Zion National Park: Tackling Mt. Kinesava

A rusty gate on the hike to Mt Kinesava in Zion.

In the southern reaches of Zion National Park, seemingly lightyears away from the rambunctious crowds of the main canyon, Mount Kinesava soars above the surrounding desert plains. Access to the 7,000+ foot peak is largely trail-less, steep and difficult, presenting a barrier to entry for most hikers, while an enticing challenge to others.

Despite the relentlessly steep terrain and sheer sandstone cliffs that deny any easy route to the peak, the top of Mount Kinesava is no stranger to human steps. People have been setting foot on its summit presumably for thousands of years, evidenced by the Native American petroglyphs etched into the weathered walls of the mountain’s upper plateau. In a place where you likely won’t see another human, there is a unique feeling of companionship and camaraderie when you reach the mountain top. You acquire an appreciation for those that completed the feat thousands of years before you without hiking shoes, water bottles, or Clif Bars.

Kinesava is the Paiute deity of trickery, a fitting name for a mountain that deceives, seeming to grow in height and difficulty as you ascend its sharp, outstretching slopes.

As an avid backpacker, Zion National Park has been on my mind for years. However, I live in coastal California and am surrounded by a multitude of world-class backpacking destinations, so the high desert of southern Utah had eluded me for locations that are easier to get to. In 2019, I decided that the time had arrived to visit Zion, an appropriate gift to myself for my 27th birthday.

My original plan was to complete a three-night trek through the national park, but those plans were squandered by heavy snowfall this winter. I began looking for day hikes that would be equally as exhilarating.

As I was browsing the internet for options, Mt. Kinesava continually caught my eye. The challenge of trail finding, the 3,500 foot ascent up brick-red sandstone, the petroglyphs hidden near the mountain’s peak, and the solitude away from the crowds all spoke to me. I knew this was the hike that would highlight my trip to Utah.

The challenge of trail finding, the 3,500 foot ascent up brick-red sandstone, the petroglyphs hidden near the mountain’s peak, and the solitude away from the crowds all spoke to me.

I like to be over-prepared for my hikes and my preparation for Mt. Kinesava was no exception. I scoured the internet for information and pictures of the hike and surprisingly enough, there isn’t a whole lot of great information out there. I pieced together trail reports, maps, images and post comments to map out the hike in my head.

I figured that this post could fill that void and serve the purpose as a trail guide for those who are planning on or contemplating doing the hike. (This post had the best description that I could find online, but the photos are too small to provide helpful visual aid.) My goal is to create a trail guide, as well as a trip report from my own experience.

To describe the route up to the top of Mt. Kinesava, I broke the hike down into seven sections that you can see on the map below. The hike starts at the parking lot of the Chinle Trail outside of the national park boundaries and uses a series of ‘weaknesses’ — breaks in the cliffs where steep sediment creates a path up to the next cliff layer — to gain the summit. The final section of the hike gets very steep and turns into more climbing than hiking before leveling out to a large plateau from which the true peak protrudes another 500 feet or so.

No matter how well you feel you know the route, I recommend downloading the route on All Trails, which I used as a GPS guide to corroborate our actual path.

A map of the route to Mt Kinesava in Zion.

1 – Chinle Trail
2 – First ridge
3 – Second ridge
4 – Third Ridge
5 – Up to the cliff base
6 – Class 3-4 climbing
7 – Upper plateau + peak

Mileage round trip: 8.1 miles according to All Trails (I somehow logged 11 miles on my iPhone, not sure which is correct)
Elevation gain: 3,537 feet

Just getting started: Chinle Trail + first ridge

The start for this hike is the Chinle trailhead just outside the park. There’s an ample dirt lot to park in. We were just one of two cars there when we started and ended the hike. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles down the road dozens of cars are backed up to enter the national park.

The trail starts out nice and easy, a good warm up for the thousands of vertical feet that lay ahead. Follow the Chinle Trail until you hit the gate that marks the entrance to Zion National Park. From the gate, you want to hang a right to the east and follow the fence for a bit, eyeing an access point to the next section, ‘first ridge’.

There is a prominent, seemingly impenetrable cliff band that surrounds Mount Kinesava like a moat. However, there is one, ever-so-slight break in the cliff where a steep trail lets you pass, marked ‘second ridge’ on my map. The goal is to get there. There are three ridges that you will find laid before you as you follow the boundary fence. You can pick any of these three ridges to accomplish the ‘first ridge’ section of the hike. The map on the All Trails app seems to have taken the west ridge, while we opted for the center ridge which seemed like the most direct path. The east ridge climbs up and then drops down a bit to meet the other two, adding unnecessary elevation gain to the hike, so I would say avoid that one.

The flora of the southwest desert section of Zion includes an array of cacti and spiny shrub, some of which contain nearly microscopic spines. For this reason, we followed a wash up to the base of the first ridge, which was not the most direct, but provided a trail free of hazardous vegetation.

Preparing to hike Mt Kinesava at the Chinle Trail parking lot.
Getting ready for a long day’s hike at the parking lot. Temperatures were chilly in the mornings, around freezing, but would rapidly become pleasant as soon as the sunlight flooded over the eastern peaks.
Chinle trailhead in Zion.
Chinle trailhead. The trail goes much deeper into the southwest desert section of the park, but for the purposes of this hike, you just need the first .8 miles.
Mt. Kinesava in Zion National Park.
As you hike the Chinle Trail, Mt. Kinesava unmistakably enters your view. The true peak is not the one that it appears to be in the photo. It actually is hidden from sight in this perspective.
A gate leading to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
After nearly a mile, you come across this gate that marks the boundary of Zion National Park. Pass through the unlocked gate and latch it again.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
As you follow the fence east, you can see the three ridges that you can take ahead of you, with a thick field of shrub standing in your way. Be sure to cover your legs and bring tweezers, because you will be pulling spines out of your socks, pants, shoes, backpack, and even the grips of your hiking poles, as we discovered.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
‘First ridge’ is a relative breeze. There is a faint trail to follow as you begin to rise high above the plain below. You will naturally want to start shedding all excess layers as your blood gets pumping at this point (depending on the season, of course).
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
When you top out at ‘first ridge’ you will come across these power poles. These are a good trail marker. Just beyond the power lines you can see the small break in the cliff band, which is your next destination, ‘second ridge’.

Keep going up: Second ridge, third ridge and cliff base

The first ridge ascent will get you huffing and puffing a bit, but the hardest sections of the hike still lay ahead of you.

The second ridge, which unlike the first set of ridges, is the only way to pass onto the next sediment layer. It’s much steeper and more challenging. The ridge does have the remnants of a trail, but the hike is much steeper, and the dirt condition is much worse. The dirt is loose and requires careful footing. Hiking poles were a life saver in this section, both for the added strength for hauling your body up thousands of feet and the extra sense of safety and balance in areas of unsure footing.

Power up the second ridge until you reach a plateau. From here, the faint trail that you were somewhat following before disappears. Navigational skills become crucial as there are any number of routes that you can take. You will now enter the section labeled ‘third ridge’. Aim towards the peak and meander through the hillside as you gain elevation. You may find yourself backtracking a bit as you hit dead ends or realize that there are easier routes than the section you chose.

Eventually, you will reach another ridge, follow this ridge to the right (northeast) until you top out. You’ll have to descend a short bit to start the next section to gain the base of the cliff side.

You now begin section 5, ‘up to the cliff base’, where you will do exactly as the title says. Physically, this may be the most challenging section, as it is similar in steepness to ‘second ridge’ and possibly contains worse footing with the loose dirt. You are aiming towards the vegetation line that heads up to the summit. After a tough section of ascent, take a well-deserved break and prepare for the climbing section of the hike.

Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Hiking up the second ridge. You can see that there still is a faint trail, but it is painfully steep and loose. Be careful with your footing.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Topping out after the second ridge. Break time with Mt. Kinesava approaching, but still a very far distance away.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
There are rocks placed along the route of ‘third ridge’. They aren’t numerous enough to follow, nor should they be relied on, but they provide a nice sense of assurance that you are on the right track when you do come across them every now and then. The town of Springdale is seen in the distance.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
As you begin the section up to the cliff base, you need to know your route to the top. That line of vegetation that goes from left to right is your route past the cliffs, so aim for the start of that vegetation line.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Once you get to the cliff base, it’s a mix of climbing and hiking from here on out.

Time to climb

When you reach the cliff base, this is a great time to take a break and size up the task that you have ahead of you, which is by far the most dangerous on the hike. You’ll need to climb up some very steep sections of sandstone to reach the upper plateau. This is a great moment to think hard about your coordination and level of physical condition after climbing thousands of feet. Think hard about if this is the right hike for you and do not give into commitment bias. Just because you hiked this far does not mean you need to continue.

As we were climbing to the cliff base, there was an older couple descending (the only other people we saw all day). They smartly decided that the climbing was not for them. They must have been in their sixties and I was utterly impressed that they have even made it to that point.

The man gave us a friendly hello and began to spew advice about hiking Mt. Kinesava. His passion for the mountain radiated with every word that left his mouth and it was evident that he had conquered the hike before, clearly during a more youthful stage of his life. I didn’t catch his name, but he explained in detail the rest of the route for us, and even directed us where to find the petroglyphs, which I was surprised by. Locals tend to be protective of their petroglyph sites, rightfully so. I was taken back by his positive attitude and trust in us, but I suppose the assumption is that petroglyph vandals will not go through the hassle of climbing thousands of feet. Those first two ridges will definitely weed out anyone climbing with the wrong intentions.

While his advice was greatly welcomed, it was all just reinforcing what I already knew. I had done my research on this hike. If anything, the encounter with this couple only planted some seeds of doubt as to the difficulty of the upcoming climbing section. “Well, they couldn’t do it, but we can surely do it, …right?”

For anyone who doesn’t know the 1-5 climbing scale (don’t worry, I had to google it too), class 3 is described as “scrambling, a rope might be carried.” Class 4 is described as, “simple climbing, often with exposure. A rope is often used. A fall on Class 4 rock could be fatal. Typically, natural protection can be easily found.”

Now, I had not done much climbing outside of some boulder scrambling and a recent belay certification course that I took a few weeks prior. I honestly did not know what to expect, and the low quality photos that I was able to find of this section online exacerbated my doubts.

We used the area where the climbing began to stash our unnecessary items, bringing only the bare essentials with us to the top so my backpack would become less burdensome when making technical moves up the rock. We brought a bottle of water, what food we had left (we didn’t want to leave it behind for the squirrels to find), and some remaining light-weight items that wouldn’t make a difference if left behind or not. Hiking poles, empty water bottles, and shed layers of clothing were dumped.

The climbing is generally class 3, broken up by a few more challenging class 4 sections. The climbing section is divided by the “cat walk”, which is a cliff band about five to six feet wide that connects the dots on the climb. This section definitely has the most vertical exposure, but is not the most dangerous section. I had read countless people talk about how spooked out they were about this part, but frankly it wasn’t so bad. If you can walk on a sidewalk without falling into the street, you can do the cat walk. This is where my brother, Nik, and his girlfriend, Carli, decided to call it a day and myself and my girlfriend, Madison, pushed on.

The climbing section is divided by a section called the “cat walk”, which is a cliff band about five to six feet wide that connects the dots on the climb.

Directly following the cat walk there are a few chest-high ledges, which in my opinion are the hardest of the hike.

Meticulously selecting every step and hand hold and with the use of a little teamwork and motivation, Madison and I soon topped out at the plateau, with the true peak of Mt. Kinesava looming above us.

Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
I did my best to take as many photos as I could to show what the climbing section is like, without being stupid and taking photos in dangerous places. These photos are what I wish I had before the hike. If you are in shape and coordinated with relatively easy rock climbing, you are a candidate to complete this hike.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
You had to be very cautious to not rain rocks down on those below you. In the sketchier sections, we were going one at a time because rocks would tend to go rolling down the hill behind you.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Everyone waiting at the top of each section, pointing out the good holds and route up the rock.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
The infamous ‘cat walk’, which connects the lower section of climbing to the upper level of climbing via a cliff band. From this perspective you might be thinking, “Hell nah.”
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Once you actually get to the cat walk, it’s not so bad as it appears. Hug the cliff and you will be fine.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Madison and I continued, with more Class 4 climbing to reach the top.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
The final pitch before reaching the plateau.
Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Onto the final stage of the hike. It’s hard to imagine when looking at the peak from below that there is this expansive, sandy plateau that awaits you on top. It provides multiple view points of the countless mesas, peaks, and valleys in the surrounding terrain.

The reward: Petroglyphs and a final push to the peak

Once you have arrived at the plateau, the hardest hiking and climbing is behind you. The route to the peak of Mt. Kinesava from here is class 3 climbing at best, mostly just steep hiking on loose dirt. If you still have some gas left in the tank, push on for the last several hundred feet of elevation gain to reach the peak.

First, to catch your breath, go on a stroll across the flat plateau to search for the Native American petroglyphs. I won’t disclose the exact location to respect the locals that protect these sites, but I can say that they are in the above photo and that there are specific directions online that will lead you there (exactly how I found them).

The fascinating part of experiencing petroglyphs is putting yourself in the shoes of the artist.

The petroglyphs feature a spectacle of various of designs including sheep, humans, trees, spirals, and seemingly abstract lines. The fascinating part of experiencing petroglyphs is putting yourself in the shoes of the artist. The truth is, no one knows for certain what they mean. That has been lost with the millennia. These particular petroglyphs clearly must have a significant, sacred purpose, due to the fact that they are on top of a mountain thousands of feet above the valleys below in a location that would have been excruciatingly difficult to reach with the technology available at the time. If they were keeping track of how many sheep they had, that could have been done in a more convenient location.

Once your fascination is satisfied exploring the petroglyph walls, it’s time to summit the peak for a 360 degree view of Zion and the surrounding area. From what I understand, there is no correct way to get to the top, but I started on the slopes of the smaller peak and crossed over to the higher peak when they met at a saddle. No technical climbing was required, just difficult hiking on loose dirt.

The top of Mt. Kinesava does not disappoint. To the northeast you get views of the classic peaks of Zion Canyon, including the neighboring West Temple, the highest peak in the park. Off to the west you can see the snowcapped 10,000 foot + peaks of the Pine Valley mountain range. And to the south, you can see far off into the distance towards the mountains that rise to form the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s a reward well-worth the burning calf muscles and cactus spines embedded under your skin.

Trail to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
This formation reminded me of a sandstone halfpipe. This opening provided great views to the south.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Finding the petroglyphs doesn’t take too much time at all. You have to fight your way through some trees and Spanish dagger plants. I didn’t see any bighorn sheep in Zion, but I saw their footprints aplenty. They clearly had a special relationship with the natives.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Humans with their 10 fingers and toes exaggerated.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
I presume that much of the art has been lost to time. In this panorama you can see the dark sections of the rock are covered with petroglyphs, while large sections have lost their dark desert varnish, and therefore any petroglyphs that were carved there.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
More sheep. Some bigger than others.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
One person online theorizes that this figure is actually the deity Kinesava.
Petroglyphs on Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Views of the West Temple from Mt Kinesava in Zion.
The backside of Kinesava is an even more dramatic cliff than the side we climbed. Here I am at the final saddle before the peak looking off towards the West Temple, the highest peak in Zion.
Pine Valley Mountain Range in Utah.
Off to the west the towering peaks of the Pine Valley Mountain Range still had a good blanket of snow in late March. Kinesava had a few snow patches here and there in the shade, but not much.
Madison Snively looks off towards Zion Canyon.
Madison conquering the peak.
The town of Springdale in Zion.
The town of Springdale thousands of feet below.
Looking north towards Zion Canyon.

What goes up, must come down

After enjoying the peak, retrace your steps down the mountain. Either knowing the route well or having GPS is exceedingly important on the way down. As I explained, there are very specific ridges that allow you to pass these cliff bands. You need to find these passes. The ridges that were ever-so-obvious on the ascent, are not visible on the descent. It only takes a bit of navigational skills, but if you are not attentive to your route, you may stray slightly in the wrong direction and be faced with a sheer cliff instead of the correct trail.

The trip down took us significantly less time than the trip up. We were practically speed walking downhill, as opposed to the uphill, step by step trudge we did on the way up.

Madison climbs down a ledge on the trail to Mt. Kinesava.
Time to go back down.
Scratches from plants on the trail to Mt. Kinesava.
The shrubs will get ya on this hike.
Cactus in Zion National Park.
Watch out for these Claret Cup cacti. However, the worst cacti were the seemingly spine-less prickly pear cacti. They appear to be harmless, but in fact have razor-sharp tiny spikes that have magnetic like qualities for any piece of clothing or skin that brushes on it.
Deer frolicking in Zion National Park.
Deer were frolicking in the desert plains on our return trip to the car.
Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
As we distanced ourselves from the peak, I turned around to appreciate the hike that we had just accomplished. The white-topped Mt. Kinesava can barely be seen just to the left of the prominent peak in the photo.
Exiting the gate to Mt Kinesava in Zion National Park.
Snapping lots of photos before this hike was over.
Afternoon sun on Mt Kinesava in Zion.
Afternoon light on Kinesava was incredible. Ready to head back to our campsite and snag a quick shower in town.

Wrap up

Hiking Mt. Kinesava was all I had hoped for and more. While still ignorant to all the nooks and crannies of Zion after just one visit, I would put this hike at the top of my list for those who are seeking out a challenge. I also don’t want to give anyone who is not fit for the demanding task at hand any ideas, so please do consider your skill level and fitness before starting.

If you are thinking about tackling Mt. Kinesava, please do not hesitate to ask any questions in the comment section. I hope this photo explanation of the hike clears any doubts or concerns that you may have, what I wish I would have had when I was doing my research.

I’ll be back to Zion and Utah someday soon, and surely back to the top of Mt. Kinesava.

6 thoughts on “Zion National Park: Tackling Mt. Kinesava

  1. FROM UNCLE LEE: Evanm, another fine piece of reporting. As always the photography verges on the spectacular — but how about having Madison face the camera just every once in a while? (Nik and Carli, too!) Your suggestion that hikers bring tweezers reminds me of why cowbo,ys wore leather chaps and Mexican vaqueros wore high tops on their leather boots — to keep those stickers away from their bodies! Good tip, the kind of tip that distinguishes a good reporter from the rest of the pack. I look forward to your next trip, whether it be a hike or a stroll.



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