Friday, March 17, 2017

Observation Point

Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and Zion Canyon from Observation Point
8 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Zion National Park entrance fee required, Zion Canyon shuttle to trailhead

Observation Point is aptly named: the promontory juts over 2000 feet above the floor of Utah's Zion Canyon, delivering a bird's eye view of the many great cliffs of this sandstone cathedral. Observation Point is one of two hikes that brings hikers to lofty viewpoints of Zion Canyon, but provides a slightly tamer experience than nearby Angels Landing and the extreme exposure thrills encountered on the rock scramble to that summit. Instead, this hike packs in more variety, visiting not only a scenic viewpoint but also a narrow, hanging slot canyon bordered by thousand-foot overhanging rock walls. Although this trail is longer, requires more elevaiton gain, and involves more stream crossings than Angels Landing, Observation Point is arguably the easier and more accessible hike of the two for visitors weighing a decision on which hike to do.

Hikers should be aware that when the wash in Echo Canyon is flowing, the trail navigates a section that requires either hiking directly through the wash or multiple stream crossings; water levels will vary depending on conditions upstream but were shin deep during my hike. It is also important to note that flash floods may occur in Echo Canyon during storms, so hikers should avoid this trail when heavy precipitation is predicted.

From March to October, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except to those with reservations for Zion Lodge. A shuttle bus runs from the park visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way including one at Weeping Rock, where the Observation Trail starts; although this may sound inconvenient the shuttle bus has frequent service and moves reasonably fast and will save you a lot of time that you'd otherwise spend looking for parking in this incredbily popular park. The road is generally open to cars during the winter and the trailhead has parking for about 10 cars, but will occasionally be closed to cars and only open to buses on some winter weekends.

I visited on a bright blue February weekend day when enough visitors came to the park that the road was closed. I parked at the visitor center and hopped on the park shuttle bus. I rode the bus for about half an hour to Weeping Rock, which was the 7th out of 9 stops on the shuttle route. After hopping off the bus, I walked the short distance to the Weeping Rock parking lot and the trailhead for the hike.

From the parking lot, the Weeping Rock Trail led off to the left along a wash while the Observation Point Trail instead headed to the right. I followed the paved Observation Point Trail as it began an immediate ascent up a set of switchbacks.

Snowmelt from the higher elevations of the park fed the waters of the wash in Echo Canyon, creating a seasonal waterfall with a drop of at least three hundred feet at the point where the hanging canyon met the main Zion Canyon. The flow of the waterfall at Weeping Rock is a useful indicator of the water level in Echo Canyon: if flow is torrential, Echo Canyon is probably impassable and Observation Point unreachable.

Observation Point and waterfall at Weeping Rock
A series of switchbacks along the paved trail brought me higher and higher up, yielding continually broadening views of Zion Canyon. The stern rock monuments of Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain stood across the canyon while the Virgin River curled in a wide bend around the Organ. Observation Point and the Great White Throne rose almost vertically from the vantage point of the trail.

Angels Landing, the Organ, and Cathedral Mountain
About three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, the trail for Hidden Canyon branched off to the right from the main Observation Point Trail and ascended via an aggressive set of switchbacks into the extremely narrow and, true to its name, hidden hanging canyon sandwiched between the Great White Throne and Cable Mountain. I stayed on the Observation Point Trail, which continued climbing via switchbacks until it made a turn into the narrow confines of Echo Canyon.

The trail here was blasted into the side of the canyon, first following the canyon walls high above the stream below, which flowed through a narrow slot canyon. As I continued through the canyon, the overhanging walls of Cable Mountain loomed larger and larger before me. A few hundred meters further on, the trail came to the level of the stream and made a sharp turn at the base of Cable Mountain. Here, the top of the cliff of Cable Mountain was vertically above the position of the trail. Shortly afterwards, the trail crossed the stream at a crossing with good stones for rock-hopping.

Cable Mountain rises over Echo Canyon
Immediately after the crossing, the trail suddenly died out in a narrow section of the canyon. Here, only two options were viable: wading through the stream itself, or making two successive crossings to reach the slightly less steep banks of the other side and then do a bit of acrobatic rock hopping to return to the trail. Neither option was particularly pleasant; I opted to stay dry and made the rather tricky stream crossings here. In dry weather during the summer, hikers likely won't need to deal with water in the wash and can walk along the bottom of the wash without getting wet; however, this part of the hike is potentially deadly during storms when flash floods may rip through the narrow extremes of the canyon.

Echo Canyon
Past the most difficult section of the hike, the trail began to ascend along the north side of Echo Canyon. Here, the the trail was once again blasted into the Navajo Sandstone making up the side of the canyon. The extremely steep and sheer walls of Zion Canyon are likely the reason why so few trails connect the top and bottom of the canyons: all trails and roads connecting the two have required some element of blasting into the canyon walls, something not even required at Yosemite, where there at least occasional gaps in the otherwise vertical cliffs around the Valley. Below the trail, the stream running through Echo Canyon continued to downcut through a slot canyon many times taller than it was wide.

Trail through Echo Canyon
Exiting the narrowest section of the canyon, the trail began climbing higher and higher above the stream, at one point crossing a bridge over a side canyon as it made its way into the higher reaches of Echo Canyon.

Upper Echo Canyon
The vegetation halfway up the canyon was different from that at the bottom of the canyon: manzanita was common at this mid-level elevation. This manzanita-dominated shrubbery was also quite different from the sagebrush that covered the landscape atop the mesas.

Manzanita along the trail
At the two-mile mark, the trail reached a branch point between the Observation Point Trail and the East Rim Trail, with the less-travelled East Rim Trail heading off to the right into the reaches of upper Echo Canyon. I stayed on the Observation Point Trail, which started a long switchback climb up the upper portion of the White Cliffs. This stretch of trail featured nice views to the east of the more open terrain of the upper part of Echo Canyon.

Echo Canyon
After an extended switchback ascent blasted into an east-facing slope, the trail straightened out and began heading west. Making a turn around a ridge, the trail swung back into the main canyon with a tremendous and jaw-dropping view of Cable Mountain, the Great White Throne, and the Virgin River flowing along the floor of Zion Canyon.

View of Zion Canyon during final climb
From here on, there were nearly continuous views of Zion Canyon. The trail leveled out after reaching the top of the layer of Navajo Sandstone that defined the canyon walls, with one section of trail hugging the canyon rim as I hiked through a narrow bench between the Navajo Sandstone and Temple Cap formations. After passing a hillock defined by a Temple Cap layer, the trail came out onto a flat mesa top. The trail flattened out about a mile prior to reaching Observation Point.

Atop the mesa near Observation Point
Once atop the mesa, the trail stayed slightly north of the rim of Echo Canyon as it made its way towards the promontory of Observation Point. At the junction with the East Mesa Trail, I took the left fork to stay on the trail to Observation Point. Finally, four miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the spectacular rock ledges of the hike's destination.

This spot on the canyon rim offered a nearly perfect vantage point south down the main trunk of Zion Canyon. The park road and the Virgin River both snaked along the wide bottom of the canyon, while the impressive rocks of the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, the Watchman, and the Sentinel that towered above the canyon floor were at eye-level. The full length of the remarkable narrow fin of Angels Landing was discernable from this perspective.

Great White Throne and Zion Canyon from Observation Point
A few rocks on the western edge of Observation Point offered somewhat limited views to the north as well of the narrowing canyon, while those on the eastern side of the viewpoint overlooked Echo Canyon. The many switchbacks along the early part of the trail were visible far below.

View north towards Temple of Sinawava
Although it's not Angels Landing or the Narrows, Observation Point is still one of the more popular hikes in Zion: I saw about a hundred or so hikers on the trail over the course of the day. The good views from the top and the intimate passage through Echo Canyon make this a worthwhile hike in a visit to the park.

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