Chinle Trail is a pleasant alternative to Zion’s more steep, committing, and crowded hikes, and is a good option in winter when the inner canyons are too cold. Expansive desert views, wilderness seclusion, and a petrified forest await on this little-traveled outskirt trail.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, given its length
The hikes that steal all the attention in Zion National Park are swiftwater slot canyons and sky-scraping ridgelines, but trails here don’t have to be death-defying to be inspiring. Chinle Trail, an outlying path in the surrounding valleys, offers a nice alternative to steep stone and the typical crowds.
Chinle is a journey for lovers of open spaces. It is one of Zion’s desert trails, those off the high plateau and out of the canyons, in lower elevation and on smoother ground. The terrain is far from mundane, however. As the trail rolls over hills and dips into dry washes, it earns fantastic and rarely seen perspectives of the landscape. This is the best view you can get of the fortress-like walls of Mount Kinesava, the prominent peak seen when driving to Zion from the south. Other eyefuls include the jagged spires of Eagle Crags to the south, the forested flat top of Gooseberry Mesa, and the towering West Temple to the east.
The desert also yields many smaller pleasures, like fragrant wildflowers in the spring, lizards and rabbits darting across the trail, and on Chinle Trail in particular, petrified wood from prehistoric forests. About four miles into the hike the route crosses a petrified forest, where small and colorful pieces of fossilized trees can be found scattered around. These are for viewing only, not for keeping. They should be left in place for others to enjoy and collecting anything from national parks is illegal. Leave No Trace is a practice to follow at all times. This trail crosses the Zion Wilderness Area, which is protected from many human impacts. Keep it this way by walking only on trails or in washes, observing the group size limit of 12, packing out all waste, and camping only in designated sites.
Chinle Trail is also a great choice in winter. Many who visit the desertscape of Zion in the off-season are caught off guard by cold and snow. At over 5,000-feet elevation in most of the park, this is the "high desert," which means huge seasonal temperature swings. Winter is a beautiful time to visit, when snow crowns the summits all around, but it’s no time to be hiking the Narrows or Angels Landing. Luckily, if the canyons are too cold, the sunny hillside which Chinle Trail traverses may be just the place to go.
The trail begins rather oddly in the Anasazi Plateau residential neighborhood, but has a designated parking area and trailhead. Walking through the neighborhood at first and then a few miles along a wide, sandy path is initially uninspiring, but about three miles in the trail feels all of a sudden escaped from society and erased from time. As it climbs higher, juniper forests spring up and views unfold. The attraction to this hike is the all-around secluded experience rather than one climactic destination, so there’s no need to hike the full trail to reap all Chinle has to offer. Hike as far as you wish, then turn around and head back to the car whenever you are ready.
Distance & elevation gain: Eight miles one way to Coalpits Wash, 200 feet net elevation gain
Trail type: Sandy, rolling hills with some steeper sections, out-and-back, little shade
Multi-use: Hiking, horseback
Dogs: Not allowed
Fees: None for this hike, $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass to Zion NP, permit required to camp, $15 for 1-2 people, $20 for 3-7, $25 for 8-12. Max group size is 12
Seasonality: Trail is exposed to the elements and offers little shade. The hike is pleasant through most of the winter and shoulder seasons as long as it isn’t too windy, but summer is very hot and also poses risk of thunderstorms.
Water is usually available in Coalpits Wash at the end of the trail, or in a spring .2 miles downstream from where the trail crosses the wash (all water sources must be purified). You should still bring plenty of water, however, in case you decide to turn around earlier or the water source can’t be found.
For a short and fun side trip, check out the narrows of Scoggins Wash. This is the second major wash crossed on Chinle Trail, about five miles into the hike. At this wash, instead of following the trail to the west, follow the streambed southwest for a short distance where it enters a series of pools and small waterfalls among huge boulders that you can scramble in between.
Nearest destination: Trailhead is in Rockville, Utah, in Anasazi Plateau subdivision, 3.5 miles south of Zion National Park south entrance on S.R. 9.
Where to park: Designated dirt road parking area off Anasazi Way
Trailhead GPS coordinates: 37.161314, -113.019426
Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.