Zion National Park’s Secret Trails

By Kara Guzman

Located in southern Utah, Zion National Park has a series of red and pink sandstone canyons so beautiful that they draw 3 million visitors each year. Most tourists come in March through October to see Zion Canyon, which is served by shuttles and accessed through the park’s south entrance.

But at the park’s east entrance, less-traveled and equally scenic canyons await for experienced open-desert hikers who can navigate the backcountry. The hikes east of Zion Canyon, with the exception of two, are not maintained or marked and require the use of a map and compass. To reiterate: They are for experienced hikers only.

Not only do these hikes have the danger of getting lost, but they also cut through a fragile ecosystem. A brittle, black soil crust, known as cryptobiotic soil, takes hundreds of years to grow, and only a single footprint to destroy. It’s a complex living system of bacteria, lichens, algae and fungi that holds the soil in place, absorbs water and deposits nitrogen for plants. It’s the keystone of the high desert—so please, avoid these black-crusted areas.

The Canyon Overlook Trail is great for those looking for a short, easy hike with a great view.
The Canyon Overlook Trail is great for those looking for a short, easy hike with a great view.

Roy Luck

Let’s start with the two hikes that are marked and maintained by the park service, and still less-traveled than the hikes in Zion Canyon. Neither requires a permit for day trips, and both serve as starting points for more difficult backcountry trips.

Canyon Overlook Trail (1 mile round trip, 163-foot elevation gain): If you’re looking for a short, easy hike with a great view, this hike is the best pick in the park. Its trailhead is in the parking lot just east of the long tunnel on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. The trail meanders around the Pine Creek Canyon ridge to a sweeping view of Zion Canyon, Bridge Mountain, Streaked Wall, East Temple, and the Great Arch of Zion.

East Rim Trail (10.6 miles one way, 1,340-foot elevation loss): Hikers usually do the first portion of this trail as a day trip or the entire trail as an overnight trip in the spring, summer, or fall. It starts at the East Entrance trailhead, then climbs 1,000 feet to a mesa before descending 2,400 feet through Echo Canyon to Weeping Rock in Zion Canyon. On the descent, look for the rock cairns that mark the way along the slickrock. Only one water source is available. Wilderness permits are required to camp.

The East Rim Trail descends through Echo Canyon.
The East Rim Trail descends through Echo Canyon.

J Brew

Now, let’s look at the unmarked, open desert hikes for experienced navigators only. You’ll need a map and a compass for the first two hikes.

Cable Mountain (17.5 miles round trip, strenuous): Starting at the East Entrance trailhead, hike the first 5.5 miles of the East Rim Trail, then look for the spur trail to Cable Mountain, near Stave Springs (an unreliable water source). Then it’s three miles, through the ponderosa pines, to the Cable Mountain viewpoint. You’ll find ruins of a cable system at the top. This hike is best done as a leisurely overnight trip, which requires a wilderness permit.

Expect to do some bouldering, rappelling, and downclimbing to navigate Orderville Canyon.
Expect to do some bouldering, rappelling, and downclimbing to navigate Orderville Canyon.

Nicholas Jones

Orderville Canyon (Around 12 miles, canyoneering and rappelling skills required): Park one car at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and the other at Orderville Canyon trailhead, which is 6.2 miles past the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort on North Fork Road. It’s a tricky dirt road, and requires 4WD—or you can rent a shuttle for $29 per person from Zion Adventure Company. Follow the path to the ridge. In about 2.75 miles, drop into the canyon on the south side. Along the slot canyon, you’ll find several obstacles: a 15-foot boulder, a 10-foot waterfall rappel, and much downclimbing.

Resist the urge to jump down obstacles. That’s how many hikers get injured and need rescue. Also, don’t enter the canyon if it’s raining, due to the high danger of flash flooding. The time to go is summer and fall. The hike ends at the the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the Zion Canyon shuttle.

The White Cliffs in Clear Creek Valley.
The White Cliffs in Clear Creek Valley.

James St. John

Clear Creek (around 2 miles, easy): This unmarked hike is along the boulders and sand of Clear Creek’s usually dry bed. There is a flash flood potential, so if there’s threat of rain, don’t go. The best season is May to October. Start at the Canyon Overlook Trail parking lot, and at the tunnel bridge, scramble down to the creek and hike upstream, to the left. (The path to the right is technical and dangerous.) The cliffs narrow to a dark rock slots along sections of the creek, and most of the hiking is around 50 feet below Route 9. There’s no official end to the trail, so whenever you’ve had your fill, trace your steps back to the car.

Other Things to Know

• You have two excellent lodging options on the park’s east side. The Zion Mountain Ranch features both cabins and lodges featuring a western ranch experience that can’t be beat. Families will enjoy the farm animals at the ranch, as well as the sight of a roaming herd of buffalo. A guided horseback tour is a great way to explore this section of Zion. Be sure to dine at the farm-to-table restaurant on the property, Cordwood, which uses primarily ingredients produced on the ranch and surrounding farms.

The Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort sits on 4,000 acres at the edge of the national park. You’ll find cabins, tents, wagons, RV parking, and vacation homes located on the property. Patrons will find plenty to do without ever leaving the resort, including a wide variety of adventurous activities like ATV riding, rock climbing, canyoneering, and horseback riding. There’s even a zip-line tour that’s a thrilling way to get an overhead view of the resort. It, too, has on-site dining—Ray’s Restaurant features hearty, home-style meals that are perfect after a day of adventure.

• The number of visitors to Zion National Park peaks on Memorial Day, Easter, Labor Day, and Utah schools’ October break.

Wilderness permits for overnight stays can be reserved online up to three months in advance. Walk-in permits are also available one day in advance at any of the park’s visitor centers. Cost ranges from $15-25, depending on the size of the party.

Originally written by RootsRated.

Featured image provided by John Strother

Kühl Editor

At KÜHL, the passion remains to get outdoors and have fun. Our Born in the Mountains contributors share their love for the mountain culture with their stories, reflections and photographs.