Most tourists visiting Zion enjoy seeing the iconic Checkerboard Mesa from the parking lot and viewing area down the road. Although technical climbers occasionally make their way right up the front face of Checkerboard Mesa, a non-technical scrambling route up the east chute also leads to the top of the White Cliffs. While this is a fairly short hike, it involves a good deal of bushwhacking, scrambling obstacles, and backcountry navigation that lead to two separate viewpoints: one on the northern tip that looks down on the bare slickrock of the famous formation and a second higher viewpoint from the top of the actual summit block.
WARNING: This off-trail route involves a fair amount of navigation challenges as well as a few spots of Class 2/3 scrambling on loose rock with some exposure. This hike is not recommended for casual hikers with no wilderness or route-finding experience.
|Rating:||Fairly short but strenuous scrambling route with exposure|
|Access:||Route 9 roadside parking|
|Time Required:||3-6 hours|
|Length:||2.4 miles (round-trip)|
|Elevation Change:||900-ft ascent from Route 9 to the summit|
|Technical Challenges:||Navigation through rugged and exposed terrain, several Class 2-3 climbing obstacles.|
|Seasons:||Late spring through fall, although summer can be very hot.|
From the Checkerboard Mesa viewing area or one of the closer roadside parking spots, make your way to the front of Checkerboard Mesa and then hike around to the east of the formation. You will soon find yourself in a small drainage on the east side. Now things start to get interesting. Continue up the wash and make your way past various obstacles like boulders, downed logs, etc. A fair amount of bushwhacking is involved, but staying fairly close to the base of Checkerboard Mesa on the right will be the easiest route.
The wash eventually becomes much steeper and you will be faced with several little Class 2-3 scrambling obstacles through boulders and debris to make your way up the chute. There are a few taller dryfall obstacles that can be bypassed by short climb-arounds on the left. If anything looks too daunting, play it safe and call it a day. As you approach the top of the wash, the walls will get fairly close and you will leave the rocky chute on the right and find a trail-of-use that continues up the steep sandy forested hill to the left. Keep on climbing and soon enough you will be standing on top of the saddle between this wash and a wash to the south with Checkerboard Mesa to your right (west).
Now that you are on top of the White Cliffs, there are (atleast) two viewpoints worth visiting. If you picture Checkerboard Mesa as a big cargo ship, the view from the north end just above the famous checkerboard formations is like standing on the bow of the ship while the view from the actual summit block (on top of the yellow Temple Cap formation) is like standing on the bridge. We'll visit the bridge first...
From the north-south saddle that you climbed up, head west and scramble to the top of the summit block. (There is no single correct route; find a path that works for you.) Once on top, head north and no time you will be standing at the "bridge view" looking out at a wonderful panoramic view of the Upper East Canyon with the "bow" of Checkerboard Mesa roughly 100 feet below. Since there is no easy way to scramble down (that I have found), in order to visit the bow, we'll have to go back to the north-south saddle.
Back at the north-south saddle, hike north down the hill just for a minute or two and look for a trail of use that heads northwest into the trees. The trail may eventually disappear, but follow the outward-sloping shelf north making your way through the thick vegetation. (If you stay too close to the base of the summit block, the bushwhacking may be more difficult.) Soon enough, you will be standing on the bow of the ship with more great views all around you. From the edge, you can look right down Checkerboard Mesa's famous slickrock formation to see Route 9 far below and the White Cliffs of the Upper East Canyon surrounding in all directions. When you have had your fill, make your way back to the north-south saddle and carefully make your way back down the chute to Route 9.
This is a great little route with great views from the top of one of Zion's most iconic formations, but the scrambling obstacles, exposure, and route finding make this a bit more of a serious adventure. This is not a good choice for casual tourists.