As a guide at Paragon Adventures and a gear specialist at the Desert Rat, I often get asked about slot canyons in southern Utah and which ones I recommend doing. The great thing about living in this area is there are so many good slot canyons to choose from.
When recommending a canyon I always try to talk about one aspect that a lot of people don’t stop to consider. Canyoneers, especially newer canyoneers often spend so much time talking about the number of rappels, if there is water in the canyon, etc., that they don’t stop to consider what I think is the most important factor when deciding which canyon you want to go do: what I call the “effort to fun ratio.”
The effort to fun ratio, when it comes to canyoneering, is all important I think. Yeah, there really are slot canyons EVERYWHERE in this area, but it doesn’t mean they are all worth doing. I remember getting suckered into going to do Boundary Canyon once… beautiful canyon and really fun, but the hike out was so indescribably horrible that any fond memories made in the canyon were erased long before we made it to the top.
When it comes to canyons with a high effort to fun ratio one canyon in particular really stands out: Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park.
Pine Creek was one of the very first slot canyons ever descended by modern canyoneers (back in 1977) and man was it ever a great choice. The canyon is full of surreal beauty, awesome rappels and fun down climbing.
While I’m definitely not trying to provide a blow by blow account of how to get through the canyon (for that, check out this great site http://www.bluugnome.com/) let me share a few of the Pine Creek highlights. I just went through it again May 1st, 2016, for about my 12th time, so the great effort to fun ratio of the canyon is still nice and fresh on my mind.
First, the approach. Inevitably, many of the best slot canyons in the world are going to have a long approach. Slot canyons naturally form in the most rugged terrain in the world and the probability of a great road going nearby is pretty slim. That’s one of the things that makes Pine Creek so awesome. You drive through the tunnel on the east side of Zion, park your car in the parking lot immediately after the tunnel, and wallah! You’re at the start of the canyon. Just scramble down the short hill and you are just yards from the first rappel. I can’t think of a better approach.
Second, the rappels come right away and they are fun rappels. You might as well harness up in the parking lot because you’ll be at your first rappel in Pine Creek in less than five minutes. They are fun, fairly straight forward rappels. The canyon is done often enough that the anchors are well maintained and easy to find.
Third, the beauty of Pine Creek is pretty hard to beat. Right away you do several rappels that get you down into the deep, beautiful, sculpted parts of the canyon. And when I say deep, I mean deep! It gets pretty dark down there and what light does make it down comes in beautiful reflections off the fantastically carved walls. Pine Creek isn’t like a lot of canyons that are more of a fissure in the rock that got scooped out a little bit by occasional flash floods. The entire thing is one long, carved and sculpted thing of twisting beauty. The area known as “The Cathedral” is an unbelievably cool chamber complete with arches and bowled out walls that will take your breath away. The rappel down into The Cathedral, complete with the pool of water at the bottom is one the most picturesque rappels you’ll ever do.
If The Cathedral is cool, the last rappel of the canyon might be even better. 70-110 feet (depending on how much sand has recently washed into the canyon), the last rappel is a mostly free hanging rappel through more spectacularly carved walls. A spring gushes out into a pool at the bottom. Once you get off rope and come around the corner you’re struck with stunning views of the park downstream. It really is just incredible.
Just as important as the approach, the hike out of Pine Creek isn’t bad at all and offers fun challenges of its own. Depending on where you park it is a mile to a mile and a half of boulder hopping, interspersed with several great swimming holes should you want to cool off. Before too long you’ll find yourself back at one of the switchbacks on the road before the tunnel. Oftentimes I’ve made it through Pine Creek so quickly and so enjoyably that I’ve gone through and done it a second time. It’s just that fun!
Pine Creek, like any other canyon inside Zion National Park boundaries does have some challenges:
First, getting a permit for the canyon is hard. It’s a popular canyon and permits go fast. That being said, the permits are still a blessing and make sure that if you do see another group in the canyon it won’t be a big one.
Second, you do have to have technical expertise to get through the canyon. If you’re not experienced at rappelling you’ll need expert instruction before you go. Also, since Zion does not allow commercial guiding inside park boundaries you can’t take a guide through with you. If you do Pine Creek, you’re on your own with just the skills and equipment that you bring with you. You’ll encounter multiple rappels, most likely swim through cold water and do lots of down climbing. You have to be prepared to go in there.
That’s another fun part of my job. We guide people through slot canyons that are both easier and harder than Pine Creek. Our goal in doing so is not only to help them have a fun time on the canyons we’re taking them down but also help them to develop the skills they need to do harder canyons all on their own. It’s always a rewarding experience to run into an old client on a hard canyon in the park and hear them say that their canyoneering career started years ago on a trip with Paragon Adventures. To anyone that I have guided before or to anyone that loves the sport of canyoneering and is looking for a great, fun canyon to do, I don’t think you’ll find better than Pine Creek. It’s not as long as many and certainly not as technical or as remote as others I’ve done, but man is it ever a good time!
Written by: Jerel (Supe) Lillywhite
-Paragon Adventures guide