This was an all-out adventure with three incredibly tough and hardcore hikers. Mind-blowing views were enjoyed, extreme weather swings and frigid waters were endured. We logged 60 miles in Zion's canyons, mountains, and rivers over six days - managing to hit all Zion’s highlights in one epic trip.
Peter (Fiber One, aka Pathfinder, aka Towpath), Alison (Cover Girl), Jake (The Red Fox), and I met at BWI airport at sunrise Wednesday morning for the long flight to Vegas. We flew directly over the Grand Canyon but unfortunately were on the wrong side of the plane to see it. We did have a good view of Hoover Dam. Once on the ground we picked up two rental SUVs then gorged ourselves on an absurdly oversized lunch at the Hash House a Go Go. Slightly sick to our stomachs we rolled up I-15 at high speed leaving Vegas in the dust.
We made the 3 hour drive to Zion in a little over 2 hours, stopping only for provisions at Walmart (including about 30 gallons of water). Entering the park, we encountered a guy selling his annual National Parks pass for cheap - only to discover they aren't transferable. But with a bit of larceny Alison bluffed her way passed the gate. After picking up our back country permit at the Visitor Center, we left one car behind as a shuttle and continued through the park to the East Rim Trailhead. Knowing the only water source would be dry our packs were loaded down with 5 or more liters of water.
East Rim to Observation Point
We climbed slowly but steadily on surprisingly sandy trails surrounded by towering white and red sandstone mountains. The incredible vistas faded into a clear starry sky as we switched on our headlamps. We passed Stave Springs at mile 6 and started looking for a place to camp. Peter found some open ground and we gladly ended our day around 9pm MT. After putting up our shelters we rehydrated our meals, foregoing a campfire (sadly fires are not permitted in the Zion backcountry). We bedded down to avoid the gusting desert winds. Temps were in the mid-40’s but dipped even lower when the wind picked up.
The next morning we awoke to the amazing Zion landscape we had missed hiking through the night. Continuing our trek Northeast on the East Rim trail, we began descending a winding route through the canyon. The trail was well worn, becoming rocky as the landscape changed and we left the scattered forests behind. Often we traveled over bare rock where the path was marked only by cairns. Eventually the ascent to Observation point began. The temperature climbed into the 80's as we tackled the switchbacks. We encountered other hikers making the much shorter day hike up from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, and gleaned some valuable intel for our other hikes. Alison and I reached the top a few minutes behind Jake and Peter, where we were greeted by an awesome view of the canyon floor - and by fearless chipmunks attempting to score a meal. We took a lunch and photo break while looking down on the valley below, and Angels Landing (the next days destination) to the west.
We retraced our steps down from Observation point as even more day hikers arrived, and descended to the intersection with Weeping Rock Trail. Hanging a right, we entered a narrow slot canyon and found a still pool of water were we took another photo and video break before moving on. We passed on stopping at the Emerald Pools as this lower section of trail became lousy with touristy folk and instead set a fast pace down
the steep switchbacks to the trailhead, ending our hike at around 16 miles. After a much needed restroom break we hopped on the free canyon shuttle back to the car stashed at the visitor center.
With our first hike behind us, Peter and I retrieved the other rental while Alison and Jake refilled our water jugs. Again leaving one car behind for the next day's return shuttle, we headed south in the other rental out of the park to Springdale. Stopping for lunch and milkshakes at a place called Blondies', Peter once again amazed us with the size of his appetite.
Despising any campgrounds populated with RVs, I elected to avoid the crowded valley sites. So with the light getting low, we blazed a trail southwest then turned north onto the curvy Kolob Reservoir road towards Lava Point. Our luck held and there was still a site open at the free primitive campground there. We made camp as dusk settled in and the temperature plummeted. Tonight we enjoyed a roaring fire with dinner before turning in.
West Rim to Angels Landing
The trail dipped, rose, and weaved through ever changing scenery. We even saw some Fall colors in the tree leaves here for the first time in the park. We took a slight shortcut via the Telephone Canyon Trail in the hopes of beating the massive throngs of tourist other hikers had told us to expect. Once it connected back with the West Rim Trail we descended on solid rock switchbacks, finding a dead deer that must have fallen from high above. Next came the climb to connect to The Grotto Trail which would get us to Angels Landing.
At the intersection were some pit toilets, and numerous day hikers milling about. Some people elected to leave their packs here for the climb, but we deemed that far too easy and began the climb immediately after putting away our hiking poles. The route followed a series of chains and rails along a single-file knife edge that climbed ever upward. Often we needed to haul ourselves up by the chains or scramble up rippled rock faces. Occasionally we stopped to allow hikers descending to go by, and we passed many people that needed breaks before they could continue up. Just when it seemed the climb would never end, the path leveled off and we were at the top! Peter ran into a friend here of all places and chatted while Alison, Jake and I had a snack and enjoyed the most impressive view yet. More chipmunks extorted tolls from everyone they could.
The climb down proved not as difficult as we feared, and we blazed a trail down the Grotto Trail. Many times during the steep descent we passed people taking breaks, and wondered how they would make it to the top before nightfall. We finished out our 18 mile day at a chilly trail-side river pool. Jake and Peter enjoyed a brief swim while Alison and I were content to cool our feet.
Another shuttle ride got us back to our car, and we again over-indulged on some food at Blondie’s before picking up some gear for the Narrows hike at Zion Adventures. Peter, ever prudent and convinced we were in for Frozen Hell went for a full dry suit and canyoneering boots. Alison and Jake went for dry-pants and neoprene socks to go with their Keens. I decided the dry pants made me look fat so I left them behind in favor of my hiking shorts and neoprene socks to go with my Merrel’s.
We rolled back to Lava Point Campground for the night to pack our gear, have dinner and enjoy a fire before gladly passing out for the night.
Leaving camp at 5am, we drove back to Zion Adventures to rendezvous with our shuttle and driver John who proved to be quite a character and font of information. After an entertaining high speed drive and many stories he dropped us off at Chamberlain’s Ranch, whose gracious owners allow hikers access to the top of the Narrows via their property. The air was quite chilly, close to freezing even though the sun was up by now. A couple dozen people in total were dropped off, while they lined up for the bathroom we hit the trail. There was a quick stream crossing during which I nearly face planted in the mud, then a couple miles of walking on gravel roads and dirt trails to the Virgin River. Before the first crossing we changed out of our cold weather layers and got ready to get wet.
For 10 miles we alternated between slogging through cold water, crossing streams and walking on short trails. The river was usually ankle deep but sometimes close to waist deep. We all had a chill in our bones until a couple hours later when the sun finally touched the canyon floor. Stopping for a quick snack in a sunny spot, Jake ditched the dry pants which were killing his ankles and would finish the rest of the hike in his shorts.
When we hit the first major tributary Big Bend, we had a quick stop to filter some water (we had been warned repeatedly not to drink from the Virgin River until this point). We arrived at our reserved campsite #9 around 2pm and shed our wet clothes. Peter pitched his Trailstar (the only shelter we brought along) and lounged around camp.
As luck would have it Site #9 was 5 star, the best of the campsites we saw. No fires are permitted in the Narrows, though it was obvious the site had seen many. I won’t confirm or deny that we had a glorious campfire that night - but there were massive piles of driftwood..and we had loads of time to kill! Jake and I cowboy camped while Alison and Peter enjoyed the extra warmth under the Trailstar.
With just 6 miles to go, we took our time breaking camp hitting the river once more just before 9am. The part of the trail was more enjoyable, challenging, and wetter than the previous day. We spend a lot of time dodging large pools and wading through deep water. The canyon became much more narrow, especially at the section dubbed “Wall Street” that had no high ground, just slick rock rising straight up on both sides. We started to encounter more and more hikers as we made our way south. We skipped the detour up Orderville Canyon as it was totally jammed with people, and plowed through to the end. Once out of the river we set a better than 4 mph pace, happy to stretch our legs at last on the way to the shuttle stop. The other shuttle riders seemed to avoid us as long as possible - we had a certain aroma at this point (except for Alison who took a river bath at camp).
A tip from Driver John led us to Oscar’s for lunch where we surpassed all previous gluttony - collectively wiping out salads, mexican food, burgers and and biggest brownie sundae in all history. In preparation for the hiking the Subway the next day, we hit a gear store where Peter picked up some new water shedding trail shoes to replace the toe chewing canyoneers. We decided to pass on the advice of everyone to use wetsuits for the Subway as it didn’t fit with our Hardcore Mode approach to Zion. We headed back to Lava Point Campground for our last night in the park.
Everyone we had talked too said it would take 8.5 to 12 hours to complete the Subway, so we broke camp pre-dawn once again so we’d have plenty of time to get it done. With one car already left at the Left Fork Trailhead the night before, we jammed all our gear in our Jeep and left Lava Point behind for the last time. We arrived at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead nervous about soon being in cold water with the air temps close to freezing.
We finished the section of Wildcat Cat Canyon Trail with a fast pace, trying to get warmed up. Following the rest of the trail to the Subway proved a challenge and took the entire teams efforts to navigate in the dark. We lost the trail repeatedly but finally found our way to the water. A steep rock scramble down brought us to our first rappel as we had daylight finally arrive and put away our headlamps.