Backpacking Zion National Park: Trans-Zion Trek

If you’ve ever considered hiking the Trans-Zion Trek, here’s hoping you find the information below helpful! 

We got ourselves to southern Utah with two missions: 1) run the Canyonlands Half-Marathon in Moab, and 2) explore as much of Zion National Park as our legs could handle in four days. Luckily this only took a little bit of pre-planning, which was done entirely by him while I was in another country. Going into the second part of our desert crawl, the only thing I knew is that my backpack was stuffed with some new gear and he had an ambitious adventure laid out.

The Trans-Zion Trek  (named such because there isn’t one single trail that covers the park north to south or east to west, but rather a group of connecting trails) is approximately 50 miles. Since we would need one day to snatch our backcountry permits (which allow you to set up camp), we had three days to tackle this. Per my request, the trip was modified to an abbreviated version, about 40 miles, skipping the East Rim trail and ending at The Grotto (i.e. bottom of Angel’s Landing) instead. According to our new BFFs at Zion Adventures*, this is dubbed “one of the most spectacular hikes in the world”, and I have no argument.

Trans Zion Trek Elevation Chart_Zion Adventures

Trans-Zion Trek is 48 miles – 20,400 ft elevation change – credit: ZionAdventures.com

*The ZA crew provided a lot of great information, last-minute gear needs (batteries, an extra pair of socks, etc.) and an early morning shuttle to the start of our trek. They also allow you to park your car in their Springdale lot while you’re off adventuring. Win, win!

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If you want the short version of this very lengthy recap:

  • Day 1: 9 miles: Lee Pass Trail (La Verkin Creek) + Kolob Arch + a detour to our allotted campsite on the Willis Creek Trail (#13).
  • Day 2: ~17 miles: Hop Valley Trail to Kolob Terrace Road, Connector Trail to Wildcat Canyon, ending at the West Rim Trailhead (camping in Wildcat Canyon).
  • Day 3: ~15.5 miles: West Rim Trail (detour on Telephone Canyon Trail for a slightly shorter option) to Angel’s Landing (0.8 mi roundtrip detour, but must-do!), finishing at The Grotto Shuttle Stop.

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Lee Pass Trailhead_Zion_DOTR

Monday (Day 1), 6:30 am: Shuttle departure from Zion Adventures.

7:20 am – Lee Pass Trailhead drop-off, the hiking begins! It wasn’t light out quite yet, but once we hit some sun, it was cause for a vitamin-D soak-up stop. Nothing feels better than this…

 Lee Pass Trail Sunshine_DOTR H+M

Lee Pass Trail takes you from Kolob Canyon to Hop Valley. Our camping permit was for site #13, which meant we had to trek about 2 extra miles out, on Willis Creek Trail, and backtrack the next day. Even with the extra miles, Monday was short; we took our time. We stopped for breakfast about an hour in, took a ton of photos, and got to the Hop Valley junction by noon. There’s an easy 1/2-mile side-trek up to see Kolob Arch (considered the second-largest in the world). We had lunch up there, with a view (and a ton of flies).

 Lee Pass Trail_Zion H

Kolob Arch_Zion_DOTR

Day 1, 1:00 pm: Kolob Arch box checked, we started along the Willis Creek Trail to find our home for the evening. We picked #13 on this trail instead of campsite A or B on Hop Valley, which would have taken us in the right direction of our goal, because of the creek access. Crucial! As you’ll soon read, water accessibility is a luxury here in Zion. If you start on Lee Pass, you’ll see and cross this creek many times and be all like “Omg WHY doesn’t this trail just stay on ONE SIDE?!”, but appreciate that fresh water, friends. It won’t come again easily.

Hop Valley Junction Sign_Zion_DOTR Willis Creek hopping_Zion_DOTR

By around 2:30 pm we had found our campsite and started to set-up, relax, put our feet up and enjoy the fact that our little spot in the canyon actually had great sunlight for a few hours.

Willis Creek Trail Campsite_Zion_DOTR

Day 1: ~9 miles.

Tuesday (Day 2) 5:30am: We set the alarm earlier than the sunrise because not only did we have to backtrack 2 miles, but we also had another 15 miles planned to tackle. We started with headlamps on, passed a lot of campers sleeping at sites 11 & 12, and finally saw some sunlight in the canyon by about 7:30am.

Willis Creek Trail_zion day2 Hop Valley Trail_Zion_DOTR

As soon as you start on the Hop Valley Trail (HVT) from La Verkin Creek, you begin to climb. You’ll go up, and then pretty far down, and then back up again. The miles through the Valley are beautiful and quiet; but the water is muddy and impotable. If you need to fill up, do it BEFORE you leave the Creek.

Other things to know about Hop Valley Trail:

  • There are 2 designated camping areas (neither of which have a nearby water source, but if you fill up before you hit them you’re good!).
  • There are wild turkeys.
  • The trail will cross a “creek” multiple times, but it’s very shallow, sticky and muddy. If the bottom of your boots happen to start coming loose, this may explain it (you’ll see…).
  • The views on BOTH sides are breathtaking. Don’t forget to look back a few times.
  • Some trail sections include deep dry sand – be ready to take a few boot-emptying stops.

Somewhere in the middle of this, my left boot decided it had had enough. Here’s where I remind you not to trust gear that’s 10 years old; and to bring a lot of duct-tape. We’ll get back to that.

Hop Valley_Zion_DOTR 1
That rare moment when you remember to stop and look back, the views from both sides are stunning.

Hop Valley Trail Pictures_Zion_H+M Hop Valley Trail Trees_Zion_M

We dubbed this the Tree Cemetery Trail. 

The HVT is about 6.5 miles – we stopped around 9:30am for a snack break and had only seen one other hiker on the move (and a handful up having breakfast at camp). Once you climb back out of Hop Valley, you’ll connect with Kolob Terrace Road…and….(wait for it)…A TRAILHEAD!

What do you typically find at a trailhead? Bathrooms & trashcans, yo. This is luxury.

Day 2, 12pm: ~8.5 miles in (~17 total) – Kolob Terrace Road
We stopped for lunch, an actual bathroom break, a change into shorts (me) and to drop off the trash we had accumulated thus far (adios!). Yep, I was THIS excited to have a toilet and bathroom door to close, not to mention hand-sanitizer, after just one day.

Kolob Terrace Road bathroom_zion_DOTR

Moving on…

Kolob Terrace Road – Connector Trail
From the trailhead bathroom stop, you’ll have a short dirt trail before hitting Kolob Terrace Road. Across the road is a sign for the “Connector Trail” (which you’re following); don’t assume that means it’s up the road, as we did. Assume that means it’s up the rock and follow the cairn, as we initially did not. Either way, know the trail is there and you’ll find it eventually.

Once you find it, it’s okay to stop and take a pic. Because look at those layers.

H+M_Zion Connector Trail_DOTR Connector Trail_Zion_DOTR

The Connector Trail (~4 miles) leads from Kolob Terrace Road to Wildcat Canyon. Note: there are a few water options here, but they’re scarce, and they are not your average spring or creek. Keep your eyes open!

Connector Trail Cairn_Zion_DOTR

Somewhere in between these rocks we found water and spent about 30 min filtering it. Much needed!

Connector Trail View_zion_Day2

This trail has limited shade and, as noted, water, but man is it beautiful. You hike towards a few big structures and then they’re gone.  If it’s not summer yet, you’ll definitely see a few snow patches. I love walking on snow while wearing shorts – it’s a thing.

Connector Trail_Zion snow day2

Finally, you hit the Wildcat Canyon Trail.

We had camping permits for Wildcat Canyon, and would soon find out that most of this trail is carved into the side of a plateau and, obviously, through a canyon.  Knowing that we had to finish this adventure by Wednesday afternoon, I was pretty stubborn about hitting the West Rim Trailhead before stopping for the day. He obliged. We carried on.

There is only one water source (a spring) and limited flat space.

Wildcat Canyon Water Spring_Zion_M

There’s a sign for the spring water emphasizing the need to purify, as I’m sure you can gather. We were pretty close to dry bottles, so we spent a while here gathering and filtering. Another couple caught up to us and joined the party – our first, and only, conversations with “outsiders” of the day! This would also be our last fill-up before dinner and have to keep us hydrated through the morning. Tricky, tricky. We left with fully-hydrated bottles and packs and hoped our systems + cooking would hold up.

One thing that didn’t hold up: the other boot! If you’re keeping up, I now have two broken boots kept together by tent rope and duct tape. Winning.

By around 6:00pm on Tuesday night, we finally hit the West Rim trailhead and called it a night. There were a few camping-ish options nearby, so we choose the one that seemed flat and rain-friendly (the skies weren’t looking light). The Jetboil worked its magic, we fueled up and then crawled into bed.

Day 2: 17 miles, ~26 total.

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Wednesday (Day 3) – 5:15am Alarm

We started under the stars, with warm coffee but a cold breakfast (saves a little water for drinking). Headlamps on, packs packed and energy high – we had to finish this thing up!

West Rim Trailhead Morning_Zion_DOTR

Sawmill Spring is about one mile up and a short detour (down to campsite #9 on West Rim trail), but of course worth it. Because, WATER. At this point, you stop when you see water and there’s no dispute about it.

Carrying on…

West Rim Trail Sunrise_Zion_DOTR

This is why you start early; bliss.

The West Rim Trail will deceive you by starting off nice n’ flat, on the top of a plateau. We made great progress for about 3 hours, thinking the rest of the day would be a breeze. Or maybe that was just me, but it was a nice thought for the morning…

The trail eventually splits into Telephone Canyon or (you stay on) West Rim. The former option was about half the distance and 1/10th of the views, so given our time-constraints of the day we went with that. (If you’re not on a time limit, definitely stay on the West Rim for the photo ops and trail porn.) Telephone Canyon Trail is only ~1.6 miles, but of switchbacks and muddy, snow-melting, trail. So fun.

And then you come to another junction, before you scale down the side of this canyon. Had I known those switch-backs were coming, I may have stayed in bed on Wednesday morning.

But first, let’s fix these boots for the 18th time.

West Rim Trail_boot fix_M West Rim Trail_Canyon Switchback_Zion

Day 3 – 11:00 am – As we started on this section I had a minor panic – is this trail for real?! Who did this? Where’s the railing? Why am I still walking down? When does it end?! Why are my boots so crappy?! How deep is the canyon?

I hugged the inner side of this trail like my life depended on it, which it did. He wasn’t as bothered.

West Rim Trail_Zion_M DOTR

Not even sure how my sweaty palms held onto the camera long enough to capture this.

He noted at some point that he was a little worried as to how I would manage to get up Angel’s Landing if this was getting to me. And I had no idea what he meant – it’s just a trail, right? I’ll be fine. Stay tuned.

After a LOT of down and then a LOT of up – a quick outfit change before my legs died in the fleece-lined pants I had on – and a few deep breaths, we made it to the bottom of Angel’s Landing. This felt like a HUGE milestone, because from here we have the optional climb up (0.4 mi to the top), and then only 2.5 miles until we were done! We also had finally started seeing hikers, eventually getting to the point of the trail that’s totally crowded and totally threw off our lone-hiker world that we’d been in for two days.

We stopped for lunch and were not only surrounded by at least 75 people doing the same, as we all stared ahead at Angel’s Landing and thought WHY?!, but there were also bathrooms. I didn’t even have to use it, but it’s just nice that it’s there, ya know?

Angel's Landing Trail_Zion_M

 Are you kidding me?

I spent most of our 20 minute lunch break debating what my mind would settle for. We now knew why this short 0.4 mile trail (0.8 mile roundtrip) took anywhere from 1.5-2 hours, which we had never anticipated. There are tons of people, most of the time the trail can only function with one-way traffic, and OMG THE TRAIL. I had one of two options: 1) comfortably and safely wait around while Mike did it, and spend at least 90 minutes frustrated that my fear took a victory, or 2) spend 90 minutes 100% terrified and climb it anyway.

Obviously I went with #2. We left the packs at the bottom (no way those were coming up with us), and headed out. Roundtrip, it took us about 90 minutes, about half of which I spent utterly terrified. I quietly cried a little bit, panicked a lot, but kept moving. I held onto the built-in chain for dear life, and found solace in the other hikers who seemed equally unhinged.

Eventually, I realized why everyone does this, fear or no fear:

Angel's Landing View_Zion_DOTR 2 Angel's Landing View_Zion_DOTR Angel's Landing Peak_zion_H+M

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Angel’s Landing: named because the initial Zion explorers said that “no one but angels could land here”. That’s no longer true, but once you’re there you can certainly appreciate their perception.

Angel's Landing Trailhead_Zion_H+M

Thank sweet baby Jesus that’s over.

Box checked, fear faced, heart happy and feet fatigued, we finally began our final stretch. A long 2.5 miles of downhill switchbacks, stopping at least another 5 times to fix my boots (which have totally thrown in the towel at this point) and chatting away with people who asked where we had camped, and politely made no comment as to our state of affairs.

We picked up the Zion Park Shuttle at The Grotto, back to the Visitor’s Center (if you’re doing the full trek, you continue on the East Rim Trail) . Our journey was over; and we had four-wheels to give our two feet a break. (Then you can take a free shuttle outside of the park (near the theater) to Zion Adventures. This only runs in-season, though, so check on the dates.)

Day 3: 15+ miles

(Abbreviated) Trans-Zion Trek DONE – 41 miles total

Zion National Park Map_DOTR_ZA

Our camping sites noted with the *, and ending point at the star.

Trans Zion Trek Hike Done_DOTR

—–

Any experienced backpacker will probably tell you that each hike is its own form of bliss, but this being my first real foray into the world of Trans-Trekking, I feel especially high. Nothing about this was easy, save for a few flat miles, but everything about it was enjoyable. We didn’t have a bad day, much less a bad hour. We only had a few scares of water availability, but otherwise everything went smoothly. We took this adventure as it came to us, not knowing if it would happen until the 11th hour, and we soaked up every minute of it.

We’re coming back for you, Zion – there are still corners, trails and subways to explore! In the meantime, we thank you for your hospitality. And your proximity to restaurants that serve up a perfect post-hike feast!

Oscars Zion Meal_DOTR

Oscars_Cheers_zion

Cheers!

Comments

  1. April 1, 2015

    I really enjoyed this post and the photos; your day to day descriptions are wonderful. Cheers to Utah!!

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