Even on a good day, the hike to Observation Point is a lot to tackle. It’s a 4 mile (one way) hike that gains more than 2,100 vertical feet. Part of the climb is on a narrow shelf that’s been chiseled into the side of the cliff. Now, imagine that same challenge in the snow. Imagine a couple of feet of fresh powder on the trail. Imagine taking each step, wondering if you’d stay afloat atop the snowpack, or plunge down to a waist-level depth. Imagine immense icicles hanging overhead, dripping onto you, and threatening to come crashing down. And don’t forget to imagine the indescribable silence, as you hike for miles without seeing another person. That’s what it’s like to hike to Observation Point in the winter.
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 Observation Point Trail, park at the Weeping Rock trailhead (driving into the canyon is allowed during winter months) or take the canyon shuttle to stop #7 (in spring, summer, and fall).
Two days after my challenging (to say the least) hike to Hidden Canyon, I was back at the split in the trail, where Hidden Canyon is to the right, and Observation Point awaits to the left. This time, I was committed to the longer hike to my favorite Zion viewpoint, although I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it all the way. All week, I had heard people saying that the upper portion of Observation Point Trail was impassable due to snow. I figured I’d go as far as I could, and enjoy everything along the way.
The first portion of Observation Point Trail involves some switchbacks as you climb out of the valley, past the split to Hidden Canyon, and on towards Echo Canyon. The snow on this part of the trail was well-trampled and easy to hike through. The icicles on the cliff were pretty big, but there were much larger ones up ahead.
The sharp right turn into Echo Canyon is always a jarring and awe-inspiring experience, no matter how many times you’ve hiked through here. The trail leaves the main canyon and slips through this slot, high on a shelf. The swirling patterns in the rock add a disorienting feel to your surroundings. And as a bonus, at this time of year, ledges and crevices were all outlined in snow.
There are some water hazards in Echo Canyon, but it’s fairly easy to find a way around them.
I think that’s Cable Mountain, standing at the end of Echo Canyon. Everything here seems out of proportion — the depth of the canyon and the height of the cliffs seems larger than you would imagine.
Echo Canyon finally gets very narrow — it’s essentially a slot canyon, with a passage hollowed out of the rock. Once you get through here, you’ll find some monstrous icicles, and the trail will likely be more icy and less snowy in spots.
The climb continues out of Echo Canyon, and for now, in the morning hours, you’re still in the shade. That makes this part of the trail very enjoyable in the summer, but quite chilly in the winter.
This area of snowdrifts is especially pretty. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s worth hiking this far, even if you don’t intend to go all the way up the mountain. I spent more time here on the return trip, when the lighting was better.
Around mile 2, the trail changes again. At roughly the halfway point between the trailhead and Observation Point, you pass a split in the trail. The East Rim trail heads off to the right, towards places like Cable Mountain and Deertrap Mountain. Both of those require a lengthy hike, and you probably don’t want to do them in winter, because the East Rim Trail was mostly hidden beneath the snow.
You’ll notice something else in that photo above. Suddenly, you’re not in the shadows anymore. From here on, the trail is exposed to the morning sun. I found myself loosening my scarf and unzipping my jacket to deal with the change in temperature.
Icicles are still in abundance here, and I even found one that was defying gravity. No, it’s not an above-ground stalagmite — another hiker had broken off an icicle and planted it in the snow. I was relieved — it was a sign that someone else was hiking the trail. For more than two miles, I hadn’t seen any other hikers.
Obviously, the goal of the Observation Point Trail is to enjoy the view from Observation Point, but I’d argue that there’s an even more exciting point on the trail. From the valley floor, you can see a zig-zagging trail cut into the top of the cliff. When you reach this part, you’ve almost finished the vertical ascent, and you have a commanding view of the canyon. But, in the snow, it’s a different experience.
First off, let’s talk about those icicles. They are huge. And pointy. And with the sun beating against them, they’re dripping and starting to detach.
And sometimes, you have no choice but to walk directly under them.
I got to this point, at the first big switchback in the zig-zag cut, and seriously considered turning around. The snow was deep, the icicles were scary…
… and the view was already pretty darned great. I really, really almost turned around here, but then I decided to go a little bit further.
As the zig-zag portion continued upward, the tracks in the snow made it obvious that most other hikers had turned around by this point. Instead of a nicely compacted trail, there were now individual footprints. Some sunk into the snow by just a few inches, while others plunged down to the rock. As I hiked, I never knew which step would continue to float atop the snow, and which one would give way. Dozens of times, I would step and sink, and my entire leg would plunge into the snow, leaving me buried almost to my waist. Then, I’d have to pull myself out, and take another step, often with the same result.
Despite the troubles, this was an extraordinary experience. By this point, thankfully, I was starting to run into some other hikers headed downhill. They all confirmed what I had suspected — you couldn’t go all the way to Observation Point (without snowshoes), but it was worth the effort to continue a bit further. And so I did.
After the zig-zags, the trail levels out. You’re not quite at the top of the plateau, but there’s a nice long stretch of level hiking on a wide, natural shelf that eventually leads to the top. This area would become my ultimate destination on this hike.
Not only does this area have great views of the entire canyon, it also passes below a cliff.
The white snow and blue skies made this a very special time to be here, in circumstances that most visitors to Zion will never get to experience.
Just keep an eye out for those icicles!
The view from this part of the trail was almost as good as what I would have seen from Observation Point — if I could have gotten there. You can easily see the Great White Throne and the lower canyon…
… as well as the top of Angels Landing. At this point, you’re above Angels Landing, looking down on it.
I knew if I continued any further, the scenery wouldn’t be as great, and then I’d reach the dead-end caused by the snow. Begrudgingly, I accepted that I needed to turn around and head back down.
The best place to linger on the return trip was back around mile two. By this time, the trail and the surrounding valley was lit nicely…
… and I was especially intrigued by a letter-z shape in the trees.
This area also had some impressive snow drifts…
… and I spent quite a while looking for abstract shapes and shadows in the rolling hillside.
Much to my surprise, that stalagmite had spawned dozens of other gravity-defying iciles!
And in certain places, the icicles and snowdrifts combined nicely.
With my third and final camera battery dying, I put my camera away, and trudged onward.
Once I was back in the main canyon, the afternoon light was shining on Weeping Rock. High above stood the viewpoint that I wasn’t able to reach, but I wasn’t disappointed. When you visit Zion in winter, the hike really is more about the journey than the destination.
Here’s a look at the drive into, and out of, Zion Canyon.
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I’d recommend hiking Observation Point Trail to anyone who’s up for a winter challenge. Keep in mind that, even on a warm day, this is a challenging trail that will probably take 6 or more hours. Snow only makes this trail more difficult. Plan to spend the whole day here, and don’t get discouraged if you’re forced to turn around at a certain point. The entire hike is enjoyable, and you’ll see some great scenery, even if you’re not able to get all the way to the actual point.