I left for Zion on Thursday morning. I had packed my new backpack with a few last bits of food and a new solar charger clip after lunch and hit the road for southern Utah. I-15 is pretty straight and long, so I decided to veer off and check out the "other way" around Vegas. I went down Nipton Highway and stopped at Nipton. In the Mojave Preserve area, this highway is, for a stretch, called Joshua Tree Highway. This is why:
All of the little things in the background are Joshua trees. I think the 1610 AM radio band said it's the highest concentration of Joshua trees anywhere. Team Joshua.
I hit Searchlight, headed up 95, visited Hoover Dam for old time's sake, and then doubled back to go up 93 and rejoin 15. When I reached St. George, Utah, I learned that it was time for the World Senior Games. I did not know this thing existed, but apparently it happens every October and I just happened to hit town as it was happening. I "lucked out" finding a room cancelation and got a double queen room for $105.
The next morning I took my time getting up, ate breakfast at the hotel, drove to the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center (west side of Zion, near I-15) and talked to the rangers about my backcountry camping options.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that I was not going to be able to hike the Zion Traverse, i.e. from Lee's Pass to the eastern entrance of the park. The gaps between available campsites were too large (or so I thought), one of them requiring a 21 mile hike in a day. Since I had never been backcountry backpacking before, I decided to opt for a route that went in to the West Rim and then worked back out. I was a little disappointed by this because a) I wouldn't get to the Zion Canyon and b) retracing your steps is not as exciting as seeing fresh things every day.
In simple terms, my plan was:
Day 1: Lee's Pass to Horse Camp C in Hop Valley (~ 8 miles)
Day 2: Horse Camp C to the Northgate Peaks (open camping off the trail - ~ 10.3 miles).
Day 3: Northgate Peaks to Camp 9 at Sawmill Springs on the West Rim (~ 5.6 miles)
Day 4: Camp 9 at Sawmill Springs to Camp 14 at La Verkin Creek (north of Horse Camp C - ~16.5 miles).
Day 5: Camp 14 at La Verkin Creek to Lee's Pass (~6.3), then drive home.
The map below shows campsites with red x's. The route is not explicitly mapped out, but I used the La Verkin, Hop Valley, Connector, Northgate Pass (barely), Wildcat Canyon, and West Rim (barely) trails.
The first day was pretty slow. I fumbled a lot with my gear. I wasn't used to carrying a 30 lb. pack and was unsure of where to stow everything. For the first two hours, I was constantly stopping to re-arrange things. By the second day, I was set, but the first day was pretty irritating.
The first half of La Verkin Trail is a long, gradual descent to the La Verkin Creek. Remember that this is a descent; it will be important later. La Verkin Creek is beautiful and relatively cool even in the early afternoon. I hit my head on a low-hanging tree branch around Camp 4 or 5, which was fantastic.
I restocked my water near campsite 14 and continued on to Hop Valley. What the map doesn't really indicate is that the little stretch between La Verkin Creek and Hop Valley is a fairly gnarly ascent and descent (at least compared to La Verkin itself). Once in Hop Valley, the trail loosely continues north-south, but there's basically nowhere else to go. The entire valley is lined with steep rocks. If you want to get to the Hop Valley Trailhead, just go south and eventually you'll (probably) hit it.
I camped at Horse Camp C with time to spare before sunset. Though the National Park Service website hadn't mentioned it, the rangers said that bears "might" come up into the camps. The lack of bears was why I didn't bother buying a bear bag. I also didn't have rope, so I improvised by sticking my compression sacks of food on a hiking pole and hoisting them onto a tree branch. Whether it actively did any good or not I can't say, but nothing ever got into them.
The next morning I remembered why I don't like camping in valleys (such as Yosemite) in autumn: the sunlight hits the valley for a small window of time, meaning it was around 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit for a good chunk of the morning. I broke camp late in the morning and headed through Hop Valley.
I have to say I really didn't like the hike. There was no trail, most of the ground was sand, and it was full of cows.
I restocked on water (after filtering) halfway through, and got woefully lost a few miles later. Checking my map and compass, I concluded that the trail I was looking at was actually a high clearance 4x4 trail (something that was marked on the map, but this wasn't it). As a result, I went down into a valley that was absolutely not on the trail and wasted about 45 minutes to an hour hunting around in there. I eventually worked my way out after taking this picture:
I headed up the Hop Valley Trail into a meadow on top.
This was much easier hiking and I reached the Hop Valley Trailhead in decent time. After resting a bit, I headed out on Connector Trail, but here I tripped and, unaccustomed to the weight of my pack, fell forward. I fell at an awkward angle and wasn't able to get my hands out in time. My head landed on a rock at the right temple, where I had previously received a concussion from playing soccer. After hanging out for a bit, I felt sore but otherwise fine.
I continued along Connector Trail until the trail became a series of barely-maintained cairns along rock. It was slow-going at this point, but I made it through to Northgate Peaks in good time.
Camping at Northgate Peaks was nice because it was open camping and I picked a spot with a good view of the eastern horizon. It was windy, but the sun rose early on my camp, so I broke camp in relatively warm (~60 degrees Fahrenheit) weather and headed back up Northgate Peaks to Wildcat Canyon Trail.
The third day was a short day because of the odd camping arrangement. All I had to do was walk Wildcat Canyon Trail and head down to Sawmill Springs on the West Rim. This went fine until the point where I almost stepped on a rattlesnake.
There are loud, annoying grasshoppers all over Zion, high and low. They make a distinctive sound when they jump that becomes background noise after a while. Cresting a rise on Wildcat Canyon, I heard a... similar sound. I knew somehow that it wasn't the same sound, but I also didn't rationally recognize it as a rattle. I can only guess that instictively, generations of human survival habits kicked in and my mind made my body jump away from the sound. Only after I looked did I see this dude chillin' about 6" from the trail. A man on the internet named "rattlesnakeguy" told me this is a Great Basin Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus lutosus. It was very difficult to see but thankfully was not agressive. This picture was taken from the location to which I jumped at maximum zoom and is actually heavily cropped. In the original picture, you can't even tell anything's there.
I restocked my water at a spring along the way and on the third night, I made my camp near Sawmill Springs. I knew the next day was going to be a long hike, so I restocked all of my water ahead of time and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading The Pearl of Great Price by Joseph Smith.
In the early evening, around 8 p.m., I heard an alarming sound. At first I thought it was a mountain lion, but after listening to sounds again, it was probably a black bear. That seems more likely given my previous experiences with black bears and the reclusive nature of Zion's mountain lions. Anyway, I heard heavily animal breathing and walking around the camp for a few minutes. I decided not to exit my tent for obvious reasons. After shifting around in my tent and making noise for a bit, the sounds stopped and I did not hear them again for the rest of the night.
At 7:15 a.m., I forced myself to get up even though it was still relatively cold (~40-45 degrees). I broke camp, ate breakfast, and started out from the West Rim determined to get back to La Verkin Creek by sunset. It was 8:09.
I can't really explain what followed. I hiked Wildcat Canyon in less than half the time that I had hiked it on the previous day. And I hiked Connector Trail in half time as well. I realized that if kept up this pace, I might actually be able to get back to the trailhead before sunset. I had no mishaps, no misplaced gear, and I felt good. Even though I did realize that I had been getting by on an absurdly low calorie diet (~1000/day -- normally my "dieting" target is between 1400 and 1600), I hadn't felt any ill effects.
I hiked through Hop Valley quickly, restocked my main Platypus water bag (I didn't think I would need more to that) and started up to La Verkin Creek. At this point, I had not yet realized that most of my electrolytes/salt were completely gone. I'm not sure how I didn't notice this considering my shirt looked like a big salt ring and my skin was covered in salt.
I hit La Verkin Trail at 2:16 p.m. That left about 4+ hours to hit the Lee's Pass trailhead before sunset. No problem. I felt great, (thought) I had plenty of water, and it was already past peak heat. I set off into 6.4 miles of hell.
The first three miles were fine, but when the trail turned north, I started to slow down. I had been consuming more and more water and hadn't realized I was getting weaker. Another mile from Camp 3 and I stopped to eat a bit and rest. I had only eaten breakfast and a quarter of one Clif Bar. It was then that I realized my throat was swollen and I was having trouble swallowing. I took a drink of water and suddenly realized I was completely out. I couldn't remember how far back the creek was, and I had forgotten that almost the entire trip south-north on La Verkin is an ascent.
In about half an hour, I was stumbling forward. I had to stop at every rise at least once. It took monumental effort to go anywhere. It was such a sudden transformation I'm still pretty surprised, but I guess hypotonic dehydration will do that to you: even if you're intaking water, your body has no electrolytes to do anything with it. I had been running on empty since somewhere in Hop Valley.
At one point I actually fell down on my hands and knees from exhaustion. I really had no idea how far it was to the trailhead because I "knew" I had missed the sign for Camp 1. Even after I saw the trailhead and road in sight, I still was having trouble. Every step was arduous and it seemed like an endless ascent even though they wouldn't normally seem very steep.
Luckily, two hikers were passing from the north. I opened my mouth to talk to them and realized I sounded like the grandma on that motorcycle bar reality show. I was really, really getting dehydrated. I asked them how far the trailhead was. They said, "About 15 minutes. Why? Are you alright?"
I asked them if they could spare any water. They gave me two cups, which made me feel much better... temporarily. They asked me how far I had gone today and I said from the West Rim, about 23 miles. The man said, "That's Pacific Crest pace. What are you doing?" to which I replied, "I don't know. I'm not really sure how I made it this far."
After assuring them that I would be okay, I slowly ambled up to the trailhead. The water had helped for a few minutes, but because I had no electrolytes left, the climb was still extremely difficult. I reached my car and unloaded all of my gear. I changed my clothes, got in my car, and still felt like I had been beaten with a bunch of electrified baseball bats. I drove down to St. George, stocked up on bottles of Gatorade and water, and watched the sun set from my car while forcing myself to drink. I started to feel marginally better, so I found a hotel for the night. After resting for a couple of hours, my throat started to feel better, my voice sounded less demonic, and while I didn't have much of an appetite, I no longer felt nauseous. After a decent pizza dinner, I felt 80% better. By the end of the next day I was back in Huntington Beach and felt 95% of the way back to normal health.
In retrospect, I really don't know how I went that whole distance, and it's pretty scary that I went from feeling so good to so miserable in the span of about 45 minutes. In the future, I will plan my meals, water re-supply, and daily trip lengths a little more carefully. Still, it was a lot of fun and southern Utah continues to be one of the most beautiful places I've visited in my life.
If you get the chance to visit any part of Zion or, better yet, do a day hike, you will see one of the most spectacular natural places in America.
Tags: non-motorcycle travel