Backpacking: West Rim Trail of Zion National Park

I’ve been fortunate enough to make multiple trips to Zion National Park but haven’t been able to explore a whole lot of the park by foot. I always end up going with different people and always end up hiking Angels Landing (I think three times now) and maybe one other shorter trail during our quick stays. The guys over at Outdoor Vitals had permits to backpack the West Rim Trail (top-bottom) and were gracious enough to invite me along and I knew I had to make to the nine hour drive down to join them.

The West Rim Trail is about 16 miles running north and south through the park and is typically completed top-to-bottom and most people would drop their packs off and make the ‘outdoor detour’ up to Angels Landing before returning into the valley. Unfortunately, Zion experienced some very severe flash flooding during a recent storm, and the trail leading back to Angels Landing and the valley was completely closed, so we were completing this trip as a 18-mile RT out-and-back to backcountry site #4.

Since I was driving in from Denver and the Outdoor Vitals crew were making the short drive from their headquarters in Cedar City, Utah and there would be limited cell service at the trailhead, we set a rough time to meet at the trailhead and if either group couldn’t make it by then, we would simply meet at the trailhead.

No shortage of amazing views on the drive up Kolob Terrace Road.

No shortage of amazing views on the drive up Kolob Terrace Road.

The drive to the trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road and Lava Point Road was spectacular and exposed me to yet another part of Zion that I had never seen or explored before. The trailhead parking lot was just big enough for about tens vehicles max and there was no one present so I prepared my pack to make the hike out, not knowing if any of the vehicles there were the Outdoor Vitals crew.

I quickly geared up and hit the trail in hopes of catching up to the guys in case they were already on the trail. The trail started out flat and then stayed surprising flat. I guess I hadn’t fully examined the vertical chart, but the lack of elevation change allowed me to cruise by myself at “Randy Pace.” I completed the first five miles in a blistering 1hr 24min. It was a wildly unspectacular and flat five miles. I was not impressed.

Right at that five mile mark though, you catch your first glimpse of Zion’s beauty. There’s a perfect tree to get some coverage and rest and an absolute perfect scenic viewpoint looking west into Zion’s Potato Hollow.

You first scenic view on the trail is a good one!

You first scenic view on the trail is a good one!

After the viewpoint, the trail stays flat for some time and then steadily goes downhill. I hiked some truly unique terrain where a trail of fine desert sand travels through a field of wildflowers. It was very bizarre and undoubtedly beautiful. But this is where things took a turn for me.

Immediately following the beautiful field of sand and wildflowers, the trail starts climbing steeply and suddenly into a forested area. It’s at this point where my legs decided to stop working. I had been cruising through the flat desert at a blistering pace, and I think the lack of water and calories caught up to my body as soon as it had to do any real uphill work.

So uniquely awesome!

So uniquely awesome!

I carried around 3L of water for the trip, thinking that at least one of the four potential water sources I read about would provide me with all the additional water I might need during the desert hike. I was wrong. Zero water throughout, so I was forced to ration my water for the rest of the trip.

After struggling up the first of the two main uphills on the hike, I was welcomed with wide open sprawling views of Potato Hollow. I took plenty of breaks to take photos and catch my breath and soon realized that there are no roads (or developed trails) into the Potato Hollow area. So the only people that have really seen it are those who have hiked or backpacked the West Rim Trail to those viewpoints. Pretty wild to think that so few people have been fortunate enough to see those amazing views of Potato Hollow.

IMG_6731fx.jpg

Moments like this are exactly why I spend so much time exploring the great outdoors. I was so grateful in the moment that I had the physical capacity to get there and grateful that I even had to opportunity thanks to the invite from the Outdoor Vitals team.

The trail continues on the West Rim up one more hill toward the backcountry campsites, providing many more similarly amazing views of Potato Hollow. I arrived at campsite #4 to find that I had beaten the Outdoor Vitals team there. They had to go all the way to the West Zion entrance to obtain the backpacking permits, so I must have beaten them to the trailhead after all. I quickly set up my tent, took a few photos and videos, and took a short nap as I waited for the rest of the crew.

The other guys showed up about an hour after I did and staked out a wide variety of different set-ups. Dave set up a 1-person prototype tent that Outdoor Vitals is working on, but he went the minimalist route with just the footprint and rainfly. Derek opted for just his sleeping pad and sleeping bag under an A-frame rainfly/tarp. And joining them was Shawn who, like me, is a “social media influencer” (check out his YouTube channel) that was invited on the trip. Shawn was sporting an Outdoor Vitals hammock under a rainfly.

IMG_6534fx.jpg

All the guys were super friendly like-minded individuals. Just typing this out makes me realize that this was basically a blind-backpacking-dude-date (ahaha I’ll try anything twice!). We sat around resting our legs and sharing outdoor adventure trip stories and ideas while a deer perused around our campsite. When sunset was approaching, we grabbed our dinners and camera gear and made the short walk to the nearby scenic viewpoint. Unfortunately, it’s been an exceptionally bad year for wildfires and the thick smoke from California ruined any chance we had for a decent sunset.

As the sky darkened and clouds slowly rolled in, we were treated to quite the show of heat lightning. When there were breaks in the clouds, we pointed out satellites and planets, as Mars and Jupiter were easily identifiable this time of the year. We crashed early so we could get packed up early in the morning and beat the desert afternoon heat for the 9-mile hike out.

IMG_6558fx.jpg

We all slept well, had a quite bite for breakfast, and packed up even earlier than we expected. We cruised on out of there to beat the heat and were able to make it back out to the trailhead in about 3.5 hours. Nine miles before noon—not too shabby! Ice cold Gatorades awaited us and couldn’t have tasted any better! A quick change into flip-flops and we were on our way to our next campsite—at the developed Zion Canyon Campground just outside of the West Zion entrance in Springdale.

After driving into town and quickly setting up at the campground, we bought some adult beverages and Dave led us to a hidden swimming hole within Zion. Jumping off a large boulder into the swimming hole couldn’t have felt much better! A much needed rinse after too long hikes through the Utah desert the previous two days!

Dave found an alternate use for his Outdoor Vitals sleeping pad

Dave found an alternate use for his Outdoor Vitals sleeping pad

I was originally planning to spend the night with them and head back to Denver in the morning, but I once again decided to beat the heat by taking off just before sunset so I could start knocking out the nine hour drive. I made it to Colorado National Monument around 12:30am and decided to take some night shots there before sleeping in my truck and finishing the drive home in the morning.

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument

Huge shout-out to the guys at Outdoor Vitals for inviting me along on the trip. So thankful to have the opportunity to backpack in Zion and explore more of the park. They continue to make some great gear so go check them out. Big thanks to Shaun for documenting the trip and for shouting me out in the video. He’s got a huge following on YouTube so go check out his trip videos and subscribe to his channel!

Backpacking: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

 

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is tucked into the Sangre De Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado and features the tallest sand dunes in North America. 

The Plan:

Drive down to the Dunes from Denver in the early morning. Get an overnight permit at the Visitor Center, hike up to the summit of High Dune, hike to the summit of Star Dune, then head north until I either (1) get tired or sick of hiking, or (2) find a decent flat area to camp with amazing views of the dunes and mountains. Hike out in the morning either during or after sunrise. Take the long way home to stop and take a dip in Valley View Hot Springs to rinse and relax before the long drive home.

The Permit:

Overnight permits are free and only obtained from the Great Sand Dunes Visitors Center which is open every day year-round except winter holidays and the hours are 9:00a-4:30p Labor Day through Memorial Day Weekend and 8:30a-6:00p Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day.

The Route:

This is the easy part (sort of). There are no "trails" on the sand dunes. There are only dunes that have more footprints than others. You can go any which way that you like. From the parking lots, High Dune is literally just the highest dune you can see. And from the top of High Dune, the highest peak you can see continuing east is Star Dune. After that, I'm just going to follow the most interesting routes and ridges toward the most unique shapes and lines that I see.

The Trip:

After parking in the designated overnight lot, you'll make the short hike to the base of the dunes which requires crossing the Medano Creek flow. The depth and flow of the creek depends entirely on the melting snow runoff from the neighboring mountains. Both times I have crossed in the early spring months, I have been able to get about halfway across before opting to take off my boots and walk the rest of the way. Make sure you check the creek conditions before visiting, but you can expect to take your shoes off to avoid soaking your shoes and socks.

IMG_5076fx.jpg

I had only been to the Great Sand Dunes one other time previously and it happened to be my first hike after ACL/MCL reconstructive knee surgery, and I remember thinking: Wow, this isn't very difficult at all. Well, it turns out that was because it was a wet morning before sunrise and the sand was firm and easy to climb.

Getting started in the dunes mid-afternoon with a 35lbs pack is a totally different story. The trek up to the High Dune summit is short but taxing to say the least. Just follow everyone else and head toward the tallest dune you can spot from the parking lot. You are bound to run into at few steep sections that truly feel like you are hiking up a down-escalator. The sand can be brutal, especially in the hot summer months when it can reach 140-degrees.

Also keep in mind that you are fully exposed for your the entirety of your trip on the dunes. You'll want to cover up with clothes or sunscreen to avoid getting burnt to a crisp out there. I chose to wear high hiking boots, convertible hiking pants to go over my boots, a long sleeve shirt, and a hiking hat. This was both to avoid getting sunburnt as well as to keep the sand out of my boots.

After reaching the summit of High Dune, I headed north rather than making the hike out to Star Dune. From reviewing a topographical map, I knew Star Dune was particularly steep, and I wasn't particularly excited for more steeps. I saw some great untouched ridges and shapes that I wanted to explore and photograph, so I opted to continue my loop and find a cozy place to camp.

The late afternoon was extremely windy and made setting up the tent a real pain. Luckily I had some extra long stakes that I brought specifically for pitching in the sand. They proved invaluable, as they actually stuck pretty well after you pressed them in past about six inches of sand. Honestly, I don't know if I could have pitched my tent without them with the wind as bad as it was. 

Sunrise and sunset are the absolute best times in the dunes. The colors and more importantly the shadows are unrivaled. The views change by the minute so if you plan on photographing out there, make sure that you've scouted out your location, have the lens you need on the camera (you do NOT want to be changing lenses in the sand!), and you are ready to shoot!

IMG_5978fx.jpg

After some sunset shooting, I ate my dinner and took a nap while waiting for darkness. I knew the half-moon wouldn't rise till just after midnight, so I wanted to shoot in complete darkness, as the dunes are one of the darkest places in the entire country. Let me tell you, the stars did not disappoint. I'm treated to amazing night skies in the Rocky Mountains all the time, but when I woke up from my nap and opened my tent, I was absolutely blown away by how bright the stars were.

By 11:00p, the wind had disappeared completely. You could here a pin drop, and it remained that way all night. It was so quiet and peaceful for the first time all day. I was growing tired of my tent flapping in the wind and the rustling of the plastic bags I was using as sand bags. I just laid down on my back in the sand in amazement of the stars above and enjoyed my first slice of quiet time. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. I find that I rarely do this while camping in the mountains because the ground it muddy, wet, cold and I never have a towel or blanket to lay on. With the sand you can just lie down and quickly brush off the dry sand when you get up.

IMG_5820fx2.jpg

Out of curiosity (and laziness), I decided I wouldn't bother blowing up my sleeping pad. I wondered if the sand would be cold and would suck the warmth out of me like the ground does when you're camping on land. I had my 0-degree down bag on me so I figured I would give it a shot and sleep directly on the floor of the tent. I gotta say, it was perfectly fine. The lows were in the 30's that night and I stayed plenty warm and comfortable. If I felt a small bump underneath me, I just reached down and patted it down.

I woke up at 5:00a to the brightness of the half-moon on my tent and decided to get up and shoot the dunes under illumination of the moon. It was almost quite literally night and day from when I was shooting earlier in the night. I could see all the dunes surrounding me perfectly and with there still no wind at all, I decided I would pack up and start my hike out as the sun rose. It was the perfect way to start the day and an amazing experience to say the least. 

I took the long route home so I could stop and check out the Valley View Hot Springs about an hour north of the sand dunes. Took a quick dip to rinse and relax before the long drive home. Great weekend solo trip all around!

The Love:

  • Sunrise and sunset shadows

  • Solitude. Complete and utter solitude

  • Form fitting sand to sleep on. No sleeping pad needed

  • Possibly the darkest sky and brightest stars in Colorado

  • No trails. Simply hike wherever you want and for however long

The Hate:

  • The wind

  • No water sources on the dunes

  • Easier to get lost/turned around

  • Moving extremely slow due to the sand

  • Sand get everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE

  • Taking your boots off at the beginning of the hike

The Takeaways:

Camping on sand is totally a love/hate situation. If it's even remotely windy, you're going to get filthy, you're going to be frustrated, and sand will get EVERYWHERE. Even without wind, sand manages to get absolutely everywhere. If you have any camping gear that you care about, LEAVE IT AT HOME! Sand will get in every button, zipper, switch, knob, toggle, and every crevice you can imagine. All that being said, it was an amazing and unique experience and one of the most remote and most comfortable places I have ever camped. If the dunes were closer and I could guarantee the absence of wind, I would do camp out there way more often. But I'll probably save the dunes for day hikes in the future and leave all the gear at home.

The Links

 

Hike: Devil's Bridge

 

Devil's Bridge is a heavily trafficked out-and-back hike to a giant picturesque arch located in Sedona, AZ.


DISTANCE: 2.25 Mi one-way, 4.5 miles RT
START ELEVATION: 4,646 FT
MAX ELEVATION: 4,998 ft
Date Completed: April, 2, 2017
 

The Route:

There are three main routes to Devil's Bridge Trailhead. (map pictured). The most popular two are accessible from the paved parking lot at the Dry Creek Vista Trailhead. The other is from the dirt shoulder parking area at the Mescal Trailhead. The Dry Creek Vista is the only paved lot and only lot with restrooms. None of the lots offer running water so make sure you bring enough water! 

There are three options from the paved parking lot at the Dry Creek Vista Trailhead:

  1. Simply follow the 4x4 road 1.0 mile to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead
  2. Take the scenic route and hike 2.1 miles on the Chuck Wagon Trail all the way to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead.
  3. Take the Chuck Wagon Trail to where intersects with the 4x4 road and take that to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead (not pictured, but this was the route we took).

The other option is to park at the Mescal Trailhead which has room for about 20 cars to park right on the shoulder of the road. Then take the Chuck Wagon Connector Trail to the Chuck Wagon Trail (left fork) which will run into the Devil's Bridge Trailhead.

The Hike

The easy 1.0mi trek down the 4x4 road is the shortest and easiest route, but you'll be robbing yourself of some great views offered by the 2.1mi Chuck Wagon Trail. I would recommend taking the Chuck Wagon Trail all the way to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead, or just take it until it intersect with the 4x4 road and follow that.

Chuck Wagon is wide open and exposed for the first mile or so then winds through mostly covered areas of smaller trees and desert vegetation. All trails leading to the Devil's Bridge Trail are mostly flat and pretty easy. Just be sure to keep your ears open and head on a swivel for mountain bikers on the trail and vehicles on the 4x4 road.

Once you've reach the Devil's Bridge Trailhead, you begin the main ascent up. The gorgeous red/orange sand is still present, but the trail get considerably rockier as you continue to climb rock stairs etched into the landscape. You'll see a clear path veering to the left which leads to a viewing area of the Devil's Bridge arch from below. Save this for the way back and continue up the trail.

You'll run into the most difficult part of the hike as you come to multiple sections of steep rock staircases cut into the side of the mountain. Not only are they steep, but they are narrow and will typically be even more complicated due to the heavy hiker traffic on the trail. Take your time here and don't hesitate to ask for assistance!

You'll be rewarded with a great flat scenic viewpoint atop the last steep staircase. We were stunned by just how green the valley around the red rocks was. Just down the trail from there you'll be greeted with your first look at the infamous Devil's Bridge arch.

I was surprised to learn that we could walk right out onto it, as most the arches I've come across (mostly in Utah) have strict rules about not climbing/walking arches in order to protect them. But as long as no such rule exists, we gladly took advantage of getting our photo op! It looks pretty terrifying but it's pretty wide and not too scary to be on if you've got the courage. There will certainly be no shortage of frantic mothers and loved ones on the viewing platform taking pictures while hyperventilating, but don't let them scare you away it!

You'll notice multiple large boulders and viewpoints in the area that are easily accessible and perfect for photo ops, so be sure to check those out, especially if going on the arch is a little too nerve-wracking for you.

Bonus tip: At Devil's Arch, go around the bend as if you were going to go out onto the arch but continue straight past it. You'll see a footpath along the ridge that will bring you through some brush and out to a wide open area. It's a perfect place to relax, hydrate, and have your snack while being shielded completely from any noise from the crowds at Devil's Bridge.

The Good

  • Well developed trails & multiple routes
  • Access to many mountain climbing areas
  • Great views of mountains and desert valleys
  • A stunning arch that you can actually walk out on

The Bad

  • Heavily trafficked

  • No running water available

  • Many hikers as well as sharing trail with mountain bikers
  • Steep narrow stone staircases can be intimidating and difficult

The Parking Lot & Trailhead

Note: If you have 4x4, you can continue past the Dry Creek Vista paved parking lot straight to Devil's Bridge Trailhead, but be aware that the road is ROUGH and there is hardly any space for parking at the trailhead. I would recommend just parking in the paved lot and making the extra mile hike in. It's scenic and I promise you won't regret it!

 

Backpacking: Ski Tour To Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

 

The Itinerary:

  • Friday

    • Fly into San Francisco and arrive at 7:30p.

    • Drive to the nearest REI to buy stove fuel before they close.

    • Drive out to Merced and sleep at booked AirBnB.

  • Saturday

  • Sunday

    • Make breakfast and pack up.

    • Ski down 10.5 miles and promptly slam a beer.

    • Quick drive through Yosemite Valley, stop at Village Store to get food and clean up.

    • Drive 4 hours back to SFO airport and fly home.

Easy enough, right?!

The Trek:

10.5 miles out-and-back on skis up Glacier Point Road (groomed).
21 miles round trip.

Ascent Elevation Chart
Descent Elevation Chart
Glacier Point Road Winter Trail Maps

The Permit:

You must obtain an overnight permit if you are planning on camping up on Glacier Point. You can pick one up at the Badger Pass Ranger Station located at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. When you arrive, they have a few 15-minute parking spots out front that are perfect to run in and get permits. You must go to the ranger station located in the A-Frame building right of the chairlifts. Just walk out onto the snow toward the chairlifts, look to your right, and you can't miss it. The rangers can answer any questions you have, and will provide you with an overnight camping permit, a parking pass to leave on your dashboard, and they'll direct you to the overnight parking spaces around the corner.

The Gear:

We were backpacking and camping up to the top so we brought all of our typical camping gear, plus a shovel, some waterproof layers, and fuel to melt snow so we didn't have to carry too much water.

I'm an alpine skier and just getting into Alpine Touring (AT) and skinning, so I brought my new AT setup to use. I can imagine that skins would probably be helpful in the colder months but it was so warm when were were there March 11-12 that we were in shorts and short sleeves the entire trips up and down. Because of that, the snow was so soft that the skins weren't necessary and only slowed me down by prohibiting glide.

My friend Matt is a boarder and he had planned to snowshoe and either carry or tow his board, boots, and pack. After talking it over with the rangers though, he opted to rent a proper cross-country ski setup. There's a separate Nordic Center building across from the main lodge of the Yosemite Ski Area if you want to rent cross-country skis or snowshoes. His cross-country ski rental was between $40-50. He had never once cross-country skied and I was impressed at how well he did, especially while carrying a 35-40lbs backpack.

Word to the wise: Leave the AT setup at home and either snowshoe or cross-country ski. The AT setup with your standard AT ski boots is way too heavy and uncomfortable to justify lugging it all the way up and down. 

The Trail:

The trail itself isn't the most scenic but does travel through a heavily wooded area with enormous trees and a few open meadows. There are also cross-country ski tracks on both sides of the road for most of the 10.5 miles (pictured below).

Within the first half mile I knew my feet were in serious trouble. I had some new AT ski boots that I haven't had fitted yet and my feet had way too much room to move around within the boots. They got chewed up the entire way up and down, so for me this trip was more mentally exhausting in trying to manage the pain than anything else. It's been almost two weeks since this trip, and I'm still limping around trying to heal all the blisters.

The trail starts with a quick uphill and gradual downhill over the first 3.5 miles and 400 vertical feet. After that, you start the long trek uphill which covers every bit of the next 5 miles and 500 vertical feet. I feel like it is worth nothing again that all the slopes of this trek are moderate at worst. There are really no steep sections at all (basically climbing 100 vertical feet over every mile).

We also didn't carry much water because we had planned to melt snow and filter it. Big mistake, but only because we planned poorly and didn't bring enough fuel and ran out after making breakfast. I ended up chomping on snow and taking small sips of my water the entire trip.

img2.jpg

Mile 8 is where the trek plateaus around an elevation of 7,800ft. The next 1-2 miles is relatively flat and offers some slightly downhill relief. You'll have to go back uphill immediately following that, but the last mile is the steepest part of the hike dropping you 500 vertical feet downhill. It's the first time you'll actually gain enough speed to get some turns in.

I was absolutely giddy that I was finally skiing downhill after five hours of painful uphill skiing. As if the cool wind in my face wasn't enough to get me excited, I then turned a corner and was treated to this absolutely stunning view of Half Dome.

The elevation at the top is only about 50 feet higher than the trailhead elevation, but who cares?! We made it! We then picked out a proper camping area away from the lodge and RELAXED! By the time we caught our breath and got our tents set up, the sun was just setting in the west while the full moon was rising in the east (pictured below). This was an awe-inspiring view that I truly felt like we earned.

IMG_2464-Editfx2.jpg

The full moon provided enough light to make headlamps optional around the campsite and we made the short hike to the proper Glacier Point viewing area so we could see and take pictures on Yosemite Falls and the valley perfectly illuminated by the full moon.

IMG_2306fx.jpg

After a good night's sleep, we awoke for sunrise which was an hour later than the day before thanks to Daylight Savings. After a hardy scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast, we used the last of our fuel to melt some snow and we packed up and hit the trail. 

It took us roughly 6 hours up and 4 hours down, and then a 4.5 hour drive back to the San Fran airport. Oh, and even after getting to the bottom, quickly driving through Yosemite Valley and straight to the airport, we STILL missed our 9:00pm flight. So if you're doing a crazy quick trip like this, plan accordingly! Lucky for us, we were able to jump on the first flight out the next morning at no additional charge and we were back in Denver and at work by 11am Monday morning.

The Good:

  • Gradual slopes throughout

  • Free camping at Glacier Point

  • Four bathrooms along the way

  • Absolutely unbelievable views to wake up to

  • Not crowded. Even fewer people make it all the way to the top

  • Virtually unlimited spots to camp with wide open Half Dome views

  • Most people at the top are either day-hiking or staying in the lodge

The Bad:

  • A long trek (21 miles RT)

  • Not many accessible water sources

  • Ups and downs. Only about 50 feet net elevation gain

  • Coming back down, the last 3.5 miles uphill will wear you out

  • Long drive from San Fran. Took 4.5 hours to get back to SFO airport

  • Not as scenic (except the top) as you might expect from a Yosemite hike

The Outcome:

After our first few hours on the trail carrying our packs on skis for the first time ever, it was clear that we were overly ambitious about this adventure. I would absolutely recommend this trip, but only for those experienced in ski touring or backpacking on snowshoes over long distances. Day-hiking to Glacier Point can be easily handled by anyone as long as you get an early start. 

Physically, it's not all too strenuous of a trip, but it's a long ways to go with a full 30-40-pound pack on your shoulders. Whether as a day-hike or a backpacking trip, everyone should make it a point to trek up to Glacier Point during the winter months. This long gradual hike that will reward you with the iconic panoramic views of Yosemite Valley without the crowds you're accustomed to during the warmer seasons.