Hiking Zion During the Off-Season — The Chinle Trail

By Liz Sweeten (Published Dec., 2001, Utah Outdoors magazine)

I feel like I'm wearing concrete goulashes, my knees ache, and my pack actually seems to have gotten heavier throughout the day. But I've got the redrock splendor of Zion on both sides and a Cheshire cat grin on my face. It doesn't matter what I'm doing or how tired I feel; I love this place.

My hiking companion and I are running down the road to get back to the Huber Wash trailhead, our waiting vehicle, and a much-needed cold drink.

Earlier, we decided to modify our one-way hike up the wash. We opted for a loop that took us into the Petrified Forest and back down the Chinle Trail. One small problem — the Chinle Trail dumped us onto the road a little over three miles from our car. Though Mike was dubious of the plan, I cheerfully insisted we could jog down the road. This trip was, after all, supposed to be a winter adventure.

Break with tradition

Like many southern Utah enthusiasts, Zion National Park is one of my all-time favorite destinations. Most folks, myself included, visit the park in the summer or early fall. Zion can resemble hell in the summertime. Heat combined with hordes of tourists, traffic, and campgrounds filled to capacity can make for a chummy and unpleasant experience.

But a trip to Zion in winter may be just the cure for post-Christmas doldrums. Though cool, winter temperatures in the park (often above 50° F) are still conducive to hiking and exploring. Depending on the weather and seasonal snowfall, camping may even be an option with adequate planning, provisions, and polar-tech fleece.

Many of Zion's most popular hikes such as Angel's Landing and the Narrows are inaccessible due to snow and ice as are the higher elevation backcountry trails; but several lesser-traveled hikes are perfectly suited to winter recreation, and lower areas in the park are always accessible.

So trade in those cold-weather blues for some southern Utah reds. Throw some well-insulated boots and a few jackets of varying thickness in the SUV and head to Zion. Winter is a quieter, more solitary season for enjoying one of our state's most spectacular parks.

Inside the park

A year-round playboy, Mike was the perfect guy to haul with me to Zion for some winter fun. It didn't take much coaxing. He's done Zion many times in the off-season in order to chase the rays missing from SLC and maintain his tan.

Initially, we putted around the park. Many of the featured "tourist" trails are accessible in the winter. We decided to follow a determined-looking German couple on one of the standards.

The Watchman Trail provides an easy, pleasant 1.5-mile hike that begins across the road from the visitor's center. The day had been promising rain and finally made good as we reached the plateau and sat admiring the West Temple and the Towers of the Virgin. After gnawing only one strip of turkey jerky, we were forced to pack up our al fresco lunch. Our slickers kept us safe from the deluge as we high-tailed it down the moderate switch-backs, the red dust turning to a thick clay that coated our boots.

Other options for winter hiking in Zion proper include an easy mosey along the paved Pa'rus Trail, which parallels the Virgin River; a short jaunt on the Canyon Overlook Trail ending with a great view of the East and West Temples, the Towers of the Virgin, and the Streaked Wall; and the Emerald Pools trail system, though you should check with a park ranger as falling ice can make these trails dangerous during a melt. The Sand Bench Trail, usually busy and dusty in the summer, is a good loop in winter and offers views of the Court of the Patriarchs.

Most of the rim trails are impassable due to snow as is the challenging Angel's Landing hike, but if it's a particularly dry winter, even some of these trails are open. You'll want to call ahead and check with the park rangers to get current information on trail conditions.

Road trip

By the second day, we were itching for a new scene. We decided to check out the Petrified Forest — usually too hot and miserable to explore in summer.

According to our guidebook, the trailhead to access the Petrified Forest was 3.5 miles from the South Entrance Station between Springville and Rockville. After several passes, we finally figured we were in the right spot, though it looked nothing like a "large dirt turnout." The book instructed us to head through the gate if we had a high clearance vehicle. The gate was locked, however, and wore a big, ugly "No Trespassing" sign.

"This sucks," said Mike, consulting his book for the umpteenth time.

We headed back to the park, further confusing the poor lady at the Entrance Station who dutifully checked our park pass though she had seen us not more than an hour ago. We consulted several guidebooks in the bookstore, but they all had basically the same information. There was no other choice but to wait in line to talk to the lone park ranger behind the information desk.

After reiterating what we already knew -- the guidebooks are outdated -- she pulled out some helpful laminated cards that displayed photos of the turnoff to the Chinle Trail — the national park trail leading into the Petrified Forest. The smiling lady ranger happily assured us we wouldn't see any petrified wood. Clearly, she had no idea who she was dealing with. We headed out again, the trail now a vendetta; a view of petrified wood now our Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, when we found the trailhead, we discovered it was at the entrance to a spanking new subdivision. The first mile of the Chinle Trail meanders through the backyards of the folks living and building in the Anasazi Plateau — "a world-class natural habitat planned development on 300 acres of pristine land bordering Zion National Park" according to a handy brochure.

Yeah well, it was pristine land before the Anasazi Plateau moved in.

"This sucks," said Mike as we stood looking at the map.

After some ranting about the loss of wild spaces, the inaccuracy of guide books, and whether we should split a turkey sandwich now or later, we agreed to drive down the road to Huber Wash.

Ain't no valley low enough

Huber Wash ambles cross-country a couple of miles to the Petrified Forest plateau. This southwest corner of the park is the most desert-like in Zion. Plenty of sunshine and lower elevation makes this a perfect winter playground. A trek in summer would feel like walking into a furnace (temps can exceed 105° F).

There's no formal trail after you pass through the park boundary fence (be sure to close it behind you). But the wash is easy to find. Some microbiotic crust exists in this area, so watch where you step.

Follow the streambed about 2.5 miles. Along the way, you'll see interesting rocks, trees, and the effects of erosion and minerals along the wash walls. We hiked after a hard rain and came upon some amazing mud pots, splitting and cracking like broken pottery as they dried in the sun.

Keep on until the canyon narrows to a dryfall. Now, head back the way you came for about 50 yards. Look up. The Petrified Logjam is pretty cool. You'll want to scramble up the ledge to get a closer look. Yes indeed, a layer of petrified wood swathed right through the rock. Nature is so neat.

Now, if you're out of shape, extremely large, or you just want to take the easy way out, turn around and head back down the wash. If you're not too bright, hell-bent to have an adventure, or you have ADHD and need to burn more energy, figure out how to get up to the plateau.

Probably the easiest route, and the one Mike and I took, is almost directly across from the logjam on the north side of the wash. Scramble up to a bouldery terrace full of scrubby trees and liquid-looking rock formations. Stay on the north side of the terrace and make your way to the farthest northwest corner. This requires scrambling over boulders then clawing through trees. If you're bigger, you might have to get down on your belly and crawl. In the northwest corner (out of sight until you're right in front of it) is a small chimney. Depending on how much stuff you have with you, you might have to pass your packs up independently. Wedge yourself up the chimney to the plateau, take a needed drink, and catch your breath.

A plateau with a view

Allow yourself time for a slow, amazing stroll around the plateau. You're looking for the Chinle Trail, which eventually takes you to Coal Pits Wash or back to the wretched Anasazi Plateau dream homes. But what you're really seeing is petrified wood. Everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It's beautiful. Tiny pieces shimmer like broken glass, fist-sized pieces look like ordinary rocks from a distance. We even stumbled upon an entire petrified tree. Long ago fallen and now shattered into hefty, hard chunks.

The lady ranger lied. We did find petrified wood. But we only found it because we were bushwhacking off the beaten path. Greedy hikers and collectors have long since removed the petrified wood from the main trails and the easily accessible streambeds.

And now I've told you how to get to it. I face the dilemma every outdoor writer and photographer grapples with. If I share this information, have I sounded the death knell of yet another sacred, wild place? I hope not.

If you want petrified wood, go buy it from one of the shops in Springville or Rockville. It's polished and pretty and ready for your coffee table or desk. The stuff on the plateau is raw, indigenous, and untouchable. Leave it where it rests, so others can marvel over it and also move on.

In our giddy photo spree, we eventually stumbled onto the Chinle Trail. We had a few options. We could turn around and head back down Huber Wash (neither of us wanted to negotiate the chimney again). We could go along the Chinle Trail to Coal Pits Wash and make a big loop (another 4.7 miles to Coal Pits and roughly 5 miles down the wash plus another mile hike along the road to get to the car). We could hike down the Chinle Trail and out through the vile subdivision (a quicker, easier loop).

We opted to cruise along the Chinle Trail — a flat, sandy route offering panoramic views of Huber Wash below. Now the dirt beneath our boots had a loamy, greenish cast; and the setting sun careened off the West Temple and Mt. Kinesava turning them a burnished rust color. Is the sky this blue anywhere else in the world?

Loop it and lump it

The last mile of our journey is disheartening. The bulk of Anasazi Plateau has yet to be constructed, but the road is paved and homes are going up rapidly. The trail is fairly easy to follow; keep to the south of the wash. As construction progresses, it may become trickier to stay on the trail and off the pavement.

Off the Chinle Trail, tired and thirsty, we begin the roadside trek back to the trailhead and the car. If we run, I suggest, we'll get there quicker.

"This sucks," says Mike about a mile into our jog.

"Does it really?" I ask.

We've spent two days in one of the most gorgeous parks in this country. The sun is going down and turning this place into a rainbow of bloody reds and dusky purples. A breeze cools our hot faces.

"Nah, not really," he replies. We keep jogging; two Cheshire cat grins bobbing down the road.

If you go

Be sure to call ahead (435-772-3256) when planning a winter trip to Zion. The South Campground is open year-round, but Lava Point, a primitive campground, and the Watchman Campground close in November. Depending on the current conditions, you may prefer to stay in a motel. The Zion Lodge offers rooms, suites, and cabins (303-297-2757 for reservations, 435-772-3213 for lodge information, or www.zionlodge.com). Additional lodging is available in Springdale, Mt. Carmel Junction, Kanab, Cedar City and other neighboring communities.

Shuttle services end in October, so you'll be on your own for transportation through the park. A park pass costs $20 per vehicle and is good for seven days. You may want to consider purchasing a National Parks Pass for $50, good for all parks in the national system for one year from the date of purchase. Bikes are allowed on roads and the paved Pa'rus Trail but not on other hiking trails and not through the tunnel.

Winter temperatures are normally in the 50s during the day (sometimes 60s!) and down in the 30s at night. January receives the most snow, a maximum of 26 inches and an average seven days with precipitation. Layered clothing is a must as climbing daytime temps allow you to shed and lowering afternoon and evening temps force you to cover up. Check the National Weather Service (www.nws.noaa.gov) for current conditions.

Although it's cooler, you should still pack adequate water. Zion is dry, arid country; and hikers can dehydrate even in fall and winter.

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