Monday, May 12, 2014

Zion Traverse

The Zion Traverse covers nearly 50 miles of trails, cutting completely across Zion National Park.  David and I got up at 4:30am this past Saturday morning and drove from our hotel in Springdale to the East Rim Trailhead, a remote dirt parking lot on the Eastern edge of the Park.  There we met Amanda, our hired driver, who drove us 80 minutes, back through Springdale, and around to Lee Pass, another remote outpost, this one on the Western edge of the Park.  We turned on our watches and set off at a comfortable pace, down the La Verkin Creek Trail, at 7:10 a.m. on Saturday morning.
The view from Lee Pass
The La Verkin Creek Trail heads South along Timber Creek, a quiet little stream, with several crossings back and forth.  After about three miles, the Trail takes a 90 degree turn to the East, joining up with La Verkin Creek proper, a much larger body of water, shortly thereafter.

Me on La Verkin Creek Trail
La Verkin Creek in the background
David at Mile 5
At Mile 6.9, we took a brief detour up a small river valley to see the Kolob Arch.  The trail to the Arch is reasonably well marked, and follows the course of a small creek (my mile references from here on ignore the extra mile we covered).  

Kolob Arch
0.5 Mile Detour from La Verkin Creek Trail
We turned back to the South at Mile 7.2, down the Hop Valley Trail.  Hop Valley is flat, with sheer walls most of the way.  The creek meanders back and forth across the sandy valley floor, forcing us to cross repeatedly and to lose the trail more than once.  It is impossible to get meaningfully lost, however, as there are only two directions one can go, given the steep walls on each side.   

Hop Valley

Hop Valley
The creek crossings got wider and wider, and eventually we had to give up and got our feet wet.  The water was quite shallow, however, so only our shoes got wet.  At Mile 13.6, we reached the Hop Valley Trailhead, yet another remote dirt parking lot.  The day before, we hid a couple of water bottles under some leaves next to a tree.  We filled up, then ran East along the Connector Trail which changes names to the Wildcat Canyon Trail at about 17 miles.  

Hop Valley Trailhead

Water is a major challenge on the Zion Traverse.  There is just one faucet, at The Grotto at Mile 36.7.  There are a few places, such as Hop Valley, where one can stash water as we did, as well as several springs of varying reliability.  The photo below is a spring where will filled our packs, at Mile 19.7, on the Wildcat Canyon Trail .  We used water purification tablets, so we had to wait 30 minutes before we could drink.  

Spring on Wildcat Canyon Trail, Mile 19.7

Around Mile 22, we encountered two ultra runners, women from Salt Lake City, whom we had met at dinner the night before.  The were running the Traverse in the opposite direction, from the East Rim Trailhead to Lee Pass.

At Mile 22.5 we turned South again, onto the West Rim Trail, which crosses the Horse Pasture Plateau.  A few miles later we came to the actual West Rim, with spectacular views off the right hand side.
West Rim Trial
Despite our cautious pace, I felt a bit weak right from the start.  Around Mile 25 I began urging David to go on ahead.  Initially, he was reluctant to separate, and hinted that perhaps we should drop out at the Grotto.  I was my usual stubborn self and told him I wanted to slog it out.  Finally, around Mile 30, he agreed to go on ahead and be sure to finish before dark.  We separated right where the West Rim Trail and the Telephone Canyon separate (we both stayed on the former).

View from West Rim Trail
Around Mile 34, the West Rim Trail begins to dive down into Zion Canyon, towards Angel's Landing and ultimately The Grotto.  This is a particularly beautiful portion of the course, but the steep descent - the first and only meaningful descent of the day - was extremely difficult on me.  

I was wiped out by the time I reached The Grotto at mile 36.7.   But, I got a little treat: a tom turkey putting on a display dance right in the middle of the road, in front of all the tourists.  Perhaps he has learned that the tourists will feed him if he puts on a display!

It was dusk in Zion Canyon when I left reached the Grotto and began walking the mile up the road to the East Rim Trailhead, toward the first and only big climb of the day.  The sign says that the East Entrance is ten miles away, and that the climb is 2,100 feet.  The steep climb meant that I was back in direct sunlight within a few minutes.

I first started to get scared around Mile 42 or so.  The trail had leveled off, but was passing through an area where the ground is solid rock, and thus no trail per se.  Instead, there are little piles of stones every 30 yards of so directing hikers along the route.  This works just fine in the daylight, but not at night.  I had my headlamp in my camelback, but I doubted that a headlamp would work under those circumstances.

But the trail soon became more distinct -- and started to climb again.  At about Mile 43 I was climbing a steep section as it was getting dark.  For the first time, it occurred to me that I might be stuck overnight.  I had the trashbag jacket that Kim gave me, and was pretty sure I would be warm enough.  I had plenty of food, and some water, but did not relish the idea of creating a fuss - and scaring the daylights out of David and my other friends -- by failing to show up.  

Fortunately, it turns out I was just 400 meters or so from the top of the climb.  I finally reached the mesa, and knew that I would make it home.  It did start to get truly dark, however, and that made the going even slower.  And, a thunderstorm rolled in, pelting me with heavy rain drops for a few minutes, then turning into a spectacular lightening show.

I made it back to the car at Lee Pass just before 10:00 pm.  Two park rangers were scouring the parking lot for lost souls, and gave me a concerned look.  They were happy to see that my car -- and David -- were waiting for me.

Logistics for those who want to do the Traverse:

The first big question is which direction to run.  My sense is that they are fairly close in terms of difficulty.  Lee Pass is 400 feet lower than the East Rim Trailhead, a trivial difference for a course that has about 7,000 of climbing.  Personally, I'd say that starting at Lee Pass is easier because you reach the big descent and climb earlier in the day.

Ideally, it is best to run in two groups, with one starting at each side. You can then exchange keys when you meet near the middle of the run. This saves you at least 80 minutes transportation time between the two 

Water is a major challenge.  The Grotto, in Zion Canyon, is the only location with a faucet.  Call the ranger and ask which springs are running just prior to embarking on your trip.   Take water purification tablets with you for use on spring water.

Assume that you will be stuck overnight.  Bring a jacket and a light. There are people camping at various sites throughout the Park, so you will be ok if happens.  Tell people where you are going, and do not expect any cell phone coverage (although David got some at Lee Pass and I heard there might be some above Angel's Landing).

I highly recommend the National Geographic Zion National Park topographical map, which covers the entire course and shows all of the trails mentioned here, as well as most or all of the springs.  

Also, read Andrew Skurka's blog, which contains good information as well as a printable list of water sources along the way, with mile markers from each starting point.