Running the Zion Traverse, a nearly 50-mile odyssey through the sand, slickrock and canyons of Zion National Park
By Brian Metzler
It’s a cool late-October morning and my buddy Jason Smith and I have been running rhythmically and fast for an hour in the low light of dawn along La Verkin Creek Trail in the remote northwestern corner of Zion National Park.
We’re on a mission to complete the 48.4-mile Zion Traverse before sunset. We have fresh legs and know we have a tall task in front of us, so we haven’t talked much or even taken in the scenery, partially because the trail has been trending downhill for the first five miles or so.
But then, as the sun begins to shine on the upper portion of the massive stone buttes surrounding us, we encounter the magnificent Kolob Arch—a massive red-rock structure that looks like a replica of a manmade bridge over a river and the sixth-largest stone arch in the world. Awed by its brilliant beauty, I find it to be a transcendental moment that immediately melts away any lingering notion of self-contrived haste and brings forward a feeling of being selflessly present in the moment.
Although Jason and I had talked about running across Zion for years, this epic adventure came together only a few days earlier via a series of texts.
“Let’s run Zion next Tues!” Jason texted on a Thursday morning. “We can drive down Monday, run all day Tues and drive back on Weds.”
“OK, I’m in!” I texted back, barely thinking of the 10-hour drive and other pertinent details, except that I knew I had a flight to catch out of Denver on Thursday. “Let’s make it happen!”
"With the right amount of fitness and experience, plus a little bit of planning (most importantly shuttling a car or booking a shuttle service to the other side of the park), a Trans-Zion run can be an idyllic single-day, point-to-point adventure."
Located in the southwest corner of Utah, Zion National Park is one of the true gems of the U.S. National Park System. The 229-square-mile park is 99 years old, but native peoples have lived there as far back as 8,000 years ago. Zion serves up breathtaking geological features and the type of postcard-worthy scenery that just cannot be properly captured by an iPhone. Alas, those images can merely remind you of the definition and depth of the intricate landscape, the red and burnt-orange rock and pinyon and ponderosa pine trees set against an impossibly blue sky.
Running across Zion National Park has become a bucket-list endeavor for trail runners in recent years, thanks in part to the buzz created by a handful of elites who have continued to lower the Fastest Known Time (FKT). (The current mark was set by Utah wunderkind Hayden Hawks, who ran it in a ridiculously fast 6 hours 50 minutes in April 2017.)
Although running across Zion is a longer journey than the 42-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the Grand Canyon and back, it’s much less brutal on the body, mind and soul because there is considerably less vertical gain and loss (10,400 feet on the Zion Traverse, compared to about 21,000 for the Grand Canyon) and there is much less tourist congestion from start to finish. And no pack-mule trains to hold you up, either!
With the right amount of fitness and experience, plus a little bit of planning (most importantly shuttling a car or booking a shuttle service to the other side of the park), a Trans-Zion run can be an idyllic single-day, point-to-point adventure.
The enlightening moment at Kolob Arch couldn’t have come at a better time. Soon afterward, we begin a gradual, 17-mile climb on the Hop Valley and Wildcat Canyon trails, leaving the shady Lower Kolob Plateau and heading toward the hot, sunny and exposed Upper Kolob Plateau. We become more contemplative and chatty, and run at a more moderate speed, perhaps because we are more engaged in the scenery and a bit less intense about our bigger goal.
Jason has been a hard-charging partner in endurance adventures for years. Both former collegiate track runners, we gravitated to trail running after moving to Boulder in the 1990s and eventually ultrarunning and mountaineering. Since then, we’ve gone on short-and-fast trail runs, bagged several of Colorado’s 14ers, skied in the backcountry, paced and crewed each other in races and run across the Grand Canyon and back.
“This place is mind-blowing,” Jason says, finally backing off his up-tempo intensity. “And there is nobody here!”
Seriously, there is virtually no one out on the trails. Running along the West Rim Trail on the Horse Pasture Plateau—the highest part of our journey at about 7,400 feet and also the approximate halfway point of our run—we’re amazed that we’ve seen only seven backpackers.
As we descend, we begin to see more hikers as we approach the Angels Landing area. After dodging the slower-moving sightseers down the zig-zaggy concrete walkways into Zion Canyon, we wind up at a shuttle-bus stop and refill our hydration flasks, have a few snacks and look at a map. We leave the mass of humanity behind and head north on the road for two miles before picking up the East Rim Trail for the final eight miles of our journey.
After a steep, 1.5-mile switchbacking climb, we wind up in a very deep, dark-red rock slot known as Echo Canyon—a natural wonder that serves up inspiration for our final push up to a lush high plateau along the eastern border of the park. Despite tired legs and extreme thirst, we ramble through the final five miles under the setting sun, arrive at my truck at last light and toast the day with two cold beers we’d stashed early that morning.