Zion. A holy land and the pilgrimage of a lifetime worthy only of those most pious and devout ultra runners!
Trapped in an endless winter and confined to our local trails for months, our legs craved a big adventure. The Utah desert seemed to be the perfect destination. But could the Zion traverse live up to the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run?
49 miles from the SE boundary to the far NW corner of Zion National Park led us through, above, below, and across some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever had the privilege to see with my own eyes and experience on my own two feet.
The net vertical gain (8,800′ according to our watch but over 10,000′ according to others) and the downhill trending second half don’t make the course seem too daunting but what the maps and graphs don’t show is the varied terrain – little rocks, big rocks, plain ol’dirt, a little bit of pavement and… miles and miles of soft desert sand – and the ever changing landscapes that go along with it – high plateaus, slot canyons, cliff ledges, forests tracks, slick rocks, lush valleys and…. miles and miles of soft desert sand. This run is definitely one of the tougher adventure runs out there – only those who are prepared to suffer should enter the gates of Zion!
Alberto (who also ran RRR50 last year), Mike O (who just placed 2nd at the Desert RATS Double-Marathon last weekend), Ryan and I hopped in a car and left Boulder late Thursday evening to sleep under a full-moon sky in the Colorado National Monument in Fruita, CO – half way to Zion.
Since the run across Zion is a point-to-point course we rented a 2nd car from nearby Cedar City, parked it at the finish trailhead (Lee Pass) and then drove up Kolob Terrace Road to hide a few gallon jugs of water in a sage bush at the Hop Valley Trailhead (mile 35 of the run). And then, the drive from the West gate to the East entrance of the park was almost unbearable - like a kid on Christmas morning, Mike nearly jumped out of the car and just started running! With an intoxicating glimpse of the awesomeness that awaited us, we pitched our tents a mile from the East Trailhead where we’d start at first light. Time for bed.
Dawn couldn’t come soon enough! With a chill in the air and a hint of sunlight breaking on the horizon we set off on our journey.
Harnessing the positive energy from the setting full moon and the rising sun:
The early miles breezed along.
An obligatory moment to savour the views as the sun illuminates the promised land:
Down and down into the valley we go!
A stretch of unbeatable slick rock brought back memories of February’s race in Moab:
And the contrasting lights and shadows heightened the drama of the canyons:
Springtime in the desert surprised us with splashes of intense color,
and prickly ‘n plump native flora:
Into the depths of Zion! ECHOOOO Canyon:
We popped out from the slot canyon into the humbling and jaw-dropping vertical rock walls:
‘Round a corner and BOOM! Zion Canyon! In a few short miles we’d be up there 1/2 a vertical mile overhead! WOW!
We ran down the road, refilled water at the spigot by the Grotto Trailhead and crossed the North Fork of the Virgin River to begin our ascent of Angel’s Landing (the protrusion straight ahead of us) at about mile 13:
A glimpse back down Zion Canyon:
Up, up and away!
BOOM! (again!) The back side of Angel’s Landing. There were a lot of stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks moments like this:
Opting to avoid the building crowds of day hikers and tourists, we skipped the add-on to tag the summit of Angel’s Landing and headed further up the West Rim through Refrigerator Canyon, the highest & one of the most iconic sections of the run:
Views worth all the drops of sweat in the world!
There is a junction at the top of the climb. Take the left trail (West Rim Trail). The extra bit of mileage is by far compensated by the unbeatable vistas over the high plateaus.
Mile 20ish and feeling on top of the world… literally!
The next few miles were a joy to run. The flat (non-sandy!) trail hugged the edge of the best view around:
The Potato Hollow spring is a little ways off the trail, not at all obvious to find and barely a spring but delightfully refreshing nonetheless.
From the spring the trail continues North away from the impressive cliffs and into the open scorching backcountry.
With the sun beaming overhead now and flat runnable terrain, the miles and hours started taking their toll. Alberto, who hadn’t been feeling well since the day before, made the sensible decision to drop out at the West Rim Trailhead. Luckily he bumped into a group of runners there and was able to hitch a ride back into Springdale (where he patiently waited for hours and hours and hours).
The next 10 miles along the Wildcat Canyon Trail and then the Connector Trail to the Hop Valley Trailhead moved along at a quick pace.
Yep, starting to feel the reality of running this kind of distance…
Pushing along for another mile to reach our secret stash of water and…
…Pineapples! Delicious nectar of the Gods! A picnic under the glorious shade of a tree was too heavenly… we ended up sitting here for 30 minutes! Oops.
Ready to rock ‘n roll! In the sand…
and then some wet sand…
and more sand…
10 miles of it!
Despite the tortuous terrain, Hop Valley simply takes your breath away. The luminous green grass on the valley floor encased by dramatic orange canyon walls sparkled and shone like the Emerald City.
Finally, after what felt like an eternal energy depleting plod along the yellow
brick sand road, we hit the rushing La Verkin Creek.
We took a few minutes to bask in the glory of the cool water before the home stretch and… yep, more sand.
Unaccustomed to the heat and the feeling of 12 hours in the blazing sun, Ryan and I both lost our appetites towards the end. We tried to eat but just couldn’t muster it. We paid for it in the final 3 miles. Meanwhile, Mike charged on like a man on a mission! With a mile left to go, we regrouped, sighted Lee Pass in the distance and finished strong and proud. An unforgettable journey and the adventure run of a lifetime. Full of emotions we collapsed in the rental car, met Alberto in Springdale and consumed copious amounts of ice cream :-)
For those who like to geek out on gear & stats, here’s what we ate (not nearly enough…), how we dressed and how long it all took:
water spigot at The Grotto TH at mile 11
Potato Hollow spring (filter/purify) at mile 21
Trailside spring (filter/purify) at mile 29
water stash at Hop Valley TH at mile 35
Patagonia running skirt
Icebreaker GT150 sports bra, short sleeved shirt & socks
super light North Face jacket
Inov8 Trailroc 236 trail shoes
Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 pack
1.5L water reservoir
MSR HyperFlow water filtration pump
Nikon Coolpix AW100 (for video)
SPOT satellite messenger device
Icebreaker GT150 short sleeved shirt & socks
Inov8 Roclite 315 trail shoes
Raidlight Ultra pack
1.5L water reservoir
Nikon D300 with 10-24 lens
LowePro AW50 camera bag (with strap modifications)
TOTAL # OF PHOTOS TAKEN = 515 (that works out to approx 1 photo per 0.1 miles!)
TOTAL MILES = 48.6
TOTAL RUNNING TIME = 10 hrs 27 min
TOTAL TIME = 12 hrs 48 min
START TIME = 6:15AM (no headlamps needed)
FINISH TIME = 7:03PM (plenty of time before sunset)
TEMP LOW/HIGH = 36/87°F (2/30°C)
A run across Zion National Park in Utah. Jammed packed with awesomeness and sprinkled with a little suffering.