Utah has long been recognized as a canyoneering Mecca, sandstone being the perfect pathway for water to carve slots etching deep into the desert. And while you can find canyons to explore all over the southern part of the state the most dramatic and famous ones are all in or around Zion.
And probably nowhere else in Utah is there an intro to canyoneering trifecta that can match Keyhole, Pine Creek and Spry Canyon. The starting points for these three big adventures all lay within a few minutes of one another. The biggest logistical problem that is usually encountered is getting a permit-all three are within Zion National Park, and traffic is regulated by the National Park Service. You can get a permit at the Zion visitor center but at times the competition can be tough because the numbers are limited.
Some hardcore climbers write canyoneering off as wimpy stuff but just as many others love it, fully appreciating that it’s simply another way to enjoy yourself out there amongst a bunch of rock. Putting aside all the radness and difficulty also makes it a more attainable adventure for a greater number of people. Getting into these drainages and following them is getting right down into the guts of the desert.
Basic rappelling is enough to get you started on the straightforward stuff, the other main thing to contend with is water and cold. You might be hiking in some narrow slots but it’s when you’re getting wet for any extended period that the chill really sets into your bones. It’s surprising how chilly it can be in the slightly subterranean world, it can be 110 degrees outside on the surface and at 80 or 100 feet below you’re throwing on a fleece after swimming a very short time in a couple of potholes. Wet suits and dry suits are common canyoneering equipment.
Pine Creek has got to be the most accessible piece of primo canyoneering anywhere. Just a few steps off the road on the east side of the Mt. Carmel tunnel you can enter a slot and begin the combination of rappels and hikes which are a good half day mission. Depending on recent water flow there may be a couple of deep and chilly pools with swims.
About Pine Creek, Tom’s Canyoneering Guide, probably the best on line source for Utah canyoneering beta says, “Pine Creek is convenient, fun, fairly short, not too difficult and really, really cool. Just do it.” On the flip side, conditions can vary depending on recent rainfall. Tom’s continues, “It can be comfortably cool, with a few short swims – no problem. Or it can be a test of mettle and a demonstration of hypothermia, when filled with water. Ask the rangers what you are in for, and believe them.”
It’s best to hit this in the middle of the day so you can dry out in the overhead sun if you have to swim. The slot hiking here is choice and you move through it rapidly, keeping busy with a bunch of neat raps in the midst of classic canyon country geology, ultimately leading to the finale, a 100 foot overhanging rap into an amazing grotto. If you’re not used to dropping over an edge into space it can certainly be unsettling but once there, it’s a beauty of a descent, finishing with a drop into what is usually a shallow pool at the bottom. Then it’s a hike down through and along Pine Creek and a link up with the road on the east side of the tunnel. There is an outrageous swimming hole you pass on the way out, a great opportunity to cool down before you re-enter the world of Zion heat.
Keyhole may just be the best intro to real a canyoneering spot on earth, meaning real canyoneering, not simply a hike in a narrow slot. A little hike accesses a short rappel into a crevice which immediately takes you into the netherworld that this stuff is all about. You drop into several pools off short raps, traverse a tight slot that contorts your body and swim a narrow channel that is guaranteed to put a chill in your bones. It’s dark and damp, almost hard to believe how close you are to light on both ends of this little gem. In less than an hour you’re winding through the end of the slot and coming out into the sun not far down the road from where it all began. My friends and I took our kids down it when they were seven and eight years old. There was a little shrieking from the cold water but they absolutely loved it. You get the full sensory experience here on a small scale.
One of the coolest things about Spry Canyon is that to get to the descent, you hike about an hour and a half amongst some incredible and classic scenery through the heart of Zion rock. If you don’t want to boil, an early start is necessary in the summer! Spry is really more of a spring and fall canyon. The most exciting thing about Spry is that you finish the beautiful hike and then there are a total of twelve rappels. There’s not a lot of water but there are a couple of spots where you can get wet. When we did it there was one slot with water beneath, where we all tried to stem across- and not everyone made it, the tell tale ker-plunk said it all as we heard, but couldn’t see the progress that each of us was making.
Spry starts really close to where you start Pine Creek, a little further east, on the other (north) side of the rode. This drainage is actually Upper Pine Creek, aim for the pass between East Temple and Deertrap Mountain. You’ll ascend amidst perfect sandstone domes, peaks and open rock through country that is nothing short of mind-blowing. From the pass, head down a couple hundred yards to the flats and an obvious notch to the flats into brushy zone which leads to the first rappel. The NPS is concerned with people aggravating erosion so please try to stay in the watercourse to minimize human impact in this wonderful piece of Zion splendor.
The rappels vary in length and personality-some are in slots that are dark, some drop over ledges that are in open space. On one, we set up an anchor at the bottom and did a sort of Tyrolean traverse to avoid getting wet. My buddy who lives just outside the park has often told me Spry is his favorite. It winds up down in Pine Creek on the west side of the tunnel where you can easily hitchhike back to get your car at the start a couple of miles away, the exact same scenario as when you do Pine Creek.
The most dangerous aspect of canyoneering is keeping aware of the potential for a flash flood. In 1997 eleven people were killed in a flash flood in Antelope Canyon, Arizona. In 1999 nineteen canyoneers were killed near Interlaken, Switzerland. It doesn’t have to be raining where you are for flash flooding to be a danger when you’re in canyon country—the myriad of drainages can collect water in a hurry and feed it from way above down into the depths. Being aware of the weather is crucial. I think the saying goes, “when in doubt, sit it out.” Compared to climbing it seems easy but the potential for hazards involving ropes and long falls is still very much present.
Other complications can include “keeper holes” which are potholes which require more complicated knowledge, techniques and tools to get out of. There are none of these in the canyons outlined here but a bunch of the more difficult canyons have more intricate problems to deal with. There is plenty of info available on most known routes so make sure you don’t get in over your head. Anyone can get into canyoneering, we’re lucky to have some of the best and most beautiful canyons on earth within such a close proximity. The beauty of Zion is a great place to start!
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