I was in Zion National Park for a few days back in 2010, when I ranged around Utah and nearby areas for a few weeks between my defense and the start of my work at Mozilla. I had a great time doing the popular stuff like hiking to Angels Landing and up the Virgin River narrows, but it was clear I was just scratching the park’s surface. Zion is basically a giant slab of sandstone several thousand feet thick, riddled with literally hundreds of canyons cut by the spring snowmelts and fall monsoons.
So for years I’ve wanted to see more of these canyons, both in Zion and more generally across the Colorado Plateau. This spring was a good opportunity and I spent April and May near Zion — first Springdale, then Hurricane (great slickrock mountain biking nearby) — getting into the odd sport of Canyoneering. Use whatever fusion is necessary of hiking, scrambling, wading, swimming, downclimbing, rappelling, and some more specialized skills to get from the top of a canyon to the bottom in one piece. Incredible, beautiful, alien places.
Over the two months I spent a total of 17 days in technical canyons — those that involve rappelling or other ropework. Except for three days towards the end (more later), these were all in popular canyons in and near Zion. Since these get done so much, there is a lot of information about them, navigation is straightforward and rappel anchors are usually in good shape. A great environment to learn in. Here I’ll just talk about some of my favorites, in the order I did them.
The above photo is from Pine Creek, one of the most popular canyons in the park. Going in mid-April I had the place to myself, though returning in early June with my mom and her husband was pretty crowded. This is a very user friendly canyon. After parking next to the main east-west road through the park, you drop down a short sandy slope, pass under a bridge and are at the first rappel.
From here the canyon narrows into a beautiful slot. There are five or so rappels, with a couple standout ones. The above photo is of the Golden Cathedral rappel, a drop of about 60 feet down slick walls in a large chamber, with a couple arches overhead and a swimming depth pool at the bottom (drysuit time). The canyon below the cathedral:
After opening up and a great, free hanging rappel into a grotto, the canyon continues down to the exit with a lot of boulder hopping, flowing water (from a spring in the grotto), many frogs and other wildlife. Several exit options, but continuing all the way down goes to a bonus rappel down a nice waterfall, which I don’t think many people do:
A week or so later I did Fat Man’s Misery, aka the west fork of Misery Canyon. Bit of a misnomer, at least at this time of year, the canyon is several linked slots, with wading, some rappelling, and a wild grotto at the finish, with a spring of grey, sulfurous water.
The best part though is hiking from here down into Parunuweap Canyon, the east fork of the Zion river. The route follows this gorgeous canyon for just a short distance, but it left an impression. Alas, the areas downstream are closed to public access (control area for the NPS), though I want to get back and see the rest of the canyon above Misery.
After getting some more experience, in mid-May I went down Englestead canyon. In concert with the canyons it joins, this is I think my favorite day trip so far in Zion. Just a huge variety of terrain. A mellow hike in brings one to a vertical walled, nearly 300′ deep crack in the earth.
Lacking a 300′ rope, I could still get down with a 200′ rope by using a hanging rappel station someone set up about 90′ down the wall. Rappel down, clip into some bolts drilled into the wall over a tiny ledge, pull the rope and set it up on the bolts, then rappel the rest of the way down. Huge mounds of snow piled up at the base of the crack. From here, several rappels through some beautiful narrows end the canyon at Orderville.
Continuing down Orderville canyon is a big change in character. Tons of fun, at least below Englestead (above is a several mile slog), with many small waterfalls, pools, some jumping (with care).
Orderville itself ends at the Virgin River narrows. Comparatively mellow hiking next to and in the river, this area is still great. A couple miles of hiking end at pavement and the shuttle back to the park entrance.