The Zion Traverse: A bucket-list backpacking trip through Zion National Park

This trip report summarizes my experience completing the Zion Traverse, an increasingly-popular 50-mile backpacking route through one of Utah’s most famous national parks. I hiked from April 18-19, 2019, and was blessed with plentiful springwater due to the high snow fall this past winter. Disclaimer: I hiked 37 miles of the route, from Lee Pass to Zion Canyon, as the East Rim Trail section of the route was closed for maintenance. The information below will be useful to anyone considering the Zion Traverse, as it details water sources and terrain information for the lesser traveled, more remote sections of the route.

Entering Zion Wilderness
When I told my friends in Escalante, Utah, that I did the Zion Traverse, their initial reaction was, “Ugh, Zion, too clogged with tourists.” That is true in the main canyon, but that’s only a few miles of the traverse (and if you hit it at dawn, you can avoid the tourist trap). I encountered a few people on my way to Kolob Arch; after that I did not encounter another human until I reached Zion Canyon. Those who do the traverse after April may encounter more people as more trails/roads open.

Recommended starting point: I hiked the Zion Traverse from North to South, starting at Lee Pass Trailhead off of Kolob Canyons Road, and finishing at the Grotto in Zion Canyon. This is the most popular direction to go, as it requires less uphill travel and allows for a grande finale in the most famous part of the park.

Overnight camping permits are required in Zion National Park; you can reserve in advance or try to get a same- or next-day permit from the Zion Visitors Center. Having only heard about the Zion Traverse two days prior, I waited in line for the Wilderness Permit desk to open (8-12 am daily) the morning of my traverse, and obtained a permit for “camping at large” in the Wildcat Canyon area (I had a few other sites to choose from, too!).

Getting a ride to Lee Pass: I then packed up my bag, parked my car at the Visitor’s Center, and walked (actually hitched, because I was late) the mile or two out of the park to Zion Adventures, where my shuttle driver Ricki was waiting for me. It only cost me $40 to catch their 11 am group shuttle to Lee Pass, a 50-minute drive from Springdale. The female staff I spoke with at Zion Adventures were considerably more supportive of my trip plan than the grumpy park rangers, and went out of their way to provide what knowledge they could about trail conditions. I would use these guys again.

My Day One: Kolob Canyons/La Verkin Creek, Hop Valley, Wildcat Canyon Trail (about 22 miles)

La Verkin Creek Trail
The first 6.4 miles on the La Verkin Creek Trail were some of my favorite of the entire traverse. Mountains and mesas on all sides, a lush flowing creek, and slightly downhill.

Lee Pass Trailhead to Kolob Arch Trail: 6.7 miles via La Verkin Creek Trail. Easy downhill/flat miles, an explosion of flora and fauna, and tons of water the entire way (note: this was true on April 18, 2019 — a high meltwater year — last year was a drought).

Kolob Arch spur trail: 1.2 mile round-trip. A must-do, the first major destination on the traverse.

Kolob Arch
The 0.6-mile spur trail to Kolob Arch is a must-do and is the first major destination on the traverse. I dropped my pack at the junction (tip: bring water, food, and emergency stuff), and hiked all the way up until I saw the arch. Fortunately, I decided to hike up a little further to get a better view, and was rewarded with a picturesque waterfall cascading down the entire length of the arch. The surprise waterfall sighting literally took my breath away.

Beatty Springs to Wildcat Canyon Trail: 10.6 miles via Hop Valley Trail and Connector Trail. There is water along the Hop Valley Trail, but it’s shallow and runs through a major cattle grazing area. Per the advice of some kind gentlemen I ran into after Kolob Arch, I filled up 5 liters of water at Beatty Spring before entering Hop Valley, and was very glad I did so.

Hop Valley Trail
The Hop Valley Trail is a scenic slog with what felt like 60 crossings through a tiny cow-patty-littered river. Prepare to get your feet wet and just enjoy the surrounding cliffs and mesas. The trail is very easy to follow.
Hop Valley Trail Gate
Thank goodness I filled up 4-5 liters of water at Beatty Spring. After I entered Hop Valley, there is no good water for 10-15 miles, and about 70% of the trail is in direct sun.
View from the under-the-rim trail that looks into Wildcat Canyon.
A ramen bomb dinner and some yoga at Kolob Terrace Trailhead (has trash can and toilet!) fueled me up for a sunset hike along the Connector Trail. I was joined by a family of 7+ deer who played hide-and-seek with me throughout this lovely 4-mile section.

Wildcat Canyon Trail: 4.8 miles. Yes there are wildcats here, but you’re more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the trailhead than to get eaten by a mountain lion. Or so I told myself as I hiked this section. This trail does not go through the canyon; it stays high, to the west of the canyon. I encountered my first patch of snow at the Northern Peaks Trail junction, just after the trail begins. Fill up enough water at Wildcat Spring to last you all the way to Potato Hollow Spring.

Moonlight hike to Wildcat Canyon
Call me crazy, but in an effort to avoid the “5 miles of post-holing through waist-deep snow” (quote from a Zion park ranger) on either side of Lava Point, I busted out a few more miles along the Wildcat Canyon Trail while the snow was cold and hard. This section had tons of water crossings and messy snow (although it was no more than shin-deep), and in the dark it was hard to follow the trail. I used my Gaia GPS a few times to adjust my location. The almost-full moonlight helped to guide my way. Finally collapsed onto my (super-comfy Neo-Air) sleeping pad at 11 pm and did not crack an eyelid until 7 am.

My Day Two: Lava Point to Zion Canyon/The Grotto via the West Rim Trail (about 15 miles)

Lava Point to West Rim Spring: 9.7 miles via West Rim Trail. I encountered a solid snowpack for a little less than a mile on either side of Lava Point. By the time I passed the Sawmill Spring spur, the snow had melted into large but shallow patches that continued throughout Horse Pasture Plateau. The road to Lava Point was still closed from snow as of 4/18/2019.

Zion traverse snow
Thankfully the rangers were quite wrong. The snow was NOT waist-deep, and this scenic section from Lava Point to the West Rim was far from miserable. I hit most of it in the early morning, while it was still hard-packed and cold. I did not post-hole once (granted, I’m only 105 pounds). I did not bring or need any traction devices (I was told to bring snowshoes!) and wore mesh trail runners the entire way. Tip: Leave the waterproof boots at home — they retain water, and I’ve learned they are generally not a good choice for canyon country.
Mountain Lion print
Didn’t see any horses on Horse Pasture Plateau…maybe the mountain lions ate them all.
Bear print
I guess bears are a thing here too…
View into Wildcat Canypn
After the snowy section, I was rewarded with a fabulous view of Wildcat Canyon and the approach trail I had hiked the night before (off to the right). This idyllic lunch spot is located about a mile before Potato Springs, parallel to the junction of Left Fork North and Blue Creeks.
Inversion Tree
Had to take advantage of this natural inversion table. Spent a solid 15 minutes realigning my spine (and my mind!) here.

The trail gets muddy for about a mile on either side of Potato Hollow. I stopped to refill water at Potato Hollow Spring (this time, I only needed enough to last the four miles to West Rim Spring). I sought refuge from the sun under a huge shady tree in the middle of a meadow. From there I rested, ate lunch, and watched the rushing stream empty into a small pond.

I don’t know anything about the Telephone Canyon alternate route just before West Rim Spring, but it sounds like a cool option (literally — it ain’t too shady on the West Rim).

Two and a half sisters
“Two-and-a-half sisters” (at least that’s what I’m calling this mile-marker). Note the ultralight pack – base weight less than 10 pounds (just brought a bivy, no tent, because the forecast was 0% chance of rain and low winds).

West Rim Spring to Zion Canyon/Angels Landing/the Grotto: 4.5 miles via West Rim Trail. A lot has been documented about this section in the past, so I will not focus on it in this trip report. Needless to say, this section is chock-full of geologic wonders, logic-defying rock formations, and a rainbow of wildflowers, birds, lizards, and shrubs. I did not spend nearly enough time here as I was hungry and had a commitment in Escalante that evening. I can’t wait to return for more exploring.

West Rim Trail
Purple Zion milkvetch (?) wildflowers, red Indian paintbrushes, and hanging gardens lined the West Rim Trail as I descended into Zion Canyon.
So many colors on one rock!
Angels landing descent
Passing on the left! The paved switchback trail from Angel’s Landing to the Grotto was great for nature- and people-watching!
Finishing Zion Traverse
Finished! I completed my traverse in 28 hours, sleeping one night in Wildcat Canyon area. I would recommend doing this trip in at 2-3 nights if you have time, especially once the Narrows and the East Rim re-open. This hike is too special to rush through. I will be back.
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