Zion National Park may be known as one of the top most scenic places in the country to hike, with breathtaking sandstone mountains rising from pristine landscapes, but this natural wonder is also a favorite place to slip through some slots and explore some of the most incredible canyons in the country.
If you’ve been canyoneering before, you know how going down deep can sometimes deliver more spectacular views than climbing to the top of a mountain. And the views at Zion are some of the best in the country.
To make the best of your canyoneering trip, here are 5 tips for exploring canyons in Zion National Park:
Unlike hiking trails, where an unlimited number of people can hike, Zion limits the number of passes it issues daily for each canyon. Popular canyons, like the famed and revered Subway, are known to sell out up to a year ahead of time. So to keep from being disappointed, get your passes well ahead of time — as soon as you plan your trip, not the day of your hike.
Here are some of the popular, and limited, canyons requiring passes:
Subway: 80 permits per day
Keyhole: 80 permits per day
Pine Creek: 50 permits per day
Kolob Creek: 12 permits per day
Echo Canyon: 12 permits per day
Mystery Canyon: 12 permits per day
Weather plays a big role in canyoneering as well. A small amount of rain can turn into a gusher deep in a slot. So make sure to check the Zion weather around the day of your hike, and if you’re not sure how it will affect the canyon you’re exploring, ask an expert at the park or outfitter. You do not want to be in a slot when the water starts to rise.
Just like mountain climbs, canyons have technical ratings. You can get an idea of how technical each slot is, by checking this website. Check whether you’ll have to rappel or just encounter short down climbs, whether you’ll be hiking through water, and if you’ll need bouldering skills. And if you’re claustrophobic, check which slots have tight squeezes.
Semi-technical canyons require some rappelling and water hiking. You’ll want to be able to rappel, swim, and navigate large obstacles.
Here are some of the tech requirements for popular slots:
Zion Narrows – Non-Technical: Slippery rocks, river hiking.
Subway – Semi-Technical: Short rappels, river hiking, swimming, down-climbs. (Zion lists this as one of their easiest canyons.)
Red Cave - Semi-Technical: Short rappels, down-climbing, short up climbs.
Keyhole – Technical: Short rappels, cold canyon swimming, wetsuit recommended. (Keyhole is considered by Zion to be “technical” but is good for beginners who have good rappelling skills.)
Depending on the canyon you pick, you may need rappelling gear, technical shoes, or even a wetsuit. Since you may not be able to pack this gear (or want to buy it if you’re just canyoneering a few times), you can gear up at one of the outfitter right outside the park.
I got my gear at Zion Adventure Company, and they can even provide canyoneering courses to get you up to speed before your hike. Other recommended outfitters include Zion Rock & Mountain Guides, and Zion Outfitter.
Don’t feel you have the skills to make it through a canyon, and down the rappels, on your own? Get yourself a guide. Most outfitters have guided hikes through canyons. (If you go to Zion Adventure Company, ask for Rob Schwarzmann. He took us canyoneering and the man will show you things you never thought you could do.)
But there’s a caveat: Guides cant guide you in the park. National Park regulations forbid it. So you can’t get a guide to show you the Narrows or the Subway, but they can take you to some fantastic areas outside the park that have great slots.
Just because it’s a beautiful, and highly talked about, canyon doesn’t mean you should attempt if your skill levels aren’t up. In addition to the technical data given, check the length of the canyon hike before you go, and make sure you can turn around and get out if you can’t go the full length.
Some of the lengths and average roundtrip times needed to complete some of the more popular canyons are:
Zion Narrows: 16 miles / 13 hours
The Subway: 9.5 miles / 7 hours
Keyhole Canyon: .5 mile / 2 hours
Kolob Canyon: 10 miles / 13 hours
Yankee Doodle: 1 mile / 2 hours
Hiking the many beautiful canyons of Zion National Park is incredible. A little advance planning, and understanding of the challenges and your skill level, can make it one of the most memorable vacations you’ll ever take.
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