Zion National Park: Observation Point Trail


It’s funny how vacations seem to have a way of working out.  Weeks earlier, during the planning stage of this trip, I had sworn that I wouldn’t end up in Zion National Park this time.  Zion is one of my favorite places in America, but I had just visited the park a year ago, and I didn’t expect my schedule to allow it on this trip.

Yet, here I was, in the middle of Day 9, getting ready to tackle one of Zion’s most challenging day hikes, and it’s all because of bad weather.  Rain and clouds blanketed almost all of Utah, causing me to leave Salt Lake City early, and head south.  Those grey skies began to break up, about 50 miles north of Zion, convincing me that I had made the right choice.

This wasn’t the first time I had hiked Observation Point Trail.  I trudged up the 4-mile (one way) path in 2007, during a more extensive visit to Zion.  I knew the hike was incredibly challenging, especially for someone who sits behind a desk all day, thanks to its 2,148-foot vertical climb.  But that’s the great thing about the final day of a vacation.  You know it’s almost over, and you know you have nothing else to do — no more goals, no more milestones you have to achieve.  All that’s left is the final task at hand.  I had arrived at the trailhead at 1:41 p.m.  The sun wouldn’t set until around 8 o’clock, so I had more than six hours to hike eight miles, and no other responsibility than to enjoy every minute of it.

The Zion Canyon shuttle dropped me off at the Weeping Rock bus stop.  Here, you have an excellent view of the Great White Throne, one of Zion’s most famous and recognizable peaks.  And, since it was after March 31, I was able to stand in the middle of the road without worrying about traffic.  The park prohibits private vehicles from driving into the canyon during spring, summer, and the first part of fall.

As you would expect in a trail that gains 4/10 of a mile in elevation, the path gains elevation quickly, as it climbs up from the Zion Canyon Floor.  During the first stage of the hike, much of the trail is a shelf, carved out of the side of the hill.

After about 20 minutes of uphill hiking, you’ll pass a split in the trail.  The alternative path leads into Hidden Canyon.  It, too, is a great trail to hike, and if you have any energy on the way back down from Observation Point, you should explore it, too.

Speaking of Observation Point, there it is!  The top of the hill in the upper-left side of the picture is where we’re heading.

It’s funny, when I started this hike, I decided it would be easier to keep my camera holstered in my camera bag.  I figured I wouldn’t need it much, since I had hiked and photographed this trail before.  It wasn’t long before I decided to keep it out.  There is so much to see here, I couldn’t possibly photograph all of it on one hike, or two, or more.

Here’s one last glimpse of Observation Point, before it disappears from view.

After a whole lot of climbing, the trail levels out for a few moments, as it enters Echo Canyon.  Here, the trail is perched along one side of the canyon.  Just over the side of the trail, there’s a dropoff into a deep slot.

That’s the view looking straight down, if you take a seat on the edge of the path.

Deeper inside Echo Canyon, you’ll have to hop across some puddles…

… before heading up the path on the left side of this picture.  Go straight, through the ponds, and there’s another slot canyon, with beautifully eroded walls.

The trail passes through a hollowed-out section of the slot canyon wall…

… before emerging on the other side.  Sorry, the relatively level (and shady) part of the path is behind you now, and it’s time to climb again.

It’s great that the scenery keeps changing, as you hike up to Observation Point.  While this part of the trail is steep (and numerous switchbacks lie just ahead), it allows you to see part of the park that’s not visible from the main canyon.

At roughly the halfway point, there’s another fork in the trail.  Turn right, and you’ll head towards Cable Mountain.  You could hike to Cable Mountain and back in one day, but the 16 mile (round trip) trek works better as a two-day trip.

Beyond the halfway point, the trail gets serious about climbing to the top of the mountain.  One switchback along the way provides a brief glimpse of the main canyon (as well as the route you took to get to this point), but for most of the time, you don’t have a view of Zion Canyon until…

… you reach the final two switchbacks.  This part of the trail will make your knees buckle.  The trail is chiseled out of the mountainside, creating a shelf with a big drop-off.  This scar in the mountainside is clearly visible from the canyon floor, as well as from the end of the trail at Observation Point (check out the 2007 hike for a photo).

June is a great time to spot Prickly Pear cactus blooming along the sides of the trail.

When you reach the top, the hike isn’t over — but at least the worst part of the climb is behind you.  The trail circles around the rim (our destination is the end of the plateau, marked by some red stains).

You’ll also have a few opportunities to glance into the canyon…

… as you hike through a quickly changing landscape.  One moment you’re surrounded by stunted trees, the next, by flowers and shrubs, and then…

 more cactus.  The final push to the end of the trail is about 1/2 mile of easy walking along the rim.

I was pretty proud of my hiking time.  It’s a little difficult to see in the picture, but my time from the trailhead to Observation Point was 2 hours, 17 minutes, 1 second.  (My 2007 climb took about 2 hours, 30 minutes.)

When I boarded the airplane in Las Vegas, less than 24 hours after taking this picture, I laughed when I saw this exact spot in the in-flight magazine.

  That old tree stump is a required element in any picture you take of the valley at Observation Point.

As you look at this picture, take notice of the rock fin in the middle-right of the photo.  That’s Angels Landing, and the journey out onto that knife-edge is probably Zion’s most famous hike.  I’ve tackled Angels Landing twice, in 2007 and 2009.

Find a place to sit on the edge of the cliff, unpack a snack, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  The view is great in every direction.

The climb down takes much less time, but it takes a toll on your legs.  I made it back to the bus stop after 3 hours, 52 minutes, 17 seconds of hiking time — which didn’t count my relaxation and sightseeing time at Observation Point.

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