I was in Las Vegas for a conference a few weeks ago, and decided to rent a car and drive the ~3 hrs NE to Zion National Park. I had never been there, and it had always been on my short list. I also wanted to scout it out since my wife was coming later in the week and we didn't want to spend the whole time in Sin City. This trip report won't be a about a backcountry trip, just a frontcountry trip to one of the most beautiful valleys around.
The drive to Zion was fun for someone from the east coast and went through a range of desert scenery. There were some Joshua trees, cliffs, canyons, and the occasional small towns. On the whole, it looked pretty dessolate, but still fun for me.
The small town of Springdale is at the entrance of Zion, but it looked mostly closed for the winter season. I have to say that Feb is a great time to visit Zion. Hardly any people, plenty of spots at the campground within the park, and the cooler weather made hiking fantastic. The shuttle buses were not running, so I could drive the whole length of the valley in my rental car (during the rest of the year, you have to park near the park entrance and rely on the shuttles).
I got to the park about an hour before sundown, so I had time to pick out a campsite, layout my sleeping bag/bivy, and watch the sun go down.
Zion is one of those places where you do NOT actually watch the sun go down or come up...you face the opposite direction and are mesmorized with the changing colors and textures as the changing light transforms the opposing cliff face. I sat at a picnic table and ate dinner and enjoyed some wine that I picked up in Springdale...life was good!
I set my watch for an early morning so I could hike to Angel's Landing and get back the Las Vegas airport to pick up my wife. However, I didn't really need to worry about sleeping late. I was still on east coast time, so my internal alarm that is set at 4:30 am EST meant that I was waking up at 2:30 am Mountain Time. Since I was cowboy camping and it was a clear night, it was fun to watch the Big Dipper rotate around the north star every hour or so.
It was ~55F during the day, but dipped down to 15-20F at night. I supplemented my 20F Western Mountaineering bag with Montbell Thermawrap pants and Mountain Hardwear down jacket. I used a Pertex bivy and kept the top folded back because I had problems during my Black Forest Trail trip with condensation, but there must have been more moisture in the valley (from the Virgin River) than I thought because when I woke up the next morning and crawled out of the bag, I couldn't believe how much ice had formed between the bag and the bivy.
I broke camp and drove up the valley just as things were starting to lighten up some. One of the best predawn drives I've ever taken with the great sights and anticipation of heading up to the higher elevations on the Angels Landing trail!
I felt like such a tourist, stopping every mile or so along the road to take another photo of another beautiful cliff in the morning light. This was going to become a real habit throughout my hike.
I parked at the Grotto parking lot, which was empty except for lots of downed tree branches and some patches of leftover snow. I asked a ranger later about that, and she said that they had 5 days of of unseasonally straight rain, which had flooded the area, then a cold spell that caused lots of damage. When driving through the valley the previous night after sundown (since I had nothing else to do) I noticed plenty of boulders along the road, and some actually rolled down across the road in front of me. Alright...they were only cantaloupe-sized rocks, but they were coming at me from above and in the dark.
The best way to experience Zion might be to drive in after dark, when you can only get a hint of the peaks and cliffs around you, then wake up to a surreal landscape at sunrise. For some reason, I was completley amazed how different things looked. At night the end of the road (and entrance to the famous Narrows) at the Temple of Sinawava just looked like a tree lined cul de sac...once illuminated, I understood the name. Here is a shot of it from later in the day.
It was still ~20-25F, so a base layer, my R1 hoody, Montane windshirt, Smartwool cap, and liner glovers kept me warm until the 1488' ascent took over and I started to shed some layers. The sign at the trailhead promised an interesting hike. It discussed Walter's Wiggles, a series of 23 switchbacks. However, it ignored an equally impressive series of switchbacks that comes first and how the trail slips into an almost invisible hanging slot canyon (Refrigerator Canyon...it must not see much sun).
Although I didn't realize it at the time, I could see where I was heading. As I looked up, I had no idea how I would get up the cliff. Once I got some altitude, I was impressed with the work that others had done to make this a doable hike for me. I did it in 3 hrs with the ice and took lots of photos. I might even have beat Tony Wong for the photos/miles record, although I need to apologize because my point-and-shoot photos really don't do Zion justice.
The North Fork of the Virgin River cuts through Zion, and allows for some large trees that you don't see elsewhere.
As I said, the trail is not obvious as you start up, so I was wondering where it would take me. Once I gained some altitude and looked back it was obvious that it was well planned & constructed.
I also took some video, so I hope people can access them if interested.
Top of first set of switchbacks
Here is a shot of the masonry work that was done for these switchbacks. The trail is paved until you get to the top of Walters Wiggles. I like primitive trails, but probably agree that the pavement makes the trail more durable & easier to maintain with day trippers like me.
After passing that overhang on, the trail turned back into a narrow hanging canyon (Refrigerator Canyon) and levels off.
There were still piles of snow in the canyon, so I was wondering what it would be like up top.
The trail starts back up along Walter Wiggles, where you get increasingly nice views back into the canyon and across the walls. I heard several small and a few larger rock falls somewhere further up the canyon. I assume all of the recent rain had worked its way down into cracks and frozen, with the expansion continuing nature's sculpting of Zion's sandstone.
The worst of the snow/ice was on Walters Wiggles, when I had to be very careful of where I stepped since the steep switchbacks were nearly covered with ice from previous thaw/freeze cycles. I didn't want to haul my crampons from PA, and I got over/up the ice without too many problems, but some traction devices would have been nice in spots. It would have been disappointing not to have been able to get past this because of ice. It got worse from this point.
Icy Switchbacks at Walter's Wiggles
At the top of the trail you are rewarded with some great views and some not-so-great views. At Scout View you get great 360 views, including the designation.
I understand the value of toilets here with the large number of tourists in warmer weather, but it does stick out like a sore thumb.
It really is disappointing that people can haul up a whole orange, but are unable to pack out the peels. NO excuse for toilet paper in the bushes.
After taking in the views a bit and watching the sun break the rim, I headed toward Angel Landing. The really great aspect of this hike was that I was all alone until I got most of the way back down. Much different experience from a busy day up there. Everyone should experience this...just not at the same time.
The chains were helpful for the steeper section, especially where there was ice. They even cut footholds into the rock, but those typically filled with ice, so the chains were really appreciated. Of course, with the sun coming up over the rim as I made my way across the sketchy portion, the wind picked up to make it more interesting.
Chains approaching Angels Landing
There were a surprising number of trees along the way, and not all small. Amazing how tenacious life is found even in precarious spots like this.
Looking back I could see the bathrooms (white spots) where the trail came up from Refrigerator Canyon. Great views in every direction. The West Rim trail continues above and to the right of the bathrooms in the photos above & below (you might be able to pick out the switchbacks). I'm going to come back in April and hope to do the West Rim Trail with my brother and nephew. It will be great to approach this spot from a different direction.
As the sun rose, the peaks and cliffs transformed. The colors and textures just came alive and got more impressive. As much as I enjoyed the hike and the moment, I found myself wondering about those other trails I could see switchbacking up from the valley and about what it would be like on the rim. The wanderlust was growing strong!
The end of the trail at Angels Landing is a nice sice patch, with plenty of room to walk around and inspect the different views. I spent ~1 hr up there picking out landmarks, identifying trails, and having a snack.
The trail certainly looked different in person than on the map, and I have to say that it was a big improvement. What a great hike that only takes a few hours! I'd have to rank it up there with hiking up Half Dome in some ways.
This root ran above ground for about 10-15' from the tree in just the hope of finding a crack with some soil and water...amazing!
It was time to head back down and drive to Vegas to collect my wife...not a bad trade.
This was one of the narrow sections. It was not a technical or overly challenging from a physical point of view, but it's not for someone uncomfortable with heights.
On the way back down I got a different view of the trail...note the chain at the top of this photo. I was really surprised how undercut the trail was at this point.
Later it was cool to look up from this parking lot to see where I had been.
I know I included lots of photos of this already, but with the sun up I got a much better shot. Just a reminder of how differently things look throughout the day here in Zion.
There was lots of scat on the trail. When I asked the ranger, she thought it was either coyote or ringtail cat (possum family) based on the size & content. Whatever it was, they like pinion berries, although I'm surprised that they get many nutrients/calories from them since they seem to go straight thru their systems.
Although I couldn't identify most of the plants/shrubs I did see Pinion trees, Yucca plants, and Manzanita bushes.
Even as I looked back up the trail, it was not obvious where the trail goes. Refrigerator Canyon starts in the shadowed area in the photo below.
Here's a view from below and on the side that shows the ups and downs of the exposed route.
There were just so many pretty views.
Time to head home...hope you enjoyed this and get a chance (make the time!) to visit Zion yourself.