After spending a gorgeous day hiking Zion’s East Rim Wilderness, Stephan and I were eager to return to the area with Sanchez. Because pets aren’t allowed on trails within the bounds of the national park, we searched for a dog-friendly route nearby that still offered some of the canyon’s stunning scenery. After some investigation, I discovered Eagle Crags – a lightly-trafficked trail in the Canaan Mountain Wilderness. Just south of Zion National Park, it looked like it might have some decent views of the southern end of the canyon. To our surprise, the views turned out to be more than just decent, and we ended up being totally thrilled that we picked this trail.
The hike begins at the Eagle Crag Trailhead, about five miles southwest of Springdale, Utah. From Highway 9 in Rockville, the trailhead is roughly two miles south up Eagle Crags Road. The road is ungraded and pretty rough in spots, and will likely require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle to make it up to the trailhead. Signs along the road warn not to attempt the drive in rainy weather, and it’s very easy to see why. The road is almost assuredly unnavigable when wet or snow-covered.
To reach the trailhead from the northeast via Highway 89, we drove the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway – a 25-mile stretch of road through Zion National Park that is designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The highway and tunnel of the same name were constructed in the late 1920s and opened to motor vehicle traffic in 1930. The 1.1-mile-long tunnel was built to provide quicker access between Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks. The entire project cost $1,896,000 which, in today’s dollar, would be about $29 million (the tunnel itself was about a quarter of the cost). With six windows (galleries) offering peek-a-boo views into the canyon, the engineering marvel is the only one of its kind in the Rocky Mountains.
Stephan and I were both pleasantly surprised with our trip up to Eagle Crags. The eye-catching, sandstone spires sit at the northern end of the Canaan Mountain massif, an escarpment of Navajo Sandstone that rises 2,000 feet above the surrounding valley. The large mountain is actually a weathered plateau with sheer cliff walls, stretching eight miles wide by ten miles long and covered with buttes, canyons, washes, and rock spires.
Beginning with our scenic drive along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, we were quickly reminded of the area’s imposing beauty. We only hoped the grandeur would continue on the trail. Starting out at the Eagle Crag Trailhead, the path meanders through swaths of scrubby sagebrush, cacti, and pinyon pine forests. If you’re hiking with your pup here, be sure to keep and eye on him/her – the cacti are especially prolific along the first third or so of trail.
As the dusty path climbs toward the highpoint, the views begin to unfold to the north and east. Looking north into the mouth of Zion Canyon, you get a stunning look at the prominent sandstone summits along the West Rim, including Mt. Kinesava, the West Temple, and the Altar of Sacrifice. To the east, you can make out the South Creek Reservoir and neighboring Parunuweap Canyon. The layers and colors of the landscape here are just amazing.
From here, the trail then winds around the eastern side of Eagle Crags, topping out at around 5,500 feet. The sandstone spires now tower directly overhead. The trail ends quite unexpectedly here below the bluffs, terminating in a small clearing scattered with some large boulders and marked by a couple of tiny cairns (the total distance from the trailhead to this point is about 2.8 miles).
While the official route is 5.6 miles roundtrip (per the map at the trailhead), we noticed a faint path continuing on from Eagle Crags. Wanting to investigate, we decided to continue on a bit further. The trail almost immediately dropped down into a dusty wash before climbing back out again. We continued walking for about another half mile. Unsure if the trail went on indefinitely or if there was some sort of official endpoint, we ultimately decided to head back. At the time we had no clue how far the trail went, and it wasn’t shown on the map at the trailhead. Some post-hike investigation later suggested that the trail makes its way to Lower Mountain. While there is no official route, the roundtrip hike to Lower Mountain from the Eagle Crag Trailhead is 11 miles, with more than a dozen gully crossings and some route-finding required. Having scrambled up and down a few of the gullies, we’d agree they are a pain in the ass with all the loose dirt and scree. If you’re interested in extending the trip, be sure to do some research first. The area is remote and the trail to Lower Mountain is unofficial and not always well-defined.
Overall, Eagle Crags was a pretty awesome hike. The views of the southern tip of Zion were incredible, and we saw virtually no one on the trail. Sanchez, as usual, had an absolute blast. In the end, we really wished we’d found this wilderness area sooner into our stay in Utah. With nearly 45,000 acres of public land, we undoubtedly would have explored a few more trails around Canaan Mountain.
Total distance: 7.3 miles
Elevation gain: 1,648 feet