Zion National Park: Watchman Trail


We woke in pre-dawn light on Thursday, September 15. Wind whipped our tent. And the decision that we had been increasingly fretting about was made for us by the wind.After the splendid performance the previous evening, we’d returned to our campsite and rekindled our campfire. We’d tried to turn in relatively early since we’d wanted to be up early to make an attempt at Angels Landing before it became crowded (we were aiming to be on the first shuttle into the restricted portion of Zion Canyon). Since we’d both had a faint signal on our phones, we’d read up a bit more on the hike. In particular, Sean had gotten his first real taste of news items about Angels Landing. The news stories of deaths on the route in the previous decade and a half hadn’t comforted either of our nerves. Nor had they helped me sleep.

So when, in the morning, it was clearly too windy to make an attempt on Angels Landing, our decision was made. I felt both relief and disappointment. Both Sean and I have said that we still want to do Angels Landing someday.

We had to be out of our campsite at 11am, but that still gave us time for a hike after breakfast and before striking camp. It felt right to do Watchman Trail since it was close enough to walk to and because we’d fallen so deeply in love with The Watchman during our time in Zion National Park.

That evening, we would be camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but much like our reluctant departure from Bryce Canyon National Park, we weren’t quite ready to leave Zion. So our plan for the day would be breakfast, Watchman Trail, strike camp, lunch, East Rim Trail, then on up the Kaibab Plateau to Grand Canyon National Park. Not a bad plan for a day.


Mule Deer

Our little deer family returned for their breakfast while we were eating ours. And the reserved fawn was still reserved and the bouncy fawn was still ridiculously joyful at being alive and being a deer and being in this field on this morning.

Video: Brandon Hayes


Mule Deer



We did some pre-prep for striking camp before we set off on our hike, which meant we didn’t actually set out until about 9am.


The trailhead was a brief half-mile walk north of our campsite.


The path to the trailhead followed the east bank of the Virgin River, just at the transition between the riparian zone at the river’s edge and the scrubland beyond.


It was still early enough that even the bunchgrass cast long shadows.


Virgin River


Bridge Mountain (left) and The Watchman (right)

The trail itself was a one-mile out and back (two miles total) up the lower flanks of Bridge Mountain to a broad bench overlooking The Watchman (and West Temple and the Towers of the Virgin across the canyon). The vertical rise was only 300 feet to the bench.


The Watchman



Almost immediately, the trail provided great views above the tree canopy of the lower reaches of Zion Canyon.


Bridge Mountain


The Watchman


Bridge Mountain


Acton Encelia


Colorado Four O’Clock


The trail made a half circle starting by heading east on the flank of one bench and then ending by heading west up the flank it would eventually top out on. On the first half of the trail, the bench that was our ultimate destination rose to our right (south) above us on the other side of a short canyon. We were looking across to the bench (as in the image above).




At about the halfway point, the trail was carved into steeper cliffs at the top of the short canyon as we turned from one bench to another and began heading west.





The lower part of the trail was clearly visible to the east.


There were other morning hikers in groups comprised of families or friends on the trail. But we were well-spaced enough that it didn’t feel crowded. At one point, a shirtless, intense trail runner passed us on the way back down. Impressive though he was, careening down the trail as a speedy clip, he seemed a bit…much…for a trail that at mid-morning had a fair number of people on it.


The Watchman



Thou shalt not kill…


Image: Sean M. Santos

Above us (in the photo) we could see hikers along the westward-trending portion of the trail as it led up to the top of the bench.


We were in shadow under Bridge Mountain, but the western side of the canyon was bright in the morning light.


Lesser Indian Paintbrush


Towers of the Virgin


Towers of the Virgin


The Watchman

We emerged onto the bench as the sun topped Bridge Mountain, bathing us in warmth and dramatically backlighting Bridge Mountain.


Bridge Mountain


The West Temple


The West Temple


Towers of the Virgin


Bridge Mountain


Towers of the Virgin


Towers of the Virgin


The bottom of Zion Canyon


Springdale, Utah


Image: Sean M. Santos

Almost as soon as we arrived at the bench, we needed to head back down to finish striking camp. In retrospect, we probably gave Watchman Trail shorter shrift than it deserved.


Bridge Mountain



At the top of the trail’s curve, water seeped and trickled into the short canyon.




Image: Sean M. Santos


Big Sagebrush



Darkling Beetle 

Soon we were back on the canyon floor.

Back in our campsite we collapsed our tent and finished loading the Jeep. At a couple minutes to 11am, while we were folding our tent footprints in our now-emptied campsite, the campground hosts, active retirees, drove by in a golf cart. The wife called out in a chiding voice that checkout was at 11am. This rubbed us (particularly me) the wrong way since we were so clearly almost finished packing up. It would have been one thing if we’d been eating breakfast or still had our tent up or something. A “thanks for being here” or “safe travels” would have gone a long way. I understand that managing a campground in such a very busy park must be trying at times (immediately after chiding us, the hosts moved on to handle a campsite down the way where murder ravens were wreaking havoc on food and beer that had been left out), but it came across as unnecessarily schoolmarmish.

Oh well.

We drove over to the visitor center parking lot. We each had a couple more items we wanted to get from the bookstore. It was abominable to find parking, so Sean hopped out and ran in while I continued to circle looking for a space. Our intention had been to switch, but I was able to find a fifteen-minute parking spot, and I ran in and made my final purchases.

Afterward, we drove out the south entrance of the Park into Springdale. We went into an outfitter to get some warm clothes for Sean. The forecast for that night on the Kaibab Plateau was for temperatures to drop to around forty degrees.


Afterward, we got some lunch at Zion Canyon Brew Pub.



We sat on the patio and had our final meal beneath our friend, The Watchman. It had been such a great trip already, and we still had a whole other National Park to visit.


Image: Sean M. Santos

And after lunch, we were ready for one final adventure in Zion National Park.

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