Map Miles: Today: 15.7/ Total: 981.9
GPS Miles: Today: 16.8/Total: 1,035.7
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I struggle to sleep when it’s hot out, and last night was no exception. It doesn’t help that the only clothes I have to sleep in are my thermals. A little bit of a breeze finally blew in to cool things down at 3 or 4ish and things felt much better.
We were determined to start as early as we possibly could, and so Laura and I actually began getting ready before daylight had begun to break. It’s just about the fastest I’ve ever packed up- I think we were ready to go in a little over 30 minutes. Another reason Laura makes a great hiking partner! 🙂 We threw our packs into the back of the rental car and drove to a small gravel parking lot a stone’s throw from the park entrance, walked the short distance to where we could hop on the shuttle and 25 minutes later we were crossing the bridge over the Virgin River with the mornings new cottonwood fluff wisping around us through the air.
What a difference the time of day makes! The rush hour crowds from yesterday gave way to only a handful of people heading up the trail. Laura and I tried to hold back a little bit to give them space to get ahead so that they wouldn’t have to pass us as we huffed and puffed along with our heavy packs – but even with the spotted time, we caught up to and passed nearly all the day hikers.
We took a nice slow and steady pace up. I led, trying to moderate my tempo, but not by much, and Laura followed not too far behind. It was a model that worked great all day. I really can’t express enough how exciting it was to be sharing these last few days with a friend. To have really meaningful conversations. To be asked introspective questions about how I’m starting to process where I’ve been and what I’ll be returning to. To catch up after two years. To laugh. It’s been great!
Slow and steady. The name of the game up the 39 switchbacks. Today I shouted out the number of each switchback as I turned the corners one by one. Originally we had thought there were only 29, and so were a bit disappointed when the numbers kept climbing. However, with our early morning start allowing us fewer crowds to weave through and, most importantly, the cool shaded pre-sun heated air, it felt like the ascent up the tight switchbacks was even easier than yesterday.
Once we topped out back at Scout Lookout we continued on along a few more moderate switchbacks a little bit further until we found a nice shady spot on the slickrock to enjoy a well deserved rest and bar break and take in some of our final views into the main Zion Canyon that we were about to leave behind for the West Rim. We were rewarded with the spectacular site of a few California Condors riding the thermals above Angel’s Landing too! I feel so lucky to have had the chance to see these rare critically endangered birds twice now on this trip.After breakfast our route turned off of the main canyon and stayed flat for a little while along actual slickrock instead of the paved trails we’ve been on. I’m kind of amazed that the pavement extended so far up the trail – nearly to the top of the West Rim! There are even spots where the slickrock was paved over, but when it wasn’t the trail planners placed nice signs instead of cairns, just so you couldn’t get lost.
The trail continued moderately along before it reentered a lovely forest mixed of ponderosa, oak, and maple. We even saw some lovely white lupine blooming in huge bunches causing Laura and I to reminisce about our last backpacking trip together through The Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington during the peak wildflower bloom of 2015 where the ground looked purple due to all the lupine. Off the main canyon, our trail began the final steep switchback ascents to the top of the Rim. The large walls on either side of us weeping as the springs at the top slowly trickled their way hundreds of feet down. Up and into new canyon views, our voices echoed even our quiet speech back to us. Rock layers changed around us, and at one point included an awesome section of the yellow rock that I think is the prettiest. Almost to the top we started to hear the echos of hikers from above us ricocheting off the walls and down to our ears. Group by group we began to run into the other backpackers in the area. The West Rim is a popular area to hike, but few people do it in the direction we’re going. Most start at either Lee’s Pass or Lava Point so that they’re going down into Zion Canyon versus up and out of it. This was great for us because we got to see all of them and collect their info! The parties came in waves. Camping up here is in assigned sites only, and it was pretty fascinating how we’d first run into all of the backpackers who were camped on the West Rim, followed a little bit later by the day hikers heading out from Lava Point, and then finally followed by the wave of people heading to the West Rim sites from Hop Valley. Just like on the East Rim every party we met was super friendly and stopped to chat and share information. We actually ran into a number of folks from the Philly/Delaware area (one person even worked at St. Frances Hospital in Wilmington!) and from Minnesota (who I recognized by his accent before he confirmed it later). The camping locations along the West Rim were absolutely gorgeous, even if some of them were located in a relatively recent burn area. For some reason I had expected our views to dry up once we topped out and left the main canyon, but I was sorely mistaken. There was an entirely new and different series of peaks and valleys and domes and mesas stretched out towards the horizon that had been hiding just out of view. The ridge walking was simply phenomenal.
Around noon we left the burn behind and entered a forest that looked down through the trees on Potato Hollow- a beautiful grassy meadow. We had established criteria for a lunch spot earlier – scenic views, trees or rocks to lean against, and shade. This spot had all three. It’s nice when everything comes together and we enjoyed a relaxed lunch.
If we had kept our original permit, Potato Hollow would have been the end of our day, so we were very happy to be able to get a few more miles in, especially since the area wasn’t quite as scenic. The meadows were ok, but not the prettiest that I’ve been in, and some sections of the trail were muddy. It was also interesting seeing all of the oak up here. Something happened – maybe a recent cold snap? – which caused all of the budding leaves to dry up and shrivel. Dead looking, but still very much alive, trees lined the trail for miles and miles all through this section.
As the morning gave way to the afternoon the heat and weary feet got to us a little so we slowed down, and took a few breaks knowing we had plenty of time to get to camp. We were walking through some incredibly pleasant on and off forests.Our new ridgeline also occasionally offered us views up to the North where we could see the Grey and Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase that I hadn’t seen since leaving Bryce Canyon. At Lava Point we finally left the West Rim Trail behind and turned into Wildcat Canyon which connects us to the trails going through the Hop Valley and Kolob areas of the park that we will be going through tomorrow. Wildcat Canyon is the only area on this side of Zion where dispersed camping is allowed, so as soon as we turned off, we began keeping our eyes open for use trails to the hidden campsites. It was about 4:00 by this point and we ran into 2 women who we were surprised to hear were in the middle of a one day hike from Lee’s Pass to Zion Canyon. They were doing the entire nearly 40 mile stretch we were doing, just in a day! Not undoable, but given the lateness in the day already, the fact that they weren’t quite yet half way, and that they both were wearing braces (one wrist and one knee) we were a little concerned…but I’m not going to be the person to tell anyone their goals aren’t possible. We had heard from most of the folks coming this direction that there were lots of good spots near Blue Creek, but that the only water available was at a spring pouring out of the cliffs a little beyond that. Indeed the creek was dry at the trail crossing but you could hear it flowing pretty strong not too far below, and when we chose a campsite a little further back into the woods we also discovered a number of beautiful clear pools upstream. I’m always a little surprised that folks don’t do just a bit more exploration.
We were at camp by 5. So early! We spent a lot of time tanking up on water since we wouldn’t have any drinkable water on trail tomorrow. I was disappointed to find that the Evernew bag DnR had sent me to replace my two busted Sawyer bags had now suddenly broken out near the neck too. It had already caught a thorn back on the Esplanade so was no longer usable as a storage container, but it still worked fine for filtering. Now it wasn’t good for anything. This trail really does just destroy certain kinds of gear. Fortunately Laura’s pump worked great.
Dinner and conversation followed as we fought off the flies that were present in our camp before we both realized that we could barely keep our eyes open and were drifting off to sleep. It’s not even dark yet! I can’t even remember the last time I was tucked into my sleeping bag before sunset. What a phenomenal feeling.