The Downward Path
Location/Hike: Observation Point Zion National Park
There is no question that the hike to Observation Point in a challenge. From my perspective, if you are willing/able to make it into an overnight trip (staying in the East Rim wilderness) then it is well worth the effort. While the permitting isn’t terribly difficult, an overnight backcountry camping permit is required if that is the option you take. Based on this, I rate it a 5 out of 10.
There are a couple of ways to hike to Observation Point. This guide covers hiking from the trailhead at Weeping Rock (the second to last stop on the bus route through the main canyon) to Observation Point. There is another, shorter and less rigorous, trail that comes from the Northeast; but we didn’t take this route as it would involve driving outside the park to another trailhead.
As with any hike of nearly 10 miles, with an elevation gain of almost 3000 ft, it behoves one to start early in the morning. Additionally, there is no reliable water on this hike (only at the Weeping Rock trailhead), so carrying enough water is a must. Given the elevation gain, and the fact that we were carrying heavy packs (camera and overnight equipment) we averaged around 1.5 mph on the way up for a roughly 3 hour hike up.
The trail starts out with a bang, the initial ascent is rigorous and encompasses about ⅓ of the total elevation gain over the length of the trail. After that initial rigorous ascent the crowds thin considerably. There is a solid mile or so of trail following that initial ascent that is very easy going through a slot canyon. There are some very nice rock formations and plenty of areas where it seems the cracks in the canyon floor below you keep going down infinitely. This contrast between the heights you are about to climb and the depths you can see below you is one of the most unique and interesting points about Zion and gave me a particular sense of awe.
After this initial ascent and relative canyon calm, the final ascent begins. As you begin the final ascent pace yourself. You will be able to see some of the checkerboard mesa formations off to the Northeast as the trail wraps around the mountain and starts head back to the Northwest. There also a couple of viewpoints down the main canyon that are worth a stop, particularly if your legs need a break.
We made the trip in the middle of May. At that time there was a plethora of blooming cacti, and other wildflowers that were very captivating. Departing in the morning leaves plenty of time to explore the east rim trail, find a campsite not too far from observation point, take a siesta, and make it back to the observation point area for sunset. The evening we were there the wind was more than gusty, so long exposure evening / night shots were pretty much out of the question.
As noted in the general description, we left the main campground in Zion on one of the first busses up the canyon. This put us at the trailhead in the early morning, and gave us plenty of time to make the 4.5 mile hike up to observation point. We planned on averaging 1.5 mph, for a total one way time of 3 hrs, and that proved to be a fairly accurate plan.
Taking another 1-2 hours to walk out the east rim trail and find a campsite would also be a good idea. There are plenty of places that have been obviously used before, and as per the NPS guidelines using those spots is the way to go.
The hike back down took about half the time and we were able to average about 3 mph. Since we departed shortly after sunrise, this gave us plenty of time to make it down to the bus stop and up to the narrows.
While a permit is not required to make the hike to Observation Point, a permit is required to camp on the East Rim Camp Area. The NPS site maintains a calendar for making reservations up to three months in advance, it is located here:
Again we were lucky enough to obtain a permit the day prior to our hike at the wilderness desk in the main visitor’s center; likely due to a cancellation. I wouldn’t rely on this method.
Recommended Camera Equipment
Usual Suspects: Backpack with Camera, tripod, cable release, extra memory / battery, lense hoods.
Lenses: I used a 24-70mm and 14-24mm wide angle.
Note: After looking back at my photos, I found my ‘keepers’ were shot on my 24-70mm lense, with a couple on my 14-24mm lense.
I never broke out the zoom (70-200mm) or TCE.
Filters: Hard 1-2 stop GND filters. The ridgeline is fairly flat, and thus the hard stop filters tend to work very well. I also used a polarizing filter most of the time, which I enjoy shooting with most of the time I’m outside.
Recommended Other Equipment:
Plenty of water (2-3L). A snack for the way up, dinner and breakfast. A headlamp. External battery for smartphone. GPS. Printed Elevation map (for backup).
There is a track on Gaia GPS Pro (no I don’t get paid by them, I just like using the App) posted by “whiteeagles” that looks to be accurate: https://www.gaiagps.com/datasummary/track/fca88c954b6ebb89823d41df11bd7dff/
Weeping Rock Trailhead GPS Point: ( 37°16'41.92"N, 112°56'25.38"W)
Observation Point GPS Point: ( 37°16'16.33"N, 112°56'20.74"W)
Recommended Photo Opportunities
-- Observation Point, Southern View: This is the classic southern view down the canyon. It really is an awesome viewpoint worth some time.
-- Observation Point, Western View: Just west of the main trail there are some viewpoints that I particularly enjoyed. I especially liked seeing some of the red wash lines the iron rich water has created over time as it flowed down the side of the mountain.
-- Ascent Southern View: There are some obvious southern viewpoints during the final parts of the ascent. They offer a very similar southern view as Observation Point, but provide a bit of variation when it comes to foreground.
-- Foliage: We made the hike in mid-May. During this time there was ample blooming cacti that were very photogenic, and also provide a nice break to shoot during the ascent.
I can’t say it enough, bring plenty of water. There really is no water on the trail or at Observation Point. You will sweat a lot on the way up, I was quite dehydrated after this hike and I drank about 2L of water during the trek.