Trail Report: Canyoneering Pine Creek Canyon

‘Straight up land’ translated from the Paiute name Mukuntuweap describes the land known today as Zion National Park. With towering cliff walls and huge sandstone monoliths standing high above the valley floor, Zion is like no other national park and continues to be one of the most popular national park destinations in the country.

From January to June 2016, visitation exceeded 1.9 million people, and Zion is well on track to hit a record-breaking 4 million visitors by the end of  the year. Who can argue these numbers when you visit Zion and witness for yourself?

With its stunning scenery, Zion is well known for hikes such as Angel’s Landing, The Narrows and The Subway. In addition to these hikes, Zion is filled with slot canyons. If canyoneering is your jam, you’ve come to the right place. Zion is YOUR playground.

Tip 1: Pronounce Zion like ‘Lion’ and you’ll blend right in among the locals.

In June, we permitted for three slot canyon hikes: Echo Canyon, Keyhole Canyon, and the popular Pine Creek Canyon. We set off for a weekend filled with canyoneering adventure in Zion (only a 4 hour drive for me).

Tip 2: Most slot canyons in Zion require a permit, which you can reserve online.  Plan ahead to secure the time that works with your travel plan and party.

Friday morning we entered Zion National Park and headed to the Visitor Center to pick up our permits, check the weather and monitor flash flood warnings. This is critical as there are only a few ways out of a slot canyon, and once you’re in a slot canyon, the only way is down.

With no flash flood warnings, our first hike through Pine Creek Canyon was a go. Pine Creek is technical and rated a 3BII, which requires full canyoneering gear for the 7 rappels and a wetsuit to negotiate the frigid pools.


Side Note: Using the ACA Canyon Rating System, Pine Creek is rated 3BII:
3 = Intermediate canyoneering skill
B = Water with low or no current, swimming expected
II = Requires about half a day


Leaving the Visitor Center, we traveled through scenic Zion on Mt Carmel Highway through the historic tunnel to a small parking lot. There, the approach to Pine Creek sits just below the bridge. At the approach, we were immediately initiated to Pine Creek by dropping into a pothole full of frigid water.

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Tip 3: The time of year determines the amount of water you will swim and slosh through. During our June trip, there was considerable water. Expect water and wear a wet suit.

As we made our way to memorable Grand Cathedral, we rappelled into a large pothole room illuminated from rare light pockets above.

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Grand Cathedral’s beauty was fleeting as I rappelled into the frigid, deep pool of water. I couldn’t touch, and my focus was disconnecting from the rope while treading water.

As we continued past Cathedral into a narrowing, dark corridor, I looked high above my head to see the remnants of past flash floods. Logs and debris were wedged high in the walls above us.

As we continued through the tranquility of this corridor, we noticed two Mexican Spotted owls. Mom was perched on a log wedged between the canyon walls, and her small fuzzy owlet rested on the ledge of one wall.

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Both mom and baby looked down on us with curiosity,as quiet surrounded us. It was such a surreal moment. What a gift to be in that moment.

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Side Note:  Unlike most owls, the Mexican Spotted Owl is known for its curious nature. When approached in its environment, rather than fly away, the Mexican Spotted Owl will stay and observe. Only 20% of these owlets survive into adulthood.


Continuing through Pine Creek, the canyon opened up before the last rappel. Here was an incredible view of ‘straight up land.’ The Paiutes nailed that description of Zion.

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The last rappel was 100 feet of free rappel to the canyon floor. Kenyon_PineCreek_6

We made our way to the exit, climbed to the historic Mt Carmel Highway and hitchhiked back to our truck.

Tip 4: Call the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for weather conditions prior to your hike, and as you pick up your permit at the Park Visitor Center, ask about flash flood warnings.

Saturday we arrived at the Zion Visitor Center to pick up our Keyhole Canyon and Echo Canyon permits but were faced with flash flood warnings at 40%, Rangers strongly advise against canyoneering with flash flood warnings so threatening. Most guides and expert hikers call off slot canyon hikes when flash flood warnings hit 30%. We forfeited our permits to be safe.

Canyoneering can be dangerous because there are very few ways in and out of slot canyons. Every precaution should be taken to ensure safety. Take flash flood warnings seriously, and error on the side of caution.

We did, and we’ll hike Keyhole and Echo another day. When we do, I’ll be the first to let you know.

Kenyon Virchow

Kenyon Virchow has a love for photography and his home state of Utah. His dad introduced him to photography at a very early age, teaching him basics with his Voigtlander Bessamatic (purchased in Germany 1962). Kenyon’s first real camera was a Minolta x370 SLR he received at 14. He took photography classes in high school and learned film development, exposure and composition. Kenyon’s fond memories adventuring with his friends while growing up in Utah continue to this day. He now lives in the foothills of Lone Peak Wilderness mountain range.