“Commit to your harness” my friend said as I leaned over the mouth of a 120-foot fluted slot canyon in Birch Hollow.
Once again, I found myself in Zion National Park to canyoneer, down climb, and sloosh through some of the most epic canyons in Utah. My friend and canyon guide, Dan architected our hike. Our plan was simple: descend Birch Canyon into Orderville Canyon and exit through The Narrows. Three canyons, 12 hours, 16 miles.
Birch Hollow Canyon is about an hour drive from the Zion National Park visitor center, on the outer rim on the east side, just outside park boundaries.
Since the Birch Hollow trail head was so far from our exit, we hired a shuttle. Our shuttle picked us up at the visitor center parking lot and dropped us off at the trail head.
Helpful Hint: If you’re dropping into Birch Hollow and exiting The Narrows, spend the money and hire a shuttle. There are many outfitters in Springdale who offer shuttle services. At the end of your day, the last thing you’ll want to do is drive an hour back to the trailhead to retrieve your other vehicle.
Birch Hollow is a dry canyon which feeds into Orderville Canyon. It’s a little over two miles long and consists of 11 rappels, ranging from 10 feet to 120 feet.
We opted to hike around the first rappel in order to save time. We made our approach to our first rappel, and the canyon opened up in a bowl shape pattern and dropped as Mother Nature welcomed us to Birch Hollow. Our canyoneering adventure had begun.
Gear Check: Birch Hollow is a technical canyon and requires full climbing gear. Bring enough rope for a 120-ft rappel. Although Birch Hollow is dry, holding no water, you will encounter water in Orderville Canyon and may encounter a few swims. Consider a wet suit.
Although Birch Hollow is on the outskirts of Zion NP and away from most activity in the park, it’s gaining popularity. Its beautiful chute rappels hidden within thick forests make this canyon unique and beautiful. We were fortunate to have this canyon to ourselves.
Helpful Hint: Birch Hollow is located outside Zion boundaries on BLM land, therefore a permit is not required. This adds to the appeal of this canyon so consider a weekday trip, if possible.
We descended Birch Hollow at a rapid pace, through a series of rappels ranging from 10 to 40 feet. As we descended the canyon, rappel after rappel, Mother Nature continued to impress. We dropped into sculpted sandstone rooms carved from wind, water, and flash flood debris.
Then we approached the infamous 6th rappel, a dramatic 120-foot fluted rappel.
I wanted a unique perspective of our group rappelling, but you can only get so close to the edge. Or can you?
I noticed Dan’s harness was attached to his PSA (personal anchor system) and anchored to a tree, and he could lean into the canyon to take photos.
I wanted that perspective.
Dan tied a cordelette anchor to the tree, and I clipped in.
“Commit to your harness.”
By leaning hard off the cliff’s ledge, the increased tension creates better footing. There’s no half measures; you either commit all the way or risk losing your footing.
Gear Check: A few members of our party wore Chacos; a few of us wore hiking shoes; and others wore a good approach shoe. Despite your footwear preference, select footwear with a sticky sole for gripping sandstone. Sticky soles come in handy when stemming slot canyon walls.
We made our way to the Chokestone room, one of the most beautiful rappels in Birch Hollow. This 60 foot rappel drops you into a carved and fluted narrow room. Finishing this rappel , I looked up to see a large boulder wedged into the S-curved wall above and understood where Chokestone got its name. Simply amazing.
From there, we made our way to the meet-up with Orderville Canyon. Route skills are a necessity at this juncture. Turn right and you head the wrong way up Orderville Canyon. Turn left to start your magical hike through Orderville Canyon.
Orderville Canyon is a tributary to the Narrows. Fark, magical and dramatically beautiful, Orderville is an 11-mile hike through a slot canyon similar to the Narrows but less traveled.
Less technical than Birch Hollow, Orderville Canyon is still a difficult hike and presents challenges to the most experienced hikers, including water obstacles, down climbing, log jams and boulder obstacles.
Gear Check: Flexible clothing is key for down climbing. I wore the KÜHL Renegade Shirt and Renegade Cargo Short. Both are made of durable 4-way stretch fabric. The tough, flexible, quick-dry fabric is perfect for Orderville Canyon.
As we descended Orderville, the high cliff walls closed around us, direct sunlight was rare. I had to make a conscious effort to watch my footing because I couldn’t take my eyes off the high canyon walls surrounding us.
Helpful Hint: When down climbing through the canyon, resist the urge to jump from obstacles. Most canyoneering injuries involve sprained or twisted ankles from hikers jumping down.
One of my favorite experiences in Orderville was the acoustics the canyon offered. As a photographer, I usually fall behind as I capture moments. As I was in the quiet of my own company, I saw two ravens high in the canyon. I could hear the wind through their feathers as they flew overhead. That memory of the ravens, and the sound of the wind under their wings will stay with me.
As we continued our descent through Orderville Canyon, we approached Veiled Falls. We encountered groups who made a diversion into Orderville from the Narrows, signaling the end of our Orderville experience.
After Orderville fed into the Virgin River, we simply followed the famous Zion Narrows.
We continued several miles to the riverside walk trail to the Temple of Sinawava and took the Zion Park shuttle back to the visitor center and our vehicles.
On the shuttle ride, I thought back to Dan’s instruction to commit to my harness. If you commit, there are no half measures. You need to be all in, just like life.