Into the Woods: Observation Point

This trail log is a bit of throwback (not too far, only to early October). Not every hike makes it into a blog post, but leaving this one off would be a titanic omission.

Zion National Park, taken as a whole, I couldn’t describe without waxing poetic. The hike to Observation Point, however, merits a fuller description. This path hewn from the cliffsides covers every major landform of Zion Canyon. From the banks of the Virgin River, it climbs over 2,000 feet in four miles, up through one of the many slot canyons of the area to crest the plateau and offer what may be the most incredible view in Utah. Many more visitors attempt the iconic Angel’s Landing, but this trail lets you literally look down on the crowds clinging to the chains on that approach.

For us lifelong Easterners, everything out West is photogenic. Arid expanses unblocked by vegetation and “civilization” shock the senses. It’s hard enough to stop snapping when you’re driving down the Interstate, so let me apologize in advance for the preponderance of images in this post.

Rugged and remote as it is, getting to Zion is not that hard. It’s a pleasant 35 minute ride from I-15 to the park’s south entrance. Floor of the Valley Road, running up into the canyon (Zion’s most prominent feature, but only a small corner of the whole park), was once crowded with traffic, but since 2000, visitors are required to park at the visitor center and ride a free shuttle to access most of the canyon.

A journey to Observation Point starts at shuttle stop #7, at about 4,300′ above sea level. From the pullout there, the trail begins with a, shall we say, rather abrupt ascent. After a brief but steep straight pull, a series of massive switchbacks carry you up a sparsely treed near-vertical slope to 5,200′.

Though this is a desert, the shade of the canyon walls and relatively high altitude allow for quite an array of small plants (scrub oaks, canyon maples, prickly pears, asters and other wildflowers) to cling to the nearly soil-less hillside. Zigzagging up the trail, views of the valley floor slowly expand to the west, quickly rewarding your exertion.

At this point, just over a mile into the hike, one could call it a day and not feel like a quitter. Not too many places back East give you quite this much of a workout so fast (though some can). Just then, though, the steady punishment of ascent gives way. The trail makes a hard East turn into the shadows of Echo canyon. Wave upon wave of nimbly eroded sandstone in this dry creekbed transitions to the abrupt red of sheer cliffs creating the palates for Zion is renowned. Words can only get you so far here.

 

Once you’ve traversed the canyon, the vague sense that you’re halfway there takes over from exhaustion, pushing you to try for the top. The next mile is the steepest, though. Switchbacks increase in frequency, plant life gives way to bare rock. Though rendered “safe” by the width of the trail, walking past unfenced drop-offs in excess of 1,000 feet is not for the faint of heart.

Suddenly, you find yourself atop the plateau, surrounded by thickets of gambel oak, pinyon pine, and juniper. The trail turns from solid rock to deep, fine, red sand that makes each step an effort of balance.

After nearly a mile of this path curving along the canyon rim at 6,500′, Observation Point opens the south-facing view that called you up in the first place. As I am fond of repeating, the most beautiful things to see in this country, even today, require you to get a long, long way from your car. Looking down on the trail filled me with a sense of accomplishment that hikes of a similar distance and climb around the Appalachians seldom do. When all you see below you is a dense forest, it’s hard to achieve such a sense of scale.

Expect some crowds at the point on a nice day, but nothing like you’d see in areas of the park with vehicle access. We were there on a cloudless 70-degree Saturday and still enjoyed long stretches of trail to ourselves. Even the people, though, provide their own attraction. We heard no fewer than 10 different languages from other hikers, and had conversations with visitors from the UK, Germany, and many other parts of the U.S. This is, after all, what the parks are preserved for. For all its many foibles through the years, the NPS (which, through the Youth Conservation Corps program at the Blue Ridge Parkway, was one of my first employers) always draws out my most sentimental and uncomplicated patriotism.

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Of course, as in any National Park, welcoming committees of hungry chipmunks make their presence known.

What goes up, of course, must come back down. Knees (at least mine) probably aren’t designed for this, but the switchbacks take some of the sting out. Savoring the views we missed while panting our way up made the return trip especially enjoyable.

We finished up by taking the shuttle a couple of stops further and cooling our well-worn feet & ankles in the river. Though we certainly felt it the next day (or 3), I’d do it again without hesitation.

The photos of Rachel from this hike are some of my favorites. Though she loves nature as much as I do (and often with a better eye for its manifold quirky details), hiking was never her bailiwick. This 8-mile round trip was, by a factor of 2.5 or so, the longest trail she’s ever attempted, but she did it with a smile as a 10th anniversary present to me. That she & I can share this memory is one of the finest gifts I’ve ever received*. I think she had a great time, to boot.

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If you ever find yourself in Zion with at least 4 hours to burn, let this path take your breath away. It’s worth every step.

*Special thanks are also due to my parents and sisters, who kept our kids for a week so we could make this trip!

 

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