Tips on Utah canyoning
The moderate classics in Zion are all pretty easy. Tom Jones’ and other track notes have more than enough information (a little overwhelming at times!) The abseils are generally bolted or have slings. Everything has rapides. Navigation was non-existent or straightforward for everything we did.
For reference the Zion canyons we did were:
- Keyhole – super easy access and a short one, a nice one to start the trip if you’ve only got a half day (2017)
- Pine Creek – great canyon and a good one to do early on to ‘find your feet’. (2013)
- Birch Hollow – If you’re going to do Orderville and you’re reasonably fit then recommend combining with Birch Hollow (downside: you will need to lug a 60m rope with you for the rest of the day) (2013)
- Russell Gulch and The Subway – Russell Gulch was a fairly average canyon. It adds to an already long-ish day, but if you’re fit and adequately equipped, Das Boot would likely be a more satisfying option than Russell Gulch. (2013)
- Middle Echo – beautiful canyon, a relatively short, technically easy day (2013)
- Orderville from the top – see comments re: Birch Hollow (2013)
- Spry – interesting trip but not a spectacular canyon (2013)
- Behunin, including side trip to Angel’s Landing. A little like a Kalang style trip (lots of big abseils) though it does have a slot. A great day out. (2013)
- Mystery – difficult to get a permit so plan well in advance. Nice variety – abseils, downclimbs. Definitely go to Observation Point and check out the views. (2013)
- Fat Man’s Misery – completely different landscape to what we get in Australia. Lots of nice problem solving and variety. (2013)
- Deadeye Dick & Mighty Mouse – a longer day with a bit more of a remote feeling. Wouldn’t prioritise over the other trips listed (2017)
- Diana’s Throne – a short, easy day. (2017)
Personally we would have been uncomfortable tackling Heaps or Imlay without a local since they have obstacles (keeper potholes) we never have to deal with in Australia.
Ropes, shoes, hardware, guide books can be purchased in Springdale at 3 places – Zion Adventure Company, Zion Rock, Zion Mountain and Rock (as of 2013). Wetsuit/drysuits/footwear can be hired. The shops are open relatively long hours. A lot of the stores in Springdale were open till 8pm while we were there.
We took springsuits and light (less than 4mm) steamers. We only used them for Keyhole, Pine Creek, Middle Echo and The Subway. We wouldn’t use them for Russell Gulch/The Subway in future. Bear in mind our approach to wetsuits in the Blue Mountains is generally to not use them unless you are submerged for a reasonable period of time. I bought a steamer for this trip – all my canyoning in the Blue Mountains has been done without a wetsuit or using a springsuit.
We were in Zion from mid to late Sept in 2013, and for a few days mid-Sept in 2017. The first week the temperatures were in the low 30Cs everyday, the second week low-mid 20Cs. There had been an unseasonal amount of rain in the weeks prior to our arrival in 2013 so the canyons had been flushed out and were full (where relevant). This may have meant the water was warmer than usual (it did mean there was more water/mud in the canyons than usual).
Be prepared to carry more than you usually do. This is due to:
- Needing to carry water (we didn’t have a filter and just carried all drinking water for the day). We had taken purification tablets but without some sort of filtering the water would have been fairly unpleasant – it is mainly silty/brown unlike the nice clear water we get in the Blue Mountains.
- Longer raps in most of the Zion canyons. We had 1 x 30m and 2 x 60m ropes, so any canyon with a drop greater than 30m required us to take at least one of the 60ms. Obviously if you utilise SRT then you may get away with less weight (not withstanding how much contingency rope you want to carry!). The ropes we had were sufficient for the canyons we chose to do. There are some canyons around Zion which may require longer ropes (Englestead, Heaps).
- Wetsuits – see comments above
Shoes – We did our first canyon (Pine Creek) in Dunlop Volleys. The sand and sandstone is finer than the Blue Mountains and the grip of the volleys filled up with sand. We felt insecure in our footing when we were rock hopping out of the canyon. Additionally the approach routes are compacted/hard on the feet rather than piles of leaf litter. I tried Salomon trailrunners for Russell Gulch/The Subway these were ok other than in the red terraces section which was algae covered and very slippery. Tom had La Sportiva Xplorers which performed well in this section so I also got a pair of those. I had tried a pair of ex-rental 5.10 Canyoneers but they cut up the back of my heels and I felt like I was wearing moonboots. We were both very happy with the La Sportiva Xplorers in the canyons. Four years later we are both firm converts to the Xplorers picking up new pairs when we arrived in 2017.
If you are going to be visiting more than one park then think about getting an Annual Parks Pass ($80 compared to $30 for a weekly pass). Assuming the government doesn’t shut down while you are there preventing you using the pass!
Permits are needed for all canyons with technical sections in Zion National Park. We booked most of our permits well in advance ($5 reservation fee). This may not have been necessary for many of them but it meant we didn’t waste our holiday. We may not have been able to do some canyons if we hadn’t booked them in advance, as the permits are very limited and popular (e.g. Mystery, The Subway). There are last minute options but as we had reservations I can’t comment on how this works.
You can pick your permits up at most one day in advance. Where possible pick up your permits the day before. The Wilderness Desk rangers are good but you don’t know who’s going to end up in the queue in front of you. One day we waited 30 minutes for a group of 6 muppets who had turned up wanting to do a hike only to find their route was unavailable and then had no idea what they were going to do instead.
When scheduling your canyons you may want to think about when you will collect your permits e.g. if you have a 7am pick-up to be dropped off at The Subway you want to make sure you finish your canyon on the previous day in time to pick up your permit. Wilderness desk hours vary depending on the time of year – check the website.
Access to several of the canyon trailheads is only by the free park shuttle. The first shuttle is 7am (depending on time of year). The last shuttle is about 8:45pm so the times were more than adequate for the canyons we did. A number of other canyons, not accessed from the Zion canyon shuttle loop, require a car shuffle. Drop-offs can be organised with a number of companies in Springdale which, while a little pricey ($25pp), can save you a lot of time and/or effort. For Pine Creek and Spry hitching a lift back to the car at the top of the tunnel was not difficult.
Watchman campground sites can be booked 6 months in advance – they do fill up so book early. We camped in loop C but it seemed most tent sites in C or D would’ve been fine. There are no showers at the campground but there are several places in Springdale where you can pay (~$5) for showers.
We got an AT&T SIM card and coverage was fine at Watchman Campground. AT&T is most compatible with the GSM frequency bands which Australian phones run on.
Sol Foods in Springdale has everything you might need. We found it had a better stock of camping-type foods compared to the supermarket we went to in Las Vegas. It also has a deli (cheese!) and sells amazing 99c brownies (as of 2013). Produce and meat do get depleted in the evenings so visiting earlier in the day gives a larger selection.
We struggled to find a suitable equivalent for some foods we regularly use when camping in Australia: Continental cup of soup packets, muesli (untoasted is not available, and generally cereal is loaded with sugar so we ended up eating muesli that was made in Switzerland), full-fat powdered milk (we could only find no-fat). For future trips we would take these items from Australia.
There are plenty of restaurants in Springdale if you don’t want to cook. And a pub just over the bridge from the national park (5 minute walk from Watchman Campground).
We had bought camping chairs, pillows, an esky and a food crate in Las Vegas before travelling to Springdale. Camping chairs can be bought from the small grocery store just outside the national park. If you’re on a budget you could probably hang round the “free” drop-off point at Watchman Campground and end up with pillows and an esky within a couple of days.
Other canyoning areas
Zion is a really easy place to do your first canyoning in Utah. The guides are comprehensive, the locations are easily accessible, there are heaps of facilities.
There are many other canyon locations outside of Zion. We found it a bit hard to make sense of where they were, what the access was like etc until we were there in 2013. Areas like North Wash, Poison Springs, Hog Springs, San Rafael Swell, Cedar Mesa did not really mean anything to us. As it turns out they are relatively close together (a couple of hours drive to get between areas). In many cases access to the trailheads is on dirt roads. When we visited in 2013 due to the recent flooding some of the roads had been damaged and so we only did a small selection of well-known canyons in these areas.
On our 2017 trip we spent more time in Escalante, Robber’s Roost, San Rafael Swell, North Wash and Cedar Mesa. It’s important to read the track notes carefully as access to some canyons is only via 4wd, and in other cases at minimum a high clearance vehicle is needed. In 2017 we had a 2WD Jeep Grand Cherokee which was high clearance but couldn’t get us to all of the places we wanted to go (obviously your willingness to take a hire car off the tarmac is also a big factor). Places like San Rafael Swell and Robber’s Roost are big, and so getting between canyons in those areas could take quite a lot of driving time.
We made extensive use of RoadTripRyan for track notes. The App is a great resource as many of the areas do not have mobile phone reception. We found Ryan’s notes generally accurate, though often the longest abseil length was generous and we were carrying more rope than we needed (but I guess that is better than not enough!). Other resources include BluuGnome and CanyoneeringUSA. We also found the Canditions website valuable for getting up to date information on the conditions in canyons, or even just reading up on what canyons have been like in the past.
To generalise, the access in/out of canyons outside of Zion was shorter than many of the approach hikes in Zion. There were less (& shorter) abseils and more downclimbs. Downclimbs can appear quite ballsy for the Australian canyoner, the dry walls and grippy rock mean things which we wouldn’t contemplate downclimbing in Australia are actually achievable. The nature of the canyons in these areas tends to be a lot narrower than anything we are used to Australia – a lot more squeezing your way through things. Subsequently you should probably should invest in full body clothing (that you don’t care about getting destroyed), including knee pads and gloves!
We thought that a number of canyons that were labelled ‘beginner-friendly’ in the track notes were not what we would consider beginner-friendly for an Australian canyoner. We would consider ourselves experienced canyoners from an Australian context but in a Utah context more likely intermediate. This is in part because we just don’t have the exposure to know how to deal with potholes and canyons with limited natural anchors. Additionally climbing is a much bigger component of canyoning and so there seems to be a correlation between canyoning skills and climbing skills in the US which is not really necessary in Australia. Don’t feel bad about starting with “beginner” canyons – you’ll probably still get a work-out!
The grocery stores in the small towns near these areas (Hanksville, Torrey, Green River) were far more limited in their range, particularly fresh produce.
|Scramble (possibly sketchy)
|Grade x (Ewbank) climb
|5.x (YSD) climb
|Downclimb / abseil
|5.x (YSD) downclimb
|footpad / track
|footpad / track
Terms which are not used in relation to Australian canyons because they are simply not relevant: Bombay, Bunny strap, Cheater Stick, Elevator technique, Happy hooker, Hook, Keeper pothole, Kelsey exit, Mae West, Moki steps, Pack Toss, Potshot, R Rating, Sandtrap, Subway, X Rating