Located in southern Utah, Zion National Park has a series of red and pink sandstone canyons so beautiful that they draw 3 million visitors each year. Most tourists come in March through October to see Zion Canyon, which is served by shuttles and accessed through the park’s south entrance.
But at the park’s east entrance, less-traveled and equally scenic canyons await for experienced open-desert hikers who can navigate the backcountry. Many hikes east of Zion Canyon are not maintained or marked and require the use of a map and compass. To reiterate: They are for experienced hikers only.
Not only do these hikes have the danger of getting lost, but they also cut through a fragile ecosystem. A brittle, black soil crust, known as cryptobiotic soil, takes hundreds of years to grow, and only a single footprint to destroy. It’s a complex living system of bacteria, lichens, algae and fungi that holds the soil in place, absorbs water and deposits nitrogen for plants. It’s the keystone of the high desert—so please, avoid these black-crusted areas.\
Three hikes are marked and maintained by the park service—but are still less-traveled than the hikes in Zion Canyon. None of these require a permit for day trips, and they serve as starting points for more difficult backcountry trips.
Canyon Overlook Trail (1 mile round trip, 163-foot elevation gain): If you’re looking for a short, easy hike with a great view, this hike is the best pick in the park. Its trailhead is in the parking lot just east of the long tunnel on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. The trail cuts along the hillside above Pine Creek Canyon to a large overlook with sweeping views of Mt. Carmel Tunnel windows, Zion Canyon, Bridge Mountain, Altar of Sacrifice, Streaked Wall, and East Temple. While less crowded than Zion Canyon, this is still a relatively high-traffic route, and the small parking lot fills quickly.
East Rim Trail (10.6 miles one way, 1,340-foot elevation loss): Hikers usually do the first portion of this trail as a day trip or the entire trail as an overnight trip in the spring, summer, or fall. It starts at the East Entrance trailhead, then climbs 1,000 feet to a pine-forested mesa before descending 2,400 feet through the stunningly sculpted Echo Canyon to Weeping Rock in Zion Canyon. On the descent, look for the rock cairns that mark the way along open slickrock. One natural water source is available, near the trail’s midpoint, but bring plenty of your own because it can go dry. Camping is allowed anywhere outside of Echo Canyon, but backcountry permits are required.
Cable Mountain (17.5 miles round trip, strenuous): Starting at the East Entrance trailhead, hike the first 5.5 miles of the East Rim Trail, then look for the spur trail to Cable Mountain, just past Stave Springs (the trail’s one water source). Then it’s three miles through pine-juniper forest to Cable Mountain’s commanding view, which looks straight across at Angel’s Landing in the main Zion Canyon. The towers of an old cable system stand in precarious ruin near the summit. They make for interested photos, but should not be climbed on. This hike can be done as a strenuous day trip, or as a more leisurely overnighter with a backcountry camping permit, which adds the option of linking an equally impressive view atop nearby Deertrap Mountain.
Now, let’s look at the unmarked, open desert hikes for experienced navigators only.
Clear Creek (around 2 miles, easy): This unmarked hike is along the rock and sand in Clear Creek’s typically dry canyon. There is a flash flood potential, so if there’s threat of rain, don’t go, but it meanders roughly parallel to Route 9 and there are many options for access and escape. The best season is May to October. Start at the Canyon Overlook Trail parking lot, or another available pull-out eastward if the lot is full. Find a place to scramble down into the wash (but avoid trampling soils) and turn left to begin exploring upstream. The cliffs narrow to a dark rock slots along some sections of the creek, interspersed with open sky, tall shady trees, and large boulders. You can wander as far as you like and then retrace your steps to the car. Do not venture beneath the bridge near Canyon Overlook Trail parking lot, as this is the start of Pine Canyon’s technical route that is for experienced canyoneers only and requires a permit.
Orderville Canyon (Around 11 miles, canyoneering and rappelling skills and equipment required): The slot canyon wonderland in Orderville rivals the scenery of Zion’s famed Narrows hike, but without the crowds. The number of hikers per day is limited, so you need a backcountry permit. Park one car at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and the other at Orderville Canyon trailhead, which is 6.2 miles past the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort on North Fork Road, outside of the park. To avoid setting your own shuttle, you can get a ride for $29 per person from Zion Adventure Company. Follow the 4WD road, then a well-traveled footpath along a dry wash. After climbing a low ridge, Orderville Canyon suddenly drops away as a sheer-cliffed gorge, but a walking route can be found on the south side. As the canyon deepens and narrows, you’ll encounter several obstacles: a 15-foot boulder rappel, a 10-foot waterfall rappel, much scrambling and downclimbing, and pools of cold water. Eventually Orderville meets the main Zion Narrows, where you will join casual hikers near the trailhead and catch the Zion Canyon Shuttle to the visitor center.
Resist the urge to jump down obstacles. That’s how many hikers get injured and need rescue. Also, don’t enter the canyon if it may rain, due to the high danger of flash flooding. The time to go is summer and fall. The hike ends at the the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the Zion Canyon shuttle.
Many Pools (about two miles, easy to moderate): If you look at this hike on a topo map, you’ll see two drainages that resemble molars, which is why you’ll also see this hike referred to as “root canal” or “twins.” It’s more popularly called Many Pools, since it features several pothole formations that fill with water during the spring runoff or after a rainstorm. Start this hike just under a mile east of the small tunnel in the upper East Canyon. There is a pull-off parking area on the south side of the road. You’ll cover very scenic sandstone and see hoodoo formations in the hills above the hike. The hike isn’t very difficult, but sticky rubber-soled hiking shoes are recommended to navigate the slickrock.
Other Things to Know
• You have two excellent lodging options on the park’s east side. The Zion Mountain Ranch features both cabins and lodges featuring a western ranch experience that can’t be beat. Families will enjoy the farm animals at the ranch, as well as the sight of a roaming herd of buffalo. A guided horseback tour is a great way to explore this section of Zion. Be sure to dine at the farm-to-table restaurant on the property, Cordwood, which uses primarily ingredients produced on the ranch and surrounding farms.
• The Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort sits on 4,000 acres at the edge of the national park. You’ll find cabins, tents, wagons, RV parking, and vacation homes located on the property. Patrons will find plenty to do without ever leaving the resort, including a wide variety of adventurous activities like ATV riding, rock climbing, canyoneering, and horseback riding. There’s even a zip-line tour that’s a thrilling way to get an overhead view of the resort. It, too, has on-site dining—Ray’s Restaurant features hearty, home-style meals that are perfect after a day of adventure.
• The number of visitors to Zion National Park peaks on Memorial Day, Easter, Labor Day, and Utah schools’ October break.
• Wilderness permits for overnight stays can be reserved online up to three months in advance. Walk-in permits are also available one day in advance at any of the park’s visitor centers. Cost ranges from $15-25, depending on the size of the party.