Zion National Park -- Watchman Trail (4-19-17)
Zion National Park needs no introduction. Encompassing 229-square miles of arguably the most beautiful landscape in the Lower 48, Zion is a masterpiece of nature. Rushing rivers, narrow slot canyons, waterfalls, mountains, and sheer 4,000-foot-high cliffs are all trademark attractions here. Its a place a nature lover like yours truly could lose his-self for weeks or more. Unfortunately, on this trip, I had two days. It was critical then that I pack as much as I could into the time the boys and I had to visit. The first day was an orientation day and a drive through. On this day we had already hiked the Canyon Overlook Trail, the Riverside Trail up to the Zion Narrows, and the Emerald Pools Loop to a couple beautiful cascades. It had been a full day...but I needed more. Thankfully my sons were kind enough to hold off on dinner for a couple more hours and let their Zion-obsessed dad go out on one more hike. I say thankfully because, though it was unknown to me at the time, it would be my last hike in Zion for the trip.
The plan was to make the quick stroll up and around the relatively ignored Watchman Trail which conveniently begins from the entrance to the Watchman Campground where we were camping. I've heard the hike described as being rather un-spectacular by Zion standards, but that's just it...by Zion standards. For a first time visitor like me this trail served up all the natural eye-candy I could hope for. The trail isn't difficult (again, by Zion standards) and the views from the overlook at the top are of a scale and magnificence that only Zion can provide. Starting from the Watchman Campground entrance, directly across from the visitor center parking lot, the trail begins pleasantly enough as it follows along the eastern banks of the North Fork Virgin River. The massive stone pinnacles of Bridge Mountain (6,803') and The Watchman (6,545') tower above, as they will for the entire hike. A quarter mile or so from the trailhead the path turns away from the river and crosses a private residential road before beginning the ascent of the rocky gulch which will take you to the ridge. The trail winds through a desert landscape of twisted juniper, cactus, and a variety of other low desert shrubs and flowering plants as it climbs. It doesn't take long for the views back to the west to open up either. After a moderate ascent of less than a mile the trail tops out along the ridge where the overlook is located. Just before reaching the overlook it splits into a loop. It doesn't matter which direction you go with regards to difficulty, once you're atop the ridge there's very little elevation change to deal with. The views from the overlooks along the edge of the ridge though...WOW...they'll quite literally take your breath away. From the south, where the Virgin River valley enters Zion, the view wraps to the north taking in much of Zion Canyon's western wall and up into the central part of the canyon itself. All this while Bridge Mountain and The Watchman remain towering above your back. Other than the Grand Canyon, I've stood in few places where nature has so forcefully displayed its grandeur on a scale like this. So, in short, disregard the guides which downplay this hike. It's beautiful, relatively easy, and a nice break from the crushing crowds of the inner canyon. In my humble opinion, this one shouldn't be missed.
As I stated earlier this wasn't intended to be my grand finale hike in Zion. Plans were to hike the famous Angel's Landing Trail the following day, another of my life-list hikes like the one I had done a couple days earlier at the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, we woke the following morning to howling winds and I had to reluctantly accede that heading out on Angel's exposed ridges on a day like this wouldn't be a safe choice. Thus it was that The Watchman Trail ended up being the culmination of my time at Zion. I'm disappointed I didn't get to Angel's Landing, sure, but after this hike and all that I had seen prior on this day I still left quite satisfied.
So, without further adieu I present to you one of Zion's less-famous (but no less-beautiful) hikes...The Watchman Trail. As always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 37.201337, -112.986507
Mileage Hiked: 3.2 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 3,900' Max. Elevation: 4,450'
Total Vertical Gain: 600' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 188'