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Onward and Upward; Tackling the Switchbacks in Zion

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Adding to our list of camping escapades for 2022, we spent another Saturday morning ready for adventure. With Roxie loaded up, our National Park passport in hand and a full tank of gas, we headed to Zion National Park.

Being early March, leading up to the trip we anticipated colder temperatures. As the days got closer, the temperature numbers continued dropping and we were a little nervous about what the evening may have in store for us. With cold weather in mind, we added a few cold-gear items to our supply list before heading out.

After checking into a much less crowded campground than our previous visit, we set up camp, headed to the lodge for some quick lunch accompanied by wild turkey vulture sightings, and then hit the trails.

Initially we had planned on heading to the Temple of Sinawava and hiking the two-mile Riverside Walk trail. Unsure of timing and not wanting the added shuttle ride taking up valuable hiking time we decided to forgo the Riverside trail and take it easy with a trail we already knew and loved; Middle Emerald Pools.

Arriving at the park on the cusp of seasonal change, the trail was lined with a mashup of late winter and early spring landscape. Patches of snow still visible. Vibrant mountain faces provided accentuated contrast against the pale blue sky. Simultaneously, the forest floors appeared to almost be bleached from the cold winter. Surrounding trees remained grey and bare, and moss covered rocks provided vibrant greens amongst fresh growing grass rising through the mud. With the nature of impermanence on full beautiful display, the whole atmosphere was comforting and magical. If I could imagine a dream cottage in the woods, this would be the landscape I’d picture would be surrounding it.

Marking our decent from the Emerald Pools toward the Grotto we added a new leg to our adventure and deviated toward the direction of the West Rim Trail. Zigzagging our way up the west wall was an intense hike I was not entirely prepared for. Intermittent stops needed, but determination to reach the top driving us forward, we continued; onward and upward. With each switchback leading to more and more elevation gain, somewhere near the top I found my peripheral vision captivated with looking over the mountain edge and proceeded to make the rest of the climb opposite the drop-off and almost hugging the mountain face. I never consider myself afraid of heights, but with enough strenuous activity I tend to find myself questioning this statement amongst a looming threat of acrophobia-induced vertigo.

Expecting the last switchback to lead to a lookout point and the end of the trail, we were pleasantly surprised when the trail opened up to what is called Refrigerator Canyon. A silent hiking zone as curtsey to the Mexican owl inhabitants, despite the views we had just hiked amongst, this canyon was one of my favorite sights of our trip. Maybe it was the break from the incline, or the sudden enclosure the canyon provided amongst shade and trees, or perhaps the excitement for potential owl sightings, regardless of the reason, this canyon enhanced all my excitement and the little bit of sunlight that broke through the rocks accentuated the details of the trees and canyon walls.

After making it this far, I was relieved to be on a less inclined trail for a bit. Still uncertain of where we were headed, we continued; onward and upward. Once we reached the end of the canyon I turned on the trail, only to be greeted by what I later discovered was called Walter’s Wiggles. This series of 21 steep switchbacks spanning almost 2 miles and 250 feet of elevation gain, was the final hurdle before reaching Scout Lookout before the Angels Landing summit.

The final push up the switchbacks was another challenge, but the views at the top were expansive and full of glorious beauty. Taking in the sights and being slightly apprehensive about looking straight down the cliffside, we took in one final set of photos and headed back in the direction we had come.

What had been a struggle headed up the trail, was considerably easier heading back. Overall, we tackled the entire days’ hike in short of three hours, an impressive feat for the distance and incline of our impromptu adventure. 1,343 feet of elevation gained and six miles travelled. Needless to say we were ready to head back to camp, enjoy some dinner and relax by a fire under the stars.

While the hikes are majestic, the tourism in the park, even in slow months provides a bit of a headache when navigating shuttle stops and bus occupancy. While we’ve found that Death Valley National Park supplies us with the experience of adventuring the landscapes in nature, I find myself referring to Zion as a Disneyland of National Parks. Once done with the shuttle rides and away from the visitors center however, the upper camp area of Watchman Campground was an awe-inspiring basecamp for post-hiking recovery complete with star gazing, hot camp food, and staring into a warm fire.

Though hitting temperatures in the upper 30s, we were relieved that sleeping arrangements in the iKamper were very comfortable thanks in large part to our new additions; Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liners and Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pads — two items I highly recommend if you’re looking for added comfort and warmth when camping.

We happened to pick Daylight Saving for our camping night, so that in coordination with the normal time difference from back home meant the morning ran out much faster than we had anticipated, leaving us just enough time for cooking breakfast and packing up camp before checkout.

As always the short camping trips seem like an abundance of work for a simple weekend overnight, but the adventure and time away is more than enough to fill the soul with wonder and excitement, and they are definitely trips that I am grateful to be able to take regularly.

And now, back in the comfort of our home, we anticipate the next adventure. As we said repeatedly on the switchbacks; onward and upward!

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