Backpacking the Trans-Zion Traverse Day 4: West Rim to Echo Canyon

Backpacking the TZT_Day 4

Today is our biggest hiking day of the TZT, so we were hoping for a good night’s sleep, but, with yesterday’s long nap and a really cold night (45°F), it seems that sleep is hard to come by. I am wide awake when the alarm goes off at 5 am. We decide to break camp as quickly as possible while it’s still dark and have breakfast farther down the trail as a break. The sky is just starting to lighten when we set off at 6 am. It is our coldest morning yet so we have on our down jackets, gloves and warm hats. 

We are surprised to run into a group of 4 canyoneers right at the trail junction who hiked all the way in from Lava Point Trailhead (starting at 4:30 am). They are planning to rappel down Heap Canyon and are carrying heavy packs filled with ropes and technical climbing gear. They tell us they saw a meteor that lit up the trail as bright as daylight when they were hiking in the dark. (Check out this short video by a trucker in Arizona who caught it on camera—excuse the language!) It’s hard to believe we could miss such a thing, but somehow we did! Even with their heavy packs, the canyoneers pass us on the first uphill out of Potato Hollow.

As we leave the hollow we can feel the temperature starting to rise, and we start shedding layers—a sure sign of what’s to come on this day. As we pass by campsite #6, Team Texas shouts “Good Morning!” to us, and we stop by for a quick visit. They recommend we have our breakfast at the viewpoint at the edge of their camp, so we take their suggestion, and they show us the way to a wonderful perch on the edge of the West Rim.

We enjoy chatting and commiserating about our heavy water loads on yesterday’s hike. Turns out, Alberto was really struggling. He had loaded himself up with 8 liters of water at Sawmill Spring, and, after several grueling miles with the extra 17 pounds of water weight, he finally decided to dump 2 liters because his pack was too heavy. No wonder he looked so miserable when we saw him on the trail yesterday afternoon!

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Back on the trail, we have a difficult time making progress, stopping to take in all the gorgeous views on the West Rim. If we didn’t have such a long day ahead of us, we would definitely spend more time at each of the viewpoints, but we have to keep moving.

After the southern trail junction with Telephone Creek Trail, the terrain and trail change dramatically as we enter the canyon and begin the long descent to the floor of Zion Canyon. There is a spring here (the last before the canyon floor), but we still have plenty of water from yesterday, so we take a pass knowing we will be able to get some later on today from a tap at The Grotto.

We start by switchbacking down a canyon wall, and very quickly all of the cool rock formations we were looking at from above are right in front of us. It is about 11 am, and the cold temperatures of the early morning are a long-distant memory. Someone has turned the heat on high, and we sweat profusely under the unrelenting sun. Of course, this is dry heat, but it feels like we are backpacking in a blast furnace!

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Across a canyon we spot two hikers resting in the shade of a switchback and are relieved when they vacate the spot just before we arrive, so we can take a break out of the sun.

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It’s hard to get going again, but we try not to stay too long here for fear that we may never leave this tiny haven of shade that we have found in the side of the mountain. The farther down we go, the hotter it gets, and everything hurts, especially our feet. They feel like they may actually explode from the combination of the weight of our backpacks, the extreme heat of the afternoon and the constant pounding on the trail, which is now an unforgiving cement and rock path constructed by the CCC several decades ago through this bizarre landscape of crazy rock formations.

Eventually we get our first views of Angel’s Landing and see the masses of day hikers who have flocked to this popular park destination. This was expected, but, after seeing only a handful of other people over the past few days, it still comes as a bit of a shock to our systems. We decided early this morning that we could not afford to spend the energy or time climbing up the narrow ridge of Angel’s Landing, especially in the heat of the day, but kudos to those who successfully make it to the top.

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We get tons of strange looks from all the dayhikers as we make our way down the tight switchbacks of Walter’s Wiggles and through Refrigerator Canyon. Carrying a heavy backpack must seem almost unfathomable to them. We take note of how many hikers are climbing up the 27 switchbacks to attempt Angel’s Landing in the heat of the afternoon while carrying a dangerously insufficient amount of water with them. Many are dropping like flies, and they are learning an important lesson. No doubt they are suffering from the combination of the grueling 2500 foot climb and the intense heat.

By the time we get in view of the canyon floor, we both have our eyes locked on the Virgin River. We feel like we are being drawn to its blue-green waters like moths to a flame, and we don’t even try to resist the pull. At the first trail sign for river access, we exchange one knowing glance at each other and take the short spur straight for the water’s edge. We throw off our packs, strip down to our underwear and march right into the cold water. The river is freezing, but it feels so good on our overheated bodies. It immediately drops our core temperature and picks up our mood.

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Floating in the cool Virgin River on this scorching hot day feels almost like a religious moment—a baptism, a rebirth, something definitely extraordinary. We have huge smiles, and we laugh and play in the water, even though we are in our underwear in full view of all the people on the trail and on the park shuttles plying the road above us. We don’t care. We are in heaven, and it feels like we have been given a new lease on life. Hallelujah!

We wish we could spend the rest of the day wallowing around in the fast-flowing water, but we know we must get dressed and carry on.

Before long, we arrive at The Grotto, a shuttle stop and picnic area on the Canyon View Road. Here we can relax for a short time in semi-shade and let some of the afternoon heat pass us by. It’s jarring to see the steady flow of visitors heading out on day hikes and the stress that puts on the bathroom facilities and the park staff. We cook a hot lunch and fill our water bladders with water from a spigot! We know we may not see another water source until tonight’s camp. By 4:30 we decide we must move up the road to begin the next leg of the TZT. Ideally, we would like to be trail purists and walk the 1.2 miles up the road. The 100 degree temperatures in Zion Canyon make the prospect of walking on hot asphalt seem a little crazy, so we decide to hop on the park shuttle and skip the road walk.

The trail to the top of the East Rim of Zion Canyon begins with long switchback after long switchback in the full sun, and it feels like we are getting cooked on all sides in a convection oven again. We take it slowly and keep looking down at the road below to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, making progress, even though the going is mighty slow. I try to be grateful for the steep grade, knowing that this means we will get the worst of the elevation gain over with quickly. Flat sections of the trail are few and far between, and my positive attitude is definitely being tested.

It is late afternoon now, and we are thankful to see far fewer people on this side of the canyon. Most of the people we pass are day hikers heading down from Observation Point or Hidden Canyon. The trail is getting quieter, and we come across a deer grazing in the grasses just off of the trail.

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Once we have scaled the first major wall, we head into the shade of Echo Canyon, and we are rewarded with views of a quiet and beautiful slot canyon that we have all to ourselves! We take photos of the reflection of the sky in the still water trapped between wavy rock formations. Unlike the Virgin River, this murky, brown water is decidedly uninviting, so it’s a surprise when we hear a large chorus of frogs making loud, Smoke Monster-type sounds (#LostFansUnite!). What an unusual place for them to call home!

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As we head up the canyon, Team San Diego catches up to us, and we enjoy another trail reunion, a welcome distraction from the rigors of the hike. They camped at the top of the West Rim and have had a much shorter day than us. After enjoying a long rest break on the canyon floor, they are feeling refreshed  and blow right past us as soon as we start moving again.

The trail now turns to slick rock and puts our tired legs to the test as we balance at all sorts of strange angles, hoping the tread on our boots will help us to defy gravity as we move along.

Small rock cairns placed every 10 feet or so help show us the path of least resistance through this trail-less rock wilderness. Somehow, we miss a turn near the end of this section and get turned around. We almost start following the cairns in the wrong direction before we realize the scenery is looking a little too familiar. Matt plays scout and determines the correct way to go. Back on the right track, we wend our way down to the bottom of the canyon and begin the ascent up the other side.

This is the final climb out of Echo Canyon. Gradually the slick rock trail changes to loose rock, sand and finally dirt as we climb higher and higher. Though the footing is easier, we are so fatigued from hiking for so long in the extreme heat that it feels brutal and endless. At each turn I keep glancing up, hoping to see the end of our ascent. The higher we go, the more the views open up. Finally, we see the full height of the canyon rim high above us and suspect that’s how high we must climb before the trail will finally level out. We are fatigued and it’s a bit depressing to know that we still have so far to go, and it’s getting late in the day.

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Camping on the East Rim is dispersed, and we are not supposed to camp until after getting out os Echo Canyon. Our tent must also be well out of sight (at least 100 yards) from the trail, but, as soon as the trail levels out to red dirt, we spot a flat site just a few yards from the trail’s edge. We set up our tent underneath Ponderosa pines at the end of the canyon.

The sun is almost down now, and we figure that no one else is likely still behind us. We are exhausted and grateful for this campsite as we peel our socks and boots off and unpack our bags. A warm updraft  from the canyon keeps the temperature pleasant as the hot sun finally disappears. We eat a picnic dinner on the canyon edge in the darkness as giant ants scuttle all around us for our crumbs. At last, we crawl into our sleeping bags just past 10 pm, hoping for a full night of well-deserved sleep.

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9 thoughts on “Backpacking the Trans-Zion Traverse Day 4: West Rim to Echo Canyon

  1. Sorry I’m just catching up with your travels as I just returned from 3 weeks in New Zealand and Australia last night. Your story telling is FABULOUS!!!!! Couple that with your photos makes for a spellbinding read. Thank you so much for sharing your travels and hikes. I hope you’re saving all of your writing and pictures because I see the potential for a book. People all over world will be motivated to dare the dream of following in your footsteps seeing the incredible beauty in our world and the challenges awaiting them. So inspiring!!!

    1. Hi Rick! How exciting that you were in New Zealand and Australia. We love that you are traveling so much in your retirement. It gives us hope for the future! We were on the South Island of NZ over winter break for 3 weeks, and we loved it. We will have to trade travel stories next time we cross paths. Thanks so much for your kind words. They mean a lot coming from you, my friend! 🙂

  2. Can I just say that your photos are beautiful and the story lovely? My husband and I hiked the Observation Point trail on a September day and found no one at the top. We had it all to ourselves!! I wish you best in your travels. I heard your Iceland talk in Lisle, IL a few years back…..am a bit jealous of your adventures but can live vicariously through your strong legs, lungs and love 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! We really appreciate you reading about our travels and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. How wonderful that you got to experience a trail in Zion all to yourself! That’s always such a special experience. We are hoping to put together a program about all of our big hikes in the near future, so hopefully we will be presenting for your club again soon. All the best to you!

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