Hike to Double Arch Alcove, Kolob Canyons – Zion

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This is a part of Zion National Park that most people don’t see.  The Kolob Canyons are at the north end of the park, miles away from the more famous canyon carved by the Virgin River.  It’s not hard to get here–in fact, Kolob Canyons is closer to Interstate 15 than Zion Canyon.  Even so, only a handful of people explore this part of the park.

Kolob Canyons is similar to the bigger canyon to the south.  Both areas are cut from red sandstone, and feature towering, sheer rock walls. While the Kolob Canyons are smaller, there are several of them instead of one, stretching out like giant fingers, and separated by narrow valleys.

The picture you see above is from a viewpoint at the end of the scenic road that starts at I-15, exit 40.  Here, you can take in the entire area in one great view.  And even if that’s all you do, the Kolob Canyons area is still worth a stop.

I had just driven down from Bryce Canyon, after spending the early morning hiking on a couple of trails there.  I had already walked about four miles, then enjoyed a scenic drive back to I-15. It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at Kolob Canyons, and I was a little concerned about hiking here–not only because it looked like I would be all alone, but also because it was going to be a long hike–about 5 1/2 miles, and I had no idea how long it would take.  But don’t worry, I’ve never let common sense or overexercised caution ruin a good hike.

Middle Fork of Taylor Creek Trail

There are three trails leading into three canyons here: the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek is the only one the park considers “developed”.  The north fork splits off from the middle fork trail about a mile in, while the south fork departs from a different parking area.

When I arrived at the Middle Fork parking area, mine was the only car there.  What a change from Zion Canyon, I thought, where if you twisted your ankle, someone would be along any moment to help.  I like the solitude of a good wilderness trail, but this felt a little too lonely.  It was about 2:15 p.m., and there was a very good chance that no one else would hike this trail today.

I pushed aside all those concerns and told myself that there would be no problems.  I had a good supply of water.  It’s only 5 1/2 miles or so.  No worries.

The trailhead is far from the mouth of the canyon.  After a brief drop downhill, you spend the first mile or so in a mostly open landscape.  It takes a while before the mountains start closing in.

For almost the entire length of the trail, you are either near Taylor Creek, or hiking in it.  Much of the creek was completely dry during my hike in mid-August.  As I continued into the canyon, the dry wash turned to mud, then a few trickles of water appeared.  It was never deep enough to cause a problem, but of course this could have changed if a flash flood developed.

It wasn’t always easy to keep track of the trail, since it crossed the creek bed time after time.  I soon learned that if I missed one section of the trail, I’d find it again in a minute or two.

I think that’s either Tucupit Point or Paria Point in the background.  Between those two mountains lies the Middle Fork valley, which is where we’re headed.

There are some refreshing, shady areas where the trail breaks away–ever so briefly–from the creek bed.

As you come close to the mouth of the canyon (after a mile or so of hiking), there’s a fork in the trail.  The main path goes straight, while an unmarked (but clearly visible) trail breaks off to the left.  That trail is the North Fork trail, which leads into the next canyon to the north.

On my way into the canyon, I was so preoccupied with choosing the correct trail, that somehow, I completely missed seeing Larson Cabin, one of the two historic cabins left here by early settlers.  In the picture above, it looks like it would be impossible to miss, but from the trail it’s sort-of in the shadows.  If you miss it on the way in, you’ll probably see it on the way out.

Gustave Larson built this cabin in 1929.

Beyond the first cabin, you start feeling like you’re back in Zion Canyon, comfortably tucked between two towering walls of red rock, that gradually close in on you the further you go.

Note the trickle of water that’s now present in the mud.

For a few hundred yards, the trail breaks away from the creek bed, climbs up an embankment, and leads into an area dense with trees.  It’s here that you find Fife Cabin.

Arthur Fife built this cabin in 1930, one year after Larson built his.  The two cabins are the only remaining signs of structures built by settlers in the Kolob Canyons area.

Fife Cabin is not in quite as good a shape as its nearest neighbor.  The roof is sagging, and a few timbers have caved in.  At both Fife and Larson cabins, the windows and doors are covered with fencing, to keep people out and protect the historic structures.

After about an hour of walking (I was moving fast, hoping not to get stuck on the trail too late in the day), I knew I was getting close to the end.  The trail’s ultimate destination was Double Arch Alcove, and I knew it had to be at the point where the two canyon walls came together, and the trail could go no further.  I was now walking in the shadows, which made it pleasantly cool, but also made it feel lonelier and later in the day.

Finally… just a short distance away… there it was…

… Double Arch Alcove: a beautiful grotto, almost a cave but not quite deep enough, with rounded, curved, color-stained walls.  It was as if someone had taken a giant melon-baller and scooped out the side of the mountain.

The base of the alcove was muddy, with a few reflective puddles.  Signs warned not to climb up the sides, to protect plant life.

There are a few obvious pictures here, and after taking a few, I sat down on a nearby rock, ate a snack, and simply stared at the alcove for a few minutes.  The longer I looked, the more I saw.  The rock was so artfully carved.  The stains formed so many colors.  The plant life and trees scattered about the bottom of the alcove all seemed to lead the eye back into the grotto. I pulled the camera back out and took more…

… zooming in on all those shapes…

… the gentle folds in the rock…

… and the textures intersected by water stains.  Photography classes should take field trips here, I thought.  Every student would come away with something different.

Then I started to wonder if the hollowed-out chamber would form a nice echo.  Feeling positively alone, I shouted out an impetuous “HELLO!”.  I heard two responses: my own voice, and the only other person on the trail that day who, much to my surprise, had just arrived at the end of the trail.  Somewhat embarrassed, I went back to enjoying the silence after that.

Looking away from Double Arch Alcove, the mountains towered around me.  Trees were merely shadows now.  I had made it to the end of the trail in about 1 hour and 20 minutes, then spent another 45 minutes there.  It was time to go.

The hike back went about as quickly as the walk in.  Three hours round trip wasn’t bad, I thought, for a nearly six-mile hike through a mostly undeveloped part of the park.

Back at the car, I checked the pedometer: 12,949 steps.  If 2,000 steps is a mile, then I walked about 6 1/2 miles.  Of course, this includes some walking around at the end of the trail.  Even so, the official 5.4 mile round trip distance seems to be a bit of an underestimate.

The good news is, the trail is almost completely level.  That’s important, especially if you’ve spent a few days hiking trails that climb up out of Zion Canyon.  Compared to them, this was an easy trail.  The only moderately-difficult part was its length.

As the end of Day 5 approached, I decided to head back into Nevada for the night.  It was a Thursday night, and that meant the motel rooms were cheap in Mesquite, just over the Nevada state line (rooms run about $40 at several big casinos on weeknights).  Staying in Mesquite also set me up nicely for the next day’s destinations in the Silver State.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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