Zion National Park holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite protected desert lands. My first experience with the park was on a road trip moving from Kentucky to California with my buddy Greg. We rolled into Zion after dark, crashed and slept on the ground in South Campground, woke up early to hike Angel’s Landing, and then promptly fled the scene, focused on making our daily miles and heading west. In 2008 my wife Maureen and I returned in our Eurovan named Bella, posting up in the campground for two weeks of epic canyoneering and a Friday night gay wedding in the middle of Mormon country. Three years later we returned with our son Sage, hauling him (and a training potty) up to the West Rim as training for our thru-hike across the Alps that summer. I had seen a good chunk of the park, and some backcountry canyons that most folks don’t get to ever experience, but I knew there was a lot more landscape to be traveled. The idea of The Traverse had been in my mind for a while – really since getting my mind blown during a Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in spring of 2019. I had originally targeted Spring Break 2020 for my Traverse attempt, and passed many a dark and cold winter day obsessively checking the Kolob Canyon snow reports to see if the conditions would allow an April push. And then COVID-19 hit and all my travel plans (and races scheduled) were canceled.
I was kicking around the idea of a fall attempt (okay actually I was kicking around the idea of teaching online classes from a van in Utah) when one of my online buddies messaged me, asking me about the traverse. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I have online buddies, but I do. I frequent multiple message boards and forums for all kinds of things, but this particular thread was the intersection of running and the hippie jam band Phish. Phishhead Brian Facebooked me to inquire about the possibility of hooking up for a traverse attempt in September, and while I had never actually met the guy, him being up for something like this AND liking the boys from Vermont was enough of a personality screening for me. I cleared the weekend on my calendar, we started poking around for campsites, and before we knew it the trip was on.
The Zion Traverse is a classic desert trail running test pieces and often mentioned in the same sentence as R2R2R. The original route starts at the East Rim Trailhead off of Utah Highway 9 and heads about nine miles across the high country before dropping into the main Zion Canyon at Weeping Rock. It then crosses the main canyon road and climbs out the west side, taking the runner past the iconic Angel’s Landing and up to the West Rim. From there it traverses over to Lava Point before hitting the Connector Trail, descending into Hop Valley and La Verkin Creek, and then exiting at Kolob Canyons at the Lee Pass Trailhead. A massive rockslide in 2019 closed the east side of the canyon trail at Weeping Rock and shut down any hopes of performing the full traverse in a single go. I decided to start with the larger western portion, from The Grotto to Kolob, and maybe finish up with something on the East Rim if my legs could handle it.
The logistics were stressful and challenges kept piling up, but Brian and I kept moving forward with the planning and checking things off the list. The entire park was experiencing a nasty cyanotoxin algae bloom, which meant we couldn’t drink or filter even the little bit of water that was on the route. We figured we could cache water at two points along the way, and so I escaped the Bay Area like a bat out of hell (okay a teacher out of Zoom Meetings) and drove as far as I could Wednesday night before settling in for a night of disturbed sleep in a rest area near Mojave. I woke up early Thursday morning to complete the rest of the drive and cache our water, 4 gallons at each stop for me, Brian, and his buddy Jeff who would also be joining us from rural Illinois. We converged at the campsite Thursday evening, got to know each other a bit (while socially distancing of course), and set our alarms for 4 AM the next morning. However improbable the trip had seemed weeks ago, it now looked like it was going to happen.
We would be heading opposite directions on the Traverse, both to streamline the car pickups as well as ensure maximum distancing and limiting potential viral exposure. My family was about to spend some time with my elderly in-laws immediately the next week, so I needed to make sure that I took all the necessary precautions on this trip. I hopped on my bike and headed up the canyon road into the pitch darkness at 4:30 AM before locking it up at the Grotto and taking to my feet, while Brian and Jeff drove out to the West Entrance. We would see each other briefly in the middle and then meet back at the campsite that night!
The bike trip up the Canyon was magical in itself and was exactly what I needed to clear my mind and get focused on the adventure ahead of me. I am enjoying Zoom teaching much more than I initially thought I would, and yet it takes many times the same amount of energy live teaching does to keep teenagers semi-engaged in Physics. In short, I was already exhausted from 6 weeks of school, but it was nothing a bike ride through a sandstone canyon in utter darkness couldn’t cure. The climb up past Angel’s Landing was steady and reassuring – I had been up this stretch many times before, and so I didn’t mind that I was doing it in headlight on this beautiful Friday morning. The sun began to poke over the East Rim just as I was nearing the top of the climb, and I paused to soak it all in, remembering hauling Sage up this same trail as we debated whether to push on through the icy, snowy switchbacks. I stopped in my tracks to commune with the spirits of the canyon, in what was now one of my personal traditions in these sacred desert landscapes – assuring them that I was only there passing through for the day, that I meant them no harm, and asking for their blessing in my travels.
The views from the West Rim were as jaw-dropping as ever, and now I could see the infamous towers and peaks of Zion Canyon. I passed the exact spot where we camped with Sage, spending an extra night in the snow instead of pushing on, watching him shovel hot ramen into his two year old face. I had a similar experience on my Evolution Loop after being there with the family on the JMT – it’s really a special thing coming back to the same amazing trails year after year. I find that I have extremely vivid memories associated with actual physical sections of the trail, and it’s a unique intersection of memory and topography that really makes my soul happy. On that backpacking trip we had been aiming for a second night at Potato Hollow, and I was pleased to find that even if we didn’t make it there in 2011 I was about to run through it right now. It was a beautiful stretch of the rim, with fire-colored aspen and smooth single track tucked into the dry grasslands high above the country.
I continued to snake along the high spine of the rim as I worked my way west toward Lava Point. The running was smooth and I was struck with how peaceful the whole scene felt. I was not stressed nor overly taxed, and I was able to simply relax and enjoy my run. I was learning how to reap the benefits of these adventure runs I had been focused on during COVID – in a normal race year it’s very hard to not think that I should be pushing harder for training, or actually running in a race. I wasn’t focused on any future goals besides the present, and above the canyons felt like exactly where I needed to be. I worked my way toward Lava Point, the first water cache, and marveled at how quickly the topography was changing as parts of the rock became clearly volcanic. I cruised into the first water stop and took my pack off, filling up on water and rearranging my snacks for the next leg. My nutrition for these long pushes was pretty solid and I knew I could make it all day if I alternated a Gu and a solid bite of Clif Bar or Payday every thirty minutes. I was carrying water in my pack for the first time in a while, opting to carry one liter in soft flasks on my front and two single liter Platypus flasks in my back. I forced myself to drink one liter every hour as I knew I had to stay ahead of hydration with a long, hot afternoon approaching. All systems were go and I continued on to the Connector Trail, knowing this is where I would probably meet up with Brian and Jeff.
The Connector trail was sweet and vastly exceeded my expectations. One intriguing part of this Traverse was that every section of trail felt like it could be a different National Park – the towering walls of the main canyon, the high and breezy West Rim, the smooth buttery singletrack of the Connector. This part was incredibly runnable and I chugged down the trail past the wide gorge of Wildcat Canyon on the left and the remnants of an ancient lava flow from Lava Point on the right. I was feeling good and making great time so far, and I soaked in the autumn colors of the trees that I simply don’t see where I live in the Bay Area. Right after I exited a cool little slickrock area I bumped into Brian and Jeff, who were looking like they had been worked over a bit that morning. We social-distanced ourselves on the trail and traded beta from the previous six hours. They were stoked to hear that it was about to get a lot more runnable for them, and they narrated the horrors of the Hop Valley sand that I was about to encounter to me. They would be pushing a bit for the last shuttle, but remained optimistic that they could pick up the pace a little bit as the trail smoothed out ahead of them. We took the obligatory group selfie (PTAW!) and kept on going to finish up our respective routes.
As soon as I left the Hop Valley parking lot I realized what they had been complaining about – holy cow, there was a lot of sand. Deep, loose, hot sand that sucked the energy out of your stride and made all the little stablizer muscles in your legs feel like Jello. Up until that point my legs had been feeling great, and I had even done some UltraMath that put me finishing around ten hours elapsed. Ha! I had to quickly let those times go out of my head as I attempted to perfect my cross-country skiing with poles style descent down through the granular molasses. I exchanged pleasantries with some folks backpacking up who assured me that “the sand goes on forever dude”. They were basically right.
As I turned the corner into Hop Valley proper I tried to stay positive and remember why I was out there – to relax and experience a full day in one of the most amazing spots in the world. Yes, the sand sucked, but the scenery was the best of the day so far – to my left was a towering red sandstone wall, rising straight up from the valley floor. To my right were delicate hoodoos, perched atop the cliff ledges rising out of the grass. And down the middle of the valley was a strange collection of privately owned cows, punctuating the bizarreness of this area. I had to expend moderate energy to hike at even a 20 minute/mile pace in the sandy spots, but I just told myself that there was no rush, I was not racing, and I would finish when I finished. I took the sand as a reminder of acceptance – this was my chance to go slow and look up and around, soaking it all in.
The relentless sand did eventually fade away until only certain problematic spots were left, and I took the detour to see Kolob Arch because it seemed like the right thing to do. The lighting when I got to the arch was not great, but it was cool to catch a glimpse of what might be the world’s largest freestanding rock arch. Even more interesting was the scummy green algae that was present in the small trickling creek on the way up the trail – this was the toxic cyanoalgae that had contaminated most of the water in the park. It was not visually evident in the larger, swifter flowing rivers, but only a fool would drink from this green meandering creek. I headed back to the main trail and soldiered on, heading up the final climb to Lee Pass Trailhead. The final push was hot but reasonably mellow, and I struggled with the ultra-dichotomy of both wanting to be done with the run, and knowing that it is never a good move to rush out of the backcountry. I shifted into power hiking mode and gazed up at the impressive Kolob Canyons as I grinded my way up to the parking lot, feeling like I was in yet another National Park with a new ecosystem and topography. I topped out at 5:30 PM, twelve hours after I had launched from the Grotto on the other side of the park.
The day had gone smoothly and I realized that I was becoming more proficient at these all day, backcountry adventures. My nutrition and gear is dialed and I am perfecting a speed that allows me to make constant progress but not ever get so destroyed that I cannot recover or get myself out of a bad situation if I needed too. I admit that I am savoring the lack of pressure typically associated with a race. Yes, it’s nice to have the aid stations and spectators cheering you on, but with that also comes a certain amount of adrenaline that doesn’t allow me to fully relax. My trip across Zion had been comforting in a sense – it was just me in the desert, moving at my own speed through the canyon walls.
The boys from Illinois finished up strong and hit the Canyon floor about 8PM, with plenty of time to make the final shuttle down. We regrouped for a bit at the campground, swapping war stories about the sandy conditions in Hop Valley (Never Forget!) and the diversity of scenery that surprised us across the park. After a good night’s sleep I sent them off on their way to the airport – they were tired but fulfilled from a proper adventure that really went about as smoothly as it could. I had some unfinished business to take care of of the East Rim, so I headed up to run an out-and-back section from the East Rim Trailhead to the lip of Echo Canyon and back. It was another relaxing 14 miles, on a Saturday where the heart of the park was packed with tourists and yet where I saw just a handful of people. There was a bit of sand on the route (nothing like Hop Valley!) but overall it felt like yet another area of the park, with wide sweeping vistas of the far off terrain to the east of Zion in the place of tight canyon walls. With my shakeout run I had completed very close to the entire original Traverse route, and I was infinitely thankful for getting to see so much of the park on my own two feet.
And so I leave Zion, and another adventure desert run, with an overwhelming feeling of peace, thanks, and gratitude. I give all thanks and praise to the spirits and protectors of the canyons, for they are the ones that granted me safe passage through the park. These lands are sacred, and they have been colonized and taken from their original inhabitants, which we must never forget. To me it is always important to tread lightly and move swiftly through as a visitor, while basking in the silence and sanctity that can only be found in the desert. Many people compare the Zion Traverse to the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, but I don’t think it’s a comparison that can be fairly made. They feel like two very different runs – the Grand Canyon dropping you into a crucible of emotion and sensation from which you must climb your way out, and the Traverse feeling more like a high-wire cross country route that glides you across an entire park. I’ve been fortunate enough to complete these two desert test pieces, and you better believe that my mind is already searching for the next big sandy adventure run.