West Rim Trail Backpacking Guide
Last week I posted all of the photos from my trip on the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park. This 14-mile trail exposes you to some of Zion’s most expansive views and a variety of remote terrain. When done over two days, it’s a leisurely trip that is great for beginners but beautiful enough to keep even the most experienced backpacker excited. In this West Rim Trail Backpacking Guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to plan an awesome weekend getaway on the West Rim.
Trail Basics / Map
Most common route
The most popular way to hike the West Rim Trail is as a one-way overnight hike starting at Lava Point, the highest point in Zion, and ending at the Grotto in Zion’s main canyon. This route, which is shown on red in the map, means you get to experience the slow transition as you hike through the subalpine forest down into the painted desert canyons. This direction is also almost completely downhill, with only a few short uphill sections. For the purposes of this guide, I am assuming that this will be your plan of attack. While best experienced as an overnight backpacking trip, quick hikers can also pull this off as a long day hike. The West Rim Trail also passes by the junction to Angel’s Landing at the end of day two, so ambitious hikers have the option of ticking that off the list at the same time.
Another option is to hike it as an out and back from the Grotto Trailhead in the main canyon. People who do this route usually stop and turn around somewhere near Cabin Spring. To reach the top of the plateau, you need to continue about 1.5 miles past Cabin Spring. Based on the views, I think this would be worth the effort, but it would require getting a very early start and the energy to slog yourself up the hill.
When to Go
Lava Points sits at 7,890 feet above sea level, and the road to get there can be snowed in as late as May. Typically the road opens in June but in warmer years, the road does open earlier. What that means is that if you have a trip planned for May, you might want to have a backup plan. On the other hand, because of this uncertainty, getting a walk-up permit for the West Rim in May might be easier than in the later months.
Temperature wise, May, June, September, and October are the most comfortable months to hike the West Rim. Keep in mind that the first half of the hike is up on the top of the plateau and is going to be much cooler than down in the canyon. In May when I did the West Rim, we encountered snow flurries and low 40s temps when we set off on the trail, and the next day as we descended into the canyon it was 80 degrees. So you need to be prepared with clothing that will keep you comfortable in a wide range of temperatures.
Permits & Campsites
There are a total of 9 campsites on the West Rim Trail, and the Zion National Park website has pictures and a detailed description of all of the campsites. In terms of breaking up the distance between the two days, the campsites that make the most sense are Sites 1-6.
We stayed at site #4, since we had a large group, and this is the only group site that is available by advanced reservation. The views were incredible. We could see both the sunset and the sunrise and despite being exposed up on the plateau, we were fairly shielded from the wind that was roaring on the edge of the rim.
Other than distance, things to keep in mind when choosing a campsite include the campsite capacity and water availability, which are both indicated in the chart below. The only year-round reliable spring on the West Rim is Cabin Spring near sites #1 and #2. Potato Hollow and Sawmill Spring are both seasonal and were completely dried up when we were there in May. All of the springs are circled in blue on the map above. If you stay at a site with no water, be sure to pack enough to get you through the first day and the morning until you reach Cabin Spring and have a chance to refill. You can check whether the springs are flowing here.
All overnight trips require a wilderness permit. Four of the campsites are available by advanced reservation (highlighted in green), while the other 5 are available on a first-come first-served basis. Note on the map that site #1 is the furthest from Lava Point.
Advanced permits for campsite #2, #4, #6, and #8 become available on the 5th of the month 3 months prior to the month of your hike.
Visit the Park Service website for more details on the permit process and to apply. When you start the application process, be sure to choose the West Rim and the site number at which you wish to camp. Prior to starting your hike, you will need to pick up your permit at the Visitors Center in the Main Canyon.
Walk-up permits become available one day prior to your trip. For the best chance of getting your desired permit and campsite, be at the Zion Canyon Visitors Center when it opens the day before your trip. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to get a permit the day of if they aren’t all taken.
The West Rim doesn’t require anything special other than your typical backpacking gear.
For this trip, I brought my Mountain Hardwear Super Mega UL 2 Tent, which weighs in at just over 2 pounds and my Mountain Hardwear 50L Ozonic waterproof backpack which was plenty big for a quick overnighter. For a complete list of my recommended backpacking gear, see my John Muir Trail gear list.
Make sure to pack plenty of layers as camping up on the Rim can get unexpectedly cold. Also, if you aren’t camping near a flowing spring, be sure to start the hike with enough water to get you to Cabin Spring (and don’t forget the water you need for dinner and breakfast). You will also want to bring a water filter, as the water is mucky and not safe to drink without filtering it (Cabin Spring is shown below). We brought a Platypus Gravity Works Filter, and it worked great.
Transportation is one of the trickier parts of planning your West Rim backpacking trip. If you have more than one car, park one at the overnight lot near the Visitors Center in the Main Canyon. Then pile everyone in the other car and drive up to the top at Lava Point. You can check conditions on Kolob Terrace Road here.
More Info on Zion National Park
Well, that should be about everything you need to plan your West Rim Trail backpacking trip. For more information on Zion, here are some other posts you can check out:
- Zion National Park Travel Guide
- Canyoneering with Zion Mountain School
- The Epic Hike to Observation Point
- Planning a hike through the Zion Narrows
For more Southern Utah travel inspiration, click on my Pinterest board below:
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