Zion the Prize

Backpacking Zion National Park

Backpackers on a trail in Zion National Park

Geological wonders, massive canyon views, and a bit of a grind to get to the good stuff … it’s all part of the blissful isolation you can find on the West Rim Trail at Zion, the fourth most visited national park in the country. Lose the crowds on a backpacking adventure starting at the most popular trailhead. Within just a few miles you’re likely to have the trail mostly to yourself for this 14-mile out-and-back adventure that climbs over 3,400 feet to a serene Southwest sanctuary and nine primitive campsites on the West Rim. Pro tip: Our favorite is Campsite 4. While day-of permits are possible for five of the nine sites, we recommend making a reservation ahead of time for a guarantee on a site.

Backpacker on West Rim Trail in Zion National Park

Backpacker enjoying the Zion National Park scenery and sunset.

Primitive campsite with an orang tent among trees on West Rim of Zion National Park

From the main visitor center you’ll shuttle to the Grotto trailhead, which crosses the Virgin River over a photogenic bridge. Follow the paved path towards famous Angels Landing and begin switchbacks up Zion Canyon’s west wall—a brutal grind with no shade, so get a very early start. Of course, the higher you rise, the better the views, with pink and red sheer sandstone cliffs as something to constantly marvel at.

Group of friends hiking in a row along a red rock canyon wall in Zion National Park

Backpacker on the West Rim Trail at Zion National Park

More captivating is the deep, narrow gorge below and its surrounding iconic rock formations with grandiose names like the Court of Patriarchs and Mountain of the Sun. When you get to Walter’s Wiggles, the toughest part of the slog begins: 21 short, steep switchbacks to Scout Lookout, your halfway point and a grand opportunity to take a break and take in the divine views of Angels Landing. The West Rim Trail continues from here, escaping crowds and bringing backcountry scenery. And canyons! Refrigerator Canyon and Telephone Canyon have panoramas seen by far fewer folks (just be very careful of drop-offs!).

Backpacker young person giving the peace sign on the West Rim Trail at Zion National Park

Green tent set up at primitive backpacking campsite on the West Rim at Zion National Park.

Group of friends backpacking and posing for a photo in front o granite mountains in Zion National Park

Hike down to lush vegetation before crossing a bridge and … yep, heading back up again! The views keep the inspiration going, and at mile 5.5 you’ll reach the first campsite along with the all-important Cabin Spring, quite possibly the only reliable water source (bring a filter!). Fill up! Then continue west (left) at the junction, reaching Campsite 4 within another 1.5 miles. It’s the perfect secluded spot, perched on a forested plateau. Set up camp for the weekend under the ponderosa pines.

Hikers crossing a bridge on a backpacking trip in Zion National Park.

Do a day hike on the Telephone Canyon Loop (5.5 miles, all in), where you’ll get canyon views in every direction and a vista of the Pine Valley Mountains to the west. Deer herds may provide added company. Potato Hollow is a nice picnic spot, and intrepid hikers can extend the journey north to Lava Point. Two nights is nice here, but it’s hard to leave!

Group of friends enjoying beers at Zion Brewing

Park at the main visitor center lot (or find street parking in town) and head for the famous park shuttle. We highly recommend making a reservation.

Story and photos by Matt Pawlik, pictured here in a green hat, front right, on selfie photo duty, post-trip celebration at Zion Brewery just outside the park.

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