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Backpacking the West Ridge in Zion National Park

Updated: Aug 29, 2023


Our goal is to do an epic backpacking trip each year and this time around everyone agreed to Zion. The plan was to spend 6 days in the park and 4 of those days backpacking and camping along the way from the northern part of Zion in the Hop Valley, south to Zion Valley along the West Rim.


Our Zion adventure started 6 months before we even had boots on the ground. Like many National Parks in the United States, you need to get permits to backpack and camp. The first part of the process is to go online to www.recreation.gov and start looking for openings for campgrounds. The permit system can be frustrating at times, trying to find anything that is available for campgrounds on or near the trail you will be on. I spent weeks going back and forth from the website and phone calls to the park rangers looking for open campgrounds. The trip was scheduled to start the 2nd week in April and I started in November on the permit process. I eventually got a hold of a seasoned ranger who said “just reserve any campground you can get a hold of and we can work it out when you pick up your permits”. I was able to find a campground in the middle of our journey on the West Rim and reserved that one for 4 nights.



Now that we have a start date and the trail along with “a” place to camp, we will research weather for that time of the year and plan out watering holes, gear, and food.

Zion gets most of its precipitation between December and March with chances of snow that can stay on the ground at the higher elevations until late April. We will be between 6500 and 7500 ft through the adventure. We will have a good chance of some cold nights and snow on the ground. This is also good news for water sources, the seasonal springs should be flowing. I called the Zion Ranger station in March for a weather update, they said there's still a good 2 ft of snow on the ridge and could stick around. With this info, we packed the needed snow gear in a go bag to be ready to divvy up if the snow was still there upon our arrival.


Day 1

Zion

The time had come, the car was loaded with all the gear and the long drive to Utah had started. We arrived in Zion around 4:30 PM and checked into the Hotel. Then we headed over to the Visitor Center to collect our permits only to find out that you have to buy a Park pass to enter the park to even get to the visitor center, and to top it off the park center closes at 5 PM. I had about 10 minutes to hall ass to the park center. Luckily I reached the doors just as they started locking the backside of the build and got in. There were a few people in front of me in line, but it moved fast and the discussion of available campsites started. I explained that I tried for 6 months to reserve all the sites we needed but, from the beginning it showed full, and the ranger confirmed that they showed full. I still didn’t understand how they can show full before the reservation period even started. She shrugged and ask if we will be staying at the West Rim campsite all 4 nights. I winked and said yes. She said, “why did you wink? you have to stay all night at the reserved campground”. I replied, “that’s over 15 miles and 4000 ft elevation gain from our start point”. And she replied, “Sir, you have to stay and that campground or you will be fined if caught in any other campground”. I said “Yes, we will remain at that campsite for 4 nights”, with a wink on the inside. With permits in hand, we then headed over to the local Brewpub for a good meal and a few beers.



Day 2

The next morning was an early start and brisk. The temp was in the mid-’30s and we could easily see our breath. We had hired a local shuttle to take us and our gear to our starting point which was about an hour's drive north to Hop Valley. We arrived just as the sun was rising and it felt good to feel the heat. Not far from the Wild Cat trailhead we came across some deer with the same idea of catching a few sun rays but quickly returned to the trees as we approached. Our first water source was near Pocket Mesa but still frozen, lucky for us we had all the water we needed until tomorrow. From there we turned right towards North Guardian Angel where we would camp the night, yes technically it was illegal based on our permit. After we set up camp we went exploring the Guardian Angel. We found a great spot on the western slope of the Guardian Angel with a view of the ridge we came up and a few Condors circling the area. We also found some fairly clean snow and made snow cones with the help of True Lemon packets.



Day 3

The next morning was a slow start, but warmer and overcast. We needed to hike back out of the canyon to reach the Wild Cat trail again. We would reach our highest point of 7500 ft on this day. There were sporadic patches of snow and ice all the way to the West Rim Trail, from here we would head south and shortly reach the turn-off for the next campground near Sawmill Springs. When we arrived at the campground we came across and solo hiker setting up camp. We asked him about his permit status and he mentioned the same issues we had. He would be the last person we saw until we reached Zion valley. The Sawmill Spring was flowing strong and water wasn’t an issue, but we noticed the temperature dropping and knew it was going to be a cold one.


Zion

Day 4

The next morning was a tough one, the tent condensation had frozen leading to a light dusting of snow on the inside. All our water was frozen, so we had to get it straight from the spring to get some hot meals started. We were in a canyon, so the sun wasn’t going to provide the needed warmth or the option to dry out our gear for a few hours. After our Hot coffee and Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal, we packed up our wet gear and headed south on the West Rim Trail. Oddly enough this day would warm up to the high 70s which allowed us to dry out some gear while we ate lunch and filled up on water from a pond that had formed at the base of Horseshoe Plateau. This not only worked out for drying our gear but gave us a chance to rest before we started the climb up the plateau. The warmth from the sun felt good, but the downside was all the patches of snow had now melted and made the trails extremely muddy. This made for a long and difficult trek up the hill with all the extra water we were lugging because there were no more water sources for the rest of the trip. Once again, we were the only people in the campground and were able to pick the best spot to avoid the high winds that suddenly appeared as the sun was setting. I guess this was common for this area because people had made windbreaks out of stacked rocks.


Zion

Day 5

The next morning was warm but clear. We spent some extra time in the morning hydrating and eating a good meal, this was to be the hardest part of the trip with over 3000 ft of elevation gain. We included Angels Landing into our exit plan. This stretch of the trail was the prettiest with the endless colorful rock formations and canyons. We dropped a good 2000 ft only to have to climb another 1000 feet to reach the base of Angels Landing. Now the fun has started. It was like we entered Disneyland, with the long lines waiting for the bathroom and to climb to the top of Angels Landing. The climb was miserably slow with the lines of people who shouldn’t even be on the trail in their Gucci jumpsuits and selfies every 5 feet. The only way we were going to make it to the top was to get out of the line and rock hop to the top. The views a the top are priceless, but not seeing any people for 4 days made staying at the top less appealing due to the crowds. As we descended into the valley the temps reached the high 80s. When we reached the bus stop to catch a ride back to the hotel we realized we were a little ripe in the smell department and the expressions of people on the bus confirmed that. We made it back to the hotel for a hot shower and a quick nap before we returned to the brewpub for a welcome un-rehydrated meal and a few beers. We slept well that night.



UPDATE: As of April 1, 2022, the National Park System has implemented a "Lottery" system for anyone who wants to hike Angels Landing. I understand the reason for this new system, but I don't agree with the new Lottery. Just to enter the Lottery you need to pay $6 and keep in mind this Lottery system is for everyone Worldwide who wants to do Angels Landing. In 2019 over 4.5 million people visited Zion National Park and the Rangers "think" about 1,000 people do Angels Landing each day. Not sure how they came to this number if they regularly don't have staff on the trail. But now they do have people on the trails checking for permits if you are one of the lucky ones to get a permit.


Day 6

Long drive home.


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