As an avid hiker, explorer, and outdoor lover, living in a place like Saint George Utah can be overwhelming. Amazing hikes surround us here, to the point where even after fifteen years of exploring the area, I still get to find new adventures every year. The BLM wilderness Southeast of Zion National Park is a massive, wild, backcountry area full of slot canyons, 4×4 roads and mountain lion tracks. This year I finally stepped foot into this area to explore some canyons I had never seen before.
At Paragon Adventures, we always strive to give our guests a unique experience, and as some of the areas we use become more popular, we find new ones. For months, owner and lead guide of Paragon, Todd Goss had his eyes set on a few canyons in this area, as possible remote canyoneering routes for our guests, and the weather was finally warm enough to go see it for ourselves.
We drove to the trailhead and loaded up onto the Honda Pioneer: a 1000cc ATV that seats five people. Now the adventure begins. Riding on the soft sand is almost like boating over mid-sized waves, except on a boat, you don’t have to dodge trees and navigate the network of confusing trails, marked only by thin, brown, numbered posts, which are hard to read as you speed past them at thirty miles per hour. Some trails were so narrow, we had to duck away from the edge of the ATV so as to not have our ears scraped off by the trees we swiped. Upon finding the parking spot, we quickly hiked downhill through the sand, as the terrain gradually became sandstone. There was still ice on the ground, which, on such a steep slope, could have sent us on a long, fast descent to the bottom of the canyon, had we slipped on it. The drainage we followed turned out to be the exact one we hoped for: Joe French Canyon. We reached a 200+ foot drop off with an incredible view of the Parunuweap river ahead. We found the easy hike down and descended a steep trail full of loose rock and deer tracks. This was clearly the only way down without rappelling. At the bottom we looked up at the big 200+ foot wall we bypassed to see it had a sheet of frozen ice on its lower half. Todd’s expensive camera was immediately deployed and put to good use.
As we worked our way downstream through Joe French Canyon, we quickly encountered flowing, clear water. We put on our wet suits and canyoneering shoes. The first step into the shallow water was met with surprise and laughter as some of us sunk up to our knees in quick sand. Now, even more cautious than before, we passed through the rest of the thickly-vegetated canyon, marveling at the unique plants growing flat against the canyon wall, as if glued there. Even Kenn “the Biologist” couldn’t identify this plant. The canyon quickly ended at the Parunuweap river which is the east fork of the Virgin River, and due to the snow melt it was flowing more heavily than expected. We tucked our cameras and phones into dry bags and began hiking downstream through waist deep water. This can be tougher than most would think. Three out of the four seasoned guides we had out there that day all fell into the water at one point due to not being able to see what we were stepping on in the murky water. This is good though, as it gives us something to laugh at throughout the day.
Our goal was to get to the narrow and technical portion of the canyon, called Fat Man’s Misery. Fat Mans is not in Zion National Park, which means we CAN guide here. We hoped to find the way in, through, and back out of this part of the canyon. After about three quarters of a mile through the deep, gorgeous canyon, which required countless waist-deep river crossings and a few unplanned falls/baths, we reached Poverty Canyon. This is a side canyon that feeds into the Parunuweap River. We hiked up the short tributary about a quarter mile until it suddenly became very narrow. Todd’s eyes lit up and again, out came his camera. These deep, narrow sandstone canyons are a nature photographer’s dream, especially with “canyon light.” This refers to the way sunlight becomes more and more colored as it reflects off of red and orange canyon walls on its way down to you at the bottom of slot canyons. We could easily have spent hours here but we had a goal. After several quick photographs, we moved along, back to the Parunuweap river.
We continued downstream, encountering a series of large mountain lion tracks that followed the river, and seemed to cross in some spots where we would not. This was one big, bold cat that left these prints! We reached a spot where we could not go any further without some serious down climbing on wet boulders through a raging waterfall. We decided this was not the time of year to be going through this section of the canyon. If it is too rough for us, then we would not be taking guests down it anyways. We would have to return when the river was lower, later in the year. We continued to eat snacks and make fun of each other on our long hike back to the vehicle.
We had seen three amazing canyons in one day, all of which most visitors to the area will never see. We had a world class adventure in our own backyard, and after re-ascending the long, steep hike out of Joe French Canyon and looking back at the network of slot canyons, slick rock, green trees and blue skies, I realized that I had barely even scratched the surface of this area. We had just explored one tiny hair on the head that is Southwest Utah. That’s alright. I like feeling small. We will definitely be back. Finally we reached the Honda Pioneer, changed out of our wet suits, and sipped cold water. As we climbed back into the Pioneer, and realized that Todd was now in a hurry to get home, I thought “I better buckle up. This adventure’s not over yet!”