Summers over. It seems hard to believe as I push my way through the changing fall foliage. Kolob Terrace is a great place to hike during the summer months. The increase in elevation makes hiking cool and enjoyable, but fall comes first to the higher altitudes, you can feel it in the air, see it in the leaves.
I arrived at the Wildcat canyon trailhead at about 6:45 am. Still dark, but just enough growing light in the eastern sky that I didn't worry about using a headlamp to begin my hike. This is my final long hike of the season. I had hoped to summit the South Guardian Angel last week but was recovering from a pulled muscle. Feeling good, I began checking the weather to make sure it would cooperate, and a long number of daylight hours. September and October are great months to hike Zion. Cooler temperatures and days still long enough to reach some out of the way places. I was surprised to find I had lost so much daylight by waiting just a week. But the temperatures were expected to be 88 degrees. Perfect.
Following the Wildcat Canyon, Subway, and Northgate Peaks trail, turning first toward the Subway then staying on the well-worn Northgate peaks trail. The sun is just beginning to shine on the tip of the Northgate Peak West, as I arrive at the overlook. North Guardian Angel is stunning in the morning light. Dropping off the ridge line to the east I follow the well-worn path to the base of Northgate Peak East. The trail skirts the base of the Peak and meanders across the vegetative plateau between Northgate Peaks and North Guardian Angel.
According to my beta, the trail drops into the Subway from between the North Guardian Angel and the small sandstone rise to the east. There is supposed to be ample cairns to guide the "steep descent" into North Fork creek bottom. I continue to proceed down, following the TOPO map I had printed, but I hadn't seen a single cairn yet. Kolob Terrace is extreme backcountry, in every sense of the word, it is not a place to be backtracking often or lost. I continued carefully to drop down the "rugged ridge line" according to my instructions.
Finally! I see a small cairn off the next little rise, then another, and another. I'm on the right track. Dropping into the Subway, I am impressed that someone could find a way down. Trying to follow the cairns, I backtrack several times only to find that the trail is now dropping into a different wash, then up and over and into another wash again. It is a jigsaw puzzle of wash, gullies and ridge lines. I arrive at the canyon's edge. Beautiful. But I've lost my way down again, backtracking I note another small trail, up and over and down into another canyon again. So I continue to push my way through the tangle of trees, scrub oak, and bush. Slipping, sliding, hanging on to anything growing, I stumble out into the river bottom. Wow.
The Subway river bottom is peaceful and quiet, just a trickle of water. I drop my pack and grab a snack. I'm glad my wife suggested I bring extra energy snacks because I eat more that I usually do on my first break. The beta I had suggested topping off water supplies so I do. I'm carrying a 64 oz camel pack and two 32 oz frozen bottles. I drink from the frozen supplies then top them off. I plan on leaving the frozen bottles somewhere during my ascent of the main portion of the hike.
Directly across the river, is a sandy gully with lots of footprints. Through the trees, I can barely make out Left Fork Arch. I take some pictures in and around the arch. Continuing up the ramp is the crux for this hike. My beta calls it a 4th class move, others put it as 5.4. I'm going with the 5.4 as it is a somewhat awkward overhead boulder move. Good hand grips with small ledges make the move possible, but a challenge. Webbing around a solid tree at the top allows for belay of weaker climbers and rappelling. The second set of beta I printed says a class 3 move can be found in the next gully to the right from Left Fork Arch which leads to the ledge system above. I didn't have a chance to verify.
Above the crux is gully scramble, dead trees, rock slides. At a sort of junction, stay to the left. A large chockstone fills this gully and some scramble up and around is required. It was apparent some people are brave enough to crawl underneath. A short ledge to climb, then switchbacks to the saddle, marking the end of the climb out of the Subway. A great place to rest. The views across canyon are stunning of North Guardian Angel. The moon was setting behind this monolith of sandstone which made it even that more beautiful. Looking across at the route that descends into the Subway, I felt more than a touch of trepidation about climbing out on the return trip.
Looking at the trail ahead, I dropped into the wash behind the saddle and climbed up the small ridge on the other side. I would recommend skirting to the north and around the end of the ridge. Saving some much-needed energy for the climb ahead. Follow this wash south. A faint trail exists here and there, but head primarily in a southern direction. As the gully ends, and the Slickrock begins, a beautiful table rock hoodoo marks a perfect place to rest. It was 12:15 when I found the hoodoo so I took it as a good sign. Definitely a table with a view! The stunning summit ridge of South Guardian Angel looms past a series of slick rock bowls and hoodoos.
The Slickrock bowls are class 3 scramble, good shelf systems allow for access. Be sure to look behind you at the changing landscape, several entrance points exist and you don't want to drop all the way to the bottom of the wash to exit. At the ridge line I was unprepared for the sight that awaited me. Looking over the entire Kolob Terrace section of the park is a wonderful sight.
Turning south, begin the long beautiful ascent up South Guardian Angel. The travel is class 2 - 3. Once the sandstone turns white there are several class 3+ areas. None I would consider class 4, again plenty of shelf systems allow for good, solid footing. As the ridgeline gives way to the high summit, continue south skirting the several hoodoos that dot the summit area. A short scramble behind a pine tree and up to the final hoodoo is class 3+. Drop low and horizontal to the ledge system keep it under class 4. Scramble up and the summit of South Guardian Angel is reached. No summit cairn exists, a small pile of rocks protects the summit registration. I signed my name and relaxed. This place! Looking south-southeast the main Zion Canyon is easily spotted. South the road along the ridge by Sunset Canyon Ranch. North Fork creek with glistening water, it is easy to picture hikers looking for the exit ramp. West is the red dome of Tabernacle Peak and further west is the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness area. Continuing around the compass is Red Butte, the cinder cones of Spendlove and Firepit. White against the blue/green trees, Pine Valley peak is stunning. But the south face of North Guardian Angel, in all its glory, is a wonder to behold. Wildcat, Rams Peak, and Greatheart Mesa.
I'm hours late on my timetable, but I can't pull myself away from the summit. Finally, I begin the long down climb. Dropping back into the Subway, I realize I never did drop my extra water bottles, both are empty now, and I only have a few oz left in my camel pack. I filter another 64 oz for the hike out. In a hurry to climb out and be on recognizable terrain when it turns dark, I almost miss the setting sun hitting South Guardian Angel. It is memorizing, as the setting sun softens the hard rock into a dreamscape.
By the time I hit the high plateau it is dark. I use my headlamp and GPS to pick my way along the faint bushwhacking trail back to the main Northgate Peaks trail. Zion takes on a special beauty at night. In the parking lot once again, I'm the last one out. I don't mind. As I drop my pack, unlock the car. I look up. Stars and they are out in force tonight, along I'm sure, with more than just the two Guardian Angels keeping watch over Zion tonight.