Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"Most visitors to Zion are familiar with the lower section of the West Rim Trail that   
leads to the famous Angels Landing hike, but those willing to hike further up
the trail will be treated to more outstanding views as the clever trail makes
its way through the wondrous sandstone formations . . ."

The West Rim Trail stretches 14.2 miles per the park website -- some other websites like Joe Braun's say it's up to 18 miles long -- between The Grotto in Zion Canyon up to Zion National Park's highest spot at Lava Point in the northwest section of the park.

Views of the White Cliffs from the West Rim Trail are simply stunning!

If you want to escape most of the crowds at Zion, just continue hiking beyond the second mile of the lower end of the West Rim Trail at Scout's Lookout and you'll be in the backcountry. Most of the foot traffic in the first two miles is headed to the iconic Angels Landing.

I marked the trail on this NPS map section so you can see where it is. The 5+ mile section I hiked out and back is in blue; the remainder of the trail up to Lava Point is in yellow:

You can find the whole map on the park's website or in much more detail on Joe Braun's website; he has a nice copyrighted topo map with the trail marked on it.

This trail is commonly hiked in two different ways:

1) An up-down (out-and-back) day hike from The Grotto in the main canyon, with distances varying from a mile to over 28 miles, depending on how far you want to go. Today I went out for over five miles to Cabin AKA West Rim Spring and back, e.g., for a total of about 11 miles with the wandering around that I did at Scout's Lookout below Angels Landing.

You can go any distance outbound on the West Rim Trail and turn around, or do the 5-mile loop up on Horse Pasture Plateau that includes Telephone Canyon Trail (total of about 14 miles with the loop). The right side of the loop is visible on the map above but I didn't highlight it.

West Rim Trail to the left, Telephone Canyon Trail to the right

2) Another common way to hike the West Rim Trail is a top-down, one-way hike descending from Lava Point to The Grotto, the full 14.2 miles. That's a long day hike or a backpacking trip with one night on the trail.

You could go the other direction -- bottom-up -- if you prefer going mostly uphill. The main disadvantage of that direction is having to spot a vehicle 'way up on Kolob Terrace Road to get back down to civilization when you're done. It's usually easier for hikers and runners to get dropped off at the top, hike or run down, and catch a shuttle bus in the main part of the park at The Grotto at the end of the trek.

One of the reasons we drove up to Kolob Reservoir yesterday was to check out the trails on the high plateaus because I considered doing the whole West Rim Trail from the top down. That didn't pan out, however, because there is still ice and snow at Lava Point! We couldn't even drive to the trailhead because the dirt road back to it was too sloppy.

Typical condition of dirt (mud!) roads yesterday to trailheads like Lava Point

After doing just the lower five miles up and back to Cabin Spring, I'm actually glad the upper parts of the trail weren't suitable for a top-down hike today.

I talked with a hiker this afternoon who's done the entire trail previously and he said the lower five or six miles of the trail are by far the most scenic -- exactly what I did today. Other websites describing the entire West Rim Trail echo his sentiment.

If I ever hike this trail again, I'll probably start at The Grotto again and just continue farther out-and-back than I did today on the West Rim Trail so I can see the reported great views of Phantom Valley and the Great West Canyon.


Since I described this two-mile segment of the ascent in detail in the last entry re: Angels Landing, I won't go into as much detail here or show as many photos. The pictures in this section are ones I included in that entry, and they show views going in both directions. Jim and I hiked up this section together on our way to Angels Landing this morning, and came down separately later on.

From the Grotto shuttle stop (#6 on the route) cross Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the pedestrian bridge over the Virgin River:


At the end of the bridge, turn right and go north on the West Rim Trail along the river. The path is relatively wide and paved the whole way up to Scout's Lookout.

The first half mile rises gently through cottonwood trees, then Utah junipers and pinyon pines, with good views of Angels Landing and more distant cliffs to the north and south in Zion Canyon:



The next mile switchbacks more steeply under the high rock wall of the western rim of Zion Canyon. Views back down the trail to the river and the canyon are excellent as you gain altitude.

Early in the morning the east rim and much of the canyon will be in the shade. I got better pictures in the middle of the afternoon when the sun was higher in the sky:




The switchbacks are steepest right before you enter Refrigerator Canyon, a shady, cool slot canyon along a seasonal stream.

This part of the route is about a quarter mile long and the ascent is gradual:




Before exiting the head of Refrigerator Canyon you'll come to the infamous "Walter's Wiggles," a name visitors to Zion National Park don't soon forget!

This engineering marvel built in the 1930s by the CCC is a series of ten or eleven switchbacks, most of them very short, that take hikers several hundred feet higher up in the canyon to Scout's Lookout. This picture I borrowed from the internet shows all of the switchbacks from a vantage point several miles farther up the West Rim Trail:

The grade is not steep but on the ascent you may wonder if you'll ever reach the end of the switchbacks:


Coming down is a lot more fun and you can see most of the switchbacks below you:

Soon after the last "wiggle" you'll arrive at Scout's Lookout, the bluff at the base of the final ascent to Angels Landing.

The spur trail to Angels Landing goes to the right and the West Rim Trail continues to the left:

Red dot marks Angels Landing, which shows up better in the picture below.

Trail to the base of the steep Angels Landing ascent.

Take a few minutes to walk around the bluff to see the awesome views of Zion Canyon to the north and south. The rims on both sides of the canyon have colorful rock faces and interesting shapes.

You can also see the river meandering below, and shuttle buses carrying visitors on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Big Bend and The Organ formation in the morning (above) and afternoon (below)


If you want to add the steep half-mile ascent to Angels Landing to a longer hike farther up on the west rim, it's best to do it early in the morning before the masses arrive and then proceed up the West Rim Trail, where there are many fewer people. If you go to the end of the Angels Landing Trail and back down to Scout's Lookout, it will add a mile to the total distance.

There are restrooms at Scout's Lookout if you need one before proceeding. They are under the red dot in the next photo. The arrow marks the continuation of the West Rim Trail:

The elevation gain in the first two miles is about 1,100 feet, from about 4,200 feet elevation at The Grotto to 5,354 feet at Scout's Lookout.

After Jim gave up fighting the crowd of other people who wanted to go up the gnarly spur trail to Angels Landing, he came back down to Scout's Lookout and descended the West Rim Trail to The Grotto.

I continued on up the West Rim Trail another three-plus miles to Cabin Spring before turning around and going back the same way.

Continued on the next page -- from Scout's Lookout through the White Cliffs to Little Siberia (!)

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