Emerald Pools Trail Restoration

Rangers assess trail damage resulting from several large rain storms.

Trails are a literal part of the Zion landscape. They meticulously ebb and flow with the undulating terrain. Each trail in Zion National Park is a feat of engineering that relies on the skills of trained park staff as well as expert masons and craftspeople. When access to a trail is blocked, it means more than a lost recreation activity; it is a missed opportunity to connect with the natural and cultural heritage so wisely preserved for future generations.

Closed for more than a decade, the Middle Emerald Pools trail was plagued by storms, rock falls, and flooding. This popular trail provides one of the most iconic views of the main Zion canyon, while also being extremely accessible. The Lower Emerald Pools was also in dire need of repair and rehabilitation after a major rock fall and years of use made entire sections unpassable.
This past month, with the help of Zion Forever Project supporters and a host of funding partners, these lost trails have now been fully restored.

The $1.2 million restoration project required the tenacity and grit of the women and men in the National Park Service and the generosity of donors, at both the grassroots level and beyond.
Besides gap funding provided by Zion Forever Project, other major sources of funding were led by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service Centennial Challenge Match Grant, and the S.L. Gimbel Foundation.

Zion trail crews had to transport all materials long distances to the construction site.

“This major reconstruction and restoration project, bringing back to life one of the Park’s most iconic trail networks, would have been impossible without the generous support of our partners. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, Park visitors can once again experience some of Zion’s most spectacular natural features through this restored trail complex. These kinds of partnerships are vital in caring for all our national parks for the benefit of the American people. Thanks to supporters nationwide, we’ll continue to get things done in Zion in the seasons ahead.” – Jeff Bradybaugh, Superintendent Zion National Park.

The Eccles Foundation, based in Salt Lake City, is an organization truly committed to investing in Utah projects and initiatives. Their foundational support was part of a larger $1 million grant that also funded youth education in the parks and allowed more than 20,000 schoolchildren to have a Zion National Park experience. Lisa Eccles, President of the foundation, understands the importance of a quality national park experience for all Americans.

Chief of Resource Management Cass Bromley and Lisa Eccles hike the newly reconstructed trail

“At the Eccles Foundation, we take special pride in the five national parks that call Utah home, knowing they are not only beloved by millions worldwide, but also contribute significantly to our state’s outdoor industry and rural economy. Zion is truly a national treasure, deserving of our careful attention and stewardship. It’s been a privilege for our Foundation to lead the effort to restore this important, historic trail system, which will ensure that millions more – now and for generations to come – can be enriched and inspired by Zion’s unparalleled majesty and beauty. It’s a testament to what our national parks offer the world.”

Recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, the Middle Emerald Pools Trail was originally constructed more than 85 years ago in 1932 for just under $700. The planning to restore it began in earnest in 2016, but numerous obstacles presented themselves along the way. Despite this, Treacy Stone, Zion’s Chief of Facilities Maintenance, said the NPS trails and roads crews did not let up, “With so much going on in the park and with a limited team, we just had to keep pressing ahead. There were other rock fall events in the park, and now the pandemic. Even with the best planning, adjustments had to be made. We were no longer looking at the finish line; we were just trying to make it to the next waypoint. Looking now at the completed project, it really is amazing what the teams were able to accomplish in such rugged and isolated terrain, but for the trails crews that’s just everyday work.” Teams used large motorized buggies, called canycoms, to haul tools, supplies, and surfacing material up hundreds of feet of steep terrain. They utilized motorized and hand powered tools, often while hanging from ropes and harnesses suspended far above the canyon floor.

Their efforts were rewarded by returning access to hundreds of thousands each year. In 2019 alone, more than 570,000 hikers traversed the remaining open sections of  the Emerald Pools Complex, making it the second most popular trail in the park just behind the Riverside Walk which leads to the popular Narrows hike.

Lisa Eccles visited the park on September 25th for an official trail opening.  As the official gold scissors cut through a traditional blue ribbon, America regained access to this iconic hike.

Lisa Eccles joins Superintendent Bradybaugh and Director Mark Preiss to officially reopen the trail

In remarks at the opening ceremony Zion Forever Director, Mark Preiss, explained this model for success will continue to drive future projects that benefit the entire nation. “This reconstruction gives access to these essential natural places of beauty and sanctuary for all the Park’s guests, local, national and international. This historic trail, returns that experience to visitors once again, through the generosity and vision of Lisa Eccles and the Eccles Foundation. This greater investment sets the foundation for how we provide access to all of Utah’s national parks in the seasons ahead, sustaining these sacrosanct place of wonder.”

Zion continues to break records even in the midst of a global pandemic, with visitation in September breaking historical records, placing fall visitation numbers in line with previous numbers seen only in the peak of summer. The appreciation for outdoor spaces is greater than ever before, and with that appreciation comes an increased need for future projects and funding. Zion Forever would like to thank all who contributed to this truly historic trail project, and to those who acknowledge our work in the park, helping to maintain and enhance the Zion experience for the next-generation of park leaders and stewards.

One of many pools on display along the Emerald Pools Trail.