One of my girlfriends and I have an annual tradition to take at least one backpacking trip together each year. We’ve been along the California coastline together, swam below the waterfalls of Havasu together, and learned to use ice axes in the late spring snowmelt of Olympic National Park. She’d never been to Utah, so in early March she came out to visit and we headed down south to hike the length of Zion National Park.
Zion is the third most-visited National Park, after Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon, and if you’ve ever been there you probably know how insanely busy it can get. The park sees so many visitors during the high season that for the last several years they’ve banned personal vehicles and instead used a bus system to shuttle visitors up and down the canyon. (During these months you can still ride your bike up the canyon—which I highly recommend!) When you’re one of just many thousands of visitors on any given day the shuttles are a relief. But what’s even more of a relief is to get away from the tour buses and the crowds and the busy trails and into the wilderness: the Zion backcountry.
A big snowstorm had left a coating of fresh snow throughout parts of southern Utah, and we’d been keeping tabs on the forecast to ensure we’d be adequately prepared—the forecast was looking to be well below freezing every night. Thoughts of bailing on the trip crossed my mind a few times. But daytime temps looked comfortable, even perfect for hiking, and after much consideration we decided to go for it. We packed extra layers, hand warmers, and micro spikes to get us over icy spots. And then we set off.
We began in the late afternoon, the snow quickly melting in the sunshine and leaving thick mud in it’s wake. We’d started at the west end of the park and taken a well-traveled trail to a popular arch to get to our first night’s camp, so we saw a few day hikers along the way. But by the time we reached camp the day hikers had gone and we had the place to ourselves, just two gals admiring the work of wind and water that carved out these canyon walls.
Day two was when we had the most solitude. We climbed out of Kolob Canyon and into Hop Valley, criss-crossing over the creek, hoping the thin coating of ice would hold under our feet. It didn’t of course, but the dry Utah air quickly dried our shoes. Up and up we climbed, gradually entering a Ponderosa forest and stopping here and there to watch mule deer, examine tracks in the snow, or to just enjoy the views. Down into Wildcat Canyon we encountered endless snow, and while it didn’t require snowshoes it wasn’t easy walking. With tired, achey feet, we barely made it to camp before dark, pitched our tent, and quickly got to work melting snow for drinking and dinner. We saw exactly two other people that day.
The walls of Zion Canyon rise over 2,000 feet from the base, and while most people only see it from the bottom, a fair amount of visitors will make the trek up to the rim and see it from a different perspective. On our third day out, we approached the rim’s edge and finally got our first big views of the colorful and varied terrain before us. We took our time, stopping every few miles for photos and snacks, knowing that the quicker we moved the quicker we’d encounter hordes of people in the busiest part of the park. At the junction to Angel’s Landing the trail became a paved highway and it was all we could do to run downhill, descending from the west rim, eager to climb back up the east.
The east rim is quieter than the west. The trails are less crowded and the views are worth every grueling step. There the trails aren’t built, they just exist on top of undulating slick rock, with piles of cairns showing the way. Flat spots for tents aren’t easy to come by in terrain like this so we jumped at the first one we saw, which happened to also have a gorgeous view. Another big day behind us, we celebrated our last night out with our favorite backpacking meal (macaroni and cheese), and watched the sun set behind the canyon walls.
I didn’t sleep through a single night that trip. I had a warm sleeping bag, a silk liner, and a few layers of wool and fleece, but the cold still woke me every night. (Except on the third night when it was a balmy 20-something degrees, and I instead woke to the distant call of a mountain lion.) But the cold was what made the trip so special, and gave us the most solitude. We traversed the length of the Zion backcountry, and saw parts of the park that most people will never venture to. Shoving my feet into frozen shoes and melting snow in my stove was just the price of admission for a very different kind of National Parks experience.