East of Zion

Zion National Park sits in the southeast corner of Utah where the most popular features can only be accessed via Utah’s Highway 9, a State Scenic Byway.

Leaving Page, Arizona, we retraced our steps on US Highway 89 west to Kanab, Utah, where the road dipped briefly back into Arizona as AZ-389 before rising again into Utah as UT-59. At Hurricane, UT-59 intersects with UT-9 which we took to the town of Virgin, Utah, checking into the Zion River Resort RV park for a few nights.

There is no “Zion River” here, so “Zion River Resort” is a bit of a misnomer, probably so named for marketing reasons. The River that runs alongside UT-9, flowing down from Zion Canyon and Zion NP, is the Virgin River, hence the name of the town (first settled in 1858).

Most tourists to Zion NP spend all their time in Zion Canyon, taking the shuttle bus up and down UT-9 from nearby Springdale into the Park to Canyon Junction. From there, the Park shuttle bus continues on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (which is closed to private car traffic) to its end at the Temple of Sinawava. But they miss out on what lies east of Zion Canyon. From Canyon Junction, UT-9 winds its way up 1,000 feet by a series of switchbacks to the mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and lands and trails beyond to the east.

We were up early our first day to drive through the tunnel to the Canyon Overlook trailhead at the east end of the tunnel. The moon was still in the sky as began our ascent.

On the way up, I looked down at the tunnel, completed in 1930 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. There was no traffic this early in the morning. Before the tunnel was built, this side of what is now Zion National Park was inaccessible.

The Canyon Overlook trail skirts along cliff walls, at one point on a catwalk where the ledge is nonexistent, guiding us into a cavernous “grotto” where water leaking through the stone, coupled with the reflected morning light, is sufficient for plants to grow (look beyond Dale in the lower photo where the wall joins the floor).

It’s a short, 3/4 mile trail in with only a 150 foot elevation change, but the scenery is magnificent, especially in the morning sun.

The canyon overlook at the end of the trail provides a nice view of that part of Zion Canyon comprising the Towers of the Virgins, flanked by West Temple and The Bee Hive.

We admired the view, then made our way back to the Jeep, continuing east on UT-9 to a turnout on the south side of the road and the unmarked trailhead to the Many Pools Trail. That trail winds down into a (currently) dry drainage, then passes under the road through a box culvert that is probably full of water in the springtime.

It then ambles uphill as an unmarked trail on slickrock sandstone, following the now-dry watercourse that tumbles downhill in the spring, carving numerous courses and pools in the rock.

Looking back at Dale, I could see the sandy creek bed we had walked in on down below. The sun was still low enough on the horizon that we walked in shade, shedding the fleeces we had worn earlier at Canyon Overlook.

Here’s one of the many carved pools.

We passed a number of them, all dry this time of year.

Higher up, the terrain flattened slightly.

At last, near the end of the hike, at a mile in and 400 feet up, we found water in one of the pools. We stopped for a snack and to examine the sandstone, vegetation and saddle in the white sandstone bluff to our west.

The trail continues on for another 1/4 mile from here, but this was good enough for us. The terrain ahead looked much the same as what we had been walking.

We turned around and looked back to where we had come from, then made our way back down to the Jeep and back to the RV in Virgin.

As a reward for two good hikes, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner as we watched the reflection of sunset on the nearby heights.

Tomorrow we’ll be up early again to hike The Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava.

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