Backpacking Through Zion National Park, Utah

Surrounded by orange-flecked rock and ancient water flows, we stood at the top of a chiseled piece of rock known as Angel’s Landing. With sandstone dust coating our ankles, we marveled at the landscape that sprawled like a canvas painting below us. Hundreds of millions of years in the making: This was Zion National Park.

What was this place? How did we get there? Keep reading to follow in our footsteps.

What is it?
Where is it?
How did we do it?

At a glance

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Distance (miles)
0
Elevation gain (feet)
0
Backpacking time (days)

Relative difficulty

Beginner 75%
Intermediate 65%
Experienced 55%

When to go

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

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What is it?

Zion (pronounced [zahyuh n]) is an immensely scenic and beautiful 229 square mile national park in the southwest corner of Utah. It’s most notable for its massive sandstone canyons that have been eroded by the forces of nature over millions of years. Zion is the post-card perfect image that appears when you envision Utah in your mind’s eye.

If that was all that needed to be said though, you would be content with that understanding. Most people aren’t and you shouldn’t be. By May of 2015, over 1 million people had visited the park, and that’s in the first five months of this year alone.

The depth and perspective of the region are an assault on the senses. As a result, the canyons of southwest Utah are a phenomenon that should be experienced first hand.

Even a hater like Cheval can appreciate this beauty.
Even a hater like Cheval can appreciate this beauty.

Let’s be clear, Zion is a backpacker’s Disneyland, and like any trip to the magical kingdoms of this world, special considerations for reservations, park entry fees, and transportation are critical. I recommend absorbing information from the National Park Service guide as part of your Zion 101 course work.

Wanderlusthiker didn’t send us down to Utah to write an article that spits information at you like @GoogleFacts on Twitter, nor would they pay us so handsomely just to give you a handful of links. No, good sir or madam, we are here to share an experience as well as to educate. To truly understand Zion we will arm you with the basics facts and Costco-sized sample cups of our pain.

In Zion, the wild, rugged feeling of the wilderness persists because it’s allowed to. You do not feel encroached on but you will never feel completely alone. There’s a sense of comradery amongst backpackers who, while bonded together through their mutual love of the outdoors in multi-day sprints, simultaneously harbor a sense of loathing for khaki-clad day hikers.

From this perspective, Zion is a trophy; not a wild excursion. Keep reading to find out where you can pick up your own, because everyone’s a winner here even when they aren’t winning.

The ugly reality of too many days without Panda Express.
The ugly reality of too many days without Panda Express.

Where is it?

There are many ways to approach Zion. Most people head directly to Springfield, UT and up through Zion Canyon to the center of the park. This is where the main tourist attractions, museums, lodging, shuttle services, guided tours, and numerous polo/Hawaiian-themed shirts are located.

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Our research suggested that, in order to maximize our exposure to the park, we needed to enter from the northwest entrance via Lee Pass trailhead in the Kolob Canyons region.

Springfield is a good start location if you plan on making Zion a day trip. But if you’re like us and want a full backpacking experience, your best bet is to start at either the west or east end of the park.

Since we were driving over a thousand miles in 16 hours from Washington state, the west end made the most logistical sense. So how did we prepare for this trip?

[Insert Black Diamond sponsorship message here.]
[Insert Black Diamond sponsorship message here.]

How did we do it?

Zion is equal parts preparation and follow through. In other words, almost as much time was spent communicating, writing up planning documents, and researching Zion as was spent actually hiking through the park.

Defining a route, reserving campsites, calculating daily food rations and water, selecting gear – All of this was important for experiencing Zion safely. The folks at Wanderlusthiker want you to be safe too. That’s why we provided details on each of these items for your eyeballs to skim through.

Route

Zion Park Map - Complete

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If you can read a treasure map, you should be able to read this map. Print too small to read on your device? A larger copy is available on the National Park Service’s (NPS) website here. However, it won’t have all of our fancy route colors.

Yellow lines indicated trail travel distance. Red dots indicate end of day campsite. Blue dots indicate start and finish.

Food

Not hungry, thanks.
Not hungry, thanks.

On the subject of food requirements, we’re all the same at a chemical level with a few dietary differences. However, the intense drain that multi-day backpacking trips put on your system requires proper nutrition at levels you may not have previously experienced. This was touched on as an important factor on the Loowit Trail trip.

Backpacking all day can cause the human body to consume upwards of 6,000 calories per day. That’s 250 calories per hour. In other words, you could eat 1 regular sized Snickers bar every hour and still run a calorie deficit.

Ain't nobody got time for calorie deficits.
Ain’t nobody got time for calorie deficits.

Eating thousands of calories on a daily basis is challenging when you’re not parked next to a McDonald’s. I tried to select nutrient dense foods that packed the highest number of calories per ounce. Foods like trail mixes, freeze dried meals, granola bars, oat meal, and chocolate. Generally, you’re in good shape if you bring foods that are over the 100 cal/oz threshold.

Unfortunately, several of my favorite foods that contain a lot of protein, like beef jerky, tuna, and protein bars, do not pass the threshold test. It’s also interesting to note that high amounts of protein can actually cause dehydration to occur. No bueno – especially in the scorching, high desert heat.

The density of all these nutrients is uncanny.
The density of all these nutrients is uncanny.

The solution: Six 3,000 calorie daily rations, bagged and labeled – Plus a supplemental snacks bag. Special treats included: peanut butter, nutella, vanilla chai latte mix, and tortillas to go with Mountain House wraps freeze dried fajita mix. Delicious.

Unfortunately, this buffet line weighed in at a cringe-worthy 18 pounds. This was overkill. That being said, I would rather have too much food than not enough. It’s difficult to enjoy the scenery when hangriness comes knocking at your stomach’s door.

Eating consistently on the trail helps your body maintain consistent energy levels. I was able to keep a stable pace all day as long as I ate between 150-300 calories per hour. Your body may behave differently depending on its conditioning and base metabolic rate. Tuning in and understanding your body’s requirements is key to assessing how much food to bring on a multi-day backpacking trip.

Gear

If only I could get this thing to fly itself like a kite.

On to the all-important gear that made this backpacker’s trip possible. Detailed descriptions and weights are listed below under the following categories:

  • Camp gear
  • Media gear
  • Hygiene gear
  • Wearable gear

Note: Some weights were unavailable due lack of manufacturer information.

I’m unable to describe Cheval’s gear since everywhere we went he constructed shelters and tools out of the earth itself. Some say… he was raised by wolves and that his heart pumps pure taurine.

Camp Gear

Marmot tent
Description Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
Osprey 85 Aether Pack 77 4.81
Marmot Earlylight 2P Tent 76 4.75
Slumberjack Ultimate +20 degree 76 4.75
REI Flex Lite chair 26 1.63
Mountainsmith Pinnacle trekking poles 24 1.50
SOG Hand axe 18.6 1.16
Thermarest ProLite 4 Regular self-inflating sleeping pad 16 1.00
Misc – Fire starter kit, knife, pen, pocket notebook, wallet, toilet paper, caribiners 16 1.00
Jetboil Zip Personal Cook System 12 0.75
Coleman Exponent Hand Trowel Shovel 6 0.38
Outdoor Products 2 liter hydration bladder 6 0.38
Adventure Medical Kits UltraLight / Watertight .5 First-Aid Kit 3.68 0.23
Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp 3.5 0.22
Thermarest Stuff Sack Pillow 2.7 0.17
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter 2 0.13
Sea To Summit AlphaLight Long Spoon 0.4 0.03
Total 365.88 22.87

Media Gear

GoPro Hero4 Silver
Description Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
Albinair 5200 camera tripod 48 3.00
Luxebell 14 in 1 GoPro accessory kit + case (not all accessories packed) 20 1.25
Parrot Bebop drone 14.1 0.88
Goal Zero Solar panel + battery 11.2 0.70
Feiyu G3 Ultra 3-axis gimbal 10.75 0.67
iPhone 6 + case 5 0.31
GoPro Hero4 Silver 2.1 0.13
Wasabi Power Pack – 2 GoPro batteries plus charging kit 1.6 0.10
SanDisk Extreme 32GB microSD card 0.1 0.01
SanDisk Extreme 64GB microSD card 0.1 0.01
Total 112.95 7.06

Hygiene Gear

This wasn't the kind of preparation the rozzers had in mind.
Description Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
Facial Cleansing Wet Towlettes
Tooth brush w/ holder
Mouthwash. 3.2 fl oz
Contact lense case
Contact lense solution 2 fl oz
Tooth paste 0.85 oz
Coleman camp soap sheets
Floss
Glasses
Est. Total 16 1.00

Wearable Gear

Columbia boots
Description Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
CIRQ Pax 700 down hooded jacket
CIRQ Fletcher 1/4 zip baselayer top
Outdoor Research non-cotton, breathable, moisture wicking shirt
Champion non-cotton, breathable, moisture wicking shirt
2 pairs wool socks
Boyscout pants
ExOfficio sport mesh boxer brief
Beanie
American Eagle flip flops
The Tilley Hat
Est. Total 80 5.00

Consumables

6 days rations + snacks.
Description Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
3.5 liters of water x 2.205 pounds x 16 123.48 7.72
6 days of food @ 2.5 lbs per day + 3 pounds snacks = 18 lbs x 16 oz 288 18.00
Est. Total 411.48 25.72

If you felt inclined to do math, you will have found that the total weight was nearly 62 pounds and your spine tingled a little bit at the thought of it on your back. Mine certainly did.

At Lee Pass trailhead I shed a few pounds of gear. Notably, the tripod, ax, mini saw, fire starter kit, and a few of the bulkier snack food items. This brought my final pack weight down to around 56 pounds. Nowhere near lightweight, but manageable. I would also be eating my way through a significant portion.

The Experience

38 miles ago we had set out on a journey to backpack from the west end of Zion National Park to the east entrance 47 miles away. And now here we were: Angel’s Landing, the crown jewel of Zion; the pinnacle, for hikers and backpackers alike, in the midst of so much natural excellence.

Pictured: Freckles of perfection.
Pictured: Freckles of perfection.

In the heart of Zion we had a decision to make. The weight of my pack was never an issue, surprisingly. In fact, everything was so surreal that freckles of perfection erupted around every bend in the trail and I was thankful that I had the equipment to capture these moments.

No, the decision hinted at something much more exciting – a crossroads, if you will. Would we continue to the remote east entrance of the park or would we leave Utah completely in favor of a northern excursion into the unknown?

As I began to write up this experience I realized that it began to absorb the rest of the article. There’s an explanation of the what, where, and how – which is what this is, but the experience is a story that deserves to stand on it’s own.

Read more:

Trail Tips

  • Pack light – Additional items might seem necessary, but when you’re actually hiking you’ll want as little in your back as possible.
  • Preserve water – Breathing out through the mouth allows additional moisture to escape from your body. Instead, breath out through the nose whenever possible.
  • Pace yourself – Quick breaks can go a long way to preserving energy.
  • Balance the items in your pack – An unbalanced pack can put extra strain on parts of your body which will take a toll as the miles begin to rack up.
  • Protect against sun burn – Bring sunscreen and aloe.

Additional Resources

018ee0fbb36d761c00cf2abe6680a317d79a25f769La Verkin Creek trail
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