East Rim Trail aka…That {expletive} Mountain! (Zion National Park)

Clear Creek Canyon with Checkerboard Mesa in the background.
Zion National Park

Zion National Park

 

Over the 4th of July weekend, I found myself wandering aimless in southern Utah. My agenda had been blown to smithereens a couple of days prior when monsoon season hit, squashing my plans to hike the fifty mile Paria River Canyon in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Having spent a few days in the Paria area, I decided to move on. I spent one night in Kanab, then bright in early on the morning of the 4th, I made my way to Zion National Park.

It was still early when I pulled up to the East gate – there was no traffic, no lines. I paid my $25.00 entrance fee to the grumpy park ranger, who wasn’t interested in answering any of my questions – only referring me to the park headquarters, 11 miles away. I had never been to Zion before, but it had long been on my list of places that I wanted to visit – every photograph that I had ever seen of the place spoke to me.

I pulled away from the gate, and began my descent into Zion Canyon. I recall being in a rather bad mood myself – having to change my plans after months of planning, and money spent to make the trip possible. As I drove, that all disappeared, and a giggly smile protruded from my face. I had entered Zion – a place named after what Christians believe to be “a special place in the heart of God, where His people shall ultimately dwell with Him forever”. Whether one believes that or not, Zion is a heaven on earth, and more beautiful than I had imagined.

Arriving at the ranger station, I was surprised to see that the nearby campground was packed full of people – the ranger station parking lot, the same. It was almost as if God had raptured his followers, and brought them to his chosen land.  After managing to find a parking place, I fought the crowds into the ranger station.  There was a “general information” station, and a “backcountry” station, I opted for the “backcountry”. I explained to the ranger what I was interested in, and that I hadn’t had the opportunity to research the park. I simply wanted to get away from people, and into the backcountry.

Near the East Rim Trailhead.

Near the East Rim Trailhead.

 

Ponderosa Pines and Navajo sandstone

Ponderosa Pines and Navajo sandstone

 

It turned out that I didn’t have any options, the only backcountry trail that I could do was the East Rim Trail – in Zion you are required to obtain a wilderness permit, and they limit the number of passes that they give out per trail per day. The very informative ranger explained that the East Rim Trail would be very hot, most likely the hottest area in the park – none of the passes for the East Rim had been distributed, and he figured that nobody else would want one. Perfect, the East Rim was all mine!

I returned to my Jeep, with my freshly issued permit in hand. I was going to backpack in and camp at Stave Springs, the trail was closed past there for some sort of construction (construction in the backcountry?). The ranger also informed me that Stave Spring was dry, so I’d need to pack all of my water in.

Figuring that the only things that I’d be eating for the next 48 hours would be Mountain House freeze-dried meals, I decided to pay a visit to the town of Springdale, for a full breakfast before taking on the trail. Springdale was a mad-house, but I found a quaint little diner called the Park House Cafe on the outskirts of town. I enjoyed a standard breakfast of eggs, bacon, and the typical fixins.

Returning to Zion, I found that the traffic had backed up about a half a mile into Springdale – I waited with what little patience that I am known to have. You’d think with all the time I spend in the wilderness, I’d be zen, but I’m quite the opposite, having little patience for people and nonsense.

I arrived at the trail-head around noon, and took some time to arrange things in my bag – I double checked my water and food supply, and made sure I had my essentials for camping – a warm weather sleeping bag, and a tarp; simple stuff really.

It was a beautiful day – with a blue sky, and some puffy white clouds – it didn’t look threatening like the weather that I was encountering around the Paria River Valley. Temperatures between 100-105, nothing unusual for this desert rat. The hike into Stave Springs is 6 miles, with an elevation gain of approximately 1,700 feet.

Hey, thanks for the warning.

Hey, thanks for the warning.

 

The "wilderness bridge"!

The “wilderness bridge”!

 

The trail follows an old road along Clear Creek, in a canyon bearing the same name; don’t let it fool you, there is no water here – at least when it hasn’t rained, but the possibilities of flash flooding is likely great.  The first mile of the trail is relatively flat with only about a 200 foot elevation gain. Vegetation in an array of types is lush, green and beautiful. Ponderosa pines mix with douglas fir and white pine – growing out of the Navajo Sandstone cliffs, on all sides.

While loving the scenery, I realize quickly that this isn’t your typical wilderness trail – this is an extension of the front country, only without a ranger within shouting distance. The trail is well-groomed, contains drainage pipes, and even a bridge. I guess that I am spoiled with the untouched natural environment of the wilderness of places like Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve.

About a mile and a half into the trail, I entered Cave Canyon. I wish that I had known the name of the canyon at the time, I would love to have searched for the cave that gave the canyon it’s name.

Navajo Sandstone in Clear Creek Canyon

Navajo Sandstone in Clear Creek Canyon

 

 

Cave Canyon

Cave Canyon

 

The trail up the tablelands.

The trail up the tablelands.

 

Over the next three-quarters of a mile the trail climbs about 440 feet, winding its way up along the ledge of the tableland. It is somewhere along this ledge that I begin to realize just how hot and humid it was. There was no shade, and the mid-afternoon sun was relentlessly beating on me. Thankfully the next half-mile had a drop in elevation – allowing for a short period of easy-going hiking. The rim along these two sections of the trail provide breathtaking views of Clear Creek Canyon, Checkerboard Mesa and at some vantage a clear view of the trail below.

Arriving at Jolley Gulch, a canyon that is impossible to mistaken – I took a rest, while enjoying the scenery – looking down into the tight slot canyon. I noticed ropes tied along the ledge, and 160 feet between me and the ground below. Nope – not for me. It may come as a surprise, but I’m terrified of heights. Standing on top of a mountain, or at the edge of a cliff doesn’t bother me so much, but the thought of my feet dangling, or having to trust in some man-made device or rope – yes, that scares the crap out of me.

Clear Creek Canyon with Checkerboard Mesa in the background.

Clear Creek Canyon with Checkerboard Mesa in the background.

 

Checkerboard Mesa

Checkerboard Mesa

 

Jolley Gulch

Jolley Gulch

 

The next two miles gain 750 feet, with another mile on the rim, before entering a forest of Ponderosa Pine on top of the mesa. I began to get a little nervous, the clouds to the north-east had begun building and turning an eerie shade of black. I kept a close eye on the situation, watching them travel south along the eastern edge of Clear Creek Canyon. At this point I was headed west, and believed that I may stay out of the storm’s path.

When I entered the pine forest, I could no longer see Clear Creek Canyon, the massive pines blocked my view of the southern and eastern sky. I could now hear the storm wreak havoc – loud thunderous booms, and the sky above me quickly engulfed in darkness. I’m now at 6,700 feet, with nowhere to go, except to continue on my way and hope for the best – these storms don’t usually last long, I thought to myself.

It was about this same time that I noticed an abundance of dead toasty trees – victims of lightning strikes. Somehow I always manage to find myself in some scary-ass situations, this one was no different. I high-tailed it, hoping that I’d soon be away from the towering trees.

Ponderosa Pine forest on top of the mesa.

Ponderosa Pine forest on top of the mesa.

 

The storm rages in the distance.

The storm rages in the distance.

 

{expletive}

{expletive}

 

At Stave Springs.....

At Stave Springs…..

 

I reached Stave Springs, a short time later….with no time to investigate my planned camp spot for the evening, the sky ripped open and it poured. I pulled the tarp from my bag and hunkered down underneath it. I could see nothing, but I could hear hell unleash as massive rain drops dumped on me, and the sky grumbled relentlessly. There I sat, under a tarp for the better part of an hour. Finally having enough of it, I got up and stuffed my dripping tarp back into my bag. Screw this I thought, I’m not sitting here half of the night getting drenched, while hiding under a tarp.

It was 6pm, I was hungry, pissed-off, and annoyed. It was my birthday as well, happy {expletive} birthday, now let’s get off of this {expletive} mountain, I kept telling myself. So that I did, I hiked off of that {expletive} mountain with bolts of electricity lighting up my path.

When I reached Clear Creek the rain stopped, and dusk was upon me. Everything looked scrubbed clean in the soft light. Birds chirped, and somewhere I managed to find a bit of peace.

I slept in my Jeep that night, at the trailhead – despite the “no camping” signs in the parking lot. I had nowhere else to go, besides I was supposed to be sleeping on that {explicative} mountain.

Looking into Clear Creek Canyon as the storm begins to move on.

Looking into Clear Creek Canyon as the storm begins to move on.

 

After the storm...

After the storm…

 

A beautiful end, to an interesting day on the trail.

A beautiful end, to an interesting day on the trail.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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