Zion Traverse - May 7 2016

Spectacular views along the West Rim trail. Hard to get much better views than this.

I ran the Zion Traverse (strava) with Ben, Bertram and Joe on May 7 2016.

How I ended up running the Zion Traverse

Back in 2014 when I first got interested in running long trails, I’d tried to drum up interest in running the Grand Canyon R2R2R and Rae Lakes loop among my climbing friends but to my surprise, even the aerobic beasts were not interested so I ended up running that alone.

In the intervening two years, Joe (a climbing friend that I had tried to get interested for the Grand Canyon run) got really into trail running. At the start of the year, Joe had asked if I was interested in running Zion this year and I demurred, claiming that I was out of shape and couldn’t spare the time to drive to the local trails to train.

Zion crew. Joe, Bertram and Ben on the first climb (to Hop Valley) of the day.

But my interest was piqued, and I woke up early one weekend morning in February to run one of my favorite local trails and realised that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed running on the trails --- I was hooked. I asked Ben, a friend from college who started running these National Park ultras soon after me, and Joe had asked Bertram, a friend from work and we started making plans.

Zion is more difficult than other runs to arrange logistically because the start and end are the west and east entrance of the park, making a car shuttle necessary. In our case, Christina, Joe’s wife, agreed to come on the trip and do the drop off and pick up, making things much easier (Thanks Christina!).

Training and Gear

Training to get ready was difficult --- my wife and I were in the middle of sleep training our toddler and there were many rough nights, making recovery harder. Towards the last month of training, I had a bout of peroneal tendonitis but managed to mostly resolve it. I already thought my training for the Grand Canyon was skimpy, and on hindsight, the training for Zion was probably even skimpier --- averaging only 35 miles a week and 4-5k ft elevation gain.

I’d manage to convince myself that I was ready because my longest run was longer and involved more elevation change (26 miles 6k gain vs 24 miles 5k gain for R2R2R) but on hindsight, my total running volume simply wasn’t enough.

Zion gear was straightforward. I looked at my old gear photos and packed similar amounts of stuff.

The Run - May 7 2016

Ben drove from LA and picked me up in Las Vegas the day before the run while Joe, Bertram and Christina flew in later at different times and drove together to meet us in Hurricane, just outside the park.

In the weeks before the run, we’d expended much effort debating on the pros and cons on running East to West (seemed easier based on Internet research) or West to East. Ben had run it West to East previously and eventually listed some very compelling reasons for West to East and that’s what we decided on. And after running it West to East, I have to say that Ben was completely right.

We got things squared away the night before and went to sleep by 10 pm and set our alarms for 4 am in order to start running by 6 am. Alarms rang the next morning and despite getting only 6 hours of sleep, I felt refreshed because it was the first stretch of sleep longer than 3-4 hours that I’d gotten for a few months!

We got to the trailhead at 545 am and started running at 605 am. There were many firsts on this run. This run was Ben and my first time running a long distance trail with other people, and this was Joe and Bertram’s first long distance ultra.

Huffing and puffing to keep up with the young uns in the first 5 minutes from Lee Pass trailhead, the western terminus.

The first 5-6 miles along La Verkin Creek went by uneventfully, the views were already pretty good and the trail conditions were reasonable with a a number of creek crossings.

Crossing a creek on La Verkin Creek trail.

Before long, we were at the Hop Valley turn off and we started climbing up from La Verkin creek. I hadn’t had much expectations of the views along Hop Valley before the run, with most trip reports mentioning the sand and the polluted creek (and no mention of views) but Hop Valley turned out to be quite scenic with warm red walls and a clear creek flowing through. But instead of sand, we got mud and streams.

Skirting some particularly boggy sections in Hop Valley by climbing up.

We met Christina at the Hop Valley trailhead (13 miles in) and surprisingly, Joe and Christina ran into some friends that were hiking the traverse in a day (they started at 4 am and finished at 2 am the next day).

Around this time, it started to rain more seriously and the hikers at the Hop Valley trailhead were putting on full rain gear. It had also apparently rained quite heavily in this part of the park the day before, and the suffering was about to start.

We thought we hit the weather jackpot with mild temperatures and no precip! But the forecast turned out to be inaccurate.

From Hop Valley trailhead to the junction with Telephone Canyon trail 16 miles later, the trails were a mess, muddy and slippery, and generally very difficult to run. Everyone took their poles out and we ended up walking a significant section of the trails here. Every so often, it would also start hailing, which was more pleasant than the rain.

Everyone had similarly mud caked shoes. West Rim trail. Taken by Ben R.

Because of these slippery conditions, I felt my peroneal tendonitis start to come back, which was bad news since there was still more than half the distance remaining. I took some ibuprofen and tried to ignore the pain by focusing on the spectacular scenery.

Zion crew (minus me) looking good along the West Rim trail (if you take the shorter Telephone Canyon trail, you’ll miss out on these views).

We met several groups of runners that took the Telephone Canyon trail rather than continuing on the West Rim trail, hence missing probably the most scenic part of the entire Zion traverse.

From the junction with Cabin Spring, we started dropping into Zion Canyon, giving yet another set of varied views as we ran down the path carved out of the giant sandstone walls. The trails here were like pavement, a welcome change from the mud.

Enjoying views of Zion Canyon descending the West Rim trail.

We enjoyed some stunning views looking down into Zion Canyon along the trail and gawked at the number of people on Angel’s landing. From Angel’s landing to the canyon floor, we passed increasingly larger crowds and regrouped at the water spigot at the bottom. Up to this point, the entire run was type 1 fun; that is, it felt fun even during the activity. It was going to be type 2 fun soon (it might even be type 2.5 fun).

Angel’s landing.

Giant sandstone walls descending into Zion Canyon.

While running along the canyon road to the Echo Canyon trailhead, it started raining heavily again and I started feeling seriously weak. For the next 5 miles uphill, Ben walked along with me and gave me moral support (Thanks Ben!) while I suffered along nursing the ankle and generally feeling like life was not awesome. Photo taking completely stopped after the canyon floor and I remember repeatedly telling Ben that he was completely right about the last 11 miles not being great and we should have stopped at the canyon floor.

For no apparent reason about 4-5 miles from the end, I felt much better and picked up the pace, and we got to the end before sunset without any further excitement.

In the car, I deliriously ate a bunch of Inca corn and rambled on about how delicious it was. Joe, Christina and Bertram stayed the night at Hurricane before leaving for Las Vegas the next day. Ben and I drove back to Las Vegas that same evening so that he could avoid the Sunday Vegas to LA traffic and so that I could catch the first flight home the next day. Actually Ben drove while I fell asleep in the car.

Finished! At the Eastern entrance trailhead. Joe ended up taking a wrong turn at the Observation Point fork and ran an additional bonus 5 miles. He fortunately had saved offline maps on Google maps and could find a series of connector roads in some resort to rejoin the trail later.

Comparison to previous runs

Compared to the Grand Canyon R2R2R and Rae Lakes, the Zion Traverse felt harder to me. It was a combination of 1) simply not training enough, 2) tough trail conditions aggravating the peroneal tendonitis that I got at the tail end of the training, and 3) failing to appreciate that the majority of the route is above 5k ft in elevation (and hence not making a serious effort to go above sealevel for training).

But the first 38 miles of Zion through the West Rim trail is pretty darn spectacular, the scenery is more varied than the Grand Canyon and equally if not more awesome.

I would end the run in Zion Canyon if I ever do it again. The last 11 miles pale in comparison to the first 38 and especially the last 6-7 aren’t really that scenic.

West to East?

Ben’s email explaining why West to East is a better direction:

I don't think East to West is easier.  That way you start the day with a sandy climb, then a steep descent, then a massive climb.  (Angel's Landing isn't even halfway.)  The descent will hurt your legs and the climb will create pacing problems.  (If you go too fast, you'll regret it the rest of the day.)  Then you end the day running through sand and finally another 5 miles steady climbing.  

In the other direction, W to E, you start with a shallow descent to warm up easily, then it is basically flat for 15 miles before you drop into the canyon.  (You gain some altitude, but most of the trail is flat and the hills are short, very steep, and muddy, so you'll walk them going uphill or downhill.)  Then there is a massive climb out of the canyon (which obviously can't be avoided, but it comes immediately after getting water/resupply in the canyon), and the last 5 miles to the car are downhill.  

Plus it is prettier going W to E, and isn't that the whole point?  There's not a lot to photograph in Hop Valley after the morning light has passed”

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