Friday, May 22, 2015

Zion Traverse

When Brandon asked if I wanted to run 48 miles across Zion National Park it took about one second for me to respond with a firm “Yes.” I’d heard of the Zion Traverse but had no idea it was such an epic run. It’s not as talked-about as the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, but it allows you to see the entire park from east to west in a day. There are all sorts of pros and cons for choosing a particular direction but in general it probably doesn’t matter. We opted to get the climbing out of the way early and start running at the East Rim.

From a weather standpoint, we were expecting highs in the 90’s - it’s May in southern Utah, after all. We were instead treated to partly cloudy skies and a high barely pushing 70. It was by all accounts the best weather we could have had.

 The East Rim, just after the "rock test".

The sandy East Rim Trail climbs gently through the cedar trees, succulents, and grasses, occasionally passing a dry creek bed. It’s a strange part of the park – the canyons are shallow and snake their way around, so you’re only ever able to see so far. Eric’s metatarsals had been a problem in the weeks before the run and we pulled ahead of him on this section so that he could at least enjoy the sunrise over the canyon without killing his feet.

Starting the descent into the main canyon.


 The main canyon in the distance.

As you climb up and over the canyon rim the landscape rapidly shifts to alpine forest and hummocky scrubland. The hollows were shrouded in an icy mist that sparkled in the dawn light peering out over the pines. Steeply-sloped red rock cliffs filtered into view through the trees as we snaked along the rim of a massive canyon, the curvy sandstone strata forming shelves for scrub and gnarled pine trees. The initial descent here was rapid and extremely technical. When we reached the bottom we snaked through the looping rock shelves and trickling streams.

The slot canyon on the East Rim. I ruin my own pictures.
After running through a slot canyon and riverbed we stumbled into view of the main canyon, with Angel’s Landing and craggy rock walls towering over us. The amount of time it took to run down this steep canyon trail made clear the amount of effort it was going to take to get back out on the other side. After a short run on the park road to the Grotto, where we refilled water, we connected with the trail up to the top of Angel’s Landing.


 The main canyon.

Paved trails make knees sad.

At this point the crowds were starting to arrive, and we had to dance around people over the next two miles up what is likely the most popular trail in a park that pulls in 2.1 million visitors per year. After reaching the overlook we turned west and continued climbing up and over Angel’s Landing to the behemoth mesas above. The rocks became more misshapen and we found ourselves in a sort of meta-canyon atop the mesas above the canyon. When we finally topped out on the West Rim we had climbed well over 3,000 feet above the main canyon floor. 

 Past Angel's Landing and still climbing.

 Almost to the top...

 The West Rim summit. The main canyon is barely in view, somewhere to the right and around the corner.

The West Rim is an alien landscape. The views fade quickly and you find yourself running through grassy meadows sheltered by rolling hills, the so-called "Potato Hollow" - I guess because its oblong shape makes you think a giant potato left the indentation in the hills? A mileage sign read “Lava Point: 4 miles”, so rather than detouring to find a spring or water source, we pushed on to meet our one-man aid station at Lava Point. This would turn out to be a mistake, as the actual distance was almost 8 miles. The last 3 miles to Lava Point are exposed ridgelines with little reprieve from the relentless sun and wind, and we found ourselves without water nearly an hour before our rendezvous with Chris at 25 miles. 

 Peering out over Hop Valley.



So of course our mile 25 aid station turned into a massive feast. I slammed an IPA and an obscene amount of solid food while Brandon tended to his blisters. We made really good time on the gently-sloping descent through Wildcat Canyon and into Hop Valley. Running this direction gives you an amazing view of the valley and its contrasting lush green trees, sandy scrubland, and red rock spires. As we descended the temperature started to climb, and when we met Chris again at 35 miles it was baking.

 Looking back east over Hop Valley to the main canyon mesas in the distance.

Brad’s IT-band started to flare up but we pressed on after more refueling. The first couple of miles after the Hop Valley trailhead are desert: very dry, sandy trails that arrest any forward progress. We accepted a slower pace and shuffled along under the blinding sun, catching the occasional glimpse of a lizard or beetle.

 Heading deeper into Hop Valley. The far canyon wall is our target. For perspective, it's probably about 2000 feet tall.

 Paying respect to the lone tree on the bottom. We think he's survived more than a few flash floods in his time.

Soon the trail dips into trees and slopes downward to the river valley below. The river in Hop Valley is perhaps the most well-kept secret in Zion and the most beautiful area in the park. The river itself is barely an inch or two deep and maybe ten feet wide, and it meanders gently through the greenest valley carpeted with grass, pine, and dogwood. We saw white frogs leaping through patches of swampy grass and aquatic plants. It’s truly an oasis.

 Running the canyon walls.


Watch where you step!

Almost at that far canyon wall...

As we ran down the valley the walls deepened and the river widened, its sandy banks growing steeper. We picked up the trail as it wound its way up and over a small, rocky ridge to the smoky-blue La Verkin River, its dark red banks shaded by mesquite and dogwood. The trail ran along its shore for a couple of miles until abruptly turning north and beginning the relentless climb to Lee Pass. At this point the sun had settled behind the hillside enclosing Zion’s borders. 

 The walls near Lee Pass.

After far too many river crossings, steep embankments, and downed trees, we caught a glimpse of a road, and then a culvert, and then a parking lot. The last few miles going this direction are painful but I think they build some character. You know you're getting close but you can't really guess how much you have left. All you can do is watch canyon after canyon pass by to the east.

The Zion Traverse is incredible. You will see parts of the park that almost no one does, and Hop Valley and the La Verkin River are sorely underrated. I think finishing with those river valleys, despite the uphill at the end, makes the entire trip worth it.

I’m proud of everyone else that ran this, because to show up to such an undertaking with an injury and gut it out as long as you could, or to hang on when you get injured and have to slog it in, takes enormous will and dedication. It was inspiring to be out there with Eric, Brandon, and Brad, and Chris is a life-saver.