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A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Canyon Country Part 1

Blog

Canyon Country Part 1

Derek Bartz

Englestead Hollow, Zion National Park

You think you know a place, specifically the Colorado Plateau.  But after spending the month of October in Southern Utah/North Arizona I can attest that I surely do not.  Upon ending my season at Olympic National Park, I said my goodbyes to the clouds and waves and booked it down to the desert for some sunshine and sandstone.  Our focus would be technical canyons.  I had high expectations for the trip, but could not have imagined just how many secrets this special place on the planet could hold.   

First up was Zion.

October is prime time to be in the Southwest and dodging people in Springdale, at the backcountry desk, and at our not so secret camp spot up KT Road became the norm.  Luckily we don't sleep in, get into the park anytime after 9:00am and the line for the shuttle bus could be well over  an hour.  But, as expected, venture out into some of the backcountry canyons and you can have the place to yourselves. Throughout our eleven day stay we couldn't help but take advantage of the impeccable fall weather (70's & sunny), dropping into 8 canyons in 10 days; resting only when weather threatened.  As with any skill set, we slowly progressed into some of the bigger descents; canyons I never thought we would get to this trip.  Here were the highlights:

Mystery Canyon  

Rating: 3B III
Time: 10 hours
Rappels: 15 up to 135'
Wetsuits: Yes

One of the more popular canyons in the park, Mystery has a daily quota of 12 people, and for good reason.  A straight forward canyon that has it all; plenty of rappels, scenic narrows, big walls, big views, and a wilderness character.  Our inexperience ended up catching up with us though, and upon reaching the Mystery Springs rappel it was nearly 6:00pm and we were now on a race to catch the last shuttle leaving the Temple of Sinawava.  We were forced to rush through the most scenic part of the canyon, and ended up missing the shuttle anyways.  Not all a loss though, the moonlit 6 mile road walk back toward the Visitor Center (before finally getting a hitch) under the giant sandstone walls and monoliths of Zion Canyon was a unique way to find solitude in a place that sees nearly 4 million visitors a year.

Slot section in Mystery

The "lake" adds another element to the day.  It was only waist deep this time around.

Rigging up the Mystery Springs rap.  The canyon just gets better!

Hanging gardens and clear, flowing water leading down to the narrows.

An afternoon drop into The Narrows down Mystery Falls.  No crowds to cheer you on when you get here this late in the day!

 

Middle Echo 

Rating: 3B
Time: 4.5 hours
Rappels: 4 up to 50'
Wetsuits: YES

I was on the fence about Middle Echo.  A trail runs right parallel (even blasted into the walls at times) above the slot, but it lived up to the hype.  Walk through narrows quickly turn into cavernous chambers with tight turns and chilly swims.  Once in the subterranean depths, the canyon just seems to keep going, with one surprise after another.  The Echo Chamber was truly a special place and no doubt one of the best slots in Zion.  Echo has to be one of the more photogenic canyons in Zion; although the wet, dark nature makes it hard to capture.  When the guide book says "wetsuits, even in the warmest weather,"  it means it.  This was the coldest canyon of the trip, even though it is fairly short.

Getting dark

No trip through Echo is complete without a little log soup

Golden hour.  The only bummer about being in Zion later in the season was that the low angle of the sun made these moments less frequent due to the lack of direct sunshine entering the canyons.

Warming up a bit

Echo Chamber

Behunin canyon

Rating: 3B III
Time: 8 hours
Rappels: 9 up to 165'
Wetsuits: Yes, but probably could have done without

Behunin is a great choice for groups looking to up their canyon game.  It felt big, and for good reasons.  The first four rappels are all back-to-back, dropping you 500' down to the canyon floor on slickrock ramps and cliffs; awesome.  The upper canyon is open, allowing you to take in the big wall style rappels and backcountry views.  Further down canyon the walls pinch in, and a series of walk through corridors lead to the final rappels and the infamous 165' free hanging exit.  Behunin was so enjoyable I actually went down twice.  The first time with Joe C, and the second nearly a week later with the whole gang.  Weather threatened on the second outing despite a forecast of sunny skies. We hiked up to the West Rim under darkening skies to scope things out; deciding we would go for it.  I think after the first drop we were all questioning our commitment to the canyon that day.  Everything ended up being fine, the sun came out 30 minutes later; but I think we were all thinking of a Behunin Flash Flood video we had watched a couple nights prior. 

 

Behunin

First rap option 1, notice the rope grooves.  A better rap station is located on left side of the drainage. We did this the second time through.

A nice multi-tiered drop into an avoidable pool (not pictured)

Boundary Canyon 

Rating: 3B III
Time: 7 hours
Rappels: 7 up to 165'
Wetsuits: Yes, but probably could have done without

Boundary!  I had been looking at this one in the Kelsey guide for some time; MRK, Tom Jones,  and many others comment on this canyon as one of the best in Zion.  The canyon starts off of the Kolob Terrace near the parks official high point, Lava Point.  The entrance to the canyon is technically outside the park boundary (hence the name), but by the time you exit the canyon proper into Kolob Creek you will in fact be in NPS territory.  The day we arrived at the rim, the temperature was only in the high 30's/low 40's but the spring had long dried up so we gave it a go.  Although we only encountered one knee deep pool, we still suited up just in case.  

The canyon itself is an incredible sculpture of fluted drops, eroded pockets, natural arches, and colorful walls.  Arriving at the head of the canyon, you know you are in for a good day.  A precipitous cliff leads down to the canyon floor that quickly disappears into a series of drops guarded by vertical, towering walls on each side.  The canyon is short and falls quickly; the nine rappels serve as a quick, nearly 1000' elevator ride to the canyon bottom and another hour brings you to the wild & scenic Kolob Creek, a bit bellow the technical portion and just above arguably the most scenic section of the narrows.  Relish in the solitude of the Kolob Narrows, a place equally as stunning as The Narrows proper but visited by MUCH fewer.  The exit out the MIA is well marked by a large cairn, and lives up to the reputation as a steep, burly, hot exit up a failing slope of sand & stone.  A canyon I will definitely return too!

Boundary entrance

Corkscrew, fluted rappel into what appears to be no where.

Boundary exit

Kolob Creek magic

Kolob Creek Narrows

Englestead Hollow 

Rating: 4B III
Time: 7.5 hours
Rappels: 9 up to 300'
Wetsuits: Yes, but probably could have done without

It is funny how much more you think about gravity as you listen to the whistling sound of your rope bag free falling over the edge, hitting the ground nearly 4.5 seconds later.  Then you begin to smell your ATC device from the friction being created as you slide 300' down single stranded (a feat that took 4-5 minutes at a steady descent) and you start questioning your rope!  Following the initial drop a number of rappels in short sequence send you further into the backcountry, and deeper into some down right gorgeous canyon scenery.  A bonus, the canyon ends just above the best portions of Orderville Canyon.  Another favorite of the trip.

15' down, 285' to go. 

Canyon walls

Long, colorful walk through sections in the lower half of the canyon

Orderville Canyon Narrows

And...Kevin Morby.  Great stuff.