Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"The trail system climbs to three sets of pools, with panoramic views up and down the canyon.    
Year-round seeps and springs continually recharge the pools. Rare in a desert environment,
these perennial waters create micro-habitats for a variety of animals and plants,
 including the green algae that gives the pools their emerald hue."
~ from an interpretive panel along the trail to the Lower Emerald Pool

This was another beautiful sunny spring day in Zion National Park with temps up to the mid-70s F. in Springdale and the main canyon where Jim cycled about ten miles today with Casey and I hiked to the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock.

I'll show photos from the trail loop I hiked to see all of the Emerald Pools/waterfalls in this entry and have pictures from Weeping Rock in the next entry.

Water from Heaps Canyon hits the rocks in the mostly-dry Lower Emerald Pool.

The Emerald Pools are very popular with tourists for several reasons -- easy to moderate trails to reach them, gorgeous scenery and photo ops, and convenient location. No matter the time of year or day, expect to have plenty of company along the way.

Here's a map section from another sign at the park that shows the location of the trails and pools. Sorry it's not real clear. North is to the right, not the top:

There are two ways to reach the pools.

Most people start across the Virgin River at Shuttle Stop #5 near the Zion Lodge. That has the shortest access to the pools. Round trip to see all the pools is about three miles using the lower pool trail out and back shown above. The middle pool trail has apparently been closed for several years after a nasty storm and this sign hasn't been updated.

You can also reach the pools by hiking the Kayenta Trail from Shuttle Stop #6 at The Grotto. It's not that much longer and fewer people use that trail.

This morning I rode a shuttle bus to Zion Lodge, hiked on the lower pools trail to the Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools in that order, then hiked the Kayenta Trail to The Grotto. Including a visit to see the interior of the lodge, my GPS recorded 3.2 miles roundtrip.

Zion Lodge and bookstore/gift shop

After going inside the lodge to nose around (I like grand old national park lodges) I walked across Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and took the footbridge over the Virgin River to the trailhead on the other side.

Two trails head out from here. You can go left on the Sand Bench Trail, which follows the river south for several miles, or right to the lower, middle, and upper Emerald Pools and waterfalls.

Looking south from the footbridge to the Virgin River and Sand Bench Trail


The first six-tenths mile of the smooth but unpaved trail to the Lower Emerald Pool is designated "easy" and suitable for wheelchairs-with-assistance (probably because it has some elevation gain and loss). This is the most heavily-visited of the pools.

A busload of about 25 tourists was ahead of me, walking very slowly. Fortunately, I was able to get around them when they stopped to listen to their guide talking. That way I was able to get photos of the pretty shaded trail, lower waterfalls, and pool without too many strangers in them.

I've seen photos of these two falls and the pool with more water in them after recent rain or snowmelt, including the picture on this interpretive panel overlooking the Lower Emerald Pool:

Despite snow higher up on Zion's plateaus and some recent rain, today the water was scant in all of the Emerald falls and pools. I was disappointed but at least there was some water to photograph.

These pictures continue before, under, and after the two tall Lower Emerald falls and pools that are located in a large, colorful alcove in the cliff:

The people give some perspective to the size of the cliff; note the water splashing on the rocks.

Upper part of that cliff; red dot shows where some water is coming over the edge.

Water from first falls hitting the rocks in one of the Lower Emerald pools

It's cool to walk between the falls and the cliff!

View of falls from the other side

The next four photos show a second tall-but-scant waterfall dropping into another one of the Lower Emerald pools:





Two Middle pools are located right above the alcove with the Lower Pools/Falls. These pools contain the water that flows over the edge of the cliff to make the two lower falls I just showed you.

It's a more difficult four-tenths of a mile hike to get up to the Middle pools and definitely not wheelchair- or stroller-friendly. This part of the trail is rated "moderate" by the National Park Service:



The first pool, which is close to the edge of the cliff, has warning signs emphasizing the danger of slippery, wet sandstone and the unstable edge with quite a drop:

When more water is flowing over the edge than today it would be quite hazardous. It reminded me of some places on the Appalachian Trail, like the creek crossing above Zealand Falls in Maine, that I crossed after heavy rainfall on my adventure trek in 2005. It wasn't safe, but I was on a point-to-point mission and did it anyway.

The second Middle Emerald Pool is in a very pretty setting, too:

The young girl left while I was taking pictures.

The next photo from the Kayenta Trail shows one of the Middle Emerald Pools and water going over the edge of the cliff to one of the lower pools:


This one is at the end of a rocky trail with a 200-foot elevation gain in about four-tenths of a mile but the climb is well worth it -- if you're in decent physical shape -- to reach this photogenic pool and waterfall. The trail is moderate to difficult, depending on your agility with rocks and boulders.

Here's the Big Picture, as seen from the Kayenta Trail. The red dots represent the approximate locations of the Lower, Middle, and Upper pools/waterfalls. The yellow line is the trail between the Middle and Upper pools:


Above and below:  Approaching the pool


Photogenic, indeed.  Note the cameras and tripods.

The pool sits in another alcove with colorful streaked vertical rock above it. Not much water was flowing down from the mouth of Heaps Canyon today but the thin waterfall was still impressive because of its height -- about a 300-foot drop from a crevice in one of the sheer cliffs forming the west rim of Zion Canyon.

It was so high from the top of the waterfall to the pool that I wasn't able to find a vantage point among all the nearby boulders and trees to get everything in one camera shot:


I have some pictures without any people at the pool but I'm using the one directly above to show some perspective.

Here are closer views of the top and bottom of the waterfall:


I took the next two pictures as I was leaving the upper pool and falls and starting to descend back to the middle pools:


The views toward Zion Canyon are good from up here, and get even better on the Kayenta Trail.


When I got back down to the intersection of trails in the Middle Emerald Pools area I turned left onto the unpaved Kayenta Trail and hiked about a mile north to The Grotto bus stop.

This trail is rated moderate; it has some rough spots and an elevation change of about 300 feet.

View down to one of the middle pools and water dropping from it to a lower pool

Fun with cairns

Water dripping from a spring somewhere above the trail

Chuperosa and beavertail/prickly pear cactus

The trail descends the rocky slope to a geological bench (a flatter place on a steep slope) above the Virgin River, with scenic views upstream toward Observation Point and the White Throne and downstream toward colorful cliffs on both sides of the river:




Cliff of many colors

I'm really glad I hiked the Kayenta Trail instead of just going out and back on the Lower Emerald Pool Trail. Either direction is good scenery-wise -- i.e., starting or ending with the Kayenta Trail.

If you want to do a complete loop you can add the Grotto Trail on the other side of the river. It runs a mile between The Grotto (#6) and Zion Lodge (#5) shuttle stops. I ended this hike at stop #6 and didn't do a loop because I wanted to continue north on the shuttle bus route to stop #7 at Weeping Rock.

Next entry:  Weeping Rock Trail

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