The Sand Bench Trail
is the least busy of the seven hiking paths in Zion Canyon, at the center of Zion National Park
, despite still having spectacular views. Intended primarily for horses, in particular guided rides between spring and late summer, it is also much used by regular hikers, and consists of two sections, a 2.7 mile loop over the sandy bench (result of an ancient landslide) from which it is named, and a 1.5 mile connector running close to the Virgin River, linking with one branch of the Emerald Pools Trail
; it may be joined either here, near Zion Lodge
, or close to the loop section at Court of the Patriarchs
, shuttle stops 5 and 4 respectively.
The connecting path runs beneath cottonwoods and other trees, and is generally enclosed and shady, while the bench section is more open, exposed and hot in summer; passing a few rock formations, with grand views of cliffs on each side of the canyon. There is also a short riparian section around Birch Creek
, a permanent stream that crosses path below the Court of the Patriarchs. The total distance, including the loop, connector and link paths is 4.6 miles, starting and ending at the two shuttle stops, while the elevation gain is a modest 500 feet, mostly when climbing to the bench from the creek.
The varied habitats, of woodland, streamside, scrub, rocks and sandy meadows results in many types of wildflowers blooming in spring and summer. Autumn is good for leaf colors, from the cottonwood trees.
Trail from Zion Lodge
Starting opposite Zion Lodge, one of the Virgin River footbridges takes hikers to the west side of the canyon, beneath big cottonwood trees, and to a T-junction, with paths north and south, part of the Emerald Pools Loop. The Sand Bench Trail begins a short distance down the southern path, forking left at a second intersection. This trail runs past more cottonwoods and other trees, staying close to the river, through generally moist, shady surroundings with limited views of the cliffs on the east side of the canyon. After 1.2 miles it reaches another junction, in an open sandy place, from where the left fork climbs slightly, follows a sandy ridge then descends to a patch of trees, crosses the Virgin River again on a similar-looking bridge to the first, and uses a short service road to reach the Court of the Patriarchs shuttle stop.
The continuation of the trail drops down to Birch Creek, flowing through an overgrown corridor with a few cascades and pools, which provide nice reflections of the cliffs above, all shaded by huge cottonwood trees. A short distance beyond the creek is a sign at the start of the loop section, for which the anticlockwise direction is preferred as here the elevation gain is more gradual. This (right) portion of the loop is generally drier, more exposed, sandier and has slightly less good views than the other half; it rises up a sandy slope then crosses a large area of grassland before entering trees again, at the far side of the circuit, where it passes a corral, a rest area for the horses. The trail then curves towards the river, 700 feet below, and soon reaches the rim of the bench, which has grand views in all directions. Around here are a few colorful sandstone boulders, all relics from the landslide off the cliffs high above. A gradual descent begins after a while, followed by a much steeper section, down via many steps, into the woods again, and back to the junction.
Topographic Map of the Sand Bench Trail