From Lava Point, in the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park, there is a spectacular view of the main part of the park off in the distance. (Photo above.) It’s like viewing the back side of the most famous views of the park (photo at the end of this post), a very different perspective. And, a very different experience.
The main part of the park, the fantastic canyon carved by the Virgin River, attracts millions of visitors every year. From early spring to late fall, buses shuttle visitors along the 45-minute drive, often filled to standing room only. The hiking trails are world class but busy. I’ve heard people talk about experiencing traffic jams on some of the trails.
The Kolob Terrace section of the park draws far fewer visitors. Far, far fewer. It’s a bit of a drive on a steep, twisting (but mostly paved) road. And, while the scenery is remarkable, it’s not as dramatic as the main canyon. However, it’s a great way to escape the crowds for a day of very nice hiking.
On my September 2018 visit to Zion, I checked out the Kolob Terrace area for the first time. There are quite a few trails available, and I chose to do the Hop Valley trail.
Hop Valley Trail
It’s a three-mile hike from the trailhead to Hop Valley. It’s downhill all the way, although the descent becomes most noticeable in about the last mile, when you reach the switchbacks. And, the trail is very sandy, like walking on the beach, but downhill.
Well, downhill on the way out. Obviously, it was all uphill on the way back. By the time I got to the top of the switchbacks, I had so much sand in my shoes I was hoping I’d find a nice big rock where I could sit down and empty the shoes. No big rocks, but there was a bench tucked into the trees. Perfect! Not only a great place to sit and empty shoes, but in the shade.
On the three miles out to the valley, I met two hikers. And one calf. The trail, like the road out to Lava Point, crosses some private land. Part of the private land is a cow pasture. I had heard the calf bellowing for a while, but it was still a bit of a surprise to come around a curve and see it coming down the trail. Not exactly wildlife, but fun. And, it left the trail as soon as it saw me.
The number of hikers I encountered increased on the way out — about a dozen. Most of them were backpackers, intending to spend a night or two camping in the backcountry of Zion. I don’t think I saw any other day hiker on the trail.
It’s tempting to compare the Hop Valley trail to the trails in the main part of the park. It’s not as breathtaking as those trails. But, without making that comparison and evaluating the trail on its own merits, it’s a very good hike. Nice views along the way, and the quiet valley was a nice place for lunch.
Watchman — trail and campground
After a day in the quiet Kolob Terrace section of the park, it was time to share the trails. I was camped at the Watchman campground, so the first hike of the day was the Watchman trail.
It’s a 3.2 mile hike, basically an out and back with a loop at the end. And, it’s basically up on the way to the loop and down on the way back. There are switchbacks, but they’re sort of gradual. It’s rated moderate, which seemed right to me.
Doing this hike in the morning is definitely the way to go. I started at about 9:45, and most of the hike out was in the shade. Even in the morning on a late September day, it was quite warm. Shade was appreciated.
I was a bit surprised by how many hikers were on the Watchman trail. Five years ago, when I hiked this trail, I saw a handful of people, and had plenty of time when no other hikers were in sight. Not so this time. At the loop, there were times when no other hikers were nearby. Made for a nice place to take a break. But, other than that, I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t see other hikers.
I had thought that after Labor Day, when kids were back in school, there wouldn’t be many people at the park. When chatting with a couple of other hikers on the trail, I made that comment. They pointed out that we were meeting a lot of folks of retirement age on the trail. Not everybody was of that vintage, but we seemed to be very well represented.
The Watchman trailhead is easily accessed from the Watchman campground, which is where I was camping. It’s a very nice, well-maintained campground. It is reservable, and the reservations go fast. The window for reservations is six months, and it’s a good idea to book when the window opens, if you know your plans six months in advance. The visitor center and shuttle bus stop is also nearby. When spending the day in the main part of the park, there’s no need to move your vehicle. You can walk to the bus stop, which then provides access to the entire canyon.
And, the views from the campground itself are pretty spectacular. A couple examples are below.
After hiking the Watchman trail, I stopped for lunch at my campervan — Uncle Gerald. Very quiet at the campground. There were many deer, some resting under trees and others walking on the roads.
Then, I took the shuttle bus to the end of the line — Temple of Sinawava and the Riverside Walk trail. It’s not really a trail. It’s a mile-long paved path on the banks of the Virgin River. There are some inclines and declines, but it’s an easy walk. The trail ends with access to the Virgin River and the Narrows. Depending on whether one does the Narrows top down or bottom up, it’s either the beginning or the end of the Narrows. It’s a famous hike, entirely in the river.
Lots of people just walk a short distance down the river to get a feel for the Narrows. The canyon walls start to narrow shortly after the end of Riverside Walk. And, lots of people just sit on the retaining wall at the end of walk to enjoy the scenery. It is beautiful.
The combination of fantastic scenery and an easy hike attracts lots of hikers and/or walkers. It was a very busy place, shoulder-to-shoulder in some spots. It was much more crowded than the Watchman trail and not at all comparable to the Kolob Terrace section of the park.
Zion offers many different types of hiking experiences. No matter where you go or what you do, it is supremely beautiful.
And, here’s the classic view of Zion: