Hiking/Photography Guide to the West Rim of Zion Canyon


One of our favorite hiking trails in Zion National Park is the West Rim trail along Zion Canyon. We like this hike because it is a great distance (different sources claim anywhere from 14-19 miles, but it was closer to 19 miles for us based on my Apple Watch) to do a two day trip with heavy hiking days on both days, because the camp sites are really nice, there is a spring at a convenient location, and the scenery is awesome. In addition to all those reasons, the best part is the lack of crowds for 80% of the trail, which is getting harder and harder to find in Zion National Park.

All the images below are in chronological order from a single hiking trip so you can get a good idea for what to expect as you go along the trail. We did this particular trip in early October when fall colors were at their prime about halfway down the trail (still green at the top and past prime on the valley floor).

Start at the Parking Area at Lava Point

One difficult part of this hike is that it is not a loop, which means you need to arrange to get back to your car after the trial either by leaving a spare car near the main entrance to Zion (going to be a pain or cost money) or arrange for a non-hiker to pick you up at the bottom.

To reach the trail head, you don’t want to head into the main area of the park, which is nice for avoiding the traffic getting into the park that is common now. Instead, you want to turn off the highway in Virgin and head north on Kolob Terrace Road. You will stay on that road for quite a while until you turn right on Lava Point Road in Bear Valley.

Turn left instead of going into the campground and the road will take you right down to the trailhead. The parking lot is rather small, but it shouldn’t fill up since traffic is limited by the number of campsites, which are reservation only.

The Upper Plateau

The beginning part of the hike is along the Upper Plateau. There is a fork early on. Make sure to stay left to stay on the West Rim Trail and not the Wildcat Canyon Trail. Below is what you should be seeing on this first part of the trail.

Don’t get discouraged, the Upper Plateau area is definitely the most boring part of the trail. I like that it is at the beginning because the payoff wouldn’t be worth it if I was already dead tired.

The Upper Plateau is lightly wooded with big trees and some decent views that are interesting, but not spectacular.

I spent a lot of this part of the trail looking at the bushes and trees as a way to pass the time.

The Upper Plateau is also where you are most likely to see wildlife. We spotted a few of these chipmunk guys that sounded like squawking birds. We also heard what was probably a deer rummaging in some thickets, but didn’t get a visual.

For most of the Upper Plateau, these are the type of views you will see, which are definitely pretty, but nowhere near what is to come.

As we descended down the Upper Plateau, the colors started to change pretty rapidly.

The First Big Viewpoint of the Canyon

The first really cool view you find is just off the main trail as you get toward the end of the Upper Plateau. I’ve seen this viewpoint referred to as the “SGA Teaser Viewpoint.” the “Teaser Viewpoint,” and the “South Guardian Angel Viewpoint.”

The view looks down North Creek with the peak to the left of the canyon being South Guardian Angel. The Canyon to the right of the peak leads to the famous Subway.

We hit this viewpoint right at midday so my light was horrendous for photography, but the view is enough to get you excited for what is to come.

Potato Hollow

The next couple miles of the trail descend off The Upper Plateau and through Potato Hollow. This is where you will find Campsite #8 as well.

There isn’t a whole lot to see here in Potato Hollow, but it is a nice change of scenery as you drop down into more fields and different plants and trees.

There are a decent number of ghost trees as you walk through this stretch that can be fun to photograph.

Again, I was hiking through this area hours before good light so the images aren’t fantastic, but that is part of doing longer hikes, you can only have good light for small portions of the hike.

As we dropped further down into the hollow, the colors really started to pop, but it was all yellow and orange. I would have loved to have some red mixed in.

I thought for sure we would see some bigger wildlife in this beautiful grass area, but we had no such luck.

Toward the end of Potato Hollow, you reach some more trees and we got some more red leaves.

We also found some more chipmunk guys squealing in the trees.

Close to the end of Potato Hollow, you reach the trail that takes you down to Campsite 7. It looked like this campsite was a ways off the main trail so we didn’t scout it out.

First Brutal Ascent

After hiking downhill most of the day, the trail turns to the west and leads to the first big hill you have to cross. The hill is deceptively small as it goes up for quite a while beyond what you can see from the base.

Before you get into the climb, you can enjoy the beauty of some small groupings of trees.

From there, it is a fairly steep climb up in pretty dense trees. We heard lots of birds singing and were treated to some nice views looking back to Potato Hollow.

Hammerhead Viewpoint

Once you finish this first steep ascent and then drop down a little, you get rewarded with Hammerhead Viewpoint, which is your first up close view of the canyon.

This is the point where the hike gets worth the effort. The canyon views are incredible and you feel quite small standing along the edge of the huge cliffs looking down into what looks like several canyons forking off in different directions.

You could easily spend an hour here making images, but we were still a couple hours from good light and wanted to make it to our campsite before dark, so I made a few images and we continued on the trail.

Second Big Ascent

When you reach Hammerhead Viewpoint, you feel like you should be done ascending, but looks are deceiving and you have one more big ascent for the day to reach Horse Pasture Plateau. The hike up really isn’t that long, but after a day full of hiking and having just finished the big climb, it is a tough climb up.

Campsite #6

Almost near the top of this second ascent, you reach Campsite #6. This is where our reservation was for the day and it was a pretty awesome campsite. You need to be aware that the different sites have different size restrictions. I think this campsite is one of only 2 or 3 that could accommodate a group our size (6 people).

This campsite is 50 feet or so from the cliff edge, which provides fantastic views.

The expanse of the canyon is quite impressive and we got camp set up just in time to enjoy the beautiful evening light coming into the canyon.

We found a perfect little rock ledge to set up and enjoy the sunset.

fall colors, amazing canyons and setting sun? Yes, Please!

As you can see, I spent the whole evening at this spot capturing the amazing scene.

This location had a a good view of a cool red cliff that was a good contrast from the white canyon cliffs everywhere else.

As the sun set further, the warm light made the fall colors pop like crazy. Such a beautiful scene.

After the sun set, we stuck around and watched the stars come out. It got pretty cold, but the stars were impressive. We could even see the milky way with the naked eye. Too bad there was a pretty strong glow coming from St. George still.

Back at the campsite, I found myself staring up at the stars from my tent and had to set the camera outside to capture the view.

Sunrise at camp was pretty spectacular as well. The campsite has the coolest, gnarliest log in camp and the rising sun created the coolest glow underneath it.

Descent along the Canyon Edge and Horse Pasture Plateau

When you reach the top of the second ascent, you can continue along the West Rim or take the Telephone Canyon Trail. The Telephone Canyon Trail is a path through a light forest and not as exciting as the rim trail. I would recommend any first timers stick to the rim trail to enjoy the beautiful views.

As you walk along the plateau, you get a great view of how all the different canyons intersect.

All the plateaus that rise from the canyon provide almost innumerable photo compositions, though it is tough to find really interesting foregrounds along the trail.

As you start to descend a bit, the canyon opens up and is impressive in the vastness with mesas coming out from the canyon floor.

After a decent hike along the plateau, the trail starts to more deeply descend and then turns east away from the canyon for a little bit.

After a couple switchbacks, you drop down to where campsite #1 is located.

Cabin Spring Area

Just beyond the campsite, is the only place along the trail to refill your water. Cabin Spring is marked, but it is a short walk to the left of the trail right before it turns right to go down the canyon. The spring is pretty small and muddy so make sure you have a good water filter to fill up your bottles. Here is an Amazon link to the filters we used in the below photo. They worked very well and were easy to carry.

From the spring, you can walk right up to the edge of the canyon wall and get a great view of the impressive scene.

There are some pretty unique features in this canyon. In the image below, the red coloring on the cliff edge is pretty unique.

Just off the main trail, we spotted this deer watching us.

Fall colors were just starting to hit in the canyon and the patches of red were pretty cool.

Unsurprisingly, the area around Cabin Spring was full of trees and they were in peak fall colors.

The red maple leaves were catching the sun perfectly.

There is also a small strand of aspen trees, which had beautiful yellow leaves.

After we finished filling our water bottles, we made it back to the trail and found the deer from earlier had camped out right next to the trail.

I took the shot below to show how close the deer was hanging out to the edge of the cliff.

Steep Descent into the Canyon

After Cabin Spring, the trail starts a very steep decent to the valley floor.

As you drop lower, you get a different view of the different features of the canyon, like the trees below.

Near the bottom of canyon, the trail levels out a bit and this cool little spot is just off to the left.

This view is near the end of the switchbacks before you reach the bottom of the trail.

Base of the Canyon

At the base of the canyon, you get in among the trees and the canyon takes on a whole new feel. As you can tell, I was really intrigued by the red stain on the cliff.

There are a couple washes that provide some additional interest while you hike through the base of the canyon.

I had to shoot this crazy burned tree that was along the trail.

This shot below shows Cabin Spring. The spring is located in the thick of the yellow trees and you can see the trail of water that has stained the rock leading down.

You can see Cabin Spring on the left of this image showing the wider canyon that opens up as you continue on the trail.

Final Brutal Ascent

You follow the trail in a U shape and then come to the realization that you have to hike back out of the canyon. This is where the hike really gets brutal. There is no shade hear and it is switch backs all the way up out of the canyon.

Last Summit

The view at the top is well worth it though. This is where you finally get a glimpse of the main Zion Canyon with the road at the bottom.

You also get a good view of Angel’s Landing from the summit. Unfortunately, we arrived here midday and the lighting was horrible for photography.

Angel’s Landing

If you want to add a little something to your hike, the West Rim trail connects to the Angel’s Landing trail and you could easily make the short hike along the ridge.

Final Descent into the Main Canyon

After Angel’s Landing, it is time for the final descent and it is a doozy on tired legs, but you get treated to this amazing view.

The first part of the descent is Walter’s Wiggles, which are some steep switchbacks. The trail then opens up to some longer switchbacks until you reach the canyon floor and catch the shuttle back to the entrance to Zion National Park.

Conclusion

The West Rim trail in Zion National Park is a great overnight hike. It doesn’t match the drama you get hiking the Narrows or Subway, but you get some spectacular views, you avoid the crowds of Zion, and you get to end it at Angel’s Landing. If you have ever hiked this great trail, share your experiences over in our Facebook Group.

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