|Many of us have enjoyed the glorious trail running in the Grand Canyon. Further sublime running adventures await nearby, at the cost of a cheap flight to Vegas. They are closer to Vegas, and also more runnable than the Grand Canyon.Zion and Bryce Canyon lend themselves well to a joint running adventure: one drives through Zion NP (about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas) to reach Bryce Canyon NP (about 4 hours from Las Vegas). In other words, they are even closer to Las Vegas than the Grand Canyon. From the area, Escalante NP, Coral Reef NP, Grand Canyon NP, and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park are also well accessible.From Las Vegas, the drive is short and simple: NE on Highway 15 towards St. George, then E on Highway 9 to Springdale, at the entrance to Zion: about two-and-a-half hours. Then through the impressive 1930 Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel to US89 and E of Highway 12 to Bruce Canyon: 1.5 hours more. I visited Bryce Canyon first, to lessen the final day’s drive back to the airport.
General tip: Buy a National Park Annual Pass ($80) for unlimited access to both parks. It will easily pay for itself over a 5-day holiday.
But if you are stingy:
- you can access (legally) the Bryce Canyon trails for free by parking at the Fairyland Parking Lot and running into the park.
- you can readily walk or shuttle into Zion Park from Springdale and then take the inner-park shuttle.
Bryce Canyon is famed for its madly coloured hoodoos. It is a narrow north-south park. The main accommodations are found at Bryce Canyon City, at its north end. Tropic, 10 minutes to the east, has several inexpensive accommodation options.
Trans-Bryce Epic Run
For a 40 mile ultra run, run from the south end of the canyon (actually an escarpment) from Rainbow Point (S) to Fairyland Point (N), mostly via the Under the Rim Trail. This epic traverse can be shortened or lengthened by running or skipping the southern Riggs Spring (6.9M) and Fairyland (5.5M) Loops. The full traverse will bring you up to the rim three times (Bryce Point, Sunrise Point, and Fairyland Point). But the climbs are not severe and the route is generally very runnable (although you will want to slow down to admire the scenery).
After completing the Under the Rim Trail, from Bryce Point, descend into the Bryce Amphitheatre, the famed scenic epicenter of the park. Go down the east side of the Peekaboo Loop. Then follow the sign towards the Navajo Loop. Then take the Queen’s Garden Trail up to Sunrise Point.
Bryce does not have the same extensive shuttle system as does Zion. Unless you have two cars at your disposal, you will want to park one car at Fairyland Trailhead and hire a local person to drop you off at Rainbow Point (Mark 435 616 8767).
Shorter runs: Bryce Canyon’s several loop trails lend themselves well to shorter trail runs. Riggs Spring, Peekaboo Loop, and Fairyland Loop are all superb trail runs of less than 7 miles, and all bring you back to your car.
Note that Bryce’s high altitude (9115 feet at Rainbow Point) means that snow may persist until late May (as it did on my holiday, thus requiring the snipping of the Riggs Spring Loop) and your breath may be short.
Rest Day: For your recovery day, walk the Navajo Loop, returning up via the Queen’s Garden Trail: mind-blowing hoodoo glory. Go early, to avoid the crowds.
Visit Bryce Lodge but avoid its mediocre and overpriced restaurant. A good pizza shop is found at Tropic.
Zion NP requires a reconceptualization from Bryce and Grand Canyon NPs. The heart of the park (with road, lodge, and access to Springdale) is on the valley floor, with the trails mentioned below on the heights above. And the Rim trails mentioned below only follow the valley rim at the end: the greater part of the journey is running to the rim, and then down into the valley.
Springdale is the gateway to Zion, and the only real place to stay. Springdale is along a 1K stretch of road; almost everything is walkable and addresses are unnecessary. Springdale has several inexpensive motels, as well as a superb restaurant (Whiptail Grill, towards the north end of the city, near the park entrance) and a good coffee shop open at 6:30 am (the Frontier Lodge, in the heart of the town). Flanigan’s Inn, across the street from the Whiptail Grill, has sports massage treatments.
It is scorching in June, July and August. The best month to go is probably September, when it is less hot, and the Virgin River is low enough to hike the 16M Narrows Hike, mostly waded through the river: one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. When I visited in late May, the river was too high, too rapid, and too in risk of flash floods to permit this hike.
You could readily walk into Zion Park from Springdale, but a regular free shuttle bus will take you there. No cars are permitted in the heart of Zion Canyon (Floor of the Valley Road), but frequent shuttle buses bring tourists to and from the Visitor Centre to and from various points along the canyon. The system works very well.
Many trails start from the car-free Virgin River Floor of the Valley Road. For remote trailheads, unless you have two cars, you will need a shuttle (Zion Adventure Company 435-772-1001 and other companies). Be sure to pick up the Zion Adventure Company’s superb trail map.
Zion Traverse Epic Run
For an epic ultrarunning adventure, one can do the 47 Mile Zion Traverse, from Lee’s Pass in the NW to the East Gate in the SE. You can probably book into an early shuttle (at a cheaper rate ($35) than a private shuttle ($70-90)) to Lee’s Pass and run back to the canyon, and then ascend and run back to the East Gate. Running NW to SE is net downhill, and provides for the less technical and less scenic stretches at the end.
Although the East Gate seems far on the map, you can readily hitchhike to and from East Gate from the Zion-East Gate Junction: there is only one road and most drivers past that point are amiable outdoors types. It is probably illegal to do so, so you received no encouragement to do so from here. In other words, you likely do not need to book a shuttle at the end of the run (a logistical concern that turned me off a Trans-Zion Run but one that turned out to be unwarranted),
The Zion Traverse is impressive, but somewhat artificial, defined by the park boundaries: it requires a long run from the NW, a descent into the canyon, a jog along the road, an ascent of the east canyon wall and then gentle run to the end along the East Rim Trail. Its scenery defies a hell-bent speed run.
A better option is to make one day a west side exploration day, and the other day an east side exploration day.
For the East side, take the shuttle bus from the Zion Visitor Centre to the Junction stop. Hitchhike a ride through the tunnel to the East gate, where the East Rim Trail trailhead is located. The East Rim trail is very runnable: not a mountain climb you might imagine, but a gentle wide path leading to a mesa above the canyon. From there, you can do any number of three trails leading to three different but all spectacular views of the canyon below: (from west to east): Deer Trap Mountain (5.2 additional miles), Cable Mountain (3.6 additional miles), and Observation Point (3.8 additional miles). Do one or all, depending on your pep, and return to the main East Rim Trail to take you back to the canyon floor. From there, take a shuttle bus back to the Visitor Centre. If you do all of the hikes above on one adventure, it is about 24.8 miles.
Water: In the middle of the hike, at at the junction of the East Rim Trail with the Deer Trap Mountain/Cable Mountain Trails is a spring: as you will pass by this point twice, you will likely have ample water for the entire adventure.
For the West Side, you can do a 35 Mile traverse from Kolob (Lee’s Pass) back to the Virgin Canyon and park shuttle buses via the West Rim Trail (book a private shuttle to Lee’s Pass) or do a shorter 14M run along just the West Rim Trail back to the Virgin Canyon (book a private shuttle to the trailhead at Lava Point).
You could in theory hitchhike to either of those trailheads but they are far and off the highway, and early morning traffic may be scarce.
The Kolob Traverse is epic, taking you through the distinct zones of the red mammoth Kolob/Verikin Valley, the verdant Hop Valley, the scrubby connector trails, and the sublime highland and canyon-cut trails of the West Rim Trail.
On this trail you should take the extra 1.5 mile side trip to see Kolob Arch, the second-longest arch in the world.
And on this trail, or on the shorter variant of the West Rim Trail, you should climb Angel’s Landing, a vertigo-inducing climb only partly leavened by guide chains. The views of Zion Canyon are stunning.
The West Rim Trail ends at The Grotto shuttle bus stop. Soak your legs in the Virgin River while waiting for the bus.
Water: It is critical to plan ahead for water on the west side Kolob-Virgin River Traverse. There is no drinkable water in Hop Valley, in the middle of the hike, so you should load up with lots of water at Beatty Springs, just after the crossing of the Verikin River. The next drinkable water is 15 miles away, at Blue Creek, at the head of Wildcat Canyon, near the Lava Point trailhead of the West Rim Trail.
There are several water sources along the West Rim Trail at regular intervals: Sawmill Springs, Potato Hollow, and West Rim (Cabin) Spring.
Weather: The Kolob and Hop Valley trails are unfun mudbaths during or after a rainstorm. The West Rim Trail is almost wholly exposed and should not be run during a lightning storm. Angel’s Landing should not be climbed in lightning or rain.
Rest Day: For your recovery day, hike the impressive Hidden Canyon hike from the Weeping Rock shuttle stop: a chained hike leading to a hanging canyon high above the valley. Hike beyond the end of the official trail to see bizarre red-streaked eroded cliffs and a mini-arch. The short trek up to Weeping Rock, from the same trail, is also worth the trip.