- Not Just Horsing Around on Sand Bench
The Sand Bench trail climbs to approximately 500 feet above the Virgin River, giving hikers panoramic views of the canyon walls, the floor far below and the shuttles scooting up and down canyon.By: Sharon May
A short drive to Zion National Park always results in views lovely enough to heal your psyche of its weekday assaults no matter how many people are swarming the park.
But when area events bring an extra hefty dose of visitors to Zion as did the Huntsman World Senior Games last weekend sometimes the most popular trails can become too busy for the usual respite and quiet the park offers.
Thats when I go in search of the trail less traveled. Zion has oodles of them, tucked away alongside SR-9 on the east and even in the nooks and crannies of the walls surrounding the main canyon.
One of those hideaway trails is the Sand Bench trail. Well, to be honest, a lot of horses know the trail and use it daily (Zion horseback rides continue until the end of October). But the trail seems less known and used by hikers.
On that lovely weekend day of overflowing parking lots at Zion, the Riverside Walk and West Temple trails were streaming with chattering visitors. But my hike on the Sand Bench trail was in blessed solitude and quiet except for the nattering of squirrels, the river charging downstream hundreds of feet below, the intermittent shrieks of jays and a bit of gobbling from the resident turkeys.
Hikers can access the Sand Bench trail at two shuttle points: The quick route from the Court of the Patriarchs, and the longer jaunt (approximately six miles) from Emerald Pool trail across from the Zion Lodge parking lot.
The route south from the Emerald Pools trail parallels the Virgin River and travels through loose sand along the riverbank. The shorter access route begins across the road from the Patriarchs shuttle stop, where a service road leads to the horse and mule corral and a large burnt orange water tank. Just past the tank, a bridge leads to the start of the trail.
Here, hikers can start off to the left or right both lead to the start of the 2.5-mile Sand Bench loop. The left is a shorter route, up a small creek .30 miles to a well-used trail to the left, leading to the loop trail.
From here, the trail climbs, not strenuously, but enough to give your corpuscles and wheezebags a decent workout. Hiking quietly is likely to reward you with sightings of wild turkeys and deer. The most strenuous part of the trail annoying more than strenuous, really is the deep troughs left by repeated horse and mule schlepping, as this is the horseback-riding trail. Repeated use of this naturally sandy trail (loose dirt, actually) has created moguls of dirt.
These moguls can be irritating to maneuver while trying to look up at the towering cliffs surrounding the trail. And twisting an ankle is a possibility, too.
Apparently, horses and mules have a taller inseam than my own, so I had difficulty striding from mogul top to mogul top, but stepping from deep hole to hole requires knee-lifting marching the entire way. In some places, if the moguls grow any deeper, the poor mules are going to need stepladders. Frankly, the mules should thank me for trampling the trail and helping to flatten these hills for them.
Otherwise, though, the Sand Bench trail is a visual delight! The loop trail continues south to the end of the bench, allowing views of the canyon floor some 500 feet below and offering stunning views of the faceted towers to the east, especially when lit by an afternoon sun. To the south, the valley transected by the Parus Trail spreads to the foot of the famously photographed Watchman. Kitty-corner from Sand Bench, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway snakes up the cliff side, and the tunnels peek out like eyes over the valley below.
The trail then begins its circle west, where a corral, restroom and picnic tables make a nice rest area. From here, the trail heads back in a northerly direction at the alluvial base of The Streaked Wall. A morning hike is best to catch this wall in its crimson glory. The Sentinel soars to a blocky white peak above magnificently stalwart red sandstone walls. A black streak shows where a grand waterfall occurs after strong, sudden thunderstorms unleash torrents on the tops of these smooth rock buttes. (If you dash up this trail in a rainstorm and avoid turning your ankle in the muddy troughs you would have a spectacular view of this waterfall.
The Sand Bench trail eventually heads downhill in deep sand and heads through a delightfully lush oak glade near its end. Hikers can look for the shortcut to return the way they began, or they can continue through this shady glen to a wood hitching post fence. Go right and head downhill, where the water tank marks the service road back to the shuttle stop, the knots out of your psyche and you ready to rejoin the throngs.
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