Monday, April 17, 2017

Kolob Arch

Kolob Arch
14 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, many stream crossings necessary when Timber Creek is flowing
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Zion National Park entrance fee required

As of 2017, Kolob Arch is the sixth longest natural arch in the world and the second longest on the continent, second only in North America to Landscape Arch on the other side of Utah. This massive sandstone arch is hidden deep in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park and is only accessible by a long day hike or an overnight backpack. This is the longest day hike in this more secluded corner of Zion National Park. The arch is impressive and the red rock scenery of the Kolob Canyons along the way is beautiful. However, the state of Utah has more picturesque arches that are more easily accessible, the Zion Canyon section of Zion National Park has scenery that is more uniquely stunning, and the length of this hike requires a full-day time investment. While Kolob Arch was a rewarding hike for me and will likely be rewarding for other hikers who choose to visit it, I wouldn't place it at the top of the list of must-do hikes in Utah for visitors arriving from outside the state.

I hiked to Kolob Arch on a trip to Zion National Park, arriving at the Kolobs Canyon section of the park after leaving Las Vegas with a rental car that morning. Kolobs Canyon is removed from the main Zion Canyon area of the park; it's accessible directly off I-15 north of St. George, Utah. I reached the Kolobs Canyon area by taking I-15 north from Las Vegas past St. George to exit 40 in Utah, then turning right (heading east) once I came off the freeway ramp to head towards Kolob Canyons. I checked in show my park pass at the visitor center before driving three and a half miles up the Kolob Canyons Road to the Lee Pass Trailhead. Parking was on the east side of the road, just south of the pass itself; the trailhead was about 50 meters north along the road from the parking lot.

The trail began by following a low ridge leading out from Lee Pass. The trail undulated through both elevation gain and loss, although the net change through this section was a descent as the ridge dropped gradually towards the valley of Timber Creek. Stunning views of the Kolob finger canyons were frequent on the left (east) side of the trail: I had glimpses into the recesses of some of these cuts into the Navajo Sandstone. The finger canyons are so named as these short canyons resemble finger-like projections into the massif of sandstone.

Kolob Canyons
Ahead of the trail were good views of Timber Top Mountain, a large cliff over 8000 feet in elevation. The trail itself was muddy in many spots, as snow from a storm earlier the week had just melted, turning the red dirt into a sticky mess.

Timber Top Mountain
A little over a mile into the hike, the trail reached the bottom of the canyon as the ridge it had been following ended. At the base of the canyon, views of the finger canyons were much more limited, although large cliffs directly bordering on the Timber Creek were still visible from the trail. The trail crossed a stream and then climbed up to a small riparian meadow lined with cottonwoods and bushes.

Meadows along Timber Creek
Through the next mile, the trail stayed at the bottom of the canyon, crossing Timber Creek a total of 25 times. During the summer, the wash of Timber Creek is likely dry and the large number of crossings is likely not a big deal; however, during snowmelt and storms, higher flow in Timber Creek can make the sheer number of crossings a huge hassle, even if individual crossings are not difficult. When factoring the stream crossings necessary along the spur trail to Kolob Arch at the end of the hike, there are close to 60 total stream crossings in the 14-mile round trip journey when streams are flowing.

Timber Creek
Shuntavi Butte, a satellite peak of Timber Top Mountain, was one of the more impressive rock walls along the trail, rising almost directly from the wash of Timber Creek.

Navajo Sandstone of the Kolob Canyons
After the final creek crossing, the trail stayed to the east of Timber Creek and then began a steady climb up to the top of a low ridge. At the top of the ridge, I caught a nice view of some of the cliffs of the Kolob Canyons to the south.

Kolob Canyons
After crossing the low ridge about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail turned east and began a gentle descent towards the La Verkin Creek canyon. Although the trail was mostly in the trees here, occasionally tree cover would break for long enough to yield views of the burnt red rock rising on either side of the canyon ahead.

La Verkin Creek Canyon
At about 4.5 miles, the trail descended to meet La Verkin Creek. For the next two miles, the trail roughly followed this stream upcanyon through many riparian meadows past great red sandstone walls. The trail here was often sandy, likely due to occasional flooding of La Verkin Creek.

La Verkin Creek
The rock walls that enclosed the La Verkin Creek canyon on both sides were cut into Navajo Sandstone, the defining rock of the White Cliffs of the Grand Staircase of Zion National Park. This sandstone formed from deposition of ancient sand dunes. The landscape that is today Zion was once a massive dunefield where accumulating sand and iron-bearing hematite formed a thick, red layer of sandstone. The origin of this rock in dunefields is responsible for the extensive crossbedding found throughout the formation.

Spires of Navajo Sandstone in La Verkin Creek canyon
At times, the trail followed the creek very closely- at one point, I hiked along a set of ledges next to La Verkin Creek in order to circle around a rockfall pile of collapsed sandstone on the north side of the canyon. The trail passed multiple campsites here and was generally easy and pleasant hiking except for stretches that were excessively sandy.

La Verkin Creek
6.5 miles into the hike, I arrived at the junction with the spur trail for Kolob Arch. I took the spur, which headed off to the left into a narrow canyon. Here, the trail shrunk down to a barely visible path: I had to scramble over rocks at multiple points. After a difficult half mile of pushing up the canyon, I came to a sign for Kolob Arch indicating that I was at the end of the maintained trail. Unfortunately, the arch was just barely visible from here through the tree cover. I followed a use path a little further, scrambling up a steep slope and following it to a ledge on a canyon wall that provided a more clear view up to the arch.

Kolob Arch
Kolob Arch looks fairly small from the viewpoint: after all, I stood at the bottom of the canyon while the arch span was composed of sandstone at the top of the canyon. It's also not the most impressive looking arch, as the span is just barely separated from the sandstone wall behind it. However, this arch is enough to be the sixth longest in the world and at one point in time a contender for first, competing with Landscape Arch for that honor before the discoveries of multiple longer spans in southern China. To the left of the arch, an arch-shaped alcove suggested an earlier evolutionary stage of arch formation.

By the time I started to head back, it was late in the day; dusk had set by the time I returned to the creek crossings on Timber Creek. The final stretch of the hike is uphill, so it's important to leave enough energy for a steady but long ascent at the end of a 14-mile hike. I finished the last two miles of the hike in darkness; by the time I returned to the car, the night sky had been splattered with many thousands of stars. While on the way back, I remembered that I had seen a mountain lion warning sign at the visitor center just that morning and cursed myself for not getting out earlier and for going on such long hikes alone; ultimately, I made it back without any misfortune. I drove off to nearby Cedar City for chile rellenos and a good night's sleep.

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