Thursday, December 2, 2010

Snow in the Desert - Zion National Park West Rim Trail

Thanksgiving is a 4 day weekend for me, and a great opportunity to spend a few days in the back country before it's gets too cold. There's a trail that I hadn't done yet - the West Rim Trail at Zion National Park in Utah, which runs 15 miles end to end. The plan was to make the 3 hour drive the morning after Thanksgiving, then hike 10 miles to campsite 8 before dark. On Saturday morning I would continue to the end of the trail, then turn around and hike back to campsite 2, about 15 miles for the day. Sunday morning I would get up and hike out the last 5 miles and head back home. An easy 30 miles in two days and nights, or so I thought.

I contacted the ranger on Monday to make my reservations. In this popular park, you can only camp in designated sites in the back country, which must be reserved in advance. Little or no snow was the report I got from the nice ranger. Now to get a hall pass from my wife. I knew she wouldn't want to go...too cold for her.

Thanksgiving day
was nice...we cooked and ate too much food, and I packed for my trip. Early to bed and I was out Friday morning  by 6:00am, to the coffee shop and then on the road north. As I got into St. George I noticed quite a bit of snow on the high peaks in the distance, but surely I wouldn't be that high.

Driving into Zion canyon, there was snow, but not too much. The north facing slopes seemed to have quite a bit, but the other side of the canyon not so much. A quick stop by the ranger station to pick up my permit, he told me there would be very little snow where I was headed, maybe a "half a foot", and that the weather forecast was a low of 26 degrees Fahrenheit up there at 7,000' tonight. A good test for my new 30 degree quilt I thought.


The parking lot was shady and very cold, probably around 30 degrees. Time to get moving. Heading up the first portion of the trail was familiar, as this is the same route to the popular Angel's Landing, which I would be bypassing today. Snow and ice on the somewhat paved trail, I could see why they made it so durable now...snow, ice, and all the foot traffic on this steep section would surely be a trail maintenance nightmare. I did my best to avoid the icy sections and managed to stay on my feet with some help from my trekking poles. 

As I passed the first section where most people stop, the trail kept heading up, more gradually now. The snow was more prominent, maybe 6 inches deep. 

Beautifully carpeted, the desert landscape takes on a very different look when covered in snow. The sharp edges of the rocks are all softened, and the snow glistens in the bright sunlight. 

The further back I got, the deeper the snow, and it was absolutely quiet. The kind of quiet that you can't experience in the city.

At campsite 1, which was 5 miles into my 10 mile walk, the snow was about 2 feet deep. The tracks in the snow disappeared about half a mile past this point, and the snow was up to my knees. Walking in 2 feet of powder is rough, not to mention cold. The day was getting late, and this was my decision point. Reluctantly, I decided to turn around and headed back to the parking lot, turning this into a day hike. 

I was disappointed that I wouldn't be staying the night, but I didn't want to break the park rules and just stay anywhere and I wasn't comfortable finding the trail in the deep snow. On the way back I took my time and enjoyed my surroundings. Icicles everywhere...this is not something I'm used to seeing living in the desert.

As I rounded a corner and saw these two deer using the trail headed my way. All 3 of us stopped in our tracks and stared at each other for a minute or two.

The deer decided to head down off the trail to let me pass. They kept their eyes on me though!

Wonderful deep snow blanketed this normally rock and bushy area. 

Almost back to the populated part of the trail, that's Angel's Landing in the middle of the photo below. At one section there's a bridge with thousand plus foot drop-offs on both sides...not a good place to be walking on ice!

Back at the parking lot, I thought about heading to the camp ground to stay the night, but car camping isn't all that appealing to me... especially alone. Another 3 hour drive back to Las Vegas, it was a long day. A beautiful, exhilarating day in Zion!


  1. I loved hiking in Utah. Seeing it covered in snow makes me want to return there in winter - with snow shoes! Zion looks spectacular.

  2. Your photos are just incredible and your writing almost lyrical. I read this with a longing to experience Utah and the States, despite the camping restrictions ;-) A wonderful post!

  3. Superb photos and shame you missed a night out in the backcountry.

  4. Mark, Utah is a beautiful state, and Zion is one of my favorite places!

    Helen, thanks so much for the kind words! I just wish I could write half as good as you!!!

    Martin, photography is something I very much want to be good at some day...thanks for the compliment! There will be other days in the back country...soon if the weather hold out! :~)>

  5. Beautiful photographs. I absolutely want to explore Utah very soon.

  6. well done, and thx for the winter stoke.

  7. Nice trip report, sorry you had to turn around, but I would have made the same choice. I did Angel's Landing (for the first time) Feb 14, 2011 and there was only ice on Walter's Wiggles. As you say, it's great to see the same spot in a different season. I'm going back to do the West Rim Trail on April 10, and was wondering about the snow on the rim. I didn't know how tied in the Rangers were to specific trail conditions up top, and I can't get any answer at the backcountry ranger phone number.

  8. The rangers were very helpful when I spoke with them, but the information they gave me about how much snow was back there was way off. Walter's Wiggles was very icy when I went too...on my way back there were a couple of sections that were completely iced over, so I just sat on my butt and slid down. Guess I should have been more prepared and had metal spikes on the bottom of my shoes!

    April should be perfect up there...I want to go back and do the entire trail!