A Beginner’s Guide to CanyoneeringNov 16, 2018
Zion National Park is known as one of the world’s premier places for canyoneering (the art of descending canyons of various widths and depths). These adventures range from easy hikes down rocky gorges to scrambling through slender, sinuous crevices filled with water. Most of Zion’s canyons offer technical expeditions that require various outdoor skills—including rock climbing, rappelling, swimming, wading, and good judgment—to safely explore them.
As you lower into a twisting slot canyon in Zion’s backcountry, you’ll find a beautiful world below the arid surface, discovering hidden waterfalls and secret grottos filled with trickling water, birds, and ferns. A ribbon of blue sky hemmed in by soaring sandstone walls sculpted and smoothed by a million years of flowing water stretches above you.
In this guide, we put together an overview of canyoneering: what you’ll need to know, the kind of gear required, and why Zion is one of the best places in the world to try out this sport.
Canyoneering uses many rock climbing techniques, including rigging anchors, rappelling, belaying, and climbing moves like chimneying and jamming cracks. While these skills make a solid foundation for canyoneering, they don’t make you into a competent canyoneer. Descending slot canyons also requires navigating water obstacles like waterfalls and deep pools, sometimes with moving currents. It’s important to learn how to traverse wet canyons to avoid trouble.
When descending a Zion canyon, a canyoneer often makes irreversible rappels down featureless cliffs that would be difficult to climb back up. When you’re canyoneering, there is some finality—once you go down, you’re often committed to exploring the canyon.
Besides outdoor skills, you need specialized equipment, clothing, and packs since most technical canyons are abrasive, cold, and wet.
If you’re hiking down easy dry canyons or through wide canyons like The Narrows, one of Zion’s easiest canyons, you can wear basic hiking clothes and lightweight cross-training shoes. But when you graduate to more difficult slots filled with water, you need footwear and clothing designed to keep you warm and dry in wet canyons. Experienced canyoneers wear boots specifically designed for rough terrain, along with neoprene socks for extra insulation. Don’t wear sandals—they’re sloppy on rock, don’t provide foot protection, and come off your feet if you’re swimming.
Canyoneering beats your clothes up since you’re crawling, swimming, climbing, squeezing, and rappelling in rugged environments. When you’re starting out, wear inexpensive outdoor clothing rather than pricey designer stuff. Loose-fitting clothes made of quick-drying synthetic fabrics rather than cotton allow for freedom of movement. Dress in layers and bring a parka and pants shell.
In watery Zion canyons, you may need a wetsuit or drysuit to stay warm and comfortable. These neoprene garments, also worn by divers and surfers, offer all-body protection from your neck to your wrists and ankles and keep you from getting hypothermia in cold water. Don’t forget neoprene gloves and a skullcap or microfleece cap that can be worn under your helmet.
If you’re doing any extreme Zion canyon that requires rope work and rappelling, then you need specialized equipment. Canyoneering is gear-intensive since you encounter a variety of conditions and terrain. Most canyons require rappelling down a rope, so get a static line specifically made for canyoneering, as well as a harness, rappel device, and locking carabiners. It’s always a good idea to wear a helmet. Some canyoneers also carry a personal floatation device (PFD) for crossing long sections of water. Lastly, bring a dry bag for essential items like a camera, extra socks, and lunch.
Before heading down a Zion slot canyon, remember that canyoneering is dangerous. Lots can go wrong like flash flooding, frigid water, and impassable obstacles. Be prepared by bringing enough equipment and know how to use it in every situation.
Check the weather forecast or ask a park ranger to see if rain may fall upstream from your canyon. Canyons can flood even if it rains 50 miles away from your slot, so change your plans if there is the possibility of rain. You need to be self-sufficient and know how to reach safety in emergency situations. There is no cell phone service in any of the slot canyons in Zion National Park, so don’t plan on calling for help.
If you’re a first-timer and don’t have canyoneering experience, it’s best to take comprehensive skills classes to learn how to rappel and rig ropes, and then start off exploring the easy canyons. Hiring a guide is also another good option if you don’t have the experience and gear. Zion National Park does not allow commercial guiding in canyons within the park’s 124,400 acres of wilderness, but plenty of fantastic slot canyons outside the park boundary are regularly guided by local services like Zion Adventure Company, Zion Guru, Epic One Adventures, and Zion Ponderosa. Popular canyons include Yankee Doodle Hollow, Bitter Creek, Lamb’s Knoll, Birch Hollow, Kanarra Creek, the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek, Spring Creek, and Water Canyon.
Get a Permit
With all those caveats out of the way, Zion National Park is home to some of the world’s best canyoneering adventures. These include easy hikes in wide canyons; moderate excursions with wading, scrambling, and short rappels; and extreme expert-only explorations that require ropes, rappelling, wetsuits, and a hearty sense of adventure.
Before heading into Zion’s canyons, get a national park wilderness permit, which is required for every technical trip. Permits can be reserved on Zion’s website. These trips are very popular, so plan ahead early to give yourself the best chance to obtain a permit. Permits for The Subway and Mystery Canyon are allotted by a lottery three months in advance, and group size is limited to 6-12 people, depending on the canyon.
Zion’s Best Do-It-Yourself Canyoneering Trips
The Narrows is the park’s best introduction to canyoneering, with an easy hike up the Virgin River from the Temple of Sinawava. Wade through water squeezed between soaring sandstone walls until you want to turn around. Many hikers trek to Mystery Falls, a waterfall rushing down slabs, or the narrow mouth of Orderville Canyon before heading back. Otherwise, get a permit and do the full-value 16-mile wade through the entire Narrows.
The Subway, Zion’s iconic canyon trek, is a strenuous 9.5-mile hike that begins at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and ends at Left Fork Trailhead. The long day requires several short rappels, downclimbing rock slabs, wading, and even swimming through pools. The payoff is the half-mile-long Subway, a gorgeous canyon section beneath overhanging walls.
Orderville Canyon, a side tributary that leads into the Virgin River Narrows, is the perfect adventure for novice canyoneers. Expect a couple short rappels, sections of swimming, scrambling down boulders, and spectacular views with sunlight filtering into the narrow cleft.
Mystery Canyon is a stellar Zion canyoneering excursion. The technical 6-mile trip includes big rappels through sculptured narrows, waterfalls, scrambling across a rock slide, and a dramatic finishing rappel down Mystery Falls into the Virgin River Narrows. Expect a full-on, full-day adventure.
Pine Creek’s easily accessed slot canyon is absolutely beautiful. The 1.4-mile trip is technical with rappels, downclimbing, and cold swims. The vaulting double-arched Cathedral and a final 100-foot rappel keep it interesting.
Other fun but challenging Zion canyons include Fat Man’s Misery, Keyhole Canyon, Echo Canyon, Spry Canyon, Ice Box Canyon, and Kolob Canyon. Expect lots of technical challenges in these experts-only canyons, including multiple rappels, sections of cold swimming, route-finding problems, and downclimbing slabs and cliffs.
While there are many challenges when it comes to canyoneering, the rewards are incredible. Take the time to learn the skills necessary to explore these marvels safely, and you’ll end up on the trip of a lifetime.
Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with ZionNationalPark.com.
Featured image provided by Intermountain Forest Service