ST. GEORGE — On the bank of the Virgin River at the head of the Emerald Pools Trail Friday, Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh stood at a podium inviting the small gathered crowd to listen.
“I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for a minute … and listen,” he said. “Listen to the river.”
Bradybaugh was speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Emerald Pools Trails complex, which marked the completion of the Middle Emerald Pools Trail reconstruction project, a project a decade in the making.
For approximately 10 years, the Middle Emerald Pools Trail was closed due to landslides caused by heavy rain events. Friday, after years of securing funding through public and private partnerships as well as the efforts of engineers, skilled masons, geologists, Zion’s trail crews and volunteers, the trail network was officially reopened to the public.
In a typical year, Zion National Park sees approximately 4.5 million visitors, Bradybaugh said, adding that many of them, if not all of them, at some point, visit Zion’s main scenic canyon where the Emerald Pools Trails complex is located.
Even without the Middle Emerald Pools section open and despite the temporary closure of Zion National Park due to the COVID-19 pandemic, accessible parts of the Emerald Pools Trail saw high visitation.
Since January, the trail has seen the equivalent population of Wyoming visit the trail, and in August alone, the equivalent population of St. George visited the trail, Zion Forever Project Communications Manager Zachary Almaguer said.
Bradybaugh said having part of the trail network inaccessible has been difficult.
“You can imagine the amount of use that this trail received over the years,” Bradybaugh said.
“But now that it’s been restored and it’s available again to the public, they get to enjoy the full breadth of the Emerald Pools area,” he added.
The three-year, $1.2 million project was made possible in large part by a $1 million grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.
Additional funding was provided by the National Park Foundation, the S.L. Gimbel Foundation, and contributors to the Zion Forever
Project, a press release from the Zion Forever Project said.
Eccles Foundation President Lisa Eccles attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday and said she and her family, and particularly her dad Spencer Eccles, were thrilled to be a part of seeing the trail restoration come to fruition.
“As with any charitable foundation, there are some grants, large and small, that have a special place in our hearts. And I can tell you truthfully that our support for the restoration of this treasured and historic trail was without a doubt one of those,” Eccles said.
Eccles, like her father before her, serves on the National Park Foundation board and said she and her dad share a “boundless enthusiasm and passion” for all of the national parks but especially Utah’s own “Mighty Five” national parks.
The $1 million grant from the Eccles Foundation helped secure the matching funds necessary to complete the trail project, but, perhaps more importantly, it also provided funding to create educational programs for children, allowing Utah schoolchildren who might not otherwise have the opportunity, to visit their national parks.
It is public-private partnerships, like the one with the Eccles Foundation and others who donated, that Zion Forever Project Director Mark Preiss said are important in addressing Zion National Park’s most critical needs now and in the century to come.
“That type of private-public partnership is going to be required, more and more, to address and solve those issues in an innovative and sustainable way,” he said.
The Emerald Pools Trail was built in 1932 and is recognized on the National Register of Historic places, Bradybaugh said. As such, it was critical to the restoration project that they maintain the trail’s historical integrity, both in workmanship and materials, while completing the job.
Trail crew member Tom Jeczen said it was fun to build a trail the “old school way.”
“We did everything the old school way, using hand tools and stuff like that,” he said.
But despite the historic materials and craftsmanship of the trail, Jeczen said it was built to withstand more of the high rainfall events.
Trail crews reinforced the trail with rock and wood walls, steps and proper drainage to prevent washouts and preserve the trail, Jeczen said.
The trail is also engineered to withstand the expected foot traffic.
As visitors continue to flock to Zion National Park, Bradybaugh said having access to the iconic Emerald Pools Trails complex will allow visitors to further spread out and experience different parts of the park.
For Bradybaugh, the opening of the trail was an emotional moment.
“It brings a tear to the eye, to be honest,” Bradybaugh said. “This is such a special place within a special place.”
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