Observation Point Trail, Zion National Park

Mount Baldy surveys Zion Canyon at 6,521 feet elevation, more than 2,100 feet above the valley floor. Jutting out from Mt. Baldy into one of the widest sections of Zion Canyon, Observation Point commands a view of nearly every major attraction, particularly those like Angels Landing and The Organ at Big Bend. Hikers receive a spectacular vista of the lower end of Zion Canyon, with views even beyond the mouth of the canyon. The hike itself is quite steep, with short sections of relief, including the scenic stroll through beautiful Echo Canyon. This is definitely not a trip for the casual, overweight tourist. However, if paced properly and well-hydrated, this can be a fun and challenging hike with one of the best vistas in all of Zion National Park as the reward. My brother and I tackled the Observation Point Trail on Monday, October 13, 2014 beginning at 7:45AM and ending about 2:00PM. Our plan was to climb the 2,100 feet to Observation Point, then if we had any energy left, try a portion of the Hidden Canyon Trail on the way back down.

Hike Length: 9 miles roundtrip Hike Duration: 6.25 hours

Hike Configuration: Up and back. Blaze: None needed.

Hike Rating: Quite difficult. Strenuous, ledge climbing.

Elevation Gain: 2,148 to Observation Point. Another 350 on Hidden Canyon Trail.

Elevation Start: 4,467 feet. Trail Condition: Good. Uneven, rocky pathway.

Starting Point: Weeping Rock shuttle stop on Zion Canyon Road.

Trail Traffic: We encountered only five other hikers on the way up, and roughly two dozen others on the way back down, including several on the Hidden Canyon Trail.

How to Get There: Zion National Park is located just east of Springdale, Utah. You can either ride a shuttle bus into the park from Springdale, or park your own vehicle just inside the park entrance. Personal vehicles are not allowed within Zion Canyon. Be warned that the parking lot can fill quickly during prime tourist seasons (Spring and Fall). Shuttle buses run to all national park features approximately every seven minutes from 7:00AM to 9:00PM. The Observation Point Trail is located at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop.

In the 1990s Zion was facing significant visitor growth which led to traffic congestion, and mostly, lack of parking at featured landmarks and trails. So in 1997 the park implemented a shuttle bus service to take guests from the Visitor Center to Zion Canyon. It runs every 7 minutes in season with the first scheduled each day at 7:00AM.

Unfortunately, in mid-October it is still pitch dark at 7:00. Therein lies the root of my accident. On the way from the Visitor Center parking to the bus stop I managed to step in a hole. Not your ordinary hole, this one was about a foot deep, and down I went… hard… right on top of a sand burr bush. I was picking those rascally klingons out of my hands and my hip and my butt for the next 30 minutes as the shuttle took us to the trailhead at Weeping Rock.

Not the kind of start I wanted for this exciting day of climbing to Observation Point. My brother and I had been talking about the East Rim of Zion Canyon ever since our first visit to the park in the early 90s. The East Rim Trail, however, requires an overnight and lots and lots of heavy water. When we noticed photos on the Internet taken from Observation Point and learned about the pathway there, this particular hike became one of the reasons why we planned this year’s Utah adventure. Starting it full of burr spurs was not part of the original planning process.

At the trailhead, take the left fork for the 0.4 mile to Weeping Rock. Our hike was on the right fork, to the Hidden Canyon junction, and beyond through Echo Canyon and on to Mt. Baldy and Observation Point. Amazingly, over the decades, the Park Service has managed to semi-pave this trail as it hangs on the sandstone cliffs below the East Rim of Zion Canyon. It doesn’t make the trail wheelchair accessible, far from it, but it does provide some stability to an otherwise treacherous tread.

This hike, for me, was broken into four segments. The first is the initial climb. It’s about a thousand feet of elevation gain up a series of steep switchbacks that climb above the Big Bend section of the Virgin River. The river itself was really down on this mid-October day. The rainy season had long since passed. We were, however, treated to some unexpected Fall coloring in the foliage beside the riverbank and along the trail. The cottonwoods were sprouting their golden Autumn regalia, and the scrub oak on the trail were trying their best to match the palate.

Water in the Echo Canyon Slot

Contained within the bend of the Virgin River are several of the massive Navajo sandstone monoliths that dominate the Zion Canyon landscape. Angels Landing, The Organ, The Great White Throne all surround you as you make the initial ascent back and forth through the switchbacks. About half way up you reach a junction with the Hidden Canyon Trail. Also known for its spectacular beauty, we thought we might give this a shot if we still had any energy left on the way back down.

For now, though, we continued the climb toward Echo Canyon. The dawn was just beginning to strike the tops of the West Rim as well as our destination, Observation Point. The birth of a new day really makes the sandstone glow various shades of gold and orange. While the extreme contrast makes photography truly difficult, this is something you should definitely see with your naked eye. At least one morning during your visit to Zion be sure to arrive in the canyon at dawn for the daybreak light show.

After about an hour we reached the entryway to Echo Canyon, phase II of the hike, and a relief from the continuous climbing out of Zion Canyon. It is a stunning narrow canyon, suspended 1,100 feet above the river and the Valley Road. The trail follows along a shelf above the Echo Canyon floor. Below the trail Echo Canyon drops into an extremely narrow slot, which is a challenging technical route that can be accessed with a canyoneering permit obtainable at the Visitor Center. Be careful, however, during runoff months as the narrow walls of Echo Canyon can produce potentially dangerous torrents.

There was still water contained within the slot as we passed through, creating a picturesque scene at the base of the towering walls. I was amazed at the amount of tree and shrub growth contained in Echo Canyon. It can’t receive more than 30-40 minutes of sunlight each day. Pines, oaks and cottonwoods filled the slot offering a breath of life to the otherwise stark sandstone. We dallied about in Echo Canyon for a half hour marveling at the serene beauty and enjoying the reverberating sounds that give the canyon its name.

If you’ve ever spent any time on the east side of Zion National Park, then you know how the sandstone differs from within the canyon. It is more white than red, and it is grooved and lined from eons of upheaval. As you exit Echo Canyon, that is what the terrain on the back side looks like. Unlike the 1,800 foot, smooth red walls of the main canyon, the back side is white and rounded. So begins section three of the ascent to Observation Point.

The Ledge from Observation Point

Hopefully you got a rest while traversing Echo Canyon because the climb resumes now in earnest. Alternating between sandy and rocky, the trail tread is also still occasionally paved with a kind of unusual cement that was fabricated from the surrounding stone. It definitely helps prevent erosion. About 20 minutes after leaving Echo Canyon we popped above the rim and got our first glimpse down Zion Canyon. What a majestic sight!

Don’t get too overwhelmed with the grandeur before you though. You really need to pay attention now because the trail is going to literally be hanging on The Ledge. Somehow or other, the trail builders decades ago managed to carve out a ledge to walk on out of the sheer white sandstone wall. The Ledge is about five feet wide, just enough for hikers to pass going opposite directions. You don’t want to stumble here, and if you’re subject to vertigo or fear of heights like me, you will probably find your heart in your throat.

I found myself hugging the inside wall and panting in short breaths. It wasn’t from the fatigue of the climb. It’s safe to say I was not in my comfort zone. Somehow I pushed onward though. If I kept my eyes on the pathway just ahead I could avoid seeing the edges and the extreme height. Finally, after about a half hour of clinging to The Ledge, we reached a sandier top that was wider and farther from the precipice.

This upper ledge circles around Mt. Baldy as it climbs to the summit and offers stunning views down canyon. The climb out of Echo Canyon, around the ledge, to the top of Mt. Baldy is about a thousand feet… roughly the same as the initial climb out of Zion Canyon. Once you reach the top, and the 4th section of the hike, the trail is suddenly very sandy. Red and soft, it crosses a wide plateau. It was nice to be away from those darn edges. I felt my heart resume its proper place in my chest.

You will reach a trail junction where the East Mesa Trail comes in from the northeast. Hang a left here for the final half mile to Observation Point. You will wind through scrub on sandy trail, even descend just a bit on the walk out to Observation Point. You will notice the walls of the East and West Rims closing in on you, and then WOW! You’re at Observation Point. This may be the best view in all of Zion Canyon.

Straight ahead of you is the look down canyon that appears at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image. On your right are the cliffs of the West Rim, including the Temple of Sinewava slightly behind you. On your left is the East Rim and a clear view of The Ledge that you climbed to reach this point. If I had known what The Ledge looks like from above while I was on it, I might have turned around. Whoa Nellie! It is quite intimidating, but the workmanship of the crews that built it is truly remarkable.

We stayed on the point for a half hour enjoying lunch and engaging conversation with two different couples from Scotland. While we were there, perhaps another half dozen hikers arrived behind us. Additionally, there was a unique fellow there who we would also encounter a few days later when hiking the North Rim of Grand Canyon. I passed around a few Meanderthals hiking cards and everyone was in complete awe of the scenery that surrounded us. We learned of a back door to Observation Point on the East Mesa Trail that we may consider for any future visits to Zion.

Angels Landing and The Organ at Big Bend

Surprisingly, the descent on The Ledge didn’t bother me as much. Not sure what the psychology involved was, but I didn’t feel nearly as squirmy going down. Perhaps it was because I had now seen it from above. I even passed a few hikers on the precipice side of the trail without batting an eye. There were lots of people going up as we were coming down, so another reason to start the hike as early as possible.

The sun was now overhead, so the canyon walls were not nearly as constrasted, making for easier photos. Hopefully all the myriad of pictures below won’t overwhelm you, but I wanted to show the lighting difference between the morning ascent and the afternoon descent. Echo Canyon even had a little bit of sunlight beaming on the orange walls.

When we reached the Hidden Canyon junction, it was still early enough in the day, so we decided to at least check out “the chains.” We had heard this was another of those intimidating trails that just hangs on a cliff, and in this case, even requires chains to pull yourself to safety. We at least wanted to see if it was something that phobia wouldn’t prevent us from doing.

There’s lots more climbing right off the bat once you get on the Hidden Canyon Trail. It was about a half mile to where the chains start, and while it was definitely on a razor edge, it really didn’t look any worse than what we had done earlier on the way to Observation Point. We asked a descending hiker how far it was to reach Hidden Canyon and they said about 45 more minutes and another 500 feet up.

With nearly 2,500 feet already on our legs and lungs, we decided to call it a day and return to Hidden Canyon sometime in the future. I understand it is quite beautiful, so I look forward to an exploration. At least we found out “the chains” apparently won’t be totally unnerving. On the way back down to the valley floor we saw scores of tourists lining the Weeping Rock observation alcove. I smugly thought to myself that I had made it all the way 2,000 feet higher to Observation Point and back. If they only knew what they were missing.

Now that Angels Landing and The Organ were in sunlight, they took on a different appearance. That’s one of the pleasures of canyon hiking. Because of the extreme heights on canyon walls, the lighting offers different characteristics each time you witness the spectacles. Time of day, even time of year, will make for a unique presentation.

In summary, Observation Point isn’t for everyone. If you have an extreme fear of heights or vertigo, forget it. If you aren’t in very good hiking and aerobic condition, forego this one. It is hard, and dry, and potentially dangerous. Keep in mind that you are in high desert. The air is very dry, and you will need to carry enough water for at least six hours. Wear good hiking footwear with plenty of grip because a slip could be all she wrote.

If I haven’t talked you out of it, then by all means you have to do Observation Point at least once in your life. The views of Zion Canyon are amazing. You will feel a sense of accomplishment as you sit on the point and survey the magnificence that surrounds you. The sandstone features of Zion Canyon are immense. The height difference from the rims to the valley floor is impressive, and even foreboding. I was anxious most of the time I was on the point, yet I’m completely glad I did this… even with a bush full of spurs in my butt. You will be too.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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