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Zion’s entire historic, scenic Emerald Pools Trails Complex reopens after decade of closure

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Sep. 24, 2020 at 3:33 p.m.


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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SPRINGDALE, Washington County — For Zachary Almaguer, who works inside Zion National Park, the first walk through Middle Emerald Pools Trail and the rest of the trail complex felt different.

"When I hiked that section, it really was like seeing Zion again for the first time," said Almaguer, who is the spokesperson for Zion National Park Forever Project.

Park visitors are now able to access the entire Emerald Pool Trails Complex for the first time since heavy rains caused massive mudslides in 2010 that made the Middle Emerald Pools Trail impassable. Hikers were given access to the full trail complex Thursday, and a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the project is scheduled for Friday.

Visitors were already able to access the complex's lower and upper sections prior to this week, but the full route had been closed off since December 2010. The reopening comes after crews were able to complete an extensive project to restore the historic and scenic trail complex with the help of public and private funding.

"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," said Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh, in a written statement.

The Emerald Pools Trails Complex is one of the park’s oldest trail systems. It dates back to 1932 — nearly 13 years after Zion became Utah’s first national park. In fact, it was first constructed before the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Great Depression-era program, was formed. The CCC would go on to complete several projects at the park.

Harry Langley, an architect for the National Park Service stationed at Zion National Park, completed a study of a possible trail location near Zion Lodge. The proposal was quickly approved by park leaders, according to a National Register of Historic Places document compiled in 1984.

A photo of cars parked outside of the Zion Lodge at Zion National Park take in the 1920s. The Emerald Pools Trail was constructed not far from the lodge, on the other side of the Virgin River. (Photo: Utah State History)

"Construction (was approved) by small tools only, no compressor or jackhammers were used," the document states, adding that the cost for the original 0.8-mile trail was $654.80. That equates to about $12,500 today when accounting for inflation.

It expanded to what is now about a 3-mile loop and was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, along with many other Zion trails. It’s been a popular destination at the park since the 1930s.

"It provides some of the easiest and most accessible views into the main canyon across. It’s that accessibility that makes it so popular compared to some more strenuous hikes, like perhaps the famous Angels Landing. So, it sees an extremely large amount of visitors," Almaguer said.

However, it’s had some bumps even before 2010 because rock slides are not uncommon around the trail area and park. For example, work to repair drainings and retaining walls happened in 1967 after rock slides happened across the trail.

But there was nothing that could be done to prepare for what happened in 2010. In December that year, the park received nine consecutive days of rain during a period of unusually warm weather. The park reported that major flooding led to a landslide at the Middle Emerald Pools trail near the Sand Bench Trail.

The slide was originally believed to be minor; however, park officials soon noticed that the land was still moving after the rains stopped, according to the Zion National Park Forever Project. It continued to move after subsequent rain, and it was eventually determined that the trail had to close until an adjusted route was completed.

It didn’t help that another rockslide in 2016 also affected the trail area. The project included new drainage structures, stone retaining walls, and check steps to retain soil. Another rockslide in 2018 closed the upper portion of the complex for an entire year.

Following the landslides and other unforeseen events — rock falls at other places in the park, government shutdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic — the Middle Emerald Pool Trail finally reopened this week.

"Those challenges were really overcome by the trail crews, NPS rangers, and workers out there to accomplish this," Almaguer said. "It’s the tenacity of the workers and really all of the contract partners and different community partners that were involved in this."

This image shows the Middle Emerald Pools Trail before and after a trail restoration project. The trail reopened on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, for the first time since it had closed in 2010. (Photo: Zion National Park Forever Project)

While the original trail came with the cost of about $650, the restoration had a much steeper price tag. Zion National Park Forever Project officials said it took $1.2 million to complete the project over a three-year span that followed the National Park Service’s Centennial Challenge Grant Program in 2016.

Large grants from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, National Park Foundation, and S.L. Gimbel Foundation footed most of the bill. The Eccles Foundation’s $1 million grant, which was announced in 2017, also provided funds for youth programs at national parks.

"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 from the private sector," Bradybaugh said.

Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this year, which President Donald Trump signed in August. The act provides up to $1.9 billion in funding for maintenance projects at national parks and other recreation sites over the next five years. The bill didn’t provide any funds for the Emerald Pools Trails Complex project.

Almaguer explained that he believes the way the complex was funded will likely be a blueprint for how most trails are restored or maintained in the future.

"The Great American Outdoors Act will not solve all the funding problems in the parks, because those dollars are allocated for deferred infrastructure projects," he said. "While those monies will be so helpful in solving some of the infrastructure — bridges, roads and current buildings that need fixing at Zion — it will still need to require a group and a chorus of voices to fund the future of the park."

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Carter Williams

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