Capturing Zion’s Grandeur Along the Watchman Trail, Zion National Park, Utah

Zion Canyon, viewed from the Watchman Trail

Legend has it that The Watchman, an iconic 6555 ft / 1998 m peak, stands guard over the beauties of Zion Canyon. Watchman Trail, its namesake, won’t take you to the summit – you’ll need climbing gear for that — but you’ll be rewarded with a stunning 180-degree view! That view was my goal, to snap a photo capturing the majesty and grandeur of the Zion canyon.

Most hikers flock to Angels Landing, Scout Lookout, and Observation Point, Zion’s well-known viewpoints. It’s true that these provide a bird’s-eye view. Yet, the view from Watchman Trail is equally engaging: your eye naturally travels downward (bird’s-eye) to the canyon floor and then upward to admire the peaks. Bonus: The trail is comparatively uncrowded, and close to the park’s main entrance.

Preparations include a quick review of the hike’s essential info from the National Park web site:

  •    Rating: moderate with minor drop-offs
  •    Length: 2.7 mi / 4.3 km round trip, typical time of 2 hours
  •    Elevation change: 368 ft / 112 m
  •    No potable (drinking) water

A quick calculation shows that the trail’s average incline, or slope, is just over 5%+. This provides a useful context for me, a Michigan “flatlander” who trains on a treadmill by setting the incline to be at least as steep as the toughest trail I’ll be hiking on.

For landscape photos like this one, photographers prefer early morning light. This is known as the “golden hour”. Start too late and risk harsher lighting and duller colors. Get there at the right time and you’ll see the sunlight progressively illuminate The Watchman’s face. Bonus: cooler morning temperatures make for a more enjoyable hike.

The trail goes through three changes in character – from a river walk to a gradual ascent, culminating on a mesa with grand views. The views from the mesa are more than enough to put this trail on your bucket list; the other sections add character to the hike. Now, let’s get going.

Pleasant River Walk

Virgin River

This first section parallels the Virgin River. The trail is flat, a bit sandy, and easy to hike. Just a bit of morning chill lingers in the air. The bows of the Cottonwood trees provide plenty of shade. Riffles in the flowing water make soothing sounds. I’m tempted to stop and try for a shot where the water is deliberately blurred to look mystic and enchanting. However, my tripod is back in camp, and I don’t want to miss the first light bathe The Watchman. I hurry onward.

Steady Ascent

Winding Around the Hillside

Turning towards the east I begin a slow but steady ascent up a ravine. The trail winds around the hillside. The desert is more apparent here. Although the sun is higher up now, the ridgeline to the east continues to provide shade.

The trees give way to ground shrubs, prickly pear cactus and flowers. It’s late May — Indian Paintbrush and Utah daises are plentiful.

Rock squirrels beg for food. Alas, feeding them is illegal and violates the “Leave No Trace” ethic I choose to honour.  A small lizard runs up to check my progress. Satisfied I’m making good time, he scurries off.

Soon the trail dips down, then back up with an “about face” to the west. Now my destination, a small mesa, is in sight.

Utah Daisies above the trail

Atop the Mesa

Utah Junipers give the Mesa Character

At the mesa I find a small, third-of-a-mile, loop trail. For a moment I ponder which way to go. In retrospect, it’s mox nix (it doesn’t matter) because:

  • To the north (topmost photo) and west are spectacular views of Zion canyon, including several named formations: Towers of the Virgin, West Temple, Sundial, and the Alter of Sacrifice.
  • To the south lies the city of Springdale and the Utah desert.
  • To the east is a fine view of The Watchman’s rugged face.

For many, the word “Zion” translates into “promised land.” The Watchman trail delivers on that promise. I’ve only one regret … that I can’t stay longer.

Looking West

Looking West

Looking East

Looking East - The Watchman

If you go