One of the most desired canyons in Zion, yet least visited, Heaps Canyon has developed an almost mystical aura. Only 12 persons are permitted per day to descend this wonderful slot canyon, but in reality far less people take advantage of the total daily permits available. Part of the reason lies in the difficulty of the canyon, and also in the equipment needs, but mostly in the experience level required to descend this strenuous canyon. ACA Rated 4CIV/V means that it is a canyon that demands serious skills and equipment beyond the realms of the average hiker.
I have had the opportunity to descend Heaps almost a dozen times, and one thing remains constant, a changing canyon. Whether by erosion, rockfall, log-jams or the amount of water present, Heaps has had a very different character on each of my trips. I have spent as many as 3 days, and as few as 9 hours on my trips through, but would suggest the first time you may plan a trip to expect a minimum of 16 hours and be prepared for an emergency bivouac. I use a wetsuit, but a drysuit is certainly lighter and more compact. I carry 1-300' rope, 2-150' ropes, 1-100' rope, extra webbing and screwlinks, emergency ascension, food and water, and emergency supplies.
Pothole escapes are not uncommon, long swims are a surety, upclimbs and downclimbs on wet slippery sandstone are frequent, and awkward rappels one after the other are found in Heaps Canyon.
The best season to hike Heaps is in the late spring when the pools are fullest and days are longest, however it can be done in the summer (be wary of monsoon rains and flash flooding), or in the fall (days are shorter).
I suggest a 4-5AM start so be sure to get a permit prior to intended hike. A Red Tag Permit will allow you to drive your vehicle into the main canyon and park at the Grotto.
Heaps Canyon Via The Grotto and Entering at Gunsight or Phantom
Hiking up the West Rim Trail
from the Grotto in the Main Canyon is the access to the two most popular entries into Heaps. The trailhead is the same as the popular hike to Angels Landing
, one of the most popular hikes in Zion and also skirts the head of Behunin Canyon
. The access to Gunsight Slot which runs north-south and intersects Heaps is 5 miles from the trailhead and on top of the West Rim. By continuing about 1 mile further west on the same trail, the access to Heaps via the Phantom Valley is located.
Permits for Hiking Heaps are either available on-line or at the visitors center. Walk-in permits must be gotten the day prior to the intended hike.
www.nps.gov/zion or 1-435-772-0170
Free camping is available at Mosquito Cove near mile post 24 on route 9 between Virgin and Rockville.
Backcountry Permits for camping in Heaps would be picked up along with the Canyoneering Permit (if you plan to spend the night in Heaps)
External LinksEast Zion Tourism Council
Inside Heaps Slot where there are many wet swims and rappelsGetting Hooked
Having hiked a few classics and explored a few other non-published areas in Zion in the 5-6 years past, I was hooked! I know others that have experienced the same sensation. I found myself one day hesitantly walking up to the desk with Oak Creek in the background at the visitors center. I then asked the ranger on duty if I may peer at the 3 ring binders that were stashed away for those and only those that knew of them. Somewhat intimidated, I flipped one of them open and landed on an account of "Heaps Canyon" by Royce Trapier. I had not heard of this canyon so I had to see what and where it might be. After seeing that it was a fairly gentle approach (up the West Rim) my interest peaked.
Reading further was just like adding wood to my fire. The descriptions were vivid accounts of many awkward rappels into frigid pools of water, scrambles across impossibly angled slabs of rock, climbs up log jams that required every ounce of energy that could be mustered, but what really stopped me for a second and third and fourth careful study was something he described as the "Devils Pit". I believe the year was 1992?
My First Attempt
I rounded up a couple friends that I had hiked Mystery Canyon and a couple other classics with, (Mystery was not a classic back then) and gave them my spiel! Carefully I assured them that this hike would be an adventure not soon forgotten. I didn't describe the hardships experienced by Royce Trapier in an attempt he had made previous to his successful Heaps bid. I didn't want to lose any chance I may have to recruit partners for this spellbinding hike. After placing a rope at Upper Emerald Pool and leaving a vehicle at the Lodge, we made our way to the trailhead at Lava Point. The hike was easy but hot on that June Day and by 1PM we had arrived at a point that may or may not be the entry into Heaps. We had sucked down all of our water carried and I volunteered to run over to Cabin Springs to pump our bottles full of another dose of the clear elixir. When I had returned to the head of the canyon we were about to venture into, I realized that both of the partners I had so slyly recruited for this adventure were very dehydrated. I knew that the attempt was in jeopardy, so we took a vote and decided that it wasn't to be. Behunin was just down the trail and we didn't want to have hauled all that gear and not use it. It was a fun hike thru Behunin Canyon that day!
Another Recruiting Attempt
My thirst was just temporarily quenched. The next year I was able to get two other friends convinced. Mike was a skating buddy (played roller hockey together) and Mark was the owner of the roller rink that we played at. I had hiked Mystery with Mike but Mark hadn't had the opportunity to even rappel yet. I took Mark out to a local Crag 2 days before our slated Saturday morning departure, and showed him the delicate intricacies of descending a rope. He did well and had fun. The night before the trip I went to the rink and met with the two, and explained that this would be a very difficult hike, probably the most difficult any of us may have ever experienced. I offered the chance to end it here and now (in a way I was hoping they would resign!), but they both said they would be ready at 4AM.
Second Time is a Charm
Once again we drove up to the Lodge and I ran up and stashed the requisite 300' x 8mm accessory cord that would enable us to finish the hike with all of our gear. We started up the West Rim this time from the bottom. By 1PM and slogging in the heat of the day, we arrived at the spot that made sense for the descent. Down we go and after about an hour of hunting, and pecking we found ourselves at a tree with webbing. This is the start. Once we go down and pull our ropes we will be committed (probably to an institution!). Our packs were laden with lots of gear. I did not want to fail! My pack dry weighed 65# and Mark and Mike carried a bit less, but then it was my idea so I had the honors! We had 1100' of various size and length rope, the questionable by today's standard full bolt kit with hooks, a set of cams and nuts, my climbing shoes, overnight gear, food and water and FULL, THICK WETSUITS rented from the local Dive shop. I didn't want to fail this attempt! We made the rappels with only having the rope jam twice, re-ascending and then onward again. As we looked thru the ever deepening almost limestone textured rock, peering south toward "The Crossroads", I mentioned that it was a lot like a "Gunsight". I think the name stuck? We arrived at the Slab of rock that I remembered in the description. Carefully walk down and then place hands on the east side and feet on west side and do a full body stem for the next 100 yards (Its easier to rappel this section). Holy Heck! You talk about a workout! On to the next obstacles; a few rappels some short some long, a couple swims, some short some long and Voila! 8PM and we are just above the Crossroads....I think? We are beat...lets settle in above the wash and cook some MRE's (Yummy) and get some sleep for the Heaps Narrows in the morning!
It took a while to get packed and going, but by 8AM we were on the trail! I remember that at the Crossroads we need to ascend a very steep ramp and then traverse 100 Yds. to a tree and then rappel 80' into the "Alley". A tough start to the morning! (now I know that its easier to just drop into the pool and walk around the corner!) Well...its 9:30 and we are here! Man does this canyon slot down in a hurry! On with the wetsuits and batten down the hatches and DIVE! Absolutely Stunning, unique, amazing and bitterly cold and wet! One pothole to the next pothole to the next logjam to the next rappel...to the next downclimb........on and on and on! It was unbelievable! Where is the "Devils Pit" I wondered? To a pothole, and its tougher to get out. Need some shoving from behind. That reminds me! Mark, let me have the bolt kit with the hooks since I'm leading....."What Bolt Kit?" Mark exclaims! "It fell out in one of those swims and I wasn't about to go diving!" Mark!..I sure hope to "Heck" we don't need it in here! Onward! I kept saying, this must be the Devils Pit! Geez! There are a bunch of Devils Pits! We came to a place that appeared to fit Royces description best. This was it! Exit by scrambling up the 25' high logjam and down the backside...too easy? On the other side of the jam a single log stretched across a deep pothole for 20'. Now this looked super balancy and exciting! Put a rope around my waist in case I fall and you can drag my butt out of there! Now your turn! Now to another pothole but this time, no log; feet on one side and back on other and inch across. We made it...... downstream just a short distance, and I holler out, "Its a 20 foot drop and no anchors!"..wheres the bolt kit when you think you need it? Could rig an anchor back off the logjam if needed, but one more glance, ahhhhh, there's an old bolt hidden in a small alcove on the right!
Nearing the End of the Canyon
The canyon is widening out now. A couple long rappels and now at the end alas! Now where? I sort of remember that we have some very long drops ahead but I forget where we should go? Drop into the huge chimney overlooking Upper Emerald Pool? Nah! Too much work if its not the anchors. So I head up on the ledge on the east side of the chimney. Nothing, so it must be on the west side? I could jump across? Nope...too long to fall if I miss! so back down and after a short scramble up a dirty corner and a bit of romping, I peak my head over and shout...grab this end of the rope and tie the packs on. Heave-ho and up the packs come one at a time. Down to the anchor on a small pine tree and a short 50'er to a big pine tree and some GRAND EXPOSURE! Are those people down there? Yep! Next rap to the slanting ramp at the chimney. Three of us were snug as a bug in a rug! Pull out the 300'x8mm accessory cord that had been stashed in the "wet" drybag and over I go! Dig around in the grass for a bit, tie the stashes cord to the end and "Haul Away!". Mark comes first after careful inspection by Mike (Mark was now on about his 15th Rappel ever in his life) Down comes Mark with a little pressure from my conditional belay. Next up...Mike on his way! A little more assistance and at 9PM we're down! A couple handshakes and forced smiles and a few night see'rs applaud and what do you know, there's some wives and friends to lend a hand with the final jaunt to the vehicles and a promise of some "cold pizza and cold beer". Yee-haw! I knew we wouldn't fail.
In recent years Heaps has seen increased visitation. Canyoneering has become a popular sport, but the need to take this hike seriously is crucial. In the last 3 years there has been at least one rescue or recovery each year. Be sure you go with the proper training, skills and equipment.