Traversing Zion

The Zion Traverse at Zion National Park in Utah is a route often described as a moderately difficult 3 to 5 day backpacking trip between the Northwest and Southeast corners of the park, covering approximately 47-50 miles, depending on who you ask, and over 20,000 feet of cumulative elevation change. While the scenery in the areas frequented by the shuttle bus is outstanding in its own right, the Zion backcountry is something to behold. It’s difficult to put into words; even a photos fail to capture just how expansive the views are. Our visit was planned around running (more of a fastpack as it worked out) the Traverse in a single day; I can say without doubt it was the one of the most difficult and certainly the most beautiful challenge I had ever faced.

The Particulars

Destination: Zion National Park
Trail Head: Lee Pass or East Rim Trail depending on direction of travel
Distance: 48.3 miles one way, ~10,000 ft gained, 10,400 lost (Eastbound) (avg 422 ft delta / mile)
Remoteness: Very few hikers except a few miles either side of The Grotto
Motivation: Incredible views of desert canyons, plateaus, and rock formations
Notes: Get a good mapset, know your water sources, double check with the Rangers prior to heading out
Notes for Runners: Kolob Terrace Road (mile ~14) and near Lava Point (mile ~23) are good locations to cache water.
Notes for Campers: The best views are along the West Rim Trail which has also multiple campsites if you plan to overnight it.

Elevation Profile - Eastbound

Elevation Profile – Eastbound

The Report from Our Trip :: Apr 5, 2014

Sometime around 7:00 PM in Vegas I got the call that my ride was at the curb. The car? The smallest possible compact Toyota, just stuffed full of running and camping gear, and John and Art. I squeezed into the back, a quick handshake, and off we went! It has been a year since we’d seen eachother and last run at Joshua Tree together, but after a late night truck stop visit for breakfast burritos we’d just about caught up and we anxious to get underway for this year’s Spring Run. We mashed out and accelerated to 85mph over the course of about… 10 minutes. The speed limits out there are great but seemed to tax the Yota’s capabilities. Its struggle would foreshadow my own before this year’s trip was over.

Breakfast Burritos for Dinner
Breakfast Burritos for Dinner

At about 11:00 PM we rolled into Watchman Camp to find Craig and Adan waiting for us and holdin down the camp site. Originally we had planned to run together, but somehow these two decided surfing and spearfishing were more fun than training to run all day through high desert. Some people! They decided on exploring a few canyons instead, and had brought climbing gear in lieu of running shoes and tights. They were definitely gonna look hauter than us. I haven’t done any canyoneering in a while and it sounded like a lot of fun until they busted out the wetsuits and reminded us about the 40ΒΊ water and near freezing air temps. Ah who am I kidding, it still sounded like a lot of fun!

Who Brings Climbing Gear to a Run?? :)
Who Brings Climbing Gear to a Run?? πŸ™‚

Those two rascals set out the next day for their first canyon (Craig’s report>> Sweeping The Garden; Zion Canyons) the rest of us took off to scope the start of the run, stash some water, and leave a car at the finish. When we returned to camp our final runner, Greg, had made his way in from Pennsylvania and got himself setup. We had our little tent village in the midst of all the RV’s. The excitement of the run built as we discussed the route, gear, nutrition, and the plan for the big day ahead. After getting our running packs loaded out, we set our alarms and tried to get some sleep.

4:00 AM came early. It always does. At least the wind had died down and the temperature was hovering somewhere above freezing – a little warmer than the last couple of mornings. Craig was nice enough to shuttle us all to the start at Lee Pass. We had decided to do this as an Eastbound run for a few reasons…

  1. Originally we had a larger group of runners interested, some not sure if they’d go the full distance. The Grotto would be about 36 miles in and would provide a drop out option with a free shuttle back to camp. We had no support crew, so this was actually a potential benefit for everyone.
  2. Logistically, it was a little easier for us with the end being close to camp.
  3. We didn’t want to be running in the dark while hitting some of the classic park scenery!

By 5:15 AM the four of us stood at Lee Pass in the cold dark. The culmination of our idea almost six months in the making was here. Completely stoked and completely unsure how this was going to play out, I took my first steps onto the trail and fell in behind Greg, John, and Art. Our headlamps lit the trail ahead, while all around us nothing but quiet black, the stars bright above.

The Zion Quartet
The Zion Quartet
Getting Underway
Getting Underway

La Verkin Creek (miles 0 ~ 8.3) – The beginning of the run was a gradual descent with a few small climbs. The trail surface was mostly compact soil and easy running. Areas of loose sand were around but didn’t carry on for extended periods of time. We hopped over several small drainages that crossed the trail and emptied into the creek below us. There is plenty of water in the first ~6.5 miles, but after that nothing until mile 14 where we had a cache waiting for us. La Verkin creek becomes very silty and I decided on stopping at a clear running drainage to filter some water around 6 miles in. The sun was up and things were looking good. After crossing the creek there is a fairly steep climb which eventually peaks out then descends into Hop Valley.

John and Greg
John and Greg
Heading into Hop Valley
Heading into Hop Valley

Hop Valley & Kolob Terrace (miles 8.3 ~ 14.1) – Hop Valley opened up before us and provided the first really inspiring sights. A wide valley with a sandy bottom flanked by sky high red and orange rocks on both sides. A wide, shallow creek ran along the valley floor and pines blanked the far side. The valley in general is a cattle-grazed area, and even though our portal into it showed no signs of this we all agreed in advance to stay away from the water there. As we ran along we must have crossed that creek more than a dozen times. Wet feet and sugar fine sand were rough on the guys who had more open mesh shoes. I didn’t have any problems however with my Salomon Sense Mantra’s. Eventually we saw signs of cattle including some really mucky, sloppy sections of trail before we climbed out and before heading down again toward Kolob Terrace where we cached water the day before.

A Fine Piece of Runner Trash in Hop Valley
A Fine Piece of Runner Trash in Hop Valley

Connector Trail & Wildcat Canyon (miles 14.1 ~ 22.5) – The Connector Trail is marked as “faint” on Andrew Skurka’s mapset, though it wasn’t difficult for us to find once crossing Kolob Terrace road. The going through this section was fairly easy and the views begin to show hints of what’s to come. The trail surface turns to sandstone after a while and following it requires spotting a few cairns, or just keeping the canyon to your right, generally staying the course. It would turn out that this section of trail was much more intuitive and easy to follow that a latter section in the final stretch – it probably has a lot to do with which direction you’re moving. The views of Wildcat Canyon were quite amazing and required slowing down a little to take in. At some point the temperature took a noticeable drop and soon we found ourselves running through a snow flurry. The skies had looked ominous all day long, but this was the first precip we’d experienced. As far as I was concerned it just added to the fun. In contrast I was quite concerned about my water which was all but run out. Relying on only 2x 20oz bottles was a stretch in some of the sections. Finally the small spring appeared so we collectively stopped to dip in.

Running Along the Connector Trail
Running Along the Connector Trail
Mesmerized by the Landscape
Mesmerized by the Landscape
First Views of Wildcat Canyon
First Views of Wildcat Canyon

West Rim Trail & The Grotto (miles 22.5 ~ 36.7) – Despite being 23 miles into this run I was feeling pretty good, although my head was strangely tired… maybe from staying up waay too late those previous nights. Yeah probably that. We were off of our 14 hour projected finish by at least an hour I figured. That didn’t matter so much. Mainly I was thrilled that neither my right arch or my right calf had become a problem on the run as I had minor issues with both earlier in the year. Before any of that could become a real worry, the scenery suddenly opened into a mind blowing view of forested plateaus rising above the canyons in white, orange, and red hues. Jagged peaks of all colors surrounded them. In the distance clouds swept over more striking scenery with the occasional grey-fingered virga reaching down from above. I was wide awake again! The more I tried to run though, the more I wanted to stop and take it in, which is ultimately what I did. I strolled for a short bit in complete awe, snapping a few photos. This is the stuff that the tourists and day hikers don’t get to see, this is the backcountry of Zion and it’s simply unreal!

Incredible West Rim Trail Views
Incredible West Rim Trail Views

As I eventually got over the shock of what I was experiencing I started to pick up my run pace again when I felt a sharp twinge on the inside of my right knee. This was around mile 30 and was concerning. After running a couple of miles it only became worse. By the time I reached the springs to refill my water at mile 32 I was convinced I’d have to drop at the Grotto and was feeling very down. On top of that, I realized that we were now looking at a 16 hour finish; the prospect of being out for several more hours on a problematic knee was hard to reconcile, then again so was dropping after coming most of the way. I cruised along downhill with Art at an easy pace until we eventually met up with Greg again. John had sprinted down already. I picked up my pace a little and ran with Greg to see how the steeper downhill felt before we bottomed out at the Grotto. Between Art and Greg talking me through various scenarios, and just reaching the bottom in one piece, I felt like I needed to see it through to the finish.

View from the Grotto
View from the Grotto

East Rim Trail to the East Entrance (miles 36.7 ~ 48.3) – Before leaving the Grotto I swallowed some Ibuprofen and taped up my knee with some KT tape which I’d stashed in my pack “just in case”. I finally took out the Black Diamond Z Poles that I’d been carrying on my back all day and pulled myself together. The scenery in the Grotto wasn’t so bad either; I used anything I could to get pumped up again and with that we power hiked up the switchbacks out of the Grotto and toward Echo Canyon which eventually leads to the East Rim trail. The views here are nice too! Running through the canyons with rock all around is an awesome experience. Greg had run ahead by this point; I hung back with Art and John. My knee was not really up for much more running and we still had some serious elevation gain ahead. We took it easy and were making good progress… until we lost the trail. About 20 minutes before dark we were searching for signs of it with none to be found. There was a trail clearly below us, but it hadn’t been traveled on much, and Greg’s tracks were nowhere to be seen. After getting the map and compass out we realized we needed to backtrack, then make a sharp turn north and walk uphill… and there it was – a very faint path making its way up and out of the canyon. If we had reached this point after dark we may have been looking much longer or even bivying out there for the night. Let that be a warning to anyone taking the Eastbound route as Skurka’s notes don’t reflect this! (probably because it’s not an issue when travelling the opposite direction) Being coherent at this point is critical less you may end up somewhere you don’t want to be. The sunset was beautiful but I found myself too tired and mostly focused on finishing to take any more photos. We donned headlamps again and power hiked / jogged out the last 2 hours after dark. The last 10 miles had been the toughest part of the trail, some of it not very runnable, but by then I was fairly spent and ran very little of it anyway. The temperatures had dipped back down to around freezing and it was a relief to finally see Greg’s headlamp just ahead; the finish was in sight. He had reached the end about 40 minutes before us despite “having to not go all out” since he was doing a little hike from Badwater to Whitney Portal starting the next day!! Oiy…

Art and John Heading into Echo Canyon
Art and John Heading into Echo Canyon

Well, it was a long day on the trails, but at the end of the day it’s what I got. Was the route tough? I’ll put it like this – I was the only runner present who had not completed the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, and the others all agreed that this was clearly the harder of the two routes (I have run the R2R2R now, and I’d tend to agree). Yeah, it was tough. No question about it. Was it worth it? Damn right it was!

What Worked and What Didn’t

My training for this was a miserable failure! Ha! I just didn’t have the time to train properly. I knew going into it I would be an underdog to finish. Of course my knee didn’t work out so well either. I’m not sure exactly what I did to it just yet. Gear wise I managed pretty well but had a couple little mishaps with my fairly new Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin running vest. I’d like to contact UD to see what they’ll do about it before I post specifics. My Salomon Sense Mantra’s turned out to be a great choice of shoe for me. They were excellent at keeping out all the fine sand while allowing my feet to still breath enough and also providing just enough protection from the rocky parts of the trail. Everything else worked as I had hoped.

My Gear and Clothing Used

Running Pack/Vest – Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin (version 2)
Hydration – 2L bladder, 20oz (2x) bottles up front
Shoes – Salomon Sense Mantra
Socks – Injini lightweight runners
Gaiters – Dirty Girl
Tights – 2XU Thermal Tights (worn all day)
Shorts – Solomon running shorts (worn over tights ghetto style!)
Shirt – Smartwool merino tee shirt
LS Shirt – Synthetic Brooks quarter zip
Hat – OR Sun Runner
Warm Hat – Mountain Goat Hats wool beanie
Gloves- Smartwool liner gloves
Rain Shell – REI Kimtah eVent Jacket, carried, never worn
Other – Sawyer Mini water filter, Black Diamond Z Poles, Bosavi Headlamp, Benchmade 707 pocket knife, Sony RX100 camera, Lightweight first aid kit, mylar blanket

Hydration & Nutrition

20oz of pure water / 2 hours.
300 calories of maltodextrin + 1 salt stick (in 20oz water) / 2 hours
2L bladder was never used.
Cliff Shot Blocks – 2 packs
Banana Chips – about 300 cals (~2.5 oz)
Frontier Bites – 1 bag carried, half eaten
Larbar Apple Pie Bar – half eaten
Honey Stinger Waffles – 2
Honey Stinger Protein Bars – 1
Kind Protein Bar – half eaten
Breakfast (pre-run) – about 700 calories of granola/nonfat milk/maltodextrin/banana chips

What I carried amounted to over 4400 calories. I didn’t use it all, mainly I used much less maltodextrin than I had planned. In the end my total caloric intake (excluding dinner) was about 3400 calories. This worked out fine given the slow pace. I manged my GI stress by taking a tums or Lactaid as needed (I’m lactose intolerant, protein bars irritate me sometimes). This was a much better approach than my run at JTree the previous year where I had nothing to drink besides maltodextrin, not enough light snacks, no tums, no Lactaid, and ended up with major GI stress. I was actually hungry and wanted to eat, except near the very end. My pack was weighing in close to 10 lbs between the food, gear, and water. Not a light load for a long run.

In Summary

The Zion Traverse covers some seriously beautiful terrain. For those who can run it, I’d say do it! For those who can hike it and take advantage of the backcountry camps out there, you should do it! Whatever allows you to experience it. As for me, I would definitely like to return. Not that the finish time mattered, but with a better strategy and a harder push I know I can shave a couple hours off what I did (barring another injury) and I’d be hard pressed to find a better route to revisit. Zion on my mind… -JD










Hop Valley

First Views of West Side

In the Flat


Amazing Zion

Amazing Zion

Til Next Time...

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.