Canyon Overlook Trail in Winter

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To enjoy one of the most commanding views of Zion National Park, you only need to hike a half-mile trail.  The view from the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail is well worth the small amount of effort required to reach this viewpoint.  It’s a scene that looks more like a painting than real life.

Location

Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, about an hour east of St. George.  From Interstate 15, take exit 16 (or exit 27, if you are approaching from the north).  Follow Utah Route 9 into the park.  Route 9 runs through the park and continues east, allowing access from Kanab, Utah, and US 89.

To access the Canyon Overlook Trail, drive through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel to the east side.  Exit the tunnel and cross the bridge, then immediately turn into the parking area on the right (for compact cars only).  The trailhead is located across the street from the parking lot.  A secondary parking area is located a few hundred feet up the road, on the left.

My Visit

During my six days in Zion National Park in January, 2017, I hiked the Canyon Overlook Trail twice.  Both times were unique experiences, but they still had a lot in common: an amazing view, a whole lot of snow, and some wildlife.

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As I mentioned above, the trail begins near the bridge at the end of the big tunnel (you can see it in the middle of this picture).  That bridge crosses Pine Creek Canyon, which becomes much narrower on this side of the tunnel.  For most of the hike out to the viewpoint, the trail skirts the edge of Pine Creek Canyon.

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During my visit, the trail was snow-covered in most places…

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… except for the spots where an overhang of rock covered the trail.  Yes, if you’re uneasy with heights, you might find some spots along this trail to be intense — like this walkway that takes you over a spot where the trail is missing.

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That overhang opens into a cave, where you can take shelter from the weather, and use the rocks to frame up a nice picture.  Continue on, and you’ll dip into and out of a side canyon once or twice, hugging the cliffside for most of the way, before eventually arriving at the viewpoint.

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On my first hike out to Canyon Overlook, I began to realize that I hadn’t chosen a very good time for the hike.  Storms had been passing over Zion in waves, and it looked like I was about to get hit by another one.  Here, I’m looking towards the viewpoint, but I haven’t quite reached it yet.

Hike through a nice jumble of sculpted rock, and you’ll find your way out to the edge.

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You’ll probably say “Wow” when you first see this viewpoint.  Then, you’ll stand here for a few minutes, and hear every other person who sees it say the very same thing.  It’s definitely wow-inspiring on any day of the year, but a fresh coating of snow makes the view extra-special.

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It’s quite a contrast to the picture on the interpretive sign, which shows Pine Creek Canyon the way 95% of the park’s visitors will likely see it.

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Look down into the canyon, and you’ll see Route 9, as it twists and turns towards the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.  On this day, you can clearly see the difference elevation makes in deciding whether snow or rain will fall.  There’s an important lesson here — if you’re visiting Zion in the winter and you want to see snow, your best best is to drive up to the east side.

As you drive up those switchbacks, look east towards the end of the canyon.  You probably won’t be able to see the tiny viewpoint at the top of the cliff, but you most definitely will notice the Great Arch of Zion — which is exactly what it sounds like.

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This picture isn’t great, but it’s the best one I could find from the Drivelapse camera.  You can sort-of see the arch on the canyon wall, straight ahead and to the left.  I added some arrows to point out the arch and the Canyon Overlook viewpoint.

Although not a free-standing, detached arch (like you’d find most famously in Arches National Park), this “blind” arch measures 400 feet high and 600 feet across.  When you’re standing at the viewpoint, you’re standing on the top of the Great Arch of Zion.  And that means, there isn’t as much rock beneath your feet as you might think.

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It almost looks like this rock formation could provide some shelter from the weather, but trust me, it didn’t.  Remember that dark cloud from earlier?  It didn’t disappoint.  The storm quickly swept up the valley and over the viewpoint.  Instead of rain, or snow, I was pelted with tiny little balls of sleet.  And they didn’t just come down, they also came up from below, as the rushing wind pushed out of the canyon.

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It’s pretty safe to bet that you’ll encounter a few bighorn sheep during your time in Zion, and the Canyon Overlook Trail seems like a great place to find them.  This gal was munching on every bit of vegetation she could find along the trail…

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… and she was in no hurry to go anywhere.  At my insistence, she moved along, while stopping repeatedly for photos.

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Finally, near the trailhead, she took a higher path, as I dropped down to the road.  From the edge of the cliff, she looked down at me, providing another great opportunity for a picture.

The next day, I decided to return to Canyon Overlook, just before sunset.  I was in such a hurry, I practically had to run along the slippery trail to reach the viewpoint in time.  The previous day’s storms were giving way to some clearer skies, but there were still enough clouds to make things interesting.  Oh, and it was cold, so very cold.

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Canyon Overlook looks almost directly west, but in the winter, the sun sets slightly to the south.  This means you’ll get a beautiful glow on the cliffs on the north side of the canyon.  If you want to see the sun set directly in front of you, you’ll have to visit this spot in March or September.

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That noticeable bump is the top of Bridge Mountain.  You’ve already seen it from the Canyon Junction area – it’s the mountain to the southeast of the bridge, where everyone stops to take pictures.  From here, in January, the sun is setting almost directly behind it.

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Turn around, and with any luck, you’ll see the sun shining brightly on the East Temple.  This mountain rises as a steep slope, directly above the Canyon Overlook viewpoint.

For a fun hike in warmer months, you can climb directly up that steep slope for as far as you can manage.  It’s part of a route called the East Temple Loop.  I tried it, a few years back, and although I didn’t successfully complete the entire loop — I eventually had to backtrack — the views from that slope are even better than what you’ll see at the official overlook.

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After the sun had set, I was once again rushing along the trail — this time, to get back to the car before dark.  And once again, the wildlife caused me to pause.  Two sheep were standing on a ledge above the trail, in a perfect pose in front of the East Temple. They were my final pictures of the day.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the snowy drive through the east side of Zion National Park:

The Bottom Line

The Canyon Overlook Trail was the first trail I ever hiked in Zion National Park (way back in 2004), and it remains one of my favorite places to find a great view at the end of a quick hike.  Don’t be intimidated by the steep drops along this trail, and you’ll get to enjoy a magnificent view of Pine Creek Canyon.  Try it around sunset for an added bonus of beauty.

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