Hiking the Onion Creek Narrows and side canyons

Spring is in the air and many of us will be striking out for desert adventures soon. The Moab area is always a popular choice for hiking and camping, but big crowds at the classic trails can take away from the overall enjoyment. If you want to escape the masses and find a little solitude, Onion Creek could be the perfect place for your next warm weather getaway. An enjoyable section of narrows and plenty of canyoneering choices in the side washes means you can spend a full weekend getting to know this lightly traveled gem.

The narrows section of Onion Creek. Photo: Skip Whitman.

From Moab head north on Highway 128; the road hugs the Colorado River and is not short on grand scenery. Huge red rock walls fall straight into the river as you make your way towards Castle Country. Turn south near milepost 20 at the signed entrance to Onion Creek. The graded dirt road crosses the creek many times but most vehicles can make it easily in good weather. Approximately three miles in the narrows section begins. Parking is scarce but there are some spots to pull off the road. Shoulder the packs and let the exploration begin!

Though short, the Onion Creek Narrows are quite enjoyable. Follow the creek up the wash as the walls begin to grow higher around you. Vehicles were once allowed to drive freely through the stream and up the narrows, but now they are only open to bicycle and foot traffic. Near the creek are several overhanging rock walls, large amphitheaters and multicolored rocks to gawk at. Make sure to look up at the walls above you- the Onion Creek area is filled with interesting rock spires of all shapes and sizes, including the aptly named “Totem Pole” near the beginning of this hike. Explore the mile long section of narrows before coming to another spot where the road crosses the stream. This marks the end of this section but the start of the really good stuff.

Hikers make their way through a side canyon of Onion Creek near Moab, Utah.

The Fisher Towers Recreation Area is just to the north of Onion Creek. The Towers are prized as one of the best sights around Moab, and with good reason. Huge crumbling monoliths comprised of the Organ Rock Formation are topped with otherworldly features that climbers the world over salivate for. Clustered together, the Fisher Towers look almost like the remains of once great skyscrapers now forgotten by time. The Towers drain into Onion Creek through a series of tight walled side canyons that can be accessed by canyoneers of most skill levels. At the end of the narrows, hikers will see a couple washes draining into Onion Creek. Pick your route and begin exploring.

The first wash you enter (looking west to east on a map) has a few fun boulders to climb over and eventually ends at an impressive dry fall. With the right equipment you could overcome the fall and continue on, but we’re keeping it simple here. Double back and head up the next wash. You quickly depart from the road behind the canyon walls. There is water in all of the side canyons throughout the year and plenty of obstacles to climb over. This side canyon has several forks, and each path holds breathtaking features. During my hike I was delighted by short sections of narrows, some bouldering over slickrock dry falls and plenty of water pools (none deep enough for swimming, but still fun). In some places the walls tower 400 feet over your head and are topped with more insane looking rock spires. There are canyons within canyons, but don’t be intimidated: every route leads to some great sights and you can simply double back down canyon if you feel overwhelmed). No matter which fork you take, the big payoff is the same- climb far enough into the canyons and you will wind up at the feet of the Fisher Towers. You truly get a sense of how tiny we are in this world with the Towers looming almost 1,000 feet over your head! The views are world class and well worth the sweat to get there.

The big payoff: an outstanding view from below Fisher Towers (photo: Skip Whitman)

Allow a half day or longer to explore the Onion Creek Narrows and side canyons. As mentioned, there are many forks within the side canyons and a good topographical map is a must if you want to see it all. Should you have any trouble finding the narrows a good landmark is the “5 Ton” bridge that spans Onion Creek; the narrows are directly below you when you cross it and the side canyons are just upstream. You can find free camping in designated sites along Onion Creek; these sites have no amenities and are first come first serve. Plenty of BLM sites along the Colorado River have toilets and trash cans and most are under $15 dollars for a night’s stay. The time is right for desert exploration, and Onion Creek won’t be without crowds for long; go see it before the masses catch on. Check out the video below for more:


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4 comments for “Hiking the Onion Creek Narrows and side canyons

  1. Brian
    January 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    When is the earliest that you can go and the water not be freezing? My 7 year old daughter really wants to explore this canyon with me but we don’t want to freeze. This was posted in April, so how was it temperature-wise in April?

    Thanks!

  2. January 7, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Brian,
    The post went up in April, but I was actually there in March (right around the 20th if I recall correctly). The days are warm (60s) but be prepared for very chilly nighttime temps (anywhere from mid 20s to 30s after the sun goes down). On our adventure we didn’t get more than our boots wet in the stream. It was VERY cold. Hypothermia can be a real threat even in a hot place like Moab. I would advise waiting until late April if you want the water to be tolerable for your young adventurer. Temperatures should be between 70-80 degrees by that time of year, and though the water will definitely be cold the warm air will ease the pain. That is the earliest I would recommend. Use your judgment when you are there and enjoy the area, what a great place to explore!
    -Ryan

  3. S. Holtum
    May 4, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Can you camp off to the side of Onion Creek trail? Basically wondering if you can backpack it, so you can explore more. Thanks!

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