Aside from The Narrows, Pine Creek might be Zion's most popular slot canyon. Thrilling rappels and artful, ever-changing light on sculpted sandstone make this adventure fascinating every step of the way. For anyone interested in technical canyons, this one is a must do. Although it is equipped for entry-level descents, canyoneerers of any skill level will appreciate the stunning quality of this natural wonder.
Pine Creek in Zion National Park forms a slot canyon that runs parallel to Utah State Highway 9 in the gorge below Mount Carmel Tunnel. Tourists gaze across the canyon daily, often unaware that the thin, dark crevice below is a glimpse into an entirely different world. Incised by eons of ephemeral floods, the earth's layers are exposed in contorted layers of red, beige, and orange that enclose a vertical microcosm of adventure.
Beginning at the bridge east of the Mount Carmel Tunnel, the canyon immediately drops through a series of rappels and pools that are interspersed with short hikes on sand and rock. The canyon features five mandatory rappels of 60 feet, 10 feet, 60 feet, 65 feet, and 100 feet. The final rappel, the 100-footer, is a spectacular free-hanging drop into a shadowy chamber. Most of the rappels end in water, unless the season is particularly dry. Expect wading and even swimming at the bottom of drops and through pools on the hiking sections. At certain times of year, waterfalls may be flowing between pools, and sections can be very icy during the winter.
From the parking lot just east of Mount Carmel Tunnel, walk down the concrete path next to the bridge and turn right once you enter the streambed to begin the canyon. After completing the last rappel and some additional wading and downward scrambling, the canyon opens up into a wide gorge where the stream bed is choked with boulders of all sizes. Although you are less than a mile from the finish, navigating this will take longer than you expect because you must pick your way through all the boulders and trees as you head toward the road that is visible on the hillside ahead. Set your shuttle at the parking area on the second switchback from the bottom of the hill, west of Mount Carmel Tunnel.
Proper equipment is essential to safely complete Pine Creek Canyon. All the rappel stations are well protected with expansion bolts, hangers, and rappel rings, but you will need a rope at minimum and extra webbing, slings, and carabiners are recommended. You must have enough rope for the 100-foot rappel, so bring two lines of at least this length to tie together for the longer drops. A 130-foot rope will be sufficient on its own for all but the last rappel. In addition, you will definitely need a harness and rappel device. Other suggested equipment includes a first aid kit, a helmet for safety, sturdy hiking boots or river booties, drybags, and wetsuit for warmth. The water is very cold, even in the summer, and because the canyon floor gets very little sunlight, you and your gear will likely remain wet for the entirety of the trip. Allow three to six hours to complete the canyon; you'll need less time if your party is small and highly competent and more time if your party is large or inexperienced. Be courteous to other parties by allowing faster groups to pass through and for everyone to clear the rappel area before starting your descent.
Although Pine Creek is considered a relatively easy slot canyon, it is still a technical canyoneering route that requires solid rappelling skills and a knowledge of safety with rope systems. Do not attempt this trip if you are unprepared for vertical descents, rock scrambling, and swimming in an extreme environment. Rescues occasionally have to be performed in Pine Creek Canyon. Don't be the next!
This canyon requires a permit from the National Park Service, which is obtained from the Zion Permits Website through advance reservation, advance lottery, or last minute lottery. There is a $5 fee for reservation or lottery entry, and permits cost $10, $15, or $20 depending on group size. The maximum number allowed in a party is 12. The Park Service only allows a limited number of groups to enter the canyon each day, so reserve well in advance (up to three months) to ensure you can get a permit. Rangers do patrol the parking areas above and below the canyon checking permits, so be sure to keep it with you.
Pine Creek Canyon, though it goes unnoticed by most park visitors, is a true treasure of Zion. As either a gauntlet for the beginning canyoneer or a quick jaunt for the experienced veteran, this promises to be a thrilling journey into the bowels of Southern Utah's megalithic sandstone.