High in Colorado

High in Colorado
Photo: Mandy Lea Photo

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trans Zion

The 48-mile Trans Zion route has been on my radar for the last few years. I was tempted to give it a go last fall, but decided to save it for later after having several friends highly recommend the spring months over the fall months due to an abundance of water along the trail. Upon moving to Telluride in early February I had two advantages for planning a trip to Zion: proximity (only ~7 hours away) and a potential running partner with a flexible schedule. So, it seemed that the stars aligned for a spring 2014 attempt at Trans Zion.

I bounced the idea off Ben and after some quick aligning of schedules we decided on March 4th as our running day. I’ve never actually done a run like this with a partner. To date, all of my non-race big days out (my 40+ mile day running the Chicago Basin 14ers from the Purgatory trailhead, as well as every 42 mile day in the Grand Canyon) have all been solo, self-supported affairs. Honestly, the thought of going out and covering close to fifty miles with a partner had me a bit unsettled. Sometimes it’s hard enough for one person to cover fifty miles without blowing up…

We talked about getting together prior to departure to talk logistics. This never happened. So, when Sunday, March 2nd rolled around and we had no plan I was prepared to throw in the towel and call off the trip. Contrary to what some people may think, I never go into runs like this without adequate preparation. Ben still wanted to go, though. So, I went figuring we could discuss logistics of the route with a park ranger upon arrival and all would be well. In a last minute effort at having some sort of safety net I emailed BTR for a .gpx file of the route and chatted with Chris Gerber and Travis Macy a little. It’s a funny feeling when all of the doubt in your mind comes from total lack of preparation rather than whether or not you can cover fifty miles.

Our planned departure from Telluride was 7am on Monday, March 3rd. After reorganizing the Defender, a BiT breakfast run, turning around to pick up the National Parks pass, and filling up with gas we finally left closer to 8am. Shortly into the drive we stopped at the Osprey office in Cortez for about an hour to pick up a few packs for the run. After this stop we finally started making some progress towards Zion National Park. Our last stop of any significance was in Kanab (about 30 miles from the park) to snag some food/snacks for the run. 
Driving out to Zion
We got to the entrance around 4:30pm, but still had another ~12 miles to the visitor’s center. I was driving at this point and knew we needed to get to the visitor’s center by 5pm to get our logistical concerns addressed with a park ranger. After several stops for photos we arrived at 5:15pm. Fortunately, we spotted a ranger leaving. After expressing our desired route and estimated time of completion to her we could tell she was noticeably concerned. Maybe this was her first exposure to “crazy” runners? I think her concern for our planned itinerary is what kept her around to answer our questions versus blowing us off and leaving us to figure it out on our own. About fifteen minutes later we had enough information to put my mind at ease regarding our total lack of preparation. 

Stopping for photos on our way to the visitor's center
From the visitor’s center, we drove a few minutes to set up camp in one of the park’s campgrounds. I had my tent up in a few minutes and my running shoes on immediately after that. Seven hours in a super uncomfortable vehicle had my legs begging for a quick shakeout run. At the beginning I could barely hit 11 minutes/mile, but I started approaching 7-minute pace towards the end.  The easy two miles seemed to do just what I hoped.

I spent about an hour getting all of my food and gear ready for the morning. I wore an Osprey Rev 6 (6 liter running/fastpacking pack) for the run, which was way overkill considering we had crew access at miles 12 and 35. The Rev 6 is definitely one of the most comfortable packs I’ve ever used while running (maybe the most comfortable) and would have been perfect for a solo, self-supported effort a little longer than Zion or with more variable weather conditions that require additional clothing. However, with the two crew stops I could have got by in my typical minimalist fashion with two handhelds (maybe even one?), a few gels in my pockets, and my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Anorak wind shell shoved in my shorts. Regardless, I guess it’s good practice to get out on longer efforts and use a pack even when it isn’t necessary.

An entire day of eating junk/fast food had me feeling pretty full, but I decided to down a little bit of pasta before heading off to bed. I slept surprisingly well in the MSR Hubba considering I hadn’t slept in a tent since September and I usually don’t sleep well the night before big runs. By 5:30am I was out of bed and had all of my stuff packed away. My hope was to be at the trailhead and starting by 6:30am at the absolute latest, but we didn’t get started until 6:40. Eh, close enough…

Things were pretty cool at the start; similar to starting a run at the Grand Canyon around daybreak in late October/early November. However, the route through Zion doesn’t begin with a 5,000’ descent into an increasing temperature gradient. So, rather than start shirtless like I would in the Canyon I took off with a t-shirt, arm warmers, Ghost Whisperer wind shell, and gloves. After 5-7 miles I had stripped down to just the t-shirt.

I let Ben lead the way since he had expressed some concerns regarding his lack of running volume heading into the day. I didn’t really care how fast we ran since I planned to take photos and enjoy the scenery on my first trip through Zion. We took off at a casual pace from the East Rim trailhead and continued this approach for the rest of the day. Portions of the first ascent from the East Rim are a little sandy, which helped keep the effort in check.
Letting Ben lead the way through some sort-of sandy terrain
Eventually, we topped out and were treated to a nice, moderately technical descent to The Grotto with a few short sections of typical slickrock trail. After running on snow/ice-covered trails and roads all winter it was a real treat to descend some dry, rocky trails that demanded a little thought to my footwork. This is probably the aspect of running I miss most during the winter months. 

Part of the fun descent into The Grotto

More of the descent
The views along the ~12 mile stretch of trail from the East Rim trailhead to our crew stop at The Grotto parking area were pretty jaw-dropping. If you’re at the point with running where a 24’ish mile day is doable, but a 48 mile day is just a bit too much, then I would suggest running an out-and-back on this stretch. Stunning to say the least. 
Some of the sweet views along the first twelve miles

More views...

Running along a nice slot canyon (Photo: Ben C)

More slot canyon action
Reaching our crew spot at The Grotto was a great sign of our progress. We reached Sarah in the Defender around 2:30 hours into our day, slow and steady. To this point everything felt effortless. The only negative was that we spent WAY too long here—nearly 20 minutes to refill water, get some calories, and use the bathroom. Ideally, this would have been closer to five minutes. 

Running about a mile on paved road to The Grotto
When we finally got back to running we were greeted with the biggest climb of the day—a long, gradual 3,000’ climb. After running for a little bit we fell into a pretty good power hike for the remainder of the ascent. Even after topping out the moving wasn’t terribly quick. This section of the route had a few sections of snowy/icy trails (not much, though) and was considerably muddy for long stretches. Neither of these really affected me much. I was able to avoid the mud for the most part by running off trail. Ben seemed to be increasingly frustrated with the continuous mud, but maybe that was just my perception. 

The 3,000' ascent out of The Grotto

One of the few stretches with snow/ice
This segment from The Grotto to the Hop Valley trailhead had us in the woods most of the time. After talking to Chris Gerber and Basit Mustafa it seems there’s another trail we could have used that would have taken us along the rim of the canyon rather than into the muddy forest. Guess I’ll have to check that one out next time. 

Running along near the Potato Hollow area...I think? (Photo: Ben C)

The last mile or two leading into the Hop Valley trailhead

Getting closer to the Hop Valley trailhead (Photo: Ben C)

Heading into the Hop Valley trailhead we had discussed minimizing our time for the 35-mile crew stop. We still had 13 miles to cover and I certainly wanted to finish in daylight. However, we spent 21 minutes at this stop. My frustration was starting to build-up a little with these unnecessarily long stops just to refill water and down a few calories. During that time we could have covered about a mile and a half, give or take. Before getting back on the trail Ben and Sarah both mentioned the rain clouds off in the distance where we would be running. As soon as they expressed their concern I had a feeling the day would be over…

We decided to take off down the Hop Valley trail about two miles to get a better look at the clouds. I was rather surprised at the doomsday scenario he presented over a few rain clouds. I told him that if I were running this solo the thought of quitting wouldn’t even cross my mind. I could tell that he wasn’t going to continue, but it seemed like he was waiting for me to agree that the potential weather was too much for us to push on. That was something I just couldn’t bring myself to agree on. Sometimes people see things differently. 

Eventually, he explicitly stated that he wasn’t comfortable with the weather outlook and wanted to call it a day. A few minutes passed before he said that I could finish solo and that he and Sarah would drive to Lee Pass to pick me up. Rather than complicate things I decided to call it a day, too. Since we were calling it quits because we didn’t want to get wet I decided to turn around and book it back to the car before the rain rolled in. I was pleased to discover that my legs still had plenty of pep in them after taking the entire day super mellow. 

A photo op scramble after calling it quits (Photo: Ben C)
It’s been a week since running in Zion and I’m still frustrated when I think of how that day ended. I’m not frustrated THAT we quit. I’m frustrated with WHY we quit. Maybe I was right? Maybe Ben was right? There’s no way to tell… His decisions are based on his past experiences as are mine. All I know is that I’ve bailed on 14er summits and other routes before due to potential dangers from weather. My biggest fear in the mountains is weather, specifically lightning. So, I’m usually overly cautious when it comes to decisions involving weather. That being said, I think our decision to quit in Zion was unwarranted. That’s just my opinion, though. Rain has never deterred me from running. One of my favorite runs ever was a nearly eight-hour effort in the mountains around El Chalten, Argentina with frigid temperatures and pouring rain the entire time. I did that run with even less clothing than I had on for Zion…

I’m currently planning another double-crossing of the Grand Canyon for April 5th (hoping to break 9 hours!). There’s the possibility that I’ll sneak up to Zion for another go at the traverse through the park after running in the Canyon. At the very least I hope to head up and cover that last 13-mile stretch to see what I missed. I have a feeling that Zion will still be around for quite some time. So, it’s not that big of a deal that I get back and finish the route this year. I’ll get to it eventually…

Next time I'm in Zion I'll finish the route and eat a "Ho Made" pie after...


  1. Now that you've done both R2R2R and (and at least most of) this, which would you recommend as more fun?

    Don't worry about not finishing the loop 100%, it just means you'll get to be in that beautiful place again for your revenge.

    1. Cordis,
      That's kind of a tough question. They're both beautiful and unique, for sure. I'm likely going to start rambling now as I try to answer your question...My little conclusion is at the very bottom if you want to skip the rambling…

      Both places are amazing for awe-inspiring visuals, but I'd say Zion edges out the GC by just a little. The first 12 miles or so of the east-to-west Zion route are just ridiculous. You'll find yourself picking your jaw up off the ground almost constantly.
      In terms of constant exposure to great views I would have to rate the GC higher. The RRR is great because it allows you to truly experience how "grand" the GC is. You’re always in the Canyon; never meandering through the forests on the rim like I did in the middle section in Zion.
      The GC also provides some daunting views along the way. After descending almost 2k feet on South Kaibab you’ll get your first glimpse of the river and it’s still 3k feet below! While near the bottom of the GC you can look up at the North Rim and your body will tremble at the thought of the ascent and subsequent descent. Then, after covering about 35 miles you still have to crawl your way out up the South Kaibab while constantly looking up for signs that you’re getting close to topping out. I just didn’t experience any of this in Zion.
      After the 3k feet ascent out of The Grotto (miles 12 to 17'ish, I think) we were in the muddy forests for a LONG time, but my friends tell me there's a trail that stays along the rim of the canyon and is more scenic (I can see the trail on my Ambit track, but it's not on the Zion NP map). I think if we had stayed along the rim in Zion then I would rate it even to the GC for constant exposure to awesomeness.

      Although Zion is a little longer than the GC I would rate it significantly easier than the GC. The elevation profile is more spread out at Zion. You’re not faced with two HUGE climbs/descents that thoroughly trash even the most prepared of quads. Every source I’ve read claims Zion to have about 10k+ of ascent, but at 37 miles into the day my Ambit only read 6.5k. A quick glance at the profile seemed like we could have no more than 1-2k feet left. Who knows? Maybe there were a lot of rollers in the last 11 miles?
      Zion presents two options that just aren’t available in the GC—bailout options! If you’re rolling along and things just don’t feel right then you can bail at 12 or 35 miles in. You just have one 23 mile stretch to get through, basically. In the GC bailing isn’t an option. Sure you could bail at the North Rim, but you’re 3-4 hours away from your car and the likelihood of finding a ride (unless you pre-arranged one the of the park shuttles) is not good.
      I know that after running RRR last Oct/Nov (can’t remember the date) my legs were thrashed for 2-3 days after. I had just come off of some lower back problems a couple days prior so maybe that contributed to me being trashed. After Zion, I would have ran an easy 10-15 miles the next day if I didn’t spend all day driving and then went straight to work. Zion seemed to have no impact on my body. I was still able to sneak in a decent amount of volume that week even with two days almost completely off due to travel.

    2. (cont.)

      Do you prefer the simplicity of an out-and-back or would you rather run a point-to-point? The GC is certainly simpler in that you can end right where you start (and even if you choose to descend South Kaibab and ascend Bright Angel there are free shuttles between the two trailheads). Zion would require someone to crew you, having a running partner and dropping a vehicle off at the finish the night before, a key swap with someone heading the opposite direction, hitchhiking back to the start, or paying one of the tour companies in the area to drive you back to your car. You finish about 50 miles from where you start.
      The Grand Canyon lends itself to a minimal solo, self-supported effort quite nice (unless you’re an idiot and go during the summer months like I did my first time). The last two times I’ve done it completely and a third time where I bailed at Cottonwood due to a fire on the North Rim I’ve taken two handhelds and five’ish gels and wore shorts with no shirt. That approach isn’t for everyone, though. All of the water available in the GC is pretty much right on the side of the trail, which makes water stops quick and painless.
      In Zion, it seemed that all of the water sources were located several 100’s of yards off the main trail at minimum. However, you have the potential for a crew to meet you at miles 12 and 35 (when going east-to-west), which negates the need to use these sources, in my opinion. I carried almost 2L of water in my pack: at the first crew point I still had 1L left and at the second crew point I still had 1.5L+ left. Keep in mind that I’m a bit of a camel and have gone 7+ hours up at 12-14k feet without carrying any water at all.

      In short, I’d recommend both runs equally. If you have any doubt about your ability or would just like to “ease” into one of these big days then I’d recommend doing Zion first. Run Zion and also go run up/down some route with 5k feet of ascent/descent (do it twice). Then imagine combining the two and you’ll have a taste of RRR…That actually makes RRR sound way worse than it really is, though.

  2. Despite having to bail, seems like a great time leading up to that and I can certainly think of worse places to have to go back to. I am not familiar with the specifics of the Trans Zion route, but I do know there are places in that park where you might not want to be if it rains. Just look at it as a recon mission and be thankful for the flexibility you have to return just about whenever you want. See you April 5th.

    1. Yeah, it was a great time leading up to the bailout. Much like going back to the Grand Canyon for "unfinished business" I won't mind heading back to Zion. I chatted with Basit about it and he didn't say anything about areas on the last stretch of Zion that would be bad in rain. That seems like the kind of thing he would mention. It was a good recon. I was pretty stoked that it had almost no impact on my legs/body in terms of soreness and fatigue. I was still able to crank out some good miles that week.

      Yep, see you April 5th. We'll have to get plans arranged beforehand since I have zero cell service near the GC.