Zion National Park wasn’t exactly what I expected. I mean, how can you not have expectations for a place called “Zion”? There were some places where the name “Zion” fit just fine. But when stuck in traffic on a scenic drive or knocked by a selfie stick at a viewpoint? That was definitely not the Zion experience I had in mind.
You can’t really imagine how a 590 km2 park can feel crowded until you’ve seen it for yourself. It’s frustrating to be in a place that’s at once wild and congested. I spent my first few days wondering whether we’d made a mistake blocking out so many days of our Southwestern road trip to stay in Zion. But do you have a guess about why I’m writing this post? It’s certainly not to tell you not to visit. Because everything changes once you go backpacking in Zion. Over the course of your hike, you’ll get to experience backcountry solitude with extraordinary canyon views and a heavy dose of uncommon landscape.
Want to experience the best of Zion National Park? You’re going to have to go into the backcountry. There are plenty of awesome hikes in Zion, but the Zion Traverse is my personal favorite. Here’s your guide.
AT A GLANCE
Nearest City: Springdale, Utah, USA // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 3-5 days // Distance: Up to 77 km
The Zion Traverse (aka the Trans-Zion) is a 77 km backpacking trip in Zion National Park. It’s most commonly hiked from the Lee Pass Trailhead on the northwest side to the southeast entrance of the park. It’s trans-Zion, get it?
The Trans Zion typically takes 3-5 days to complete, but you can start and finish at various points on the trail. The best part of this backpacking trip is that you’ll get to experience the quiet of the Kolob Canyon area, the strange grassy planes of La Verkin, the slick rock on your way to Wildcat Canyon, and the views from the West Rim on one connected backpacking trip. Another plus is that since it’s a point-to-point trail, you won’t have to double back, and there are significant advantages to doing the hike West to East.
Entrance to Zion National Park costs $25 per vehicle or $12 per individual. If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.
Read more: An Outlandish Guide to Zion National Park
ZION NATIONAL PARK MAPS
You’ll get a Zion National Park map at the Visitor Center, but it’s always best to have a topographical map when traveling in the backcountry. Here are some of the best Zion maps and books on the market.
- Zion National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map)($14.95)
- Favorite Hikes in and Around Zion National Park (Sharp End Publishing) ($24.95)
Need it now? The NPS publishes the ZION NATIONAL PARK WILDERNESS MAP (2019) backcountry map. Click the preview below to zoom in on the details.
ZION BACKPACKING PERMITS
Wilderness permits are required for any travel in Zion above Big Spring. This famously includes areas like The Narrows and The Subway, but it also includes Kolob Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, the West Rim, the East Rim etc. For the Zion Traverse, a backcountry campsite reservation is the same thing as your backpacking permit. Permits are released on the 5th of the month at 10 am MST, three months before travel.
It’s important to understand that the reservation process is insanely competitive; most sites sell out within minutes of being released. I’ll go into which campsites to book below, but be sure to map out your route ahead of time so that you already know 1) which sites you’re going for and 2) where you’re starting and finishing your trek when you book your wilderness reservations. I can’t stress how important it is to know exactly which sites you want rather than scrambling during the online process! It’s also a good trick to make the reservation on a computer where your details are preloaded! Apply for your backpacking permits here.
Get a permit? Lucky you. Once you’ve secured your permit online, you’ll still need to go to the Wilderness Desk one day before your trip to pay the rest of your fees and pick the permit up.
Didn’t get your permit? While most permits are sold online via the calendar system, one-third of wilderness campsites are held for walk-ups. Check at the wilderness desk one day before your trip starts to check what’s available.
Didn’t get the site you wanted? You can check in with the Wilderness Desk upon arrival at Zion. They’ll sometimes have different walk-up permits or upgraded campsites available.
Zion Backpacking Permits cost around $20 per site. There’s always a $5 reservation fee payable at the time of booking, and a $15-$25 permit fee depending on your group size. If you’re a regular visitor to Zion, ask at the Wilderness Desk about the Zion Express Membership. It enables you to handle the full permit process online.
CHOOSING YOUR CAMPSITES
There are five resource areas along the Zion Traverse, and you’ll need a reservation at most of them to do the full Zion Traverse.
Take a look at the Zion Backcountry Map to plan your route or see my suggested Zion Traverse itinerary below. The most common route would have you booking La Verkin > Wildcat Canyon > West Rim > East Rim, but below you’ll find a quick summary of available campsites.
- La Verkin Creek Sites: 13 sites in Kolob Canyon near Timber Creek and La Verkin Creek
- Hop Valley Sites: 1-2 sites just off the Hop Valley Trail
- Wildcat Canyon Camp Area: Dispersed camping in Wildcat Canyon limited to 30 permits per day.
- West Rim Sites: 9 sites scattered along the West Rim Trail. Sites 1-6 are closest to Angel’s Landing, 7-8 are in Potato Hollow, and 9 is the closest to Wildcat Canyon.
- East Rim Camp Area: Dispersed camping along the East Rim Trail
ZION TRAVERSE ROUTE
There are a few different ways you can undertake the Zion Traverse. Below is a sample 4-day itinerary from Lee Pass Trailhead (West) to the Grotto (East) skipping the East Rim. We did this route both because the East Rim Trail closures and because this enabled us to take a shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Itinerary and suggested campsites are based on my own experience, but be sure to reference a park map before finalizing your bookings. If you’re traveling with one car, be sure to also read the information on transport for getting to the trailhead.
Day 1: Lee Pass Trailhead to La Verkin Creek // Hiking Distance: 10 – 11 km
Arrange transport to the Lee Pass Trailhead. It’s a relatively flat hike in along Timber Creek past formations like Nagunt Mesa, Timber Top Mountain, and Shavanti Butte.
After about 5 km, you’ll come to the junction with La Verkin Creek. Cut left and continue to walk along La Verkin Creek for 4-6 km until you get to your reserved site.
Suggested Campsites: La Verkin Creek 4-10
Day 2: La Verkin Creek to Wildcat Canyon // Hiking Distance: 21 – 24 km
Day 2 starts with a crossing through La Verkin Creek. Check with the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center before starting your hike to check water levels are safe! You’ll now be on the Hop Valley Trail, which starts with a slow, rocky incline. After a bit of a climb, the path dips down again to the wide-open Hop Valley. It’s a strange landscape with a mix of sand, shallow streams, and grass that cows can graze on.
After 10.5 km of hiking, you’ll come to the Hop Valley Trailhead where the Hop Valley Trail officially starts. Veer left on the Connector Trail and walk along the road until you come to a meadow. The Connector Trail starts on red slick rock marked only by rock cairns and turns into a forested area. You’ll stay on it for about 6.5 km until you hit the Wildcat Canyon Trail.
The Wildcat Canyon Trail is about 7.7 km in total, but since there are no designated campsites in Wildcat Canyon, the hiking distance will vary.
Suggested Campsites: Wildcat Canyon doesn’t have established sites. There’s an open meadow that was recommended to us during good weather, but I recommend camping in a tree-covered area if it looks like it’s going to rain. Permits are required.
Day 3: Wildcat Canyon to The West Rim // Hiking Distance: 15 – 18 km
The first part of the day is finishing off whatever you have left of the Wildcat Canyon Trail. The area is unusually stunning in late spring with green meadows and rushing streams. It’s a bit of a climb out of the meadow that dips down to the junction with Lava Point.
From the Lava Point Junction, it’s a right turn onto the West Rim Trail. The West Rim Trail isn’t anything special when you’re first starting out, but eventually, the right side opens up to views like these.
You’ll continue along the ridge for a while, then descend into Potato Hollow. It looks like a tree graveyard with grass growing beneath it, and it’s a really unexpected detour from sandstone. There are even a few campsites here!
But it’s only once you climb out of Potato Hollow that you really get the West Rim views you’ve been waiting for. It’s mostly flat terrain and the sheer drops are epic. The trail dips down again and makes a final steep climb to where the best campsites are located.
Suggested campsites: West Rim 1-5
Day 4: The West Rim to The Grotto // Hiking Distance: 7 km
Sleeping on the West Rim affords you a unique opportunity to wake up early, and get to Angel’s Landing before everyone else does.
You’ll hike about 4km along this section of the West Rim Trail until you come to Scout’s Lookout. This is where the backcountry trail meets the trail daytrippers take to Angel’s Landing.
If you choose to climb Angel’s Landing, ditch your bags behind some bushes. It’s a deceptively short hike at 1.6 km, but climbing across a narrow saddle to a flattened summit leering 454 m over the Virgin River 454 m isn’t for the faint of heart. Do yourself a favor and get the hell out before the shuttles roll in. Once it gets crowded, it can be genuinely scary to descend.
From here, you have the option to continue onto the East Rim or take a short-and-steep hike to your finishing point. If you call it a day, you will hike first Walter’s Wiggles and then along a paved path zig-zagging to The Grotto. Catch a shuttle back to the Visitor Center. You’re all done!
HOW TO GET TO ZION & THE TRAILHEADS
GETTING TO ZION
You’ll want to fly into McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). It’s also possible to fly into Saint George Regional Airport (SGU) or Cedar City (CDC) but flights will be significantly more expensive.
From the airport, the best way to get to Zion National Park is by private vehicle, but there are a couple of other options. Greyhound and Salt Lake Express run regular buses from Las Vegas or Salt Lake to St. George. From there, you can catch the STG Shuttle to Springdale or the Salt Lake Express bus to Zion National Park. Both options take about an hour and cost $47-$55. Your other option is to book a tour that includes transport from a major city.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEADS
You can start the Zion Traverse from Lee Pass Trailhead (West to East) or the East Rim Trailhead (East to West). But since it’s a through-hike, you’ll need to plan your transportation getting there or getting home ahead of time.
You can definitely travel with two cars and park one at both trailheads, but that sounds rough. It’s 69km from the Visitor’s Center to the Lee Pass Trailhead and 18.5 km from the Visitor’s Center to the East Rim Trailhead. Instead, I recommend booking a shuttle with one of the shuttle operators in Springdale
GOOD TO KNOW FOR THE ZION TRAVERSE
Zion Traverse certainly takes a lot of planning, but exploring the backcountry is well worth it.
Here are a few other things you might want to know before heading out on your trip:
- There are several Zion Traverse water sources, but availability depends on season.
- The best time of year for the Zion Traverse is spring (April – May) when the snow is mostly melted and water is flowing. Another good time to visit is Fall (September – October) when the summer heat has passed and the water sources are flowing again.
- Always check with the Visitor Center before starting your trek! They can tell you about Zion trail closures or other seasonal factors.
- While there’s no concern about predators, you do have to worry about mice and other critters getting into your food. Bring a rope and a sealable bag so you can store your food in a tree.