One of my favorite things about trail running (besides practically everything) is destination running trips. It combines great training, new trails, camping, sweaty (and smelly) friends and great memories. This particular destination training run was one I had been craving for a long time; the zion traverse.
We decided to go in May, since we all had goal races in June. Ryan, Jon and Liz were doing Big Horn 100, while I was training for the Big Horn 50 mile race. Early spring was our best shot to go in hopes it wouldn’t be too hot, after all Zion is a desert. We started bright and early, at 6am with the first light. I was rather nervous since this was my first 50 mile run, and I had no idea how I would feel after mile 35. We were carrying our own food so I packed my Salomon pack full with enough calories to sustain me for 16 hours! Overkill maybe, but better safe than sorry.
We started running on sand, and a slight uphill (my favorite). The crisp morning air was a bit chilly, but it was fleeting. Temps reached over 100 degrees that day! Already in awe of the scenery we stopped for pictures and to escape Ryan’s extremely horrific farts. Something I’m learning as I run is that certain foods are taboo before a race/long run: for example: big salads can cause gas or bloating. Here’s another fun tip: never eat dehydrated Kung Pao Chicken the night before a Zion Traverse. Throughout the day we were dodging Ryan’s noxious gas bombs, which seemed to linger in the air and suffocate us as we ran by. Poor Liz would be running at the back of the pack and would run into clouds of Ryan’s Kung Pao mist, we would here is her yell in disgust from a distance.
Next was the long descent into the canyon floor, running over technical trails and steep, curving switchbacks that cut through the canyon wall. One of my most favorite part of the trail was on this descent, where we ran through a tunnel formed by water cutting through the rock. It really left me in awe of how powerful water is. This part of the trail also reminded me of the slick rock of Moab, Utah. It was too easy to get lost on this section too. Pretty soon, the canyon opened up and we descended even further to the very bottom, meeting up with the road through the park. The view here was spectacular. We were only 10 miles in at this point and had descended +3000ft, we refilled our packs at the public pumps and gave Ryan a minute to quiet his insides at the public restrooms before we started our huge climb of the day.
I was feeling really good at this point, but was aware that we were not very far into the day, so I made sure to take it easy on the climb out of the canyon. Tour busses were already buzzing about in the park and there were already a lot of day hikers along the path. I led the climb up the paved trail to the canyon ceiling, and made sure to keep my heart rate low and breathing easy. Plus, I didn’t want Ryan’s stinky butt to go ahead of me.
It was quite entertaining to see the awe struck faces as we ran by, saying we were ‘show-offs’ or that we were ‘super-human’ to be running this climb. These comments made me chuckle, ironically because I haven’t always been a runner and if I saw someone running in Zion two years ago I would thing they were crazy too!
The view from the overlook was incredible, but the climb wasn’t over yet. It was at this point I realized we were going to be out here for a while. We had estimated finishing in 12 hours, but it was looking more like 14-15 hours. This was good mental preparation. I seem to function better if I have an end point in mind, so extending the goal time in my mind would increase my patience throughout the day . . . help me to embrace the suck if it got to that.
The ecosystems became very diverse as we moved forward. Once we ran over the exposed ridge of the canyon edge, we descended into a mini forest with ferns and running spring water, when we started running uphill again, the terrain changed to rocks and at the top of the climb we encountered forests again and Potato Hollow spring. We took this opportunity to chat with some day hikers and fill up again. I was really enjoying this section, running through such a diverse National Park was really inspiring to me.
The West Rim trail was a very exposed section, with very little tree cover and lots of sand. However the spectacular views across the canyons of Zion made this hot section worth it.
Water was scarce during this section (along the West Rim Trail). We thankfully found a small spring (Sawmill Spring), however we had to go a bit off trail to get to it (0.3 miles). The turn off for Angel’s landing marked the beginning of our long descent, so these miles ticked off fairly quickly. I had a lot of fun on this part, the trails were really flowy and the ecosystem began to change again. Instead of sand and minimal tree coverage, we began to run through trees and the ground became a bit more rocky, making the downhill more fun as we hopped and danced over the rocks. When I’m really in the groove of a downhill, my feet feel really light and I can hop and skip over the terrain, with little effort. This part of the trail also had the most delicious natural spring water we had found thus far. I could’ve stayed there all day drinking and dipping my hat in the water. We were all pretty happy too, Ryan pointed out that we were 5 miles further along than we had originally thought! Which meant we were very close to our cache point, and the end was within sight. We really were cruising on this downhill section and when we reached a set of trail intersections to take a breather, we realized that we should never trust Ryan with reading maps! Unfortunately, it was the opposite of what we had thought, we had to go 5 miles more than we expected before we reached our stash of food and water. This was a bit of a mental low point for me. I was getting tired and sick of eating bars and gels for fuel. I was also tired, we were reaching mile 34 and this was the furthest distance I had ever run before.
I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. Liz, or Lizard as we call her, had a particularly rough go of it. She had a horrible cold but decided to do the traverse anyways. Whenever we would wait to regroup, we would listen for her cough to indicate she was nearby.
Once we finally got to our cache, lizard started crying, she was exhausted and bonking! Silly little Lizard also forgot to eat salt during our run, so her electrolytes were all out of whack and so were her emotions. This has happened to me before, although I get more cranky. We made her stuff her face with food, water and salt before leaving our cache. Only 13 miles to go!!
Although it was downhill, there was a significant flat portion on sand, which was demoralizing. My legs weren’t feeling particularly tired, I had energy left, it was more the mental exhaustion of running through the sand, slowly, making it seem like an eternity before we would be done, like we would never get there.
Once we reached Hop Valley our spirits lifted with the gorgeous view! We knew we were getting close to the end once we reached the roaring river and started to see camp sites. According to our maps it was 6 miles of a slight uphill to reach our car parked at Lee Pass trailhead. This was encouraging, but it was here I hit my low point. This was the longest 6 miles of my entire life! I was prepared for a uphill, so when the trail went up, then down, then down again I started to get frustrated. More challenging still, was the constant creek crossings! The trail would twist over itself to cross the same damn creek . . . I just wanted to climb out of the canyon to my car! I was running with Jon at this point and I began cursing the trail whenever it went downhill or crossed the same stupid creek (which it did about 15 times). I’m pretty sure he was laughing at me but he encouraged me to eat a gel, but i was having nothing of the sort. This was a valuable lesson to learn: fuel to the very end in an ultra, things seem worse without food. I kept on getting choked up when I looked at my watch and the minutes kept going by and there was no end it sight. I was cursing under my breath. I thought to myself, panicked “we wouldn’t get dinner, we’ll go to bed hungry” I said this was a stupid idea . . . But despite my anger and frustration, the trail suddenly popped us out onto the road and I saw my silver Subaru waiting for me in the parking lot. We immediately collapsed on the ground and waited for Ryan and Liz. Once they arrived everyone began their own cursing of ultra running and doubting their ability/desire to run the Big Horn 100. We all agreed that this was the toughest 50 mile training run we could have thought up.
However, once we gathered ourselves and found a place to grab some food and beers, our sprits lifted and we began to laugh and recount the events from the day. The pain was fleeting. The misery was temporary and all we remembered were the beautiful views, the amazing trails and the fact that we just ran across a national park together! It was truly an amazing experience and I can’t wait to plan a trip back to Zion National Park, to explore new trails and new ultra distances. Plus, I’ll get to catch more frogs!
There were several things we had to consider before embarking on this epic journey that you might find helpful if you want to do it too!
I found some great resources, which helped us to make the decision on which route to take. We ultimately decided to run westbound. We thought it would be best to run the biggest decent and climb of the day on fresh legs (+3000ft decent followed by +3000ft climb). That would leave us with 20+ miles of runnable/gradual decent and a final short climb to end the run. Although running westbound would add 400ft to our total ascent (~10,000ft) compared to running eastbound, we still decided this route was best. The route is advertised at around 48 miles, however due to tracking/GPS discrepancy it’s hard to know exactly how far, we estimated the total trip (adding all our out and backs to the natural springs) at around 53 miles (we used a Sunto Ambit 2 watch).
This describes the eastbound Zion traverse – http://andrewskurka.com/adventures/zion-national-park-traverse/route-beta/
This link was great in general trip logistics – http://andrewskurka.com/adventures/zion-national-park-traverse/trip-logistics/
Even though we were going in the spring, temperatures were predicted to be fairly hot (may 18th, 2014 the temperatures reached over 100 degrees on our traverse). We planned to use some natural springs and drop some water at a location where natural springs might be dired up (west side of park). We asked the rangers about water levels and springs, mostly they were not very knowledgeable, so be sure to ask one that’s actually hiked around in the park and get to the ranger station before it closes at 6pm! We dropped a couple jugs of water and some food at the intersection of the connector trail after crossing Kolob terrace road. The Kolob terrace road is accessible via car, and about a 40 minute round trip drop off. This drop off was crucial since the conditions on the west side of the park were dry and the river running through Hop Valley was contaminated with Cow poo. One of the most useful tools on our trek was a spreadsheet with approximate mile markers for trail-head intersections and locations of natural springs. Every spring listed on the map on the eastside of the park was flowing, however I wouldn’t rely on these sources if you are attempting a traverse later in the season or late fall, as they will mostly likely not be running.
- Databook spreadsheet of trail intersections and natural spring locations – http://andrewskurka.com/adventures/zion-national-park-traverse/maps-databook-more-info/
- Another useful too for maps and routes through zion – Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park: http://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/transziontrek.cfm
3. Logistics (camping/car drops):
This was almost the most tiring part of the journey . . . driving to Zion National Park, then making the necessary water/food drops and dropping a car at the other end of the park, then driving back to eat, sleep and prepare for the traverse the next day. We were coming from Boulder/Denver area so we headed west on I-70 all the way through Utah (thankfully it’s a gorgeous drive to make on a Friday morning, and in the spring where weather over the passes wasn’t a concern). We took the exit for Hwy 89 going south to head to the east entrance of Zion National Park. (The other option is to take I-70 to Hwy 15 and take that south to the west entrance of the park, and drop off a car at Lee Pass trailhead first). We wanted to get a camp spot first. We camped just outside of the park at Zion Mountain Ranch Trading post (all spots within the park were reserved). The campground even had hot showers and coffee in the morning; a great luxury after a long day in the sun.