Tucked deep within a secluded fold of sandstone on the west side of Zion National Park is one of the world’s largest arches. Kolob Arch has long been a quiet destination for those looking to get away from the crowds. Miles of washes, cascades, buttresses, trees, and flowers lead through a majestic desert landscape peppered with heavenly swim holes and serene campsites. You can make it a half-day run, full day-hike, or casual overnighter. Any which way, you can’t go wrong.
Earlier this year Jacki and I promised to take the kids backpacking in Zion National Park. Weeks filled with gymnastics and school activities rapidly passed as winter gave up and spring raced its way forward. By mid-May we had yet to make it down and the clock was ticking. Soon the heat would be too much to bear. We pulled the trigger the week before Memorial Day. The world’s second largest arch would be our destination. With the shortest trail leading to Kolob Arch being 7 miles one way it would be the perfect overnighter as a family. Using the park’s online reservation system we booked a backcountry camp that was located well into Kolob Canyon, Seated next to the La Verkin Creek, and less than two miles from the arch, the site would be ideal.
“The best part of Kolob Arch is the journey, not necessarily the destination.” This was the response I received from Lin Alder, my go-to-guy for Utah’s Southwest corner. “La Verkin Creek is one of those underappreciated gems in Zion National Park that really gets your attention once you’re in it.” Lin had actually proposed to his wife in a side canyon near the arch a few years back.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, beneath blue skies, we drove into Kolob, the west section of Zion. We easily found the Lee Pass Trailhead, made our final preparations and were on our way. Our kids, Fynn, 14, and Josie, 13, quickly dropped, paralleling the road for the first mile while going deeper into Timber Creek. We followed the twisted trail along creek beds and washes. Towering cliffs of Navajo sandstone, Shuntavi Buttress and Timber Top Mountain, dominated the eastern skyline. Being part of the TransZion route, which is 52 miles of trails connecting Kolob to the east entrance or the other way round, we encountered a few runners making their final push up to the Lee Valley Trailhead. In contrast, our feet plodded the trail while we played games of Ghost and Big Booty with frequent shady rests found beneath elm, box elder, and pine trees.
Lower down the trail we climbed out of Timber Creek through a stand of pinion trees before dropping to La Verkin Creek. Near this junction we found an old corral made of bleached wood. It was a reminder of the days when livestock was run up and down the canyon from summer to winter pastures.
We saw penstemons, globemallow, paintbrush and clover along the Kolob Canyon Trail. Their delicate blossoms were vibrant despite the intense midday sun. Sitting higher in elevation than Springdale, Kolob is still a fall, winter and spring destination. While the mercury rose well into the 90’s in the lower areas of the park we experienced the low 80’s. Not exactly cool, but manageable walking weather for most of the day.
Right before the shift from warm to uncomfortable we found our campsite. Laid out beneath grandfather cottonwoods and stretching limbs of juniper we snacked and snoozed through the heat of the day. After time passed we walked back to the junction of Timber and La Verkin Creeks. Here we happily jumped into the refreshing cascade, rinsing the sweat and dust from our bodies then spreading out along slabs of Kayenta sandstone.
“The arch is very cool to look at but, to be honest, it’s best to keep your expectations low… Let’s just say that it doesn’t photograph well as other places on the way there.” This was the one caveat we received from Lin.
Revived from our lunch and swim we set off to complete the last two miles to the arch. Making our way with the sun at our backs we passed three separate parties. One after another they all admitted they’d been unable to find the arch. Knowing that the arch is set back against a cliff and that it receives afternoon shade would be key to finding. As the third party walked out of earshot we all agreed that we would find the arch. There was no way we would come all this way and not see it.
As the canyon narrowed we found a sign that pointed to a side gorge. This wash was dark with a ribbon of water trickling down its shadowy corridor that slowly made its way to La Verkin Creek. Sunlight bouncing the cliffs high above cast a warm hue. The croaks of canyon tree frogs echoed up and down the corridor as we closed in on the arch. Letting our eyes adjust to the afternoon light we gazed around the natural amphitheater. Tall pine trees were perched on ledges above and water trickled from the walls. Slowly we saw the massive sandstone structure emerge on the horizon. Lin was right. It wasn’t fireworks, but we were psyched to have found it.
The following morning I found myself meditating at the cascade. Beneath a blue sky desert water wove its way along ancient stone. Soon I would be back at camp brewing coffee, the kids and Jacki would wake and our camp would be cleared. We would climb the 800 feet of elevation back to the car while playing games of Big Booty and Ghost. But for that moment they were still sleeping, the world was turning, the sun rising and Kolob Arch was standing indifferent.
Guidebook-Hiking Utah by Dave Hall
Season: fall and spring winter may be good and summer is extremely hot.
Bug spray is recommended.
Kolob Arch may also be accessed from the Hop Valley Trailhead.