Thanksgiving Bryce & Zion Traverse

Since September’s Wasatch 100 I’ve been in a slump. After the euphoria of my top-ten finish wore off, I lapsed into six weeks of dragging my quasi-injured corpse around Durango’s trails, wondering when — or if — I’d ever feel “normal” again. While I managed to eke out an encouraging Grand Canyon double-crossing in early November, my mental anxiety persisted. Sixty hours work weeks left me stressed. With a race to train for, I felt aimless and lost. And be it physical recovery or the onset of winter, I’ve felt drowsy, lousy, and just plain miserable.

Thanksgiving offered a badly-needed respite and the chance to bounce out of my rut. Somehow I managed to secure the full week off (granting me nine solid days of freedom), so I packed up the Subie and hit the road for Utah with hopes of exploring new trails and knocking out a few big runs in some intriguing places: namely Bryce and Zion National Parks.

On day one, my travels took me west through Mancos, Monticello and Blanding, beyond which I made my first stop at Natural Bridges, Utah’s oldest national monument. Natural Bridges doesn’t boast a lot of real estate, but there’s plenty of canyon to explore. I took a little jogging tour and absorbed the arid landscape, drew deep breaths of clean desert air, let the late autumn sun warm my skin, and reveled in relaxation for the first time in months.

As the day grew late I scoured either side of the road for a tent site, ultimately pulling over and spending the night at the mouth of the Irish Canyons in an area known as the North Wash, popular amongst canyoneers. There I met a young couple from Fort Collins and we shared stories of our respective pursuits — my tales of the trails and their epic climbs — as we sat around a textbook campfire.

The next morning I drove north on state route 24 to Hanksville, then due west until I reached Capitol Reef NP, another previously unvisited spot on my map. There I stopped at Sulpher Creek and found a nice little trail zig-zagging to the edge of a high canyon rim where I could survey the geological phenomena that Capitol Reef encompasses.

The road to Bryce led me through Boulder and Escalante, two quaint towns surrounded by natural beauty: snowy Boulder Mountain to the north, Waterpocket Fold to the east stretched from horizon to horizon, and the canyons of Grand Staircase and the Escalante to the south reaching all the way to Lake Powell.

When I arrived at Bryce NP, I met up with Brandon, Josh and Andy — friends from Manitou Springs and Crested Butte respectively, and my cohorts for the next couple days. We pitched tents and endured a frosty night on Bryce’s north rim where temperatures easily dipped into the teens overnight. On Monday we awoke and watched the sun rise over the famed “Hoodoo” rocks of Bryce, warm drinks clutched in are frozen hands. Once we packed up camp, we drove to Rainbow Point to begin the Bryce Canyon traverse: a point-to-point marathon along the “Under-the-Rim” trail, from the park’s southern tip to it’s northern edge.

From our 9000+ ft starting point, we descended through several inches of stale, crunchy snow and soon found ourselves meandering through old growth Ponderosa — some of it burnt in a recent fire — rolling up and down a series of wooded ridges. Occasionally we’d pop out of the trees and catch a glimpse of the characteristic rocky cliffs of Bryce Canyon.

About twenty miles into the run, the trail climbed steadily, reaching the canyon’s rim near the famed park overlooks. While we had the option to add an extra loop, we all agreed that while our appetizer had satisfied, we’d better save our appetites for the main dish: Zion.

We arrived in Kanab at sundown, refueled at Escobar’s, pitched tents just outside of town and slept. After a relaxed morning and brief shake-out jog through Red Canyon, we set out for Zion NP.

Like the Grand Canyon, Zion has blown my mind every time I’ve visited. When entering from the east the landscape is nothing extraordinary at first, but suddenly towering dunes of petrified sand erupt all around, some of them cleaved and flattened with foliage growing on top, others marbled with pink, beige and bloody red sandstone. No photographer can truly do justice to Zion’s immense beauty.

We left my car at the East Rim trailhead (the end-point shuttle), obtained some last minute trail and water info from the backcountry office, then proceeded to nearby Toquerville where Andy had arranged for us a place to stay. We enjoyed a memorable meal of black bean burger, roasted yam and fresh guacamole, then checked in early for the night. Wednesday would begin with a disgustingly early alarm, and likely prove to be a very long day.

Andy drove Josh, Brandon and I to Zion’s western Kolob Canyon entrance and dropped us off at the Lee Pass trailhead by 5:00am. Within minutes we were underway, whooping and hollering as we galloped down the dark, frosty trail by the glow of our headlamps. For two hours we traveled quick and efficiently, unable to see very much (we even added a little bonus mileage when we missed the right turn from Laverkin Creek onto the Hop Valley trail). But as the sun began to rise over Hop Valley, red cliffs and towering rocky dunes emerged from the shadows. Instantly I was awestruck by my surroundings.

Through Hop Valley we ran, then through Wildcat Canyon and Potato Hollow. We climbed Horse Pasture Plateau and descended along the West Rim. For nearly six hours we strode along in unified awe before we encountered another living soul, the miles piling up while time drifted past as if without meaning.

As we neared the forty mile mark, Angel’s Landing came into view; suddenly we were not alone. We joined the masses for a hasty out-and-back to the top of the famous outcropping, then descended to the Grotto where we filled our water, then jogged a mile up the road to Weeping Rock where we proceeded up Echo Canyon for the final ten-mile stretch (for which Andy joined us). Within a mile or two from Weeping Rock we once again had the trail to ourselves.

We arrived at my car at the East Rim trailhead exactly 11 hours after we started, and just before the sun sank below the canyon wall to the west. With 51 miles on our feet and countless epic vistas on our minds, we retreated to the Flying Monkey in Springdale for beer and pizza. That evening I bade Brandon, Josh and Andy farewell then drove to St. George to join my sister and her husband (and his family) for a three-day Thanksgiving feast.

The Zion Traverse is an incredible route worthy of any ultrarunner’s bucket list. It’s difficult to gauge it’s level of difficulty against the Grand Canyon. Logistics are a bit trickier and it took longer than any of my Grand Canyon double-crossings. That said, we certainly took our time and weren’t as fully rested as we could’ve been going into the adventure. I’d love to try it again in the other direction, and perhaps in spring when the colors are drastically different.

When I returned to work yesterday, I felt great. Perhaps it was all the food I ate or all the sleep I managed to catch up on. Or perhaps it was simply distancing myself from life’s stress for a little while. Whatever the case, I hope it lasts.