Backpacking the Trans-Zion Traverse Day 1: Lee Pass to La Verkin Creek

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Day 1: Lee Pass Trailside to La Verkin Creek, Campsite #11, 7 miles

The sound of the 5 am alarm waking us up in our tent at Ponderosa Ranch comes way too early. We try to snooze, but the excitement and anticipation for what is ahead won’t allow us to sleep, and our game of possum is over. It’s cold, so we try to pack up all we can while still staying warm and cozy in our sleeping bags. First, we let the air out of our mattresses, then put on a warm top layer. Next, we deflate and pack the pillow, and then there’s nothing left to do. We have to come out of our sweet sleeping bags. Brrr!

We break the tent down in the dark as quickly as possible. We have to move fast. Time is ticking, and we want to get a last shower in before heading into the backcountry. The hot water feels so good, making me wonder if I really want to leave it and the other comforts of civilization for the next five days. I close my eyes and savor the feeling of the warm water cascading over me before suddenly coming to my senses. I quickly shut off the elixir of the water, dry off, get dressed and head back into the cold to pack up my backpack.

The final pack before heading into the wilderness is always the most stressful. If we forget anything today, it will mean going without whatever we left behind for the next five days. Jet boil? Check. Headlamp? Check. Permit? Check. It seems like we have everything we need, and we place our loaded packs into our car to meet our driver at the East Rim Trailhead parking lot.

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Bob is waiting for us when we pull up. We transfer all of our gear to his van and take off to pick up another group of hikers at the Visitor Center on our way to the Lee Pass Trailhead on the park’s west side.

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We find out that Driver Bob is actually former Ranger Bob, who worked for 10 years in Zion National Park. He tells us he was a VUA, a Visitor Use Assistant (or a Visitor Ab-use Assistant as the park staff like to refer to themselves-LOL) working the front lines at the entrance booths. Ranger Bob worked in Search & Rescue as well. To become a member of that elite group, he had to be able to hike 3 miles on backcountry park trails, wearing a 45-pound pack, in under 45 minutes. Wow! Even on flat land with no pack, I don’t think I could do that. We are seriously impressed!

On the drive, we talk about the insane number of visitors in the park, and he says park officials are meeting in town this week to make some tough decisions about what to do about the crowds. Zion can’t continue to operate beyond maximum capacity; something’s got to give.

At the Visitor’s Center parking lot, we pick up three Texans from Houston who are doing the Trans-Zion Traverse to the main corridor in Zion Canyon, which is a day less than we are doing. The drive to the Northwest corner of the park passes quickly as we trade hiking and travel stories. Jared is a teacher, Alberto an engineer and Clark an entrepreneur about to open a juicing business. They seem like a nice bunch of young guys, and we wish them well as they take off ahead of us at the trailhead.

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The trail descends a bit from the road and follows the western face of Kolob Canyon as we head due south for about three miles. The terrain is beautiful, but the late morning sun silhouettes the canyon wall making it look less photogenic than it is in reality.

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After three months of training for this moment in and around pancake flat Chicago, it feels amazing to be on an actual national park trail—a single-track path that meanders through striking vegetation, undulating up and down as it changes elevation on a whim. Our bags feel heavy on this first day, but we don’t care. We are backpacking!

Click on photographs to enlarge and view as a slideshow. They are much better that way! 

The trail criss-crosses a meandering stream countless times as we head south. We finally reach La Verkin Creek, and the trail parallels the gentle clear river as we turn east and make our way deeper into the park.

It is quite warm now, and we try to remember to drink water since the desert can fool you into believing you are not dehydrated even when you actually are. Waiting until you feel the symptoms can be too late.

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We arrive at the junction to Kolob Arch and decide to drop our heavy packs and have a snack before exploring this brief side trip. It is only .5 miles each way, but this trail is much more of a scramble as we make our way to the end of the canyon. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t left my walking sticks with our packs.

Just as we reach the view of the arch, big, heavy raindrops start falling from the sky, and we hear loud, long rolls of thunder in the distance. Is it really going to rain when we are as far from our rain gear as possible? The arch itself is impressive, but quite far away, and the viewpoint is a small window through some trees at the end of the trail. If we were short on time, this would definitely be a side trip to skip.

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Luckily, the rain/thunder goes away as we arrive back at our backpacks and move on. Within 30 minutes we are wandering into site #11, our home away from home for the night.

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We are thrilled to drop our bags, set up our cozy little tent and check out all the amenities our campsite has to offer: a pleasant set of rock stools for sitting and eating, a log shelf for organizing gear, easy river access for filtering water and a giant rock perched at the river’s edge that affords clear views of the red canyon walls surrounding us. We are thrilled with our cute little campsite and glad to have arrived early enough to enjoy it. We go about setting up our tent and make an afternoon coffee, which makes Matt extremely happy—he loves his coffee!

Around 6 p.m. we take off with just our cameras and head further down the trail to see the waterfall at Bear Trap Canyon. The trail meanders back and forth across the stream, and we have to cross it so many times that we lose count. Eventually, we come to an insanely red stone wall that is glowing in the late afternoon light as we penetrate deeper and deeper into this shady canyon. Even though we are in a rush to see the waterfall before the light disappears, we can’t help resist to photograph this crazy red wall. What a sight!

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We finally reach site #13 after an hour and take the trail about 2 minutes further to the entrance of Bear Trap Canyon. The undulating red rock walls are captivating, and there’s a shallow stream right running down the middle of the canyon.

We hop and skip through the water trying to keep our boots and gear somewhat dry. At one point a bright orange lichen growing on the walls looks like a glowing magical light, and we feel like we’ve been transported to that episode of “Lost” where they find the source of the Island’s magic!?!

We finally reach the waterfall at the end of the canyon, and it’s perfect—a small but powerful horsetail falls plunging out of the middle of nowhere into this awesome, narrow red canyon. It’s cool and peaceful there, our own private Narrows. We have a beautiful spot in Zion National Park all to ourselves on Memorial Day Weekend. Imagine that!!!

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We have to retrace our steps back to our campsite, and we are hoping to make it before it gets dark. We head out of the canyon, back up the trail, past campsite #13, past the super-saturated red wall which appears to have lost its magical properties now that the sun is going down,and past all 30+ times we have to cross the stream to get back to our home sweet home.

Eventually we arrive at campsite #12 and know we are close. The occupants are there now, eating their dinner, and they wave hello to us. We exchange a few brief pleasantries and then head on. It’s almost dark now, and we are hungry for some food of our own. We cross the stream right in front of their campsite, our last for the night. Matt is leading the way, and, just as I am about to take my very last step onto the bank on the far side of the water, my back leg slips off the wet rock!

Before I even know what has happened, I am laying on my side in a foot of water, trying to save the camera from getting wet. We must have crossed this stream 50 times by this point. I can’t even believe that on my final step for the day, I manage to slip and fall in. And right in front of other people! #$@&%*! You can’t be serious!?!?!

I pop up as quickly as possible, soaking wet and super embarrassed. It’s a long, 10-minute walk of shame back to our campsite, where I can change into some dry clothes. It’s the end of Day 1 on the trail, and we have a little red wine with us for a nightcap. That should help. Cheers!

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