2016  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT

 

   
 
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   HIKING IN ZION NATIONAL PARK:  EAGLE-EYE VIEWS  
FROM THE OBSERVATION POINT TRAIL
(+ LOWER HIDDEN CANYON TRAIL)

THURSDAY, APRIL 14

 
"This [Weeping Rock] is a major trailhead for a variety of hiking experiences. From
here, the trails go to extremes. In Hidden and Echo Canyons, the walls begin to close in.
Hikers in these slot canyons feel as if they are tunneling into the heart of Zion's sandstone.
 
By contrast, the trail to Observation Point opens onto an eagle's view of Zion Canyon,    
looking down on Angels Landing and the river far below. Hikers measure the  
monumental scale of this place with each ascending footstep."
 
~ from an interpretive panel at the Weeping Rock
shuttle stop, where several trails begin
 
 

Observation Point was my very favorite of all the trails I hiked in Zion National Park this week.

From the Point you have one of the best views in the whole park -- several miles of Zion Canyon and the rims on either side of it, and you're even looking down on iconic Angels Landing, which I marked with a red dot in the photo below:


Impressive view of Zion Canyon and Angels Landing (red dot) from Observation Point

I'm sorry Jim wasn't able to do it with me but hope he can manage this relatively difficult eight-mile hike the next time we are here. While his knee still hurts, he's focusing on cycling, not hiking. But I know he'd enjoy the awesome views, unique terrain, challenging workout, and lack of crowds on this interesting trail.

The shorter but steeper Hidden Canyon Trail starts from the Observation Point Trail approximately three-fourths mile above the main trailhead at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop. I climbed up only about a third of a mile of it near the end of my Observation Point hike but will provide some information and pictures of the Hidden Canyon Trail on the last page of this multi-page entry.

THE BASICS

The National Park Service rates both of these trails as "strenuous." Both are out-and-back and start from the same trailhead at Weeping Rock.

This map section from the park website shows the proximity of the two trails to Angels Landing, Riverside Walk, and The Narrows. I marked the Point with a red dot:

I also marked what I hiked today in yellow on the map, including the lower part of the Hidden Canyon Trail.

Descriptions I've read of the Hidden Canyon Trail, especially beyond the mouth of the canyon, do sound strenuous because of rough terrain, bouldering, and steep grades.

However, if you're in good hiking condition the difficulty level of the Observation Point Trail is more like "moderate" or, at worst, "moderately strenuous." I've certainly hiked more difficult terrain, rougher trails, longer distances, and higher elevations that I would definitely describe as "strenuous." This hike didn't wear me out like some others have that were of similar or even shorter distances.


This is about as rough as the trail surface gets -- uneven slickrock in Echo Canyon.
There is a lot of old crumbling concrete in various places, and roots to step 
over up on the plateau. Some sections are rather smooth sand or rock.

In addition to the distance, what can make the Observation Point Trail difficult for many people is the 5,296-foot total elevation gain and loss -- a 2,148-foot elevation gain in four miles, followed by a 2,148-foot elevation loss in four miles -- at an altitude of approximately 4,359 to 6,508 feet. For those who aren't acclimated to moderate altitudes, this trail might not be much fun.

Most of the gain and loss is in the lower three miles. None of the grades are very steep, just relentless, as in the first mile and a half with all the long switchbacks that take hikers from the valley floor to Echo Canyon. There are more switchbacks in the upper canyon.

The next photo illustrates the lower set of switchbacks quite graphically. I took it looking down from one of the higher switchbacks; you can see some people on switchbacks above you on the mountainside when you're ascending but you can't see much of the trail from below -- certainly not like this:


The red dot is the junction with the Hidden Canyon Trail, which starts out with tighter switchbacks.

The last mile on the cliffside bench and plateau is relatively flat, so you've got two mostly-flat middle miles out of eight miles total.

Folks who are afraid of heights may freak out in the third and fourth mile where the narrow trail has been blasted out of the cliffside (next photo) and is very close to the edge for more than half a mile:


Between a rock and a hard place . . . narrow trail, long drop.

The drops in some places, like right at Observation Point, are a couple thousand feet down to the main canyon if you slip off the side. You can see that in the first photo in this entry.

Acrophobics might enjoy the first two miles of the trail, however, through the lower switchbacks with great views, the beautiful narrow slot of Echo Canyon (unless they're also claustrophobic!), and the upper canyon section before the trail gets close to the edge of the abyss.

As I was ascending the trail this morning I encountered the first hiker coming back down, a young woman in her 30s, just before I entered the slot canyon in the second mile. I asked her opinion about the trail, assuming she'd been all the way up to the Point.

No, she said, she "got to the scary part halfway up" and turned around.

Uh, oh. I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

She was in enough of a hurry that I didn't get a chance to ask her specifically what scared her. She mentioned seeing five bighorn sheep but I don't think they would be a threat or frighten anyone. To me, it's a real treat to see large wildlife, like the young ram I photographed this afternoon on the way down the mountain:


Sure-footed ram on very steep slickrock

I caught up to another woman in Echo Canyon who'd also talked to the intimidated hiker briefly but she didn't know exactly why she'd turned around, either.

When I saw the second woman at the top later on, we talked about how much we both enjoyed this trail and never found a part scary enough to make us want to turn around. Neither of us knew for sure what spooked the young hiker but we assumed it was the beginning of the narrow, "edgy" section of trail in the third mile.

Although I loved the "scary" part of the trail because of the fabulous views and the adrenaline rush, I'd never want to be on that section when it is wet, icy, or under any snow. That would be a death wish. So would lightning or strong winds on such an exposed section:


Observation Point is right under the red dot, still about a mile away from this vantage point.

In fact, this whole trail is exposed to the elements, so timing is critical.

It's high desert with few trees and virtually no shade or anywhere to hide in a storm. There were some gusts of wind mid-day today when I was up on the plateau but fortunately the mountain blocked them when I was on the narrow cliffside section of the trail.

Even the slot portion of Echo Canyon can be dangerous if the slickrock is wet or rain at higher elevations causes an unexpected flash flood:


In one place you have to walk in -- or jump over -- the water in the slot canyon.
It may be dry in the summer months, from what I've read.

Spring and fall are probably the best times to hike this and most other trails at Zion, as long as Echo Canyon isn't flooded from rain or snowmelt.

In those seasons temperatures are more moderate, flowers are blooming,


Evening primrose at about 6,200 feet elevation

leaves are either coming out or turning pretty colors, and there aren't as many people on the more remote and difficult trails in the park like Observation Point.

This and other trails with sections over slickrock would be more dangerous in the winter months if there is any snow and ice on them. Heck, they're dangerous simply if it just rained. Even in mid-April I've seen some snow and ice remaining in shady crevices on various trails.

Summer has its own perils. High desert heat and direct, burning sun can be an issue, as well as significantly more hikers on the trail.

But on a beautiful spring day like today -- overcast in the morning, mostly sunny in the afternoon, dry, minimal wind, mid-50s to mid-70s F. -- the conditions were perfect for hiking this trail.


A view from the edge toward Observation Point (far upper R) and the West Rim

My only regrets are that 1) Jim wasn't there to enjoy it with me and 2) the sky was overcast until I was coming back down. A blue sky in the morning would have given me better pictures on the ascent and up at the Point itself. 

Photos in this multi-page entry -- I took almost 500 pictures in 8+ miles!! -- are from both the ascent and descent. The sky is white or gray in the morning shots and blue with pretty white clouds in most of the afternoon ones.

GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD

Easy peasy -- hop on the shuttle bus, ride to stop #7 at Weeping Rock, walk toward the restrooms, and you'll see the trailhead for several trails just before this footbridge over a stream:

The short Weeping Rock Trail bears left just past the bridge. Go straight ahead for the Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, and East Rim trails, as well as access to several other trails in the eastern part of the park.

This map section is from an interpretive panel at the end of the bridge above. I marked the Observation Point Trail and part of the Hidden Canyon Trail that I hiked in yellow. I added a red dot to indicate Observation Point:

OK, let's go! I'll break the rest of this entry into sections based on the terrain.

UP, UP, & AWAY:  THE LOWER SWITCHBACKS

The first mile and a half (approximately) of the Observation Point Trail zig-zags up a steep slope on slickrock and concrete between several high, flat-topped peaks in the White Cliffs Formation.

The first time you're on this trail you can't really tell where you're going unless you've seen some pictures in other hikers' reviews. You can't see much of the trail as you're looking up, although you might see some hikers who are farther ahead and higher up the switchbacks.

Ironically, you can see The Big Picture best from the other side of Zion Canyon! I marked the slope with a yellow arrow, although the trail doesn't go straight up like that (!):

I got these two graphic photos (above and below) of the lower part of the Observation Point Trail two days ago -- and thousands of feet away -- while hiking the West Rim Trail.

I zoomed in for the next picture and marked it with red dots to make it easier to see the switchbacks up the mountain:

Thanks to that view -- and reading a couple websites with trail descriptions -- I had a good idea of what I was in for when I started this hike. If I had seen it only on a map, I wouldn't have been as prepared for either the number of switchbacks or how high they would take me -- approximately 1,000 feet in elevation before reaching Echo Canyon.

Here are some photos of this section, from both the ascent (overcast sky) and descent (blue sky). There are great views up, down, and all around from every level of the switchbacks:

Above and below:  just getting started on the switchbacks in the morning

 


Trail work is needed in some sections where the 
concrete and/or sandstone has deteriorated.


Building materials were stashed along the switchbacks in the morning. Later in the 
day, several workers were hauling them up the mountain with these contraptions. 

Above and below:  afternoon view down to Weeping Rock (under red dot)

 

 


Big Bend in the Virgin River, The Organ formation in the center, West Rim of Zion Canyon in the
background. No, that isn't snow but white rock at the top. It's why the White Cliffs are so-named.


Observation Point is in the distance, above the white cliff. I didn't know for sure that was
my destination until I was on the way back down and knew what the Point looked like.


Here's the picture of the switchbacks below me again; red dot = junction with Hidden Canyon Trail.


Observation Point far right, West Rim in background, The Organ lower left by the river


Angels Landing juts out from the West Rim and is connected to The Organ.

These are some of the views you see from the switchbacks as you get close to the lower part of Echo Canyon on the way up, or are just coming out of it on the way back down:

 


I love all the swirly rocks in Zion NP, and there are quite a few on this trail.
Observation Point is at top of picture, about 2 miles away on foot from here.


Looking downstream (south) in Zion Canyon


View of Observation Point before entering the lower part of Echo Canyon

That's a worthy hike right there, if you don't have a lot of time or energy to do the whole trail. It's about 1.5 miles to this spot where the trail enters the lower end of Echo Canyon; that would make about three miles if you turned around here and went back down to the river.

But there's so much more to see, let's keep going up!

Continued on the next page:  tunneling into the sandstone in Echo Canyon

Happy trails,

Sue
"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

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