A bit off the beaten path, the Coalpits Wash Trail just outside Zion National Park rewards travelers with Edward Abbey-esque solitude and subtle beauty that few get the privilege to see.
Coalpits Wash Trail
The lushness of this little-traveled corner of the park may come as a surprise. The sandy banks of the serene open desert wash surrounded by giant cottonwood trees, stunted sagebrush, and kaleidoscopic wildflowers make the Coalpits Wash Trail a quiet paradise in Zion. Distant desert spires and colorful mountains treat the eyes, while the babbling stream and the rush of soon-to-be-seen waterfalls tempt the ears. The striped, crimson walls towering skyward read like a history book, telling tales of geologic time with every layer.
This 16-mile round-trip makes for a long day hike or a casual backpacking trip and is great for hikers looking for a little solitude as you will often find you have the trail to yourselves. It’s also a great hike to do if there is snow on the popular Zion hikes, as it’s lower in elevation (it’s actually the lowest point of the park), and gets full sun. For the same reason, it’s not at all recommended in the summer, where temps cross over into the danger zone for hiking.
The shockingly verdant area is brimming with flora and fauna. Over 78 types of mammals, 291 different birds, and 44 species of reptiles and amphibians call the area home, thanks to a fairly stable water supply. In fact, it’s often hard to keep feet dry on this hike. However, don’t count on it, this is still the desert. Pack in all water or check with the visitor’s center to see if the springs are running. Any water found should be filtered before drinking.
The unspoken secret to the Coalpits Wash Trail is that there is no coal on it. The first white settlers to the region mistook black streaks of basalt as coal and assumed they would be rich. They were wrong. At about 5.6 miles into the hike, the evidence of their error, some holes and some rusty mining equipment, still remains, leftover from the 1800s. Their mistake makes for a fascinating trek through the past, not to mention the possibility of artsy, interesting photos. This marks a good turnaround point for shorter day hikes. It’s also here where good campsites start to appear.
However, if waterfalls are the day’s goal, keep going. Around 7.6 miles in, the trail becomes quite narrow, turning into a short canyon section with some mild scrambling. Watch hand placement while scrambling, the area is popular with rattlesnakes. Stop and take in the unique setting of these small waterfalls cutting through the seemingly arid landscape. This is also where the spectacular formations of the Bishoprics, Towers of the Virgin, and the Altar of Sacrifice come into view. Cougar Mountain is seen looming above for most of the hike, off to the north.
Allow plenty of time for the hike even though the mileage isn’t too bad, some route finding and a bit of scrambling will slow progress. The path exits and drops back into the wash several times; although there is no signage, there should be somewhat of a path. If in doubt, stay in the wash.
Distance & elevation gain: 16 miles, 1,050 feet of elevation
Trail Type: Out and back, gravel, with stream crossings and some scrambling, mild route finding needed.
Multi-Use: Yes, horseback riding, pack animals permitted.
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: Early fall to late spring, NOT recommended in summer, good winter hike, though get an early start due to shorter winter days.
Bathroom: None, pack out TP.
Spring rain delivers excellent wildflowers; fall showcases gorgeous yellow cottonwoods. Photographers: bring a polarizing filter to deepen the blue in the sky and make the red of the cliffs really pop. Be on the lookout for petrified wood.
Nearest destination: Hurricane, Utah (15 miles), Zion National Park (7.4 miles)
Where to Park: The parking area is on the northside of State Hwy. 9, about 2.7 miles west of Rockville or 6.7 miles east of Virgin. Look for a small sign labeled "Coalpits Wash." Note the parking area is in a flash flood zone. Do not park if storms are imminent. The trailhead is north of the parking area at an altitude of 3,666 feet. Look for the dirt path and the gate. To identify the trail, find the wash, lined by cottonwood trees.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 37.17079, -113.083431
Written by Shaine Smith for RootsRated in partnership with Utah Office of Tourism.