West Rim Trail of Zion National Park

Overview: A great backpack along the top of the Horse Pasture Plateau from Lava Point to the floor of Zion Canyon.

Distance: 14.2 miles (22.9 km) one way

Hiking time: About 7 hours

Best season: May–October

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous north to south; strenuous south to north

Water availability: Sawmill Spring, Potato Hollow Spring, and West Rim Spring are reliable.

Hazards: Some cliff exposure below West Rim Spring

Topo maps: Kolob Reservoir, The Guardian Angels, Temple of Sinawava; Zion National Park (Trails Illustrated)

Finding the trailhead: The route begins at the Lava Point trailhead. The West Rim Trail emerges at the Grotto trailhead, at mile 3.2 on Zion Canyon Road.

GPS of start: 37.381497, -113.022981

GPS of finish: 37.259045, -112.950983

The Hike

This route is the most popular backpacking trail in Zion National Park, featuring easy access to remote country with striking vistas throughout the hike. Reservations for wilderness campsites are often completely booked, so book your campsite in advance. The trail follows the top of the Horse Pasture Plateau, often skirting close to the rims to reveal views of the canyons and monoliths to the west. Be especially careful to minimize your impact along this route so that future hikers can enjoy the ambience of untouched wilderness found here. Three springs provide a dependable supply of water along the way; remember to treat it before drinking. Camping is prohibited within 0.25 mile of these springs. An extensive wildfire burned the top of the Horse Pasture Plateau during the summer of 1996; the landscape now shows some recovery.

The trail begins by descending onto the level surface of the Horse Pasture Plateau, which extends like a long, level finger toward the heart of Zion Canyon. The path quickly passes a junction with the Wildcat Canyon Trail and makes its way to the eastern edge of the uplands. In the distance the land rises in great swells interrupted by sheer faces of gray shale and rosy limestone. After a mile of traveling, hikers will pass a short spur path that descends into the draw to the west to reach Sawmill Springs.

The main trail sticks to the top of the plateau, where numerous charred stumps and snags attest to frequent lightning strikes in the high country. The white cliffs that surround Goose Creek soon become visible below and to the east, but the dramatic views really begin as the trail glides up to a high overlook that faces west. From here hikers can look straight down the canyon of the Left Fork for a stunning view of South Guardian Angel. The fang-shaped crag to the right of it is North Guardian Angel, which reveals itself more fully as the trail continues southward.

The path soon drops from the crest of the plateau onto a narrow finger ridge to the east. This leads down into a gully that bears travelers down into the grassy meadows of Potato Hollow. Copses of trees limit views in this area as the trail follows this narrow valley to a spring that feeds an old stock tank. Many old aspens that once surrounded the spring have died off, but their offspring are thriving in the understory and will soon repopulate the area.

From here the trail turns south, climbing steadily to regain the ridgetops. It skirts the head of Sleepy Hollow and then climbs the final pitch to reach a junction with the Telephone Canyon Trail. A fire caused by lightning in 1980 opened up the forest in this area, allowing westward views of Greatheart Mesa.

The main trail continues its steady ascent along the spine of the ridge through a sparse growth of piñon pine, manzanita, and juniper. Early views take in the smooth white cliffs that line the headwaters of the Right Fork of North Creek. South Guardian Angel lifts its white sail above a maze of red rock farther west, and the even swell of the Pine Valley Range rises on the western horizon.

The trees fall away as the trail reaches the summit of the plateau, and astounding views stretch westward, changing in aspect as the path makes its way south. In the foreground the white upper layers of Navajo sandstone have been dissected into great monoliths by runoff and then sculpted by the wind into graceful domes and beehives. Looking down the Right Fork, you’ll see how the iron-rich lower layers of the Navajo Formation have been deeply mortised as erosion works its craft along vertical fissures in the reddish stone. The Inclined Temple dominates the southern quadrant of the scene, rising above the barren wilderness of the Phantom Valley.

As the trail mounts a second high knoll, it enters a stand of tall ponderosa pines that herald a southeastward swing through the trees. The path seeks a shallow draw wooded in Gambel oak, following it down to the southern edge of the Horse Pasture Plateau. Here views stretch southward across the deeply incised rifts and towering pillars of Heaps Canyon. As the path runs eastward along the rimrock, views open up down Behunin Canyon. This deep cleft frames the distant summits of the Mountain of the Sun and the Twin Brothers. One can look out across the level tops of Mount Majestic and Cathedral Mountain, which are covered with a dense mat of manzanita that gives the appearance of a well-manicured lawn.

The trail then rounds the southern tip of the plateau and zigzags down from the caprock to the rim of the Navajo Formation, where it rejoins the Telephone Canyon Trail. A short spur descends northward to reach West Rim Spring, where a slow flow of water seeps from the ground to feed a pool choked with algae. The area around the spring was burned when an illegal campfire went out of control in 1992; it is now against park regulations to camp within 0.25 mile of the water source. Unusual trees such as the Arizona cypress, with its neatly corrugated bark, and the quaking aspen, with its ivory-colored hide, can be found around the spring.

The main trail now begins its descent, traversing a sheer wall of sandstone. Look northward for an unobstructed view of the mouth of Mystery Canyon, which is flanked by tall pillars that rise above The Narrows. The path soon works its way into the upper end of Behunin Canyon and then drops into the saddle at its head. From here it drops into the northern gulch and enters a lush woodland of spruce and Douglas fir underlain by bigtooth maple and Gambel oak. These trees are rarely found at such low elevations in this part of Utah. The presence of this plant community can be explained by the fact that the northern aspect of the gulch provides plenty of shade—the plants experience less evaporation here than they would in surrounding areas.

The trail continues a steady descent as it swings around the base of Mount Majestic’s northern bulwark. It bottoms out at a bridge over a side canyon and then begins a steady climb. To the north the valley floor is carved from windblown rock and a sparse collection of pines grows from chinks in the mounds of stone. As the path nears the top of the grade, it brings a fine view north to the Mountain of Mystery. A sandy pitch leads over the top, and the north buttress of Cathedral Mountain rears its wind-scoured cliffs to the south. To the east the Great White Throne and Red Arch Mountain rise prominently along the far wall of Zion Canyon, while Angels Landing juts from the near wall.

Finding the route becomes a bit tricky as the trail follows a series of cairns over naked bedrock. The route roughly follows the ridgetop as it descends to the base of Angels Landing, where it reaches a trail junction at Scout Overlook. Turn right to reach the trailhead as the path drops into the head of Refrigerator Canyon. A series of narrow switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles bears travelers to the floor of the narrow cleft, where the grade levels off. Firs and maples grow in the cool depths of the canyon. At the mouth of the cleft, the path drops rather sharply to the floor of Zion Canyon. It then follows the Virgin River southward to reach a bridge that leads to the Grotto trailhead, which marks the end of the hike.

Miles and Directions

0.0       Lava Point trailhead

0.1       Junction with Wildcat Canyon Trail. Keep going straight ahead.

1.0       Spur trail descends westward to Sawmill Springs.

5.2       Potato Hollow Spring

6.8       Junction with Telephone Canyon cutoff trail. Bear right for West Rim Trail.

9.8       Telephone Canyon Trail rejoins West Rim Trail at West Rim Spring. Turn right for descent into Zion Canyon.

10.3     Trail reaches saddle above Behunin Canyon.

11.2     Footbridge over nameless draw; no camping south of this point

12.4     Junction with Angels Landing Trail at Scout Overlook. Turn right to continue the descent.

14.1     Junction with West Bank Trail. Cross footbridge over Virgin River.

14.2     The Grotto trailhead