesas rose to our left. Because we started our hike around 3pm, the colors at this time were stunning.

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Hiking with the Great White Throne (left) behind me.

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Continuing on the trail with Angel’s Landing (the reddish lump in the center of the photo) in the background. The peak to the left behind Angel’s Landing is The Great White Throne.

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(Above) A look from the trail toward the Cathedral Mountain. Refrigerator Canyon is the deep in this photo.

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After some time in the open spaces of the sandstone mesa, the trail cuts west away from the canyon edge and drops back down into a dense forest called Little Siberia. After the trail bottomed out at a wooden bridge, we began a steady uphill climb, knowing and now seeing our destination on the top of the mesa.

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IMG_7271From the bottom of Little Siberia, you see that you’re not as high as you actually need to go and the West Rim Trail continues much higher. Now falling in and out of the shadows, our daylight began to wane. We still had plenty of time before sunset, but staying in the dimmer shadow of the West Rim made us feel like we needed to hurry.

Another thing that makes you feel like you need to hurry is a find like this:

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This is not any old kitty print, but a *fresh* mountain lion print. We found it as we were about 1-2 miles from our campsite near Cabin Spring. Since it was nearing dusk and we had no defense besides an extendable GoPro pole, there was an onset of some mild pawprint paranoia. We never saw anything, but we were extra alert at every turn in the trail.

Now moving with a little more determination, the trail became an increasingly challenging grade, now directly on the side of the mesa, cutting higher and higher in the shadows.

The trail here has just come up from the center of the photo and continues on the sandstone wall on the left (near the two pine trees). It is hard to spot in the photo, because it was no more than 4 feet wide at times with very steep drop offs. Take extra caution and very careful steps in this section as you near Cabin Spring.

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A glimpse from the head of Behunin Canyon.

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Looking east, with Zion Canyon now far in the distance

DCIM100GOPROThe final push to the top of the mesa!

DCIM100GOPROLoving it!

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And finally at the top, nearing West Rim Site 2!

On the rim, night came quickly. We cooked canned chicken and quinoa, settled into the tent as the winds arrived at nightfall, and drank tequila and laughed ourselves to sleep, shaking off thoughts of encroaching mountain lions.

Trail Tips:

  1. Consider what time of day you start your hike on the West Rim, whether backpacking, day hiking, or heading to Angels’ Landing. Start early before it gets too hot on the exposed rock switchbacks or start later in the afternoon when the sun is at such an angle that you’ll be hiking up the West Rim in shade
  2. Tell yourself that switchbacks are a merciful climb. There will be switchbacks. And then more switchbacks, and then even more switchbacks on your switchbacks. You’ll be gaining roughly 3000 feet from the start of the trail at The Grotto all the way up to the West Rim, so when you’re tired of them, remember they are a gift of mercy and at least you don’t have to climb straight up.
  3. Watch your back and have your friend watch yours at dusk. I’ve got footprint proof that mountain lions are out there on this trail and although I am not an expert on their behaviors, I know they like to stalk and pounce. The particularly like to pounce and go for the kill on the back of your neck. So protect ya neck and watch one another’s backs!
  4. If just day hiking the West Rim and around Zion, book your campground site ahead of time at Watchman or South Campground. They were full when we went, but spots were available to book online 2 weeks before our trip. The same could be said for backpacking permits as well – book them well in advance (you can do up to 3 months in advance). I saw sites filling up the day I got mine. If you don’t get one online there are always a handful of sites available for walk-up reservation.
  5. Bring a backpacking stove to cook as fires are not permitted in the backcountry. You’ll see some of the effects of wildfires on this hike, most notably nearing the high edge of the mesa near Cabin Spring from a 2007 wildfire. Many fires here are caused by lightning, but because of the remoteness and difficulties that would occur in trying to contain fires in this area, don’t chance it by creating your own.

Next, Day 2 on the West Rim Trail!

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