© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike D6. Zion's Pine Creek


Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is one of loveliest places on earth. But if you visit it in the usual way, by driving up into the main canyon where it opens up into the desert and if you do not venture far from the road you will only have seen a fraction of this beauty. Beyond the asphalt, lie magnificient sculptured canyons, luxurious grottoes and awesome carved sandstone ravines that can only be reached on foot and, sometimes, only by swimming and rappelling.

Pine Creek is a readily accessible slot canyon with several really spectacular sections of sculptured and contorted sandstone. It is a strenous adventure hike that is only for the experienced canyoneer, and includes some 7 rappels. The last of these involves a drop of about 120ft down into the middle of the sandstone cathedral; all but the top 10ft of this descent is a free rappel. It may well be the most spectacular rappel anywhere in the Park. The last part of the hike in the shadow of the Great Arch requires much scrambling and bouldering as you descend a steep but open stream bed with year-long water and several fine swimming pools.


The drop-in for this hike is the small parking lot at the upper or east end of the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel in Zion National Park (37o12.79'N 112o56.44'W). First, however, you must leave your return vehicle at a switchback overlooking Pine Creek on the way up to the tunnel from the South Entrance or campgrounds in the Park. From the vicinity of the Visitor Center in Zion National Park drive north to where the closed Canyon Road branches off and then east on Highway 9. The first switchback is the bridge over the river. Drive to the third switchback, park your return vehicle in the pullout on the inside of the curve (37o12.88'N 112o57.48'W) and check that the switchback overlooks the river by just about 100ft. Then drive the other vehicle on through the tunnel and turn into the small parking lot immediately on the right as you exit the tunnel. The ranger on duty at that end of the tunnel will probably ask to see your permit.


Proceed down the steep trail from the parking lot (elevation 5120ft) into Pine Creek Canyon which is a narrow slot at this point. As you continue downstream and pass under the road bridge, it narrows further and after just 50yds there is an awkward 8ft downclimb that is followed by the first rappel, still within sight of the bridge. A good bolt anchor in the right wall allows you to rappel down the first 30ft drop and then continue through a narrow slot and on down the second 20ft stage. This is the start of a series of rappels that are so close together that the rope can be fed directly from one to the next. Just downstream from the first is a small 15ft rappel into a shallow, circular pool, followed immediately by the first of the really spectacular rappels on this adventure. This is a 50ft descent into a gorgonzola-like chamber with holes to the sky in several directions. You can not help but feel a strong sense of wonder as you descend into this make-believe place. Take your time and enjoy this extraordinary experience and its photo opportunities. There may be a pool in the bottom of the chamber but it was dry and sand-filled when we came this way. You should reach this point about 1hr from the start.

Third rappel

Pine Creek has now become a deep, narrow and twilight slot. Continuing 50yds downstream you will come to a logjam fall that requires a 20ft rappel using a large log anchor just upstream. The rappel entry here is tricky because of the overhang and the lack of a foothold below the lip. Note however that both log anchors and jams caused by logs can change radically from one year to the next. It is just a few yards from the bottom of this rappel to a series of waist deep pools with very cold water. Again, the depth may change considerably from year to year. The narrow slot continues downstream of the pools and after about 100yds there is an easy 30ft free rappel from a bolt anchor on the vertical right wall. Thereafter, the canyon widens but with towering walls on both sides. Here the bottom is strewn with large boulders, a preview of things to come. As the canyon turns to the left one of the tunnel windows comes into view high on the left wall. It is bizarre to hear the sound of vehicles passing as you negotiate this wild place. However, before you reach the canyon bottom under the window, there is an easy 80ft rappel from a bolt anchor in the rock on the right side on the canyon. This anchor took us a few minutes to find amongst the boulders. You should reach the bottom of this rappel about 2hr 15min from the start.

Sandstone Cathedral   Sandstone Cathedral

From the bottom of the previous rappel, you pass through a narrow slot and arrive, right under the tunnel window, at one of the most spectacular rappels anywhere, anyplace (37o12.70'N 112o56.73'W). The stream falls about 120ft down through an amazing golden cathedral into a beautiful circular pool. Much of this is not visible from above; but you get to enjoy it during the descent. The anchor for the rappel is on the left side and is most readily found by climbing up about 10ft onto the large shelf on the left. From that shelf you can safely descend a small groove in the rock to the multiply-supported anchor. Note that there are bolts elsewhere but these will not give you the same spectacular and easy descent trajectory through the chamber below. All but the top 10ft - in other words the bottom 110ft of the descent - involve a free rappel through this awesome cathedral of a place. It is a truly wondrous and unique experience.

As you enter the rappel note the deep grooves cut into the rock by the passage of many, many ropes. The last person down should make sure that the rope does not lie down in one of these grooves for that may severely hamper rope recovery. The pool at the bottom was only waist deep when we passed this way.

When you finally prepare to leave this place (about 2hr 50min from the start), the harnesses can be stored away for there are no further rappels on this adventure. Downstream of the sandstone cathedral the canyon is littered with huge buick-sized boulders that make for slow going. You must make your way around, over and under this maze that is physically and navigationally challenging. The stream flows year-long here in this canyon in the shadow of the Great Arch and there are some marvellous swimming holes along the way. It takes more than 1hr 20min to negotiate this obstacle course but gradually the going gets easier. Along the way you should catch glimpses of the vehicles on the switchbacks high on the right slope. As you get toward the end, the retaining walls for the switchback where you left the return vehicle come easily into view and there is a well-worn use trail that leaves the stream at 37o12.88'N 112o57.44'W and climbs the 100ft or so up to the road. The hike should take about 4hr 15min.

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Last updated 7/8/00.
Christopher E. Brennen