Zion National Park really never really slows down. Some credit for the continual traffic goes to the entrance town of Springdale itself, which seems to find great ways to to attract tourists outside to the convenient travel brackets of Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, much of Zion’s “off-season” pull is aided by the much more tolerant temperatures that exist in this desert temple during the fall and winter. My first visit to Utah’s most famous national park was in the nadir of Zion’s slack season, December, right after a light snowstorm sprinkled the red rock with a delicate blanket of white. That journey during a period when Springdale, relatively speaking, is a ghost town, spoiled me, and I’ve been trying to find opportunities to enjoy this popular national park in unpopular times ever since. Mid-November was our most recent weekend trip to the canyon and my wife and I decided to revisit one of my favorite hikes, the same hike we did on our first trip there in late 2010– Observation Point via Echo Canyon.
I can’t really speak to the popularity of this trail in terms of numbers, but I can guarantee you this, step for step, view for view, it’s just as rewarding a hike as the incredibly popular Angel’s Landing trail. Located on the east side of the canyon, just opposite the famous aforementioned landmark and starting from the Weeping Rock area, the Observation Point trail switchbacks up 800′ of Zion’s sheer canyon wall before entering a slot canyon that marks the entrance to Echo Canyon.
Within a few steps, we went from having the North Fork’s footprint spread out below our feet to entering a mesmerizing chasm where slits in the sandstone seem to be bottomless. Shelves, overhangs and outcrops block any view of the bottom. Swirled and flowing textures speak to the evolution of this landscape over millions of years while the impressive stature and majesty of the rock reminded me of our insignificance as an element of this worlds neverending story. While zigzagging into the narows, creases and openings above our head changed the perspective constantly, forcing us to piece together the surroundings like a puzzle. At one moment, we see a checkerboard sandstone wall, another moment, a vegetated tower that curls out of the rock, close enough to climb, and very enticing except for the 1000′ chasm separating us from this turret juting out of the cliff face. But my favorite monument to stare at during this hike is the precipice of Cable Mountain which pokes out and looms just southwest of the Weeping Rock alcove.
The 6,500′ Cable Mountain actually stands more as a prominence of the eastern rim than a mountain. Jutting out from the mesa’s edge, it draws my attention with its chiseled flat face. Looking closely, I point out to my wife a replica of the timber scaffolding that at one time lowered logs harvested from the forests on the Markagunt Plateau. Cable Mountain’s unique position and unimpeded vertical drop to the canyon floor made it a logical, but frightening choice for the risky transport of lumber. The procedure still seems unimaginable to me.
After emerging from the slots into the widening chamber of Echo Canyon, the trail forks. One branch, the continuation of the the Observation Point trail, begins ascending to the north, up the sandstone walls of Echo Canyon. The other branch, the East Rim Trail (not to be confused with the East Mesa trail) continues further east into Echo Canyon before meandering south and eventually ascending to the rim opposite Observation Point.
Via the East Rim Trail, hikers can access both Cable Mountain and Deer Trap Mountains’ by looping back around the southern boundary of Echo Canyon. Each of these are worthwhile hikes, but the distance could be a lot for a day hike– 7 miles one way from the Weeping Rock trailhead to Cable Mountain. My suggestion for reaching these points would be to either plan a hike to these destinations as an overnight or long through-hike with a shuttle at the East Park Entrance. However, a third (and the most user friendly) option for approaching either peak would be from an obscure trailhead 3 to 4 miles north (line of sight) from the East Entrance. This trail gets you to Cable Mountain in just over 3 miles of relatively flat hiking through sparse forests and gamble oak groves. In the warmer months, this can be a pleasant change from the sweltering heat in the depths of the canyon. A note of caution however, this is not an easily found trailhead, it is accessed from outside the park boundaries via a dirt road than can be impassible winter/wet conditions, so check with a ranger for more details and have a map. A GPS and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle wouldn’t hurt either.
But back to the SummitBrew hike. The Observation Point Trail is basically at it’s halfway point at this junction… in many ways other than distance and altitude. In the first two miles, the trail meandered up in the shadows of Zion’s great walls. With the low winter sun, we found ourselves in a slight chill for most of the morning. On our original hike of this trail, remnants of a snowstorm buried much of the trail in crusty white mounds which needed a few more days of sunrays to melt off the trail. Traction was at a premium on that first hike in December. Uneven patches of snow made my newly purchased MicroSpikes a “hike-saver” for my wife, who actually lead most of the way while I struggled to plant my Asolo’s on level footing. But at the two mile mark, where the trails split, we found ourselves in the glow of a unimpeded southern exposure. Snow disappeared from the trail and it was time to lose layers. This is what I mean when I say the halfway point of this hike symbolizes more than completion of 50%, it symbolizes emergence into the light.
As we climbed up the actual Observation Point pedestal, the rock becomes brighter, almost golden, and the foreboding canyon walls with monolithic presence change to crumbling, cartoonish figurines of eroded sandstone. Gnarled and twisted trees sprout out of the rock, hoodoos captured my imagination and the distant highlands of the west rim could be seen across the North Fork’s gash. The green tops on the opposite side of the canyon seem other worldly compared to the chasm that splits open the earth, reveals the sandstone oasis of Zion Canyon.
As the trail levels with the top of the East Mesa, it straightens to a northwesterly course and we can clearly see the congregation of hikers taking in the vista. 20 to 30 minutes of hiking after spotting the trails end at Observation Point, we reach the terminus. From the perch, I remind myself why I consider this hike one of the best in Zion. The view up and down the canyon is just as stunning as Angel’s Landing, and from this point, I’m towering over Angels Landing with a much better view of the surrounding highlands. Yes, Angel’s Landing is the signature Zion hike, but while most adventurers on the west rim landmark hike are clinging to the safety chains with white knuckles and focusing on their feet, we were enjoying our ascent , taking in the scenery, and climbing at least ‘500 feet higher.
After my wife and I picked out a spot to sit, I took out my refreshment for the hike, a Duvel Belgian Golden Ale. The word “Belgian” in a beer usually creates a distinct premonition of taste for any beer drinker. but in the last month or so, I’ve discovered the other side of Belgian beers. Beers with less of that characteristically “yeast and banana” taste and more hop and dryness. Leffe Golden Ale has been one of my favorite “lighter” Belgian beers… when I can find it (usually in Utah County, go figure), but for this hike, I thought it was time to try something new. Duvel has a somewhat foggy, yellow color with a creamy and hoppy head. This pale is 8.5% and has a delightfully light bitterness that many hop lovers are probably yearning for in a Belgian beer. It has some citrus notes without overpowering the palate, going down very easy with an afternote of light yeast (there’s that Belgian). I would suggest this beer for anyone looking for a combination of Belgian-style body with a discrete hop note. In a time when beers are trying to out-hop eachother, I find this beer to stay somewhat true to the personality of a Pale Ale.
My wife and eye soak in the fading run of Zion Canyons southern end while munching on almonds and granola bars. Sun and haze dilute the Watchman and Eagle Crags into watercolors, but we’re just happy to be basking in the sun and scenery. Chipmunks get way too friendly as they search for any crumb that my fall their direction while I turn north and try to pick out Brian Head Peak. The ascent to Observation Point isn’t an easy one, but the textures and alcoves of Echo Canyon combined with the less anal-puckering climb make this my choice over Angels Landing.