The complete traverse across Zion National Park was first done in one day by a guy named Bo Beck, who dubbed it the Far Far Fest. It’s now more commonly known as the Zion Traverse, and consists of 47-52 miles, and 8,000- 10,000 ft of elev gain depending on who you ask (my Suunto read 50.7 miles and 10,043 ft of elev gain). NOTE: If you’re thinking of doing this traverse and just want the route beta, scroll down to the Nitty Gritty at the end of this report.
I completed this traverse in one day: 17 hrs total, and 13:48 moving time. (Of course, Strava usually under-calculates moving time, so I bet it was closer to 14.5 hrs). I took my time and paused often to take photos, empty the sand from my shoes, and double-check my map at every intersection. Traveling alone in the backcountry doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, so I try to be methodical in an effort to avoid stupid mistakes.
I ran (jogged? wogged?) most of the flats and descents, and speed hiked the ascents. I was solo, except for two short sections of trail where my husband joined me: the 2.5 mile climb from Zion Canyon towards Angels Landing and the last 3 miles before Lee Pass. This Zion run was part of a “date weekend” so I figured I’d better spend at least a little time with him that day, especially since he was also acting as shuttle/crew for me!
In all seriousness, as with most of my adventures, I could not have done this without my husband Tom. Whether he’s at home taking care of our daughter and generally holding down the fort, or with me acting as crew/shuttle, he is a critical part of all of my harebrained endurance events. I also want to thank my mom, who took care of our daughter back in Seattle while Tom and I ran off to Zion for this trip.
I started the traverse from the East Rim trailhead at 6:40 am. I was downright giddy – a whole day on the trail, by myself, with new scenery every step of the way! Heaven.
From East Rim trailhead to the Grotto was amazing. It shows as a gradual uphill on the elevation profile, but there are extended runnable flat sections. I watched the sunrise over the slickrock and cruised along.
Descending from the East Rim into Zion Canyon was fun and scenic. Most of the trail was non-technical and relatively easy to run, and there were some really cool sections of slot canyons along the East Rim trail just before you reach the bottom of the canyon.
I met Tom at the Grotto at the bottom of Zion Canyon, filled up on water and food, and he hiked with me to just past Angel’s Landing, where we found a spur trail to a quiet overlook. Despite the crowds at Angel’s Landing less than ½ mile away, we had this overlook to ourselves. I sat down, put on some more sunscreen, chatted with Tom, took a few pics, and then was on my way.
Not 5 minutes after leaving Tom, I was headed up a short section of slickrock past a couple of backpackers when one of them called my name. I turned and after a second realized it was fellow Seattle runners Angel and Tim Mathis! What a small world! They were doing a quick tune-up trip before leaving on their PCT thru-hike. At first glance I hadn’t recognized them, nor they me – too much out of context, I think. It was very cool to see them, and another nice little boost in the middle of the long climb up to the West Rim. I stopped and chatted with them, and of course we had to take a picture. Then I was on my way again.
The first part of the West Rim trail is a long steady incline up to approx. 7500 ft. It was approaching mid-day at this point, and the sun was beating down. The entire Zion traverse is at an elevation of 4000 to 7500 ft above sea level. Coming from Seattle, this was just high enough that everything felt a bit harder than normal.
I finally reached the top of the climb and then ran along the edge of the rim, through wildlflowers and past stunning vistas on a gently rolling, highly runnable trail. The views from the West Rim Trail are incredible.
The West Rim trail eventually intersects with the Wildcat Canyon trail, and I had stashed some food and water at this trail junction the previous day (see the Nitty Gritty below for more details). I’ve never been so excited to see a cache. I chugged a bunch of water, filled up my soft flasks, and then dumped the rest of the water on my head. It was awesome.
The Wildcat Canyon trail was one of my favorite sections. Although the scenery wasn’t jaw-dropping, it has its own quiet appeal. The trail is very runnable as it meanders through shady pine forests and past high-elevation meadows covered in green grass. I was slightly tempted to lie down and take a nap in one of the meadows, but instead I kept on keepin’ on.
I reached the Connector Trail relatively quickly, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t faint at all, despite warnings otherwise. Before I knew it, I was at the Hop Valley trailhead, where Tom was waiting for me with more water and food. I grabbed some semi-frozen grapes and headed back out on the trail. (Pro-tip: Frozen grapes are delicious. Frozen grapes that have since thawed out are mushy and not-so-delicious.) At this point, I was feeling great and quite excited for running the next 10 miles of moderate downhill.
As it turns out, the next 10 miles weren’t quite what I imagined. Hop Valley is beautiful, but I did not find it as runnable as described in some previous trip reports. Perhaps that’s because 2015 is a particularly dry year, so the sand was especially soft and deep when I went through. Perhaps it’s because those who went before me are faster, stronger runners who still had enough energy left to run when they hit this section, despite the sand. Probably a combo of both. All I know is that I did not find this section to be a “mellow finish.” I had really been looking forward to running a gentle descent most of the way back to the car, but it was more like hiking a sandy slog.
This is why I would consider doing it west to east if I did it again. Yes, doing it west to east leaves you with a tough climb out of Zion Canyon late in the day. But I’d rather deal with a steep climb than sand. Of course, I’m from Washington, so steep is familiar, whereas sandy is not.
I reached the end of Hop Valley as the sun was setting. Darkness comes quickly in canyon country, and although I resisted using my headlamp for as long as possible, eventually I had to put it on for the technical descent down to La Verkin creek. Every once in awhile I would turn off my headlamp and stare up at the stars. So many, so beautiful.
I knew I was in the home stretch at this point, but I was getting tired and honestly I was a little on edge. Mountain lions are not uncommon in the area, and I was traveling alone, sometimes at a pace fast enough to trigger their prey drive, during a time of day when mountain lions are most active. I occasionally glanced around to look for eyes glowing in the beam of my headlamp, but I never did see anything other than some fresh scat. The trip actually left me feeling more confident about traveling solo through cougar country at night. I know they were out there, but they weren’t interested in me.
Of course, I couldn’t help but get this song stuck in my head:
With about 3 miles left, Tom appeared on the trail as we planned. It was such a morale boost to see him. At this point I was hurting pretty bad and ready to be done. But we still had 3+ miles of uphill to the Lee Pass trailhead, which marked the end of the traverse.
Tom and I chatted a bit and then I reverted to muttering to myself “You can do it, one foot in front of the other, just a couple more miles…”
And finally, I was done.
This was definitely one of the toughest runs I’ve completed, primarily because of the altitude, heat, and sand.
I highly recommend it!
Now for the Nitty Gritty. The notes below are primarily intended for people who are interested in doing the traverse – the notes are probably a little boring for everyone else.
Here’s the scoop:
I relied heavily on Andrew Skurka’s website when planning this trip. I found his Zion traverse databook and elevation profile particularly helpful. I carried his Zion map set as a back-up, although I ended up only using the Trails Illustrated park map. In general his website is a great resource, and I recommend checking it out.
That said, here are a couple of revisions/additions to Skurka’s beta:
- I believe he did the route in a non-drought year. This year (2015) was a very low snow year for Utah, and several of the springs marked on his map were bone dry. (He acknowledges that this might be possible – I’m just confirming it.) I was very glad I had set up a cache at the West Rim/Wildcat junction, and was grateful to see my husband at the Hop Valley trailhead for another refill of food and water. If it’s a dry year, I recommend setting up at least a couple caches along the way and/or asking someone to crew for you, rather than relying on springs.
- Skurka mentions that the Connector Trail between Wildcat Trail and Hop Valley is faint, and that you really need to pay attention along that section. The Connector Trail has become much more defined since Skurka did the route. The only place there isn’t a clear trail is through a couple short sections of slickrock, but these are marked with cairns and easy to navigate if you keep your head up.
- This is an obvious one, but worth mentioning: if you are setting up caches or planning to meet a crew for refills, be sure to check road conditions! After doing some pre-trip research, I learned that Kolob Terrace Rd would be temporarily closed for construction from 9-noon and 1-4 pm. This meant I had to set up a cache near the West Rim trailhead, since Tom wouldn’t be able to meet me at the trailhead when I came through. The night before the run, we drove out to the trailhead to leave some water and food… and realized that the final mile of road to the West Rim trailhead was gated due to lingering snow on the road. (The park website mentions this closure but I misunderstood the location of the gate.) This meant that at 7 pm the night before my run we hiked some “bonus” miles along the road closure, to set up the cache. Not a huge deal, and it was fun to take a sunset walk with Tom. But that kind of thing has the potential to put a wrench in plans, so be sure to double-check all road closures/conditions.
- Last but not least, I’m not so sure that east to west is the best way to go. Skurka claims that there is easy running through Hop Valley, and that it makes for a nice mellow finish to the route. I disagree. Again, this might be because I was there during a drought year. But my experience is that if you go east to west, approximately 9 of the last 13+ miles are through relatively deep sand. Soul-sucking, energy-draining sand. There was no running happening for me, despite the slight downhill grade. Instead there was a hiking slog. I’m sure part of this had to do with the fact that I was ~40 miles into the day, and therefore didn’t have it in me to run through sand. Which is exactly why it might be wise to do this section first.
- Along similar lines: WEAR GAITERS. That damn sand!
Iron, like a Lion, in Zion…