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A guide to the wilderness of the West.

A Week in Zion


A Week in Zion

Derek Bartz

Pine Creek

The desert southwest usually isn't a place I consider going during the heat of summer. Temperatures routinely approach triple digits making things mostly unbearable for a majority of the day.  But stay out of the sun and in the water or slots, and summer is the perfect time to be in Southern Utah.  We just so happened to find ourselves in Zion National Park with a full week before we had to be back in Boulder.  Joe C was still along, and our only real plan for the week was to spend a night in The Narrows; leaving our options open for the remainder of the time.   

I got in line at the backcountry office early the first morning in Zion and got the very last permit for a Narrows campsite, which we would start the next day.  I was also pleasantly surprised to find out The Subway had availability for the day (the canyon is limited to 50 people per day and is super popular) so we got a permit for "The Bottom Up" portion of the Left Fork.  The hike up was pretty awesome.  It is beautiful back there, we passed tons of small cascades and pools along the way, jumping in whenever things got too hot.  The slot section of the Left Fork from the bottom up is very short, ending at the namesake portion of the canyon.  I thought we may be able to climb up above the waterfall, but the rock there is quite slick and steep.  We hung out for a bit, another group of  four from China provided some good entertainment.  The oldest had brought a pair of goggles to swim in the waterfall and his friend was dropping cannonballs in the small pool in the infamous Subway shot.  Not quite the scene I had imagined but really fun to share the place with a group so jazzed to be there.

The Subway.  This is the turn around point from the bottom up.

The next morning we got a shuttle up to Chamberlain Ranch, the starting point for The Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River.  Michele and I have done been down the Narrows four years ago, but this place never gets old and we were psyched to be heading through again.  It doesn't get much better than spending the night surrounded by soaring sandstone walls, camped on the soft sand with the sound of the soothing Virgin River lulling you to sleep.  The second day we enjoyed the narrowest and deepest section of the canyon all to ourselves.  After Big Spring, there are a number of deep pools that begin to appear in the river.  Rather than try to tip toe our way around the deepest parts, we dove right in, letting the current do some of the work.  Shortly before Orderville Canyon comes in, we turned a corner and saw the first people coming up canyon from Temple of Sinawava.  It ended up being my cousin Brock, who was roadtripping his way back to Berkeley after a summer in Montana.  I knew he was in the area, so in a somewhat hypothermic daze from the previous swimming we had done, I hardly even acknowledged how surprising it was that we were meeting in such a location.  

The water was holding a little more sediment this time around due to some recent rains 

A fantastic corridor just downstream of Big Spring

Wall Street

Other than the one night in the Narrows, the rest of the time spent in Zion we camped at a lovely dispersed campground just a couple miles up the Kolob Terrace road.  I have seen people set up here on previous trips up to Lava Point, and always thought it to be BLM land.  The whole area is actually privately owned, and the landowners have no plans for the plot other than to keep it from being developed.  They allow camping in the area on a donation basis; very cool.  Most of the sites are right next to North Creek and shaded by a number of Cottonwoods.  Highly recommended if you are in the area and looking for free/cheap camping. 

While in The Narrows, our conversation kept turning to how cool it would be to descend some technical canyons.  The Colorado Plateau is full of these spectacular places that lie hidden within the cracks of the sandstone, not visible from the surface and only accessible to those with the know how.  Zion in particular holds some of the most unique, classic slots. Canyoneering has been something I've wanted to get into for some time now, and what better place to start.  We headed over to Zion Rock Guides and signed up for a day of learning the ropes.  Michele and I both climb a bit, but wanted to hone up on basic anchoring & rappelling techniques; critical skills for any technical canyon.  Joe had never even rappelled before, so the day out with our guide, Matt, was definitely worth it.  By the end of the afternoon, we were setting up anchors, biner blockers, and making our way down a nearby slot with confidence. The guided day out also included all the gear we would need for the next couple of days to do some canyons on our own.  A really good deal for us considering we hadn't even brought a rope or harness on the roadtrip, let alone a wetsuit.

Immediately after getting back to the shop I headed back to the Backcountry Office to see what canyons were available for the following two days.  We ended up getting lucky with the Subway again (this time from the top down), and Pine Creek for the following day.  

The Subway was a great introductory canyon for us.  There are really only two or three rappels, and most parties don't even bring harnesses and just handline down everything.  But, we were ready to put our newly acquired skills to use, and rap'ed all three.  Most parties we saw weren't wearing wetsuits either, but we proudly sported our rentals.  Instead of rushing and shivering through the most scenic portion of the canyon like most other parties, we were able to take our time hanging out in the chilly pools with comfort.  Once in the narrows, the canyon bottom fills with clear, spring fed water and the overhanging walls make it obvious why they call the place The Subway.  Really glad we came back to see the rest of the canyon.

Just after dropping down into the Left Fork from the slickrock above

Suiting up.  We got a kick out of the farmer john wetsuits.  But when combined with the jacket this could be the winning combination.

Swimming required.

Yep, the Left Fork is super scenic.

Crystal clear water, not very common among slot canyons

A nice hallway just before the toothpick and the last rappel


Pine Creek was quite a step up from the mellow outing in the Subway we had the day before. The canyon has much more of a dark, cavernous feel with 6-8 raps (many of them floating disconnects), longer swims, and a 90 foot free rappel to exit the canyon.  But that is what we were here for, so let's do this!  The entrance to the slot of Pine Creek is directly bellow the Hwy 9 bridge immediately after exiting the tunnel to the East.  Wasting no time, within a minute of walking down canyon you come to the first pool and rappel.  Just before making the drop two other groups come up behind us; somewhat of an inconvenience considering everyone else down there was in such a hurry to get through the canyon.  This is a common site in Zion canyons though, squeezing 50 people through the same small stretch of canyon daily; it's easy to see why the NPS established a quota system for this type of backcountry travel.   The slot section of Pine Creek is actually really short, 3/4 of a mile maybe; but packed with varied canyon terrain and rappel after rappel.  Tons of swimming, beautifully carved sandstone walls, a double arch, and surreal lighting made for a memorable introduction to the underworlds of Zion.   

Michele dropping into the Great Cathedral  You swim out of the pool right through one of the arches.  We'll have to come back later in the day next time to get some sunlight in here..

You quickly get used to swimming through murky water, such as this welcoming pool. 

An incredible place

About midway through, the canyon started getting some good sunlight

Warming up a bit....this didn't last long

Full frame shot of the photo at the top of the post

Joe on the final rap into the gigantic fluted, spring fed chamber.

Refreshing to see some real country music still being made.  Traveller is definitely worth a listen.