Zion’s historic Emerald Pools Trails Complex reopens after 10 years following massive mud and rockslides

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ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah (ABC4 News) — For the first time in more than a decade, visitors at Zion National Park can once again experience one of its most iconic and accessible trails shut down after heavy rains and mudslides made it impassable.

Despite continued storms, unpredictable landslides, a government shutdown, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the restoration of the historic Emerald Pools Trail network is now complete. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the completion of the project Friday afternoon.

Upper Left: Zion Forever Project director Mark Preiss and Lisa Eccles, president, COO, and a board member of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.
Upper Right: Eccles standing with trail workers responsible for renovation
Bottom: Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh

Visitors have had access to the complex’s lower and upper sections, but the full route has been blocked off since December 2010 when massive alluvial mud and rockslides wiped out a section of the Middle Emerald Pools Trail in Zion Canyon.

The landslide, just past the junction with the Sand Bench Trail, was precipitated by warm weather and nine consecutive days of heavy rain. The Virgin River peaked at 5,860 cubic feet per second, forcing the park to close the canyon as it faced major flooding.

The Middle Emerald Pools Trail before and after a trail restoration project. (Photo: Zion National Park Forever Project)

“The section of the slide that was most severe was the top of the slump, where the land slid 20 vertical feet,” trail crew supervisor James Brown reported. “Initially the park tried to reopen the trail but in just one weekend, the slide moved half a foot. This caused the park to close the Middle Emerald Pools trail and even today it continues to move a few inches or so each time it rains.”

The trail to the Emerald Pools complex dates back to 1932 when Civilian Conservation Corps workers cut the trail into the canyon’s hillside using hand tools. The complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

A $1 million grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, among Utah’s largest and most longstanding charitable organizations, led the public-private funding partnership for the three-year, $1.2 million restoration project, according to the Zion Forever Project, the park’s official nonprofit partner.

“It’s been a privilege for our foundation to help restore this important trail system knowing that millions more now and through the future will be enriched and inspired by the park’s majesty,” said Lisa Eccles, president, COO, and a board member of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.

The grant, announced in 2017, also provided funds for youth programs at national parks.

Photo of the ribbon cutting ceremony for the re-opening of the Middle Emerald Pools Trail, Sept. 25 (ABC4 News)

“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,” said Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh.

Engineers, geologists, and masons used hand tools to fix the 85-year-old trail, requiring “extensive reengineering, realignment, and reconstruction,” according to park officials.

Tony Ballard, a road supervisor at Zion National Park, said the project took meticulous attention to detail and planning and the end result is “very satisfying.”

“The laborious task of dressing the rocks, shoveling dirt, all kinds of work that goes into building a trail, it’s not easily accessible,” Ballard said. “You do that for 10 hours in 105 or 110 degree heat and turn around and do the same thing again every morning for the next four mornings. It’s quite a project.”

The new design meets all current technological requirements and provides best practices to ensure structural soundness and sustainability.

“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,” Bradybaugh added.

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