Quite aside from hiking or technical rock climbing, canyoneering is a rapidly growing sport that incorporates walking, scrambling, bouldering, technical rock climbing, rappeling, kayaking and even swimming.
“Canyoneering often combines skills used in climbing, mountaineering, and hiking all together,” said Jamie O’Donnell, program supervisor for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Rocky Mountain branch. “Terrain dictates route finding through steep exposed areas with rock fall potential. Canyons have vertical features that can sometimes only be navigated using climbing techniques or rappelling. In general, steeper terrain often necessitates the uses of hand-lines, pack passing (when you are carrying heavy packs for multi-day trips), and spotting. Canyons also may have water that is not by-passable therefore requiring you to swim through it with all of your gear. This can mean managing for and avoiding cold-related injuries/illnesses given the cold nature of the water and the canyons in general. Tricky route finding also often requires lengthy scouting sessions where you piece together a way to get around pour-overs or other impassable features.”
Hiking down from the top of The Narrows offers an equally memorable experience. Along the way you’ll see a 50′ arch, seeping rocks, and several sections where the canyon walls close in. Only a dozen hikers per day are permitted to explore Mystery Canyon. Those attempting to pierce this mystery should have orienting skills as well as sophisticated rock climbing skills and equipment, along with two 165-foot ropes. (Anchors have been placed at strategic points.) The highlight, for many, is the series of rappels down the narrow canyon that range from 15-feet to 60-feet and climax in a 110-foot hanging foot drop into a pool. Another 120-foot rappel alongside a waterfall drops you into the Virgin River where you can exit at the Temple of Sinawava.
Experienced canyoneers love the Subway, the left fork at North Creek. The 9-mile roundtrip hike is a full day event, so plan accordingly to take advantage of this great terrain. You’ll have to slosh through icy streambeds, swim through even colder pools, scramble over slippery boulders, drop down a waterfall, out-think tricky obstacles and squirrel your way through tunnels and claustrophobic formations. The rapid currents constantly change the creek bed topography, creating new pools, potholes and rocky impediments.
The payoff is the Subway, narrow canyon that looks like a subway tunnel, complete with two fault lines that look like tracks and the sound of rushing water that sounds like a train barreling through the subway. Permits are limited and required, preserving the beauty of this strenuous hike.
Right Fork at North Creek
Even less explored is the right fork at North Creek, really accessible to only experienced hikers who know how to find their way around safely. One of the least visited spots in the park, this difficult terrain includes a bevy of pools, numerous waterfalls and other water features offering nearly untouched natural beauty. Modern man was here once, however. Upstream from Trail Canyon you’ll find evidence of old corrals. Keep going until you hit Double Falls, an exquisite set of waterfalls that together create an emerald green pool. Barrier Falls is another half mile up difficult terrain that effectively stops further hiking upstream.
Need a detailed Zion trail map? Buy the Trails Illustrated Zion National Park Trail Map, including the Narrows and North Creek, at REI.com.