Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"Kolob Terrace Road . . . is the least traveled of the main roads through Zion National Park,   
and provides an easy way to quickly reach the wilderness and escape the crowds that can
affect the more well known areas. It offers great views of distant cliffs and valleys,
hiking trails to high overlooks and along narrow canyons, and varied 
landscapes reflecting the wide elevation range . . ."

Today we enjoyed two very different sides of Zion National Park -- the remote high wilderness and the very popular Zion Canyon along the Virgin River.

This entry will cover the day trip we took in the morning to the far upper end of Kolob Terrace Road, a smooth paved road that runs north for about 24 miles from the town of Virgin, UT. The next entry will cover scenes from this afternoon along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive on the Pa'rus and Riverwalk trails.

View of distant domes and mesas from the southern end of Kolob Terrace Rd.

Kolob Terrace Road begins west of Springdale about 16 miles from the park's main gate. From our campground it was a total of about 40 miles one way, mostly uphill, to the reservoir at the end of the road. 

I marked our route in yellow on this small map of Zion National Park. You can see the reservoir near the top center of the map:

The legible version of this map is here (p. 5 of the park's pdf. guide)

The park's irregular boundaries are green on that map. The slanted rectangular box at the lower right is the most heavily-visited part of the park, Zion Canyon. Our campground near the west (south) gate of the park is the orange dot; a bit of I-15 up by the Kolob Canyons entrance to the park is marked in purple.

We took the dogs with us, and Jim's bike.

The potential plan was for me to do some hiking with the dogs on one of the trails that can be accessed from Kolob Terrace Road, and for Jim to ride his mountain bike on the road from the reservoir back down to Virgin, a drop of more than 4,500 feet. Outbound, our goal was to see what the terrain was like and to find which trailhead I'd use.

The narrow two-lane road is mostly smooth all the way to the reservoir.

Neither plan worked out but we enjoyed our sight-seeing trip with hardly anyone else around!

We went from about 3,550 feet elevation at Virgin up to 8,118 feet at the reservoir, passing through several eco-zones along the way. That made it very interesting -- lush green river valley to snow-covered plateaus and an iced-over reservoir in 24 miles -- from spring to winter and back down to spring again:

Bright green along the Virgin River (Hwy. 9 going west toward Virgin)

Above and below:  green fields and trees on Kolob Terrace Rd. along North Creek,
a tributary of the Virgin River (there are three horses in the picture above)

As we gained elevation, we morphed from riparian habitat to sage-covered plateaus within a few miles; here the deciduous trees aren't leafed out yet:  



A few miles before we reached the reservoir the sage-juniper-pinyon eco-system changed to conifers in the 7,000-8,000-foot elevation range and we began to see some snow along the roadway:

It's an interesting drive through both private and park land.

As you can (maybe) see on the small map above, the narrow road passes in and out of private and public property several times, with a few ranches, cabins, and summer homes visible along the way:

We also passed free-ranging cattle in the road a couple places

It was a beautiful sunny day, especially at the lower elevations. Temps ranged from 49 F. in the morning to the upper 60s in the afternoon at 4,000 feet in Zion Canyon and Springdale.

However, it was only in the low 30s F. about 10:30 AM at Kolob Reservoir at 8,000+ feet elevation and more cloudy in some places along Kolob Terrace Road. We let the dogs out to play in the snow at the lake but we didn't stay long; we weren't dressed for temperatures that cold and there was nowhere else to go with all the mud.



A dirt road encircles the reservoir but it was too muddy to explore.

It was so cold at the reservoir, where we had to turn around, that Jim decided not to ride his bike back down to Virgin.

The road wasn't all downhill on the way back "down" to Hwy. 9, either. There were a couple long uphill grades going back to Virgin that would have been difficult for him to ride, as well as some long, steep descents that might have fried his brakes. We had to keep the car in low gear part of the way down.

It's a good thing he was able to see the terrain on the way up to the reservoir so he could decide whether to ride back down. He had a much better time riding the same distance in Zion Canyon in the afternoon.



Nor did we see any trailheads that we could access today so I didn't hike any of the trails along Kolob Terrace Road with the dogs.

The dirt roads and trailhead parking areas were full of mud from melting snow and a couple days of rain that fell before we got here, so we didn't drive on them. This one was typical:


When I saw conditions at the higher elevations I also realized I wouldn't be able to do the West Rim Trail from up here for 18 miles down to Zion Canyon, either; there is too much ice and snow left along the trail this early in the season.

According to one local station, Zion National Park officially got only 7/10ths of an inch of rain recently but I'd guess the higher elevations got more than that, considering all the mud we saw and the condition of the Virgin River, which is running fast, brown, and a little high this week through Zion Canyon and Springdale:

The views to various rock formations, cliffs, peaks, and mesas are interesting along Kolob Terrace Road. We're glad we did the drive even though Jim decided not to ride his bike and I didn't find a good place to hike with the dogs.

We even spotted some wildflowers blooming along the side of the road at the lower elevations:

Apache Plume


Hedgehog cactus

This drive would be much prettier at the higher elevations in the summer and early fall when the leaves are out, the lake is free of ice, and trails and side roads are drier.

If you get tired of the crowds in the more popular areas of Zion, head up this road or drive to the Kolob Canyons section in the far northwestern part of the park. Even in the summer neither area gets nearly as many visitors as Zion Canyon.

Above and below:  two more scenes from Kolob Terrace Road this morning

This link has a very good overview of several hikes you can do from Kolob Terrace Road, including the West Rim Trail that runs 18 miles from Lava Point to Zion Canyon (later in the week I hiked the lower section of that trail) and the Left Fork of North Creek, a popular but strenuous route through the backcountry that requires a permit and reservation to reduce crowding through the unique Subway slot canyon.

Next entryscenes from the Pa'rus Trail and Riverside Walk in Zion Canyon

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil