The Trans-Zion Trek is the ideal way to experience Zion National Park. Connecting up six different backcountry trails, the trek diagonally traverses the entire length of the park from the northwest corner in the majestic Kolob Canyons to the southeast corner with the Main Canyon and the East Rim. Mile for mile, this trek is one of the most rewarding and diverse backpacking trips in the southwest. Every day showcases a totally new, unique and jaw-dropping environment. In contrast with the tourist-filled main canyon of the park, the trek goes through remote wildernesses of the park that few get to see. As a bonus, on this route, you will have the chance to see Kolob Arch, the third largest arch in the world, as well as the chance to experience breathtaking views while walking along the edge of the West Rim, high above the Main Canyon. And, if time allows, the opportunity to hike Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, two of the most unique and unforgettable hikes.
Trip Date: April 7-10, 2015
Distance: 47.6 miles or 58.1 miles. Ending #1 in the Main Canyon is 47.6 miles. Ending #2 at the East Entrance is 58.1 miles. These two distances include the “optional” hikes of Kolob Arch, Angel’s Landing and the Narrows. While technically you don’t have to do these to finish the trek, they should by all means be viewed as mandatory. Angel’s Landing and the Narrows will be at the very top of the trip’s highlights, if not two of the most memorable hiking experiences ever. NOTE: If you’re pressed for time and you have to choose between either doing the final leg on the East Rim Trail and finishing at the East Entrance (an extra 10.5 miles) or doing Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, I would advocate doing the latter. The East Rim is simply not as spectacular and unique as Angel’s Landing or the Narrows. Both of those hikes are absolute bucket-list gems. In this case, you would finish in the Main Canyon Zion Visitor Center instead of the East Entrance. Obviously, if you have time, you may as well do everything and finish all 58.1 miles!
Trailheads: This route is best done going north to south, starting at Lee Pass Trailhead (in Kolob Canyons) and ending at the East Entrance Ranger Station (on the East Rim Trail). However, as mentioned above, an optional variation to this route, if you’re pressed for time, is to skip the final segment on the East Rim Trail, and instead stay in the main Zion Canyon and hike Angel’s Landing, the Narrows and and any other attractions you may want to see. This also makes the shuttle ride arrangements back to Lee Pass shorter and cheaper.
Permits: Make sure to reserve your permits as much in advance as possible. While not quite as bad as Grand Canyon, it’s still quite competitive. Advance reservations can be made up to 3 months in advance. Permits can be reserved here.
Campgrounds: Only the Wildcat Canyon region is sleep-at-large. Like the Grand Canyon, the Kolob Canyons and the West Rim regions are strictly designated campsites only. You will apply for a specific, designated site each night of your proposed trip itinerary when you apply for the backcountry permit. Luckily, there are 13 available campsites in the Kolob Canyons Region (they are called La Verkin Sites 1-13 when you apply) and there are 9 available campsites in the West Rim. Only about half of these can be applied for in advance. Also, each campsite has a different permitted max group size (some only allow 2 people for example). Also, some of them are located quite far from a water source. Plan accordingly. A helpful map of all the backcountry campsites is available here.
Difficulty: Medium. The terrain for this trip is overall quite easy. There is very little elevation gain (and when there is, it’s always gradual) on the way from Kolob Canyons to the Main Canyon. However, the remoteness and solitude (we saw nobody from the time we left Kolob Canyons to the time we got to the West Rim) plus the lack of water, plus occasional navigational challenges in Hop Canyon and Wildcat Canyon make this trip a bit more challenging. Plus, if you’re doing the Angel’s Landing or Narrows day hikes when you get to the main canyon, these are both strenuous day hikes. Angel’s Landing in particular is notorious for its exposure, and the dangers in the Narrows include hypothermia and flash floods. Moreover, if you’re finishing on the East Rim, this trail has some climbing.
Season: Spring and Fall are ideal for the average hiker. Summer heat is a danger (plus the potential to encounter no water). In winter, icy conditions may be a danger. When we went in April, we did get a bit of snow on one of the days, but overall the days were quite sunny and warm. Plus, April will tend to be less competitive for permits and you have a better chance of getting water.
Water: There are only three water sources throughout the entirety of the trip. So unfortunately, you will have to lug around a lot of water weight. Plus, depending on where you sleep, you’ll have to carry water for cooking too. In Kolob Canyon, you are fortunate enough to have La Verkin Creek nearby all of the campsites. However, after you leave Kolob Canyon there are only two other water sources, one in Wildcat Canyon and the other in the West Rim. When we went in early April, both of these were a very, very small trickle. Both Sawmill Spring and Potato Hollow Spring were dried up.
Shuttles: To get from the finishing trailhead (whether it be in the Main Canyon or on the East Rim), you’ll have to hire a private shuttle. I recommend Red Rock Shuttle. The man who runs it is very kind, and he only charged $70 for the drive from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center back up to our car at Lee Pass Trailhead.
Food storage: Something to protect your food from nocturnal critters is advisable. The campgrounds tend to be populated by cunning little mice (we saw a number of them) that come out at night. They’ve got sharp little teeth and will definitely get your food if you don’t take precautions. A bear canister is overkill however. My two recommendations would be an Outsak UL or an Ursack (they make bags designed for critters as well as bear bags).
- Trans-Zion Trek Datasheet/Itinerary. This datasheet includes mileage distances between waypoints, and mileage between water refill points.
- Sample ultralight gear list
- Trans-Zion Trek Mapset. CalTopo 7.5 USGS topos. The Primary Route is marked in red with green waypoints. The optional day hikes in the Main Canyon are marked in yellow with purple waypoints.
- Sample food plan
Route Description/Trip Report
Day 1 – Lee Pass Trailhead to La Verkin Campsite #7, plus Kolob Arch (7.8 mi)
If you’re driving in from somewhere far away (we drove in from the Bay Area), you’re probably going to want to sleep somewhere before hitting Lee Pass Trailhead. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to car camp in the northern section of the park. The closest campsite we could find to the trailhead was at Quail Creek State Park. So we started our first day by driving 30 minutes from Quail Creek campground to the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center, where we picked up our backcountry permits.
Kolob Canyon is a magnificent area, and definitely just as much worth seeing as the main canyon. This is the highest section of the park (up to 8,726 ft), and the rock formations are stunningly massive and red.
Heading south on La Verkin Trail, the views of Nagunt Mesa, Timber Top Mountain and Gregory Butte are unforgettable. Plus, the vistas when you round the corner of Gregory Butte and start heading east, descending towards Beatty Spring, is one of the best of the trip.
After a a very mellow first day (short miles, and almost all downhill) we dropped our packs at our campsite early in the afternoon and took a short out-and-back trip to see Kolob Arch (the third largest arch in the world).
Our first night we had gale-force winds whipping sand in our faces all night and sounding like trees would blow over. Perhaps worst night of sleep I’ve ever had backpacking.
Day 2 – La Verkin Campsite #7 to Wildcat Canyon Spring (13.8 miles)
The morning began with a lovely climb out of the La Verkin Creek canyon, followed by the descent into Hop Valley. The views from the top, before descending, looking down Hop Valley were gorgeous. We lost time trying to navigate through the Hop Valley section. It’s very marshy and wet there (although the water is not potable) so it’s deceptively easy to lose the trail, as well as to get your feet sopping wet. We briefly got a very light dusting of snow here too, which was fun. After making our way to the head of the valley, we had a brief climb up and out of Hop Valley before topping out at the Lower Kolob Plateau, where we met the Connector Trail.
This flat stretch on the plateaus, which we expected to be boring, was actually one of the most gorgeous sections of the trip. There were some weird, amazing rock formations dotted amongst the high plains up here. After some fun scrambles over stretches of red rock, we met the Wildcat Canyon Trail, which is mostly forested, but also passes through a beautiful meadow. We reached the spring after sunset and pitched camp in the trees (the spring is located just southwest of the head of Wildcat Canyon, and the sole water source since La Verkin Creek).
Day 3 – Wildcat Canyon Spring to West Rim Campsite #2 (11.4 miles)
The first half of the day was probably the most lackluster part of the trek. You’re tucked back far away behind various, barren, burnt and nondescript hillsides, which obscure the views of the canyons out to the west.
However, the second half of the day more than makes up for it. Eventually you emerge onto the rim of the canyon and the views are constantly jaw-dropping all the way until you reach the West Rim campsites. If you get lucky, you may even have a campsite with superb canyon views.
Day 4 – West Rim site #2 to Angel’s Landing, The Narrows & Emerald Pools (14.8 miles)
Instead of using our final day to hike the East Rim Trail, we opted instead to stay in the main Zion Canyon and hike Angel’s Landing, the Narrows and the Emerald Pools. If you’re pressured for time, I would say skipping the East Rim in order to see these sights is absolutely worth it. Plus, it makes the shuttle ride back to Lee Pass Trailhead shorter and cheaper.
From the campsites at the West Rim, perched a short couple miles above Angel’s Landing, you are in an excellent location to beat the crowds (and beating the crowds is crucial if you want to have a safe and enjoyable experience going up and down the chains of Angel’s Landing).
After a thrilling ascent of Angel’s Landing very early in the morning, we hiked down to the Grotto amidst quickly growing throngs of tourists. From the Grotto, we caught the shuttle up to the Temple of Sinewava. We hiked up the Riverside Walk to the mouth of the The Narrows. Karlee opted to take a rest here, so I ventured into the Narrows alone. In order to keep warm in the chilly water and to make the most of my time, I jogged up the Narrows for an hour or so, making it a few miles upstream, and past the stunning Wall Street section, before turning back. If possible, make sure you see Wall Street. One of the most amazing and surreal places I’ve ever been to.
After the Narrows, we shuttled back to the Zion Lodge and grabbed some mediocre pizza. After a little rest on the lawn and being a little touristy in the shops and visitor centers, we closed up the day with a stroll around the Emerald Pools at dusk.
Our final night, we slept at the Watchman Campground. The next morning we woke up early and met our shuttle at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. After the shuttle ride up to our car back at Lee Pass Trailhead, we took a brief drive up to the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint for one last look of the park before heading home.