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The hikes that steal all the attention in Zion National Park are swiftwater slot canyons and sky-scraping ridgelines, but trails here don’t have to be death-defying to be inspiring. Chinle Trail, an outlying path in the surrounding valleys, offers a nice alternative to steep stone and the typical crowds.
Chinle is a journey for lovers of open spaces. It is one of Zion’s desert trails, those off the high plateau and out of the canyons, in lower elevation and on smoother ground. The terrain is far from mundane, however. As the Chinle trail rolls over hills and dips into dry washes, it earns fantastic and rarely seen perspectives of the landscape. This is the best view you can get of the fortress-like walls of Mount Kinesava, the prominent peak seen when driving to Zion from the south. Other eyefuls include the jagged spires of Eagle Crags to the south, the forested flat top of Gooseberry Mesa, and the towering West Temple to the east.
The desert also yields many smaller pleasures, like fragrant wildflowers in the spring, lizards and rabbits darting across the trail, and on Chinle Trail in particular, petrified wood from prehistoric forests. About four miles into the hike the route crosses the petrified forest in Utah, where small and colorful pieces of fossilized trees can be found scattered around. These are for viewing only, not for keeping. They should be left in place for others to enjoy and collecting anything from national parks is illegal. Leave No Trace is a practice to follow at all times. This trail crosses the Zion Wilderness Area, which is protected from many human impacts. Keep it this way by walking only on trails or in washes (Huber Wash, Scoggins Wash, and Coalpits Wash), observing the group size limit of 12, packing out all waste, and camping only in designated sites.
Chinle Trail is also a great choice for a winter day hike. Many who visit the desertscape of Zion in the off-season are caught off guard by cold and snow. At over 5,000-feet elevation in most of the park, this is the "high desert," which means huge seasonal temperature swings. Winter is a beautiful time to visit, when snow crowns the summits all around, but it’s no time to be hiking the Narrows or Angels Landing. Luckily, if the canyons are too cold, the sunny hillside which Chinle Trail traverses may be just the place to go.
The trail begins rather oddly in the Anasazi Plateau residential neighborhood, but has a designated parking area and trailhead. Walking through the neighborhood at first and then a few miles along a wide, sandy path is initially uninspiring, but about three miles in the trail feels all of a sudden escaped from society and erased from time. As it climbs higher, juniper forests spring up and great views unfold. The attraction to this hike is the all-around secluded experience rather than one climactic destination, so there’s no need to hike the full trail to reap all Chinle has to offer. Hike as far as you wish, then turn around and head back to the car whenever you are ready.