The Zion Less Traveled
- The Zion Less TraveledBy: Sharon MayZions towers in winter the pinks, oranges and reds frosted in snow are simply spectacular. West Temple draped in white above the eastern horizon, draws every eye and a line of cars toward the park for some chilly-weather sightseeing.
Between the snowy tops of Zion Canyon and the icy crags of Kolob is a less-traveled Zion, a modest country of less conspicuous treasures beauties at ones feet more than soaring skyward.
After the winter storms clear and a little melting reveals the path, Dalton Wash is an excellent place for some winter solitude, if you dont mind some muddy traipsing.
Dalton Wash trail is one of the less-visited areas of Zion National Park. On the handful of times Ive walked the trail, Ive encountered only one or two other hikers. The reason for this could be the inconspicuous unmarked dirt road leading to the trailhead.
Once you find the road (half a mile past the Zion River Resort in Virgin), its smooth going for a while. The night-black lava rock canyon to the right of the road is impressive and warrants a stop for a better look into its depths. At 1.8 miles, the road splits: go left (to the right is private property).
After 3.8 miles of graded, graveled dirt, the road starts to climb, and for half a mile, itll put a few butterflies in your tummy. If you hate narrow, rutted roads with sheer drop-offs, you wont like this section of road. However, anything but a low-slung sedan can probably maneuver the road. Of course, a high-clearance vehicle with some oomph would be best, and I would give it a few days to dry out after snow or rain. (If theres still snow on the benches above SR-9, dont attempt this drive.)
At 4.3 miles from the highway turnoff, the road tops out onto a bench, where you might enjoy stopping to do some exploring. The wash that becomes the lava-walled canyon beside the road begins here. Slabs of rock with small pools of rainwater or snowmelt fit together like puzzle pieces, with deep crevices between; its strange and fascinating terrain.
Another .7 miles along the now barely perceptible dirt road takes you to its end at the NPS boundary, marked by a sign, a wire fence and a gate.
Normally, the road runs through a dense juniper forest. However, a large fire in 2005 scorched the entire area, leaving black stumps and an odd feeling of decimation. If green is your thing, wait a couple of seasons still. But I found the scene to have an eerie emptiness, and the treeless vista allowed me an overview of the area that the juniper and pinion forest hid on earlier hikes. In spring, I expect there will be signs of the forests recovery sprouting everywhere from the blackened soil.
From the trailhead, a footpath traces across a plain, with spectacular West Temple and the colorful blocks of Zion Canyon climbing into the sky ahead. The trail is faint now, since the fire, but the trail empties into a shallow wash one of several forks, all going in the same direction. The wash traverses an ancient forest, and the forest floor and wash bottoms are littered with shattered petrified wood. Of course, please do not take any, as the cumulative effect could deplete this natural wonder. (Not to mention, this is National Park Service land, and its illegal to take anything.)
Follow the wash, which is shoulder-deep at its greatest depth. Along the way, watch for petrified logs jutting from the sides of the wash and unearthed in the wash bottom.
The wash continues to branch into several routes; keep following the main wash, although all branches head into Coalpits Wash to the east, at approximately 2.5 miles.
About a half mile before then, a deeper part of the wash of bluish-gray lava convolutions may fool you into thinking youve reached the end of the wash. But to the northeast (on your left), look for cairns marking a trail beside the wash. This trail continues to the washs end at Coalpits Wash, where a lovely stream, crusted with winter ice and banked in snow, and seasonally barren fronds and cottonwoods fill the wash.
Head to the right and continue downstream another eighth mile. Just around a bend in the wash, the stream has carved a half tube in the rock wall, where under its lip, water seeping from the rock will feed lush riparian growth in spring and summer, including delicate red columbine.
Continuing on another five miles or so would take you to the Coalpits Wash trailhead off SR-9.
Despite the stark effects of the fire, with the petrified wood and views of Zion Canyons sunlit heights to the east, the Dalton Wash hike is still a rewarding and interesting venture during any season.
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