Zion National Park is a habitat for canyoneering- budding canyoneers and expert explorers alike who return for the technical terrain and scenery within the depths of this desert landscape. But for the zealous explorer, a true canyon adventure is found outside the park.
Words and Photos by Rachel Ross
The Navajo sandstone in the area has formed beautifully sculpted slot canyons that can require some work to get to, knowledge to descend and a hearty appetite for endurance to finish. Canyoneering is similar to climbing in that you solve puzzles with your limbs and core and it involves physical and mental dexterity and finding safe and reliable ways to solve nature’s puzzles (hint: no jumping).
“Canyoneering requires considerable improvisation and judgment,” said Tom Jones, the progenitor of Utah’s online canyoneering resource, Imlay Canyon Gear. “This really is a wilderness adventure.”
When done well, canyoneering feels like an efficient relay race, where each member of the team uses his or her strongest asset to move, enjoy and scramble. The popularity of this area has become a distraction. It is difficult to obtain permits for canyons inside the park boundary and large groups create long people jams. The crowded park has one smelling exhaust from the road within a few miles radius. Enter the remote backcountry.
There are many draws to canyoneering just outside the park boundary. It holds incredible views and, more importantly, a chance to hone technical skills. These remote canyons have few bolts, maybe even none. Bolting in canyons is similar to attaching plastic holds to an outside climb; it detracts from the creativity required and reward gained through problem solving.
Canyons change,” Jones said. “Anchors come and go. Things get harder or easier… Consider it a point of style to create a solid, reliable anchor that intrudes upon the natural environment as little as possible.”
Canyoneering is less about slinging bolts and more about teamwork through physical and mental obstacles, finding your way to the canyon or building trusted anchors. These are canyons for those looking to use their skills verses learning them.
A day in these canyons begins before the drive- printing technical information, counting ropes, organizing gear and guessing water conditions. The hour or more drive from the town of Springdale, Utah allows time to envision the day ahead. With heavy packs a’jangling you must bushwhack your way above drainages into them, and finally down to the chosen one. After each drop, you scan for anchor possibilities.
The sun will shine on the eastern walls, as flood debris becomes beloved anchors and pockets of water provide a desert reprieve in the corridors of ancient sediment. These canyons typically spit individuals out in larger drainages, and the hike back to the vehicle allows time to reminisce on the day.
There is beauty in seclusion. Between orienting and creative natural anchoring, these canyons are an invigorating experience that challenges adventurers to stay one obstacle ahead.