Are there Horses in Zion?
My truck and horse trailer look out of place as we pull into the Zion Lodge parking lot. I open the horse trailer doors, and see a parking lot full of rental cars and SUV’s displaying California, Nevada, and Arizona license plates. Heads turn and cameras roll as I back “Gen,” my 17-hands-tall, 1,200-pound Walking Horse mare out saddled, ready to go. While I can’t identify all the languages spoken, I guess from the tone they are wondering how a short, 70-year-old man will mount and ride such a big horse.
Zion National Park is one of five national parks located within Utah. Found in the southwest corner of the state, the 229-square mile park is approximately 40 miles east of St. George, Utah. The park is an extremely popular tourist destination, since it is easily accessible from Las Vegas and only a few hours’ drive from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. In 2016, it attracted over four million visitors, close to what Yellowstone National Park, a park 15 times larger than Zion, experienced.
Perched on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, hordes of visitors come to view the towering red, white, brown, and pink sandstone cliffs deposited by ancient inland seas and deep canyons carved by the Virgin River and eons of wind and weather. They crowd along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive gaping up at towering landmarks with exotic names like The Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and the Temple of Sinawava.
You probably wonder how horses fit among these towering sandstone cliffs and crowding tourists. Well, like most national parks where I ride, there are actually two parks – the park easily accessible to the Birkenstock-shod tourists and the backcountry where the backpackers, rock climbers and horsemen like me spend their time. In fact, eighty-four percent of Zion is designated and managed as a backcountry wilderness.
Canyon View from Wildcat Trail
Once a year, I haul my horses to the parking lot next to Zion Lodge across the highway from the private horse consession that offers rides to the tourists in Zion Canyon. Spring through fall, Zion Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles. Visitors must ride the shuttle buses to visit the canyon. The concessionaire leaves with the shuttle buses, after which the Park Service opens the Sand Bench Trail to private stock use.
The Sand Bench Trail, a short six-mile roundtrip, parallels the Virgin River from Zion Lodge to the junction with the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Riding above the river provides great down canyon views, and I always see mule deer and wild turkeys. While relatively easy to ride, there are some dangers. Your horse has to tolerate deer standing or lying in the trail. My “Gen” is gentle by nature, but gets agitated when walking around a large four-point buck or having a wild turkey flush over her head. The Sand Bench Trail is the only trail in the canyon open to horses, and then only late fall to early spring.
Only one-way traffic is allowed through the tunnel for large vehicles like my Dodge pickup and 26-foot horse trailer. The Park Service charged me a $15 round-trip-fee to stop traffic from the other direction while I drove through the tunnel to the East Rim Trail Head. Unfortunately, there is little room to park horse trailers at the trail head.
The East Rim Trail is wide, smooth, and well maintained. It gains 1,000 feet over three miles. At the top, a stream cascades over the rim. It wasn’t much during the dry season when I rode there, but I would like to see the waterfall after a Zion thunderstorm. You’re rewarded after reaching the top with magnificient views and miles of additional trail. Again, you have to return the way you came because the trails that drop into Zion Canyon are closed to horses. You can’t linger on the East Rim because overnight horse camping is prohibited.
On the west side of the park, a number of trails – Hop Valley, Connector Trail, Wildcat, and West Rim – are open to horses. Before entering Zion Park from the west on Highway 9, watch for the junction of Highway 9 with the Kolob Terrace Road located in the small town of Virgin. Turn north and follow the two-lane, paved road. Each trail exhibits its own unique character as you will discover. Hop Valley, my favorite, is characteristic of these more remote and primitive trails on the west side of the park. You will find your favorite after exploring them on your own.
Technicolor blue skies and red rocks surround you as you ride the Hop Valley Trail. Most of the trail is in the bottom of an open, sandy wash that has water year-round. You should excercsie caution and care in the spring when water is highest in the wash. There are areas of quicksand that can trap your horse. It is approximately six miles one way to the only overnight horse camping site in the park – permit required. From the campground, you can ride further down canyon to Lee’s Pass in the Kolob Canyon District. However, there is a very steep, rocky descent that I usually avoid. Horse trailer parking is limited at the trailhead.
The Kolob Canyons are located approximately 34 miles north of St. George, Utah, off Interstate 15. The visitor center is a short distance east of Exit 40. To ride the LaVerkin Creek Trail, you must check in at the visitor center before driving the Kolob Canyon Road to Lee’s Pass. The trail is popular with day hikers and backpackers, so parking your truck and trailer sometimes is a problem.
With some hikers, horses are a novelty. A while back, I encountered a tour group from Asia after splashing my horse through a stream crossing. This group had only seen horses in the movies or on TV. I had to repeat the crossing a number of times so they could capture the event on video. It is approximately 6.5 miles one way to where the LaVerkin Creek Trail meets the Hop Valley Trail.
From my narrative, I think you know I love Zion National Park. My horses don’t stand idle. Since returning to St. George, I have ridden 30 of 63 days, making the 80-mile round-trip-drive to the park five times. I have spent my life riding and hiking all over the west, but the one place that always draws me back is Zion. With the freedom I have, you might think I would move on to a less crowded more horse friendly place. But for me, the deep canyons and towering cliffs are as the ancient Hebrews said of their Zion a “…spiritual point from which reality emerges…” As my Mormon ancestors, also, taught, Kolob is “… the nearest place where God dwells.”
Are there horses in Zion? A few. At least for now.