Hiking Zion in the Off Season

Nothing revives my flagging spirits like hiking Zion National Park. After a four-hour drive, my husband and I are in a world apart where the pressures of work and the sameness of daily life vanish like the winter snow that's been kissed by a spring sun.

For a recent President's Day weekend outing, we packed just for a day hike — no tent and sleeping bags, no food and cooking supplies. We called ahead and reserved a cabin in the park — no phones, no TV — and enjoyed dinner at the Zion Lodge dining room, both practical with off-season availability and rates.

Exploring the drive from Zion Lodge to Temple of Sinawava, where plucky hikers exit the renowned Zion Narrows in hot weather, the deciduous trees of spring-like February stood gray and bare against the evergreens, and root-beer-float colored water rushed fast and high. Trickling water from hidden snow atop the cliffs darkened the usually parched, sheer canyon walls still barren of greenery. In weeks to come, seeds would take root in tiny cracks of the seemingly impervious rock and grow despite all odds. Snow lingered at the base of cliffs in shadier spots despite unusually warm daytime temperatures.

Discovering the exhilaration of hiking in Zion 14 years ago with a youth group, we return two or three times each year and have come to know the look of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in different seasons. Anticipating discovering new trails each trip, we nevertheless drive this familiar route first to check the canyon's colors, wildlife and the level, color and rate of the water.

Leaving the warmth of bed in our cozy cabin early the next morning, we donned long pants and sturdy, but comfortable boots with good socks, and layered the rest of our clothing — t-shirt, flannel shirt, sweat shirt, and jackets. Though the morning was cool, we knew we would be glad to shed a layer at a time as we hiked. For a day hike, I filled my fanny pack with two liters of water, an extra pair of socks, trail mix and apples, and a windbreaker. Besides similar items for himself, my husband carried a slightly larger pack with emergency matches, flashlight, a map and guidebook and first aid kit.

That early spring weekend we chose a 14 mile round-trip day hike on the less-traversed right fork of North Creek in the west end of the park, described by a guide book as relatively unknown though beautiful. At the town of Virgin, about 12 miles west of the entrance to the park, we drove north on Kolob Reservoir Road, past Sunset Canyon Ranch, about 6.9 miles to an unmarked parking turnout on the east side of the road.

Parking our car in the dirt lot carved out from among the juniper trees, we followed a fairly clear trail that heads southeast from the metal minimum-impact trail sign bordering the parking site. Walking a quarter of a mile through trees and brush, we reached the rim of the canyon overlooking North Creek. A casual search showed us the slightly worn ground at the spot most hikers use to start a descent into the valley. The hike began with a scramble down a rugged, steep slope strewn with lava boulders, usually on our backsides descending from level to level in a seated position.

Every few feet the path was marked with cairns, pyramids of stacked rocks left by previous hikers to help others identify the best route down the canyon wall. At some sites we added another rock to the stack or erected our own. Probably the greatest hazard on this hike is finding one's way out at the end, so my husband turned back frequently to look at the path we'd come down in order to orient ourselves for the return trip.

Reaching the sandy bottom after about 20 minutes, we first located a very large rock cairn to look for at the end of the hike, then followed North Creek upstream. About half a mile along the stream bed we reached the confluence of the left and right forks of North Creek and turned east up the right branch.

The route along the canyon bottom was fairly easy as we rock hopped back and forth across the water when the bank became too muddy or clogged with shrubs. We aimed to keep our feet dry because, though sunny, the February morning was still cold, and ice crusted the creek in shady spots. Compared to our usual hot-weather ventures when creeks are often nearly dry, the water was high — a result of snow melting early with the warmer-than-normal temperatures.

We saw evidence of a higher, stronger run-off though: horsetail reeds pressed flat in the downstream direction of once-gushing water; stacks of rocks washed up behind each other three and four deep like vertical cairns; grasses and river debris caught in high, narrow clumps against slender lice trunks and shafts of sturdy reeds growing at the edge of the creek bottom.

We also witnessed nature's whimsy: three pieces of driftwood serenely arrayed on a car-size boulder; a tender, young pine growing from under a large gray rock in unmarred crystalline sand and guarded by a majestic blackened tree; dried mud patterned in progressively smaller, concentric circles.

As the canyon became narrower we encountered larger pools of water that we could not jump across, and staying dry was impossible if we wanted to continue. By now, though, the temperature had warmed, so we waded in — first through a shin-deep pool and shortly beyond a knee-high basin of water, both very cold and clear.

Hiking again on solid ground and with our clothes beginning to dry, we anticipated reaching the end of the trail-Barrier Falls, which, as its name suggests, bars farther travel upstream. After five miles of hiking in the secluded valley bereft of other hikers we reached two peaceful, crystal clear pools, one just beyond and a few feet above the other. The first, which we navigated quite easily, was about eight feet wide and 10 or 12 feet long, rounded, shallow at the edges, and four or five feet deep in the center where the water from the pool above cascaded into it. The higher pool, fed by a waterfall from the stream, was about five feet wide and 25 feet long, also several feet deep, sheathed by rugged rock walls — and, for us, impassable.

We had reached Double Falls and, not wanting to get soaked and chilled, our barrier for the day. We gazed beyond at the dramatic rocky country that would lead to the 20-foot high red-rock about half a mile beyond. The invigorating hike and beautiful canyon were well worth another trek, we felt, and decided to tackle it some time later in the year when we would locate and explore a reputed bushwhacking route around the south side of Double Falls.

This hike would be very enjoyable in the summer months when reaching the end of the canyon would not be hindered by the deep, cold water of early spring. Though campfires are not permitted, a number of spots would make ideal campsites for backpackers from the confluence of the two streams several miles up toward Double Falls. Camping high enough out of the flood plain is sensible if storms threaten because flash floods are possible-though rare-as the canyon is wide and has several side canyons.

Hiking in such pure air with the clear blue sky above and beautiful countryside all around was exhilarating, and we recommend similar short excursions in the canyon any time of year it is accessible.

Turning back, we enjoyed the seclusion and beauty of the pristine canyon with the warmth of the waning sun on our faces. The only evidence of civilization was our footprints which would be washed away at the next high water. The hike had been easy on us physically for there were no big drop-offs to scramble up or down, but the hardest part was yet to come — exiting the canyon.

What had been a fairly easy clarnber down when we were fresh became a strenuous, lung-expanding climb up that required several rest stops and took three times longer than the descent. Because of our 9:00 a.m. start we could take our tirne on the ascent, and we came out of the canyon with daylight to spare. Physically exhausted but satisfyingly refreshed mentally, we yearned for dinner at the lodge, then a shower and bed in our waiting cabin — much deserved rewards after our eight-hour hike.