If you tell most people you’re going to run 49 miles they think you’re crazy. One good thing about the friends I have is that they think the crazy part was driving 10 hours both the day before and after running that far. Put it all together and everyone thinks you’re crazy while you have a long weekend adventure.
Last Thanksgiving, Mia and I took a quick trip out to Zion National Park as the last camping trip of the season. We did a little backpacking and got to experience both the East and West Rims of Zion Canyon. While I really enjoy hiking and camping, I dreamt of lacing up some running shoes to visit more of the wonderful terrain.
Pat Garcia had mentioned to me a few months ago that he was planning a trip to run the Zion Traverse in early May with a group of friends. I instantly cleared my schedule and hoped that skipping town on the weekend of finals week wouldn’t cause too much trouble. As the date neared I spent more and more time poring over maps (so many contour lines!) and checking the weather forecast (so many degrees!). Finally, on Friday at 4:45 a.m. I left my house and headed to meet with everyone for the carpool. There were six of us split into two cars driving from Boulder/Denver (Todd G, Pat G, Patrick S, Jeremiah G, Donnie H, myself) and we met up with one Flagstaff runner (Jay D) in Zion, which gave us three cars to use for shuttling ourselves around the park.
As a point-to-point run the logistics are a little tricker than for out-and-back or loop courses. We opted to run from west to east which is claimed to be the harder direction as there is a long gradual climb from mile 4 to 22 and the largest climb of the day begins at mile 38. The advantage to our direction is that you run through the sandiest section early, there’s unlimited water at the Grotto Trailhead late in the day when you want to refresh yourself, and you don’t have the nigh-imperceptible downhill (where you should be running) of Hop Valley to contend with in the heat of the day (when you just want to sit down and cry). Either way, it’s a gorgeous run, just don’t forget the number one rule of a trailcation: look behind you, you never know what views you’re missing by only heading in one direction!
The weather in the canyon was slated to be clear with temperatures reaching into the 90s and we knew that many of the springs were dry or barely running (check that before you go!) so we stashed water at Hop Valley (13 mi) and Lava Point (22 mi), adding two hours to our drive. From there we set up camp at the Watchman Campground (after a detour to plug a flat tire) and deposited my car at the East Rim Trailhead to receive us at the end of the run. After some food and beer we slipped into our sleeping bags with the sounds of some rowdy campsite neighbors to lull us to sleep.
We began stirring at 3 a.m. the next morning as everyone was super eager to get started. After coffee and food we piled into the van and arrived at Lee Pass Trailhead at 5 a.m. in the dark ready to charge down the trail. The first four miles provided a nice gentle downhill warm-up as we could only imagine what sights we were missing beyond the reach of our headlamps. An hour into the run we were just able to see the canyon walls above La Verkin Creek. The turn into Hop Valley brought a dramatic change in scenery as the bottom of the canyon flattened out and steep walls rose on either side of us. The green grass surrounding the creek provided a nice contrast with the red sandstone that was just beginning to be hit by the sun. As we ran along we tested the remarkable echo properties of the canyon walls and leapt across the meandering stream.
Two and a half hours into the run we first saw the sun with our own eyes, marking the end of the pleasant cool weather we had had through Hop Valley. We hit our first water stash and lingered just long enough to make use of the toilet and to fill our packs with water. We continued to make good time along the Connector Trail and along Wildcat Canyon. Along this section we were singing a few songs to each other, two of which in particular had good messages for the day. “Take It Easy” by The Eagles was a good theme to have so early in the day, while “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison should have let us know that the good times we were experiencing early wouldn’t last. Spoiler alert: by the end of the day we would be the ones singing a sad sad song. As predicted, the Wildcat Spring wasn’t flowing very well which made us very glad that we had placed water along the route the day before. It wasn’t long before we hit our second water stash and the high point of the day at the Lava Point Trailhead.
From here we followed the West Rim Trail towards Zion Canyon. Occasionally we would catch views of rarely-climbed peaks with inspiring names like South Guardian Angel and Point 7008. The Zion backcountry is huge and intimidating, so naturally I cannot wait to spend time off trail visiting some of the peaks we saw in the distance. This long stretch along the West Rim Trail was some of the best running of the day for us though we really started to feel the fatigue that comes from running 25 miles. When we hit the Cabin Spring at the edge of the West Rim we topped off a few bottles (which was barely possible with the hardly-dripping spring – we were glad to have a hand pump) before the big descent down to the Virgin River. As we approached the junction with the famous trail to Angel’s Landing, the gigantic fin rose above us and we could see swarms of people making their way along the airy ridge. Here our group split as four of us decided to brave the crowds and precipitous drops while the rest made their way down to the trailhead. Using scrambling muscles was a nice respite after more than seven hours of running. The downside of hitting this trail in the middle of the day is that there are hundreds of people slowly making their way along the trail with little room to pass. At least I’ve never waited in line in a prettier location. We took some quick pictures from the top before heading back down to the main trail. The few miles down to the trailhead were particularly tough despite being entirely downhill. The constant pounding on concrete (trails were built and paved to prevent erosion by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1920s) and rising temperatures were two tough punches to counter.
The spigot at the Grotto Trailhead was a welcome sight after 38 miles and we spent some time filling our packs and dousing our heads. The short road section up to the Weeping Rock Trailhead went by quickly as we were passed by some bikers and a few shuttle buses, whose occupants were likely wondering why we would run the road rather than hop in a shuttle. It was slightly tempting to take the bus down to our campsite and beer but we were on a mission. As soon as we got on the Echo Canyon Trail the real work for the day began: climbing 2000 feet up to the East Rim. We soon caught up to our friends who had abandoned us at Angel’s Landing and found that the downhill was even more brutal on them. After a few miles we were again out of reach of the crowds and were wending our way upwards through ever-varying trail conditions. The temperature remained high with only the occasional gust of wind and rare shady tree to offer relief. Upon reaching the top of the climb we knew there were roughly five gradual downhill miles to the car which sounds (and looks!) so very appealing. It was not so fun. The trail/dirt road/rock garden/sandpit had many large switchbacks which kept the grade low but made it so that in order to travel the 1 crow-flying mile to the car we had to wind our way in and out of small canyons for nearly 3.5 miles. It was an appropriately difficult finish for such a legendary trail. GPS estimates for the day varied slightly at 49-50 miles with around 10000 feet of climbing, definitely worth writing home about.
Like the amateurs we are and the rookies we think we’re not, we didn’t leave any water in my car at the trailhead, forcing us to beg for water from hikers and other runners as most of us were overcooked. As soon as a car-full of us arrived we set off for the campsite in order to initiate the long car-shuttle to retrieve the van from the start-point. I drove back up to the East Rim Trailhead to pick up the stragglers. Pretty soon we were all back at the campsite glad to be done with the day. Armed with beer we headed down to the Virgin River for a dunk and a soak of the legs before convening for food. Apparently the pizza joint thought it was strange that we would order seven pizzas (and garlic bread and mozzarella bread) for seven people, but it made sense to us and we were almost able to finish it all at dinner which left only a little bit for breakfast the next morning. After a wonderful night’s sleep (the campground hooligans had been reprimanded and were much restrained) we took off early the next morning eager to get home.
The Zion Traverse is more than another notch in the belt, it was a wonderful experience that one can’t convey in 2000 words or 16 pictures. I’m glad to have been able to enjoy it with a great group of guys made up of friends new and newer. Next time, and there will be a next time, maybe turn the temperature down a little.