Canyoneering Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park
There’s a lot of reasons to visit Zion National Park, but nothing there offers more fun than canyoneering. Pine Creek Canyon is one of the easiest and most fun technical slot canyons in Zion, and is one of many “must do” adventures in Southern Utah. Pine Creek, though technical and dangerous, is one of the easiest slot canyons to explore in the park thanks to its convenient location, short total distance, and super fun rappels.
But what makes Pine Creek Canyon such a fun rompus room for both beginners and seasoned experts? Maybe it’s the fact that the canyon is deep, dark and narrow, and sees few crowds thanks to a lack of name recognition (unlike The Subway.) There’s lots of swimming holes too, and the rappels, especially the Great Cathedral, are uber-cool. In fact, there are a total of six rappels ranging from 10 to 100 feet – the last being a free rappel into a desert paradise hidden within a chapel-like grotto.
Pine Creek Canyon begins simple enough. A short (but steep) hike down from a parking lot to the bottom of the upper canyon takes you beneath a bridge and into the slot. The initial bit of canyon involves minor scrambling and maybe swimming until you reach the first rappel. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an audience of tourists curious enough to watch as you are eaten whole by the looming slickrock walls.
At 70 feet, the first rappel is long. Anchors are visible and the rap drops you into a pothole. Another rappel follows soon after, but you can combine the two by exiting the pothole and continuing on for a 20 foot rap bringing the total to 90 feet.
After the first few raps, have fun in this rock jungle gym as you clamber, swim and squeeze yourself through several obstacles. Eventually, you come to the second, very short rappel into a pothole that requires a swim. It’s really fun to unclip from your harness while swimming. Be sure to bring the end of the rope with you to the other side of the pothole so you can use it to assist those who swim behind you.
The next rappel is a doozy. the Great Cathedral is a 65-foot descent into what feels like an underground cavern illuminated by scant light breaching the narrow rim above. Getting to the bolt anchors can be tricky as it requires a slippery walk on the edge, but once you’re safe and roped up, you can slowly enjoy the ride as you lower yourself through an otherwordly place. Enjoy the moment.
After the Great Cathedral, continue down canyon through dark hallways and domed rooms. Obstacles and swims have to be negotiated here and there, but all are easy to navigate by the experienced downclimber. Another short rappel that isn’t really noteworthy leads canyoneers to a place where the walls widen and, depending on the time of day, you can warm yourself in the sun.
A short distance beyond the open area there is a set of bolt anchors where you can rope up for another 65-foot rappel. After this, the canyon opens up once again and it feels like you end up on the edge of nothingness. In a way, it is as the final rappel (and the best) awaits. Bolt anchors are found on the right, where a bit of scary exposure is required to reach them. Use daisy chains attached to your harness just to be safe. The rap is 100 feet that starts out tricky with a committing move into the open air. Fear not, because letting go into a free rappel is possibly the most thrilling experience of the entire canyon.
The bottom awaits, where you’ll set foot in a small, forested glen filled with trees, curved sandstone, and a natural spring bubbling out of the rock into a clear pool. It’s so magical, you’d almost expect wood elves from Middle Earth to walk out behind the trees to greet you.
When you’ve had your fill taking in the sights of the grotto, continue down canyon where the navigation is straight forward. That’s not to say the going is easy though, as huge boulders litter the canyon floor and it can be difficult to find the best way to negotiate the terrain. Use good judgement and take your time as you walk down canyon. If it’s hot out, be sure to cool off in the swimming holes. Eventually, you’ll see the red walls of road switchbacks above you on the left. Look for a small trail that ascends from here to your car.
Check out this great video from Jared Anderton showing the highlights. Pine Creek Canyon starts at :56.
Details: Pine Creek is a dark, cold place where temperatures are much cooler than outside in the sun. Mandatory swims mean wetsuits or drysuits are usually required to prevent hypothermia. Also, flash floods are always a risk, especially if rain is forecast. Always check conditions with park rangers before heading into the canyon.
Knowing how to rappel is mandatory. Along with drysuits and warm clothes, bring a rope, harness, and slings or daisy chains to anchor yourself to the rock. Know how to properly use your gear. Helmets are also a good idea.
To explore Pine Creek Canyon, you’ll need a permit. Get one from the Zion National Park Visitor Center where they are available the day before you plan on canyoneering. Permits can also be reserved up to two months in advance on their Backcountry Reservation System.
To get to Pine Creek Canyon, drive Highway 9 from Zion Canyon toward the tunnel. Leave a vehicle at the second switchback, or park here and hitch the rest of the way. Continue and drive through the tunnel, then immediately turn right into the tiny parking lot with a bathroom at the end. Suit up here and descend from the bathroom on a trail to the canyon bottom where the fun begins.
For more comprehensive information about canyoneering Pine Creek and any other Zion National Park slot, we highly recommend buying a copy of the book, “Zion: Canyoneering” by Tom Jones.