A Rough Guide to Running the Grueling & Scenic Zion Traverse
Key lessons learned from running the 50-mile, point-to-point route spanning the entirety of Utah’s Zion National Park
Canon 6D w 50mm lens
Andy Cochrane is a nomadic writer, photographer, and producer based out of a badass Toyota Tacoma truck named Tacomama.
As we stumbled into the East Rim Trailhead, my mind was nearly blank. We’d been running for over 13 hours, with short breaks just for food, water refills, and steep climbs. Our route took us from the northwest corner of Zion National Park to the southeast, along a series of trails known as the Zion Traverse. It was a day to remember, although not at all what we expected going into it.
The sun would soon set and most of the park rangers had already left for the day. I would have paid a gratuitous amount for a slice of pizza and beer delivered to that exact spot, but had no luck. Instead, I sipped Gatorade and munched on a few pretzels. Sufficient for the moment. Sitting on the ground, emotions flowed quickly. Proud, bewildered, and exhausted to a point that I was fumbling my speech, I took a moment to silently reflect on the day.
A little before 6 AM we started our slow jog down La Verkin Creek Trail, crossing a dozen or so streams with only our headlights to illuminate the way. I was joined by four of my closest friends and fellow distance runners–Will, Gil, Zip, and Kyler.
It took a few miles for us to get into a flow, slowly realizing the magnitude of the task ahead. We soon transitioned upstream, towards Hop Valley. Despite a few down trees and consistent mud, we made good time while making sure to snack regularly This section of the park, known of the Kolob Canyons, is less traveled. With the early morning light bouncing of the canyon walls around us, it was hard to understand.
We reached the aptly named Connector Trail on schedule, and took a break to eat sandwiches and refill our water bladders in a nearby stream. The trail here is faint and somewhat overgrown and feels decidedly desolate. After four hours and 18 miles of running–roughly one third the total route–we still hadn’t seen another person. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it would be five more hours until we ran into our fellow human. We would soon find out why.
As we approached Wildcat Canyon Trail, the snow started to build. I glanced at the maps and realized we still had more than a thousand feet to climb before reaching the West Rim Trail, which would eventually take us into the main Zion valley. Ominous news, as we were already at snowline.
"For the next 14 miles we slogged through snow ... by the end of this self-imposed torture we were sinking a few inches or more each step."
For the next 14 miles we slogged through snow, hard in some spots and soft in others, along the Horse Pasture Plateau, past Potato Hollow, to Cabin Spring, near the edge of Zion Canyon. By the end of this self-imposed torture we were sinking a few inches or more each step, dramatically slowing our progress.
The descent past Angel’s Landing to the canyon floor and back up Echo Canyon to the summit of the East Rim Trail was as expected–stunningly beautiful and filled with day hikers and casual families out for a short adventure. Once we left the main canyon the crowds quickly dissipated and we were left alone for the final miles, on a steady descent towards our finish line.
Sitting in a cathartic stupor at East Rim Trailhead, I started to mentally write this story. Fumbling for thoughts I began to slowly create a list of advice to give future runners. That list is below.
5 Important Do’s of Running the Zion Traverse
DO pack a lot of snacks and then pack some more. We each carried 2,500 calories, with a mix of gels, blocks, stroopwafels, gummy worms, and banana-and-peanut butter sandwiches. And we ate all of it. GU Energy products gave us the energy to keep running, the amino acids to prevent fatigue, and the electrolytes to replenish what we were sweating out. Highly recommended.
DO bring a pack that can hold a lot of water–and a spare bladder. All of us run with Nathan hydration packs, because they fit snug, have very little bounce, and can store an enormous amount of water. I carried two 1.8L bladders, enabling me to go almost 20 miles at a time without refilling. Yes, this is a bit more weight, but staying hydrated is worth it. Zion has some long sections on high plateaus without easy refill locations, so this makes a huge difference.
DO wear the right clothing and shoes. Even in winter, the sun in Zion can be piercing. We wore Voormi Wool Hoodies that helped wick sweat, regulate temperature, and keep the sun off our necks and heads. Their comfortable fit and lightweight design made them perfect for this type of adventure run, with no issues of chafing for the entire crew. As with all my distance runs, I wear HOKA Speedgoat trail shoes, that offer a ton of support and cushion for the long descents and steep climbs.
DO start early and prepare for things to go awry. This isn’t your typical 50-miler, if there is such a thing. Zion is a popular park, but the vast majority of that traffic is concentrated in the main canyon. The Kolob section, especially trails further from trailheads, are true wilderness. Expect curveballs like stream crossings, mud, and some scrambling. By starting early with headlamps, you’ll be more likely to finish the run in the daylight.
DO bring friends that embrace adventure as much as running. Although I’m listing this last, it’s probably the most important piece of advice. Without my four friends the likelihood I would have ran the entire route isn’t great–and they would probably say the same thing of me. We took turns picking each other up, encouraging each other to run another mile or two, and passing the time through jokes, conversations, and long winded stories.
5 Important Don’ts of Running the Zion Traverse
DON'T forget to check the weather and snow report. The crux of our run was the Horse Pasture Plateau, completely covered in snow. This made navigation harder and running fast almost impossible. The views from the long, 7-mile ridgeline are world-class. Just make sure you check the conditions before you head out on the trail.
DON'T forget a good map (and download one on your phone). The trails along the Zion traverse can meandering, faint, and occasionally fully washed out. Having a detailed map will help you travel faster and safer across the park, regardless of the season.
DON'T race through the early sections. Despite it being less renowned, we found the Kolob area–especially Hop Valley–to be the most stunning part of the park. It would be a sad mistake to cruise through this area in the dark, or without taking time to appreciate how unique it is. One of the coolest parts of this run over similar treks is that it crosses five unique ecosystems, with stark differences. Make sure you enjoy each one of them as you run through!
DON'T forget about easy resupplies. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend supporting your run, there are two easy spots to meet a vehicle, get more snacks, and take a quick break. Also, conveniently, they are placed roughly equidistant along the run, at mile 18 and 37. Even in winter the road to the first one is plowed, so you are guaranteed a chance to refuel, or bail if needed.
DON'T wander off the trail. The various ecosystems you’ll pass through during the traverse are fragile and even a few steps can change them quickly. Do your best to stay on the trail, therefore limiting your impact on the area and allowing others to experience just like you did. This may sound trivial, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I can give. Leave No Trace is an important outdoor philosophy, whether you’re biking, camping, trail running, or otherwise.