This is a trip taken by my son and I to Zion National Park over Memorial Day weekend.
This is the story of two Zions. The first is the very crowded Zion, with many tourists, lone lines at the visitor center and shuttle buses, and on the trails. For the first day of the trip, we experienced all of these. We did however, get to do the technical Echo Canyon, which was away from the crowds.
The second Zion is the backcountry wilderness of Zion. For the next three days and on the holiday weekend proper, we saw no other people until a few feet from the trailhead. We were told that we were the first people this year to complete the technical Right Fork of North Creek, also known as the Great West Canyon (though we found some footprints that appeared to be more recent than that.
Right Fork is a very scenic canyon, but it doesn't get much attention, partially because the approach has a reputation of being quite brutal, and because most people don't complete the route in a day, which necessitates bringing overnight gear through a slot canyon and carrying technical gear along with it.
I actually don't mind the approach to the canyon and find it to be quite pretty and we had some new backpacks to try out, so it was a good choice. Here is our story.
Nearing the end of the slot in the Grand Alcove.
May 27: Echo Canyon
Kessler and I completed the Echo Canyon Route in Zion National Park. The park was crowded(!), but we saw no one in Echo Canyon. It took us four hours to get from the East Entrance, to pick up our permit and drysuit, and to wait in line for the shuttle before finally arriving at the trailhead. We didn't start up the trail until 2:40 PM.
We were carrying a lot of gear since it was only my son and I and since we were told that there was a difficult keeper pothole in the canyon. I even carried a small rubber raft and Kessler carried a life jacket just in case. Several people were wondering what we were doing with a life jacket on the trail.
We made our way to the top of the canyon and scrambled our way into the slot. Almost immediately the cold swims began and they were very COLD since the snow and ice had just melted out of the canyon. I was chilly in my 4/3 wetsuit and I wished I had brought gloves for us.
The rappels and downclimbs were fun and the narrows were nice. The canyon was a lot wetter than when we did it before. The keeper pothole wasn't a problem and we really didn't need to bring all that gear.
After exiting the slot, we took some time to dry off and hiked down the trail and back to the shuttle.
At around 8 PM, the rest of the group called us and said that they changed plans for Imlay Canyon the next day, and they planned to be on the trail by 2 AM. Since we stayed up very late the night before (driving) and since we hadn't even eaten dinner yet, and since I wanted to pick up more cold water protection in the morning, we opted to not do Imlay. It was a big disappointment.
A photo I took on a previous Echo Canyon trip. We forgot our camera this time. :(
May 28: Right Fork North Creek [Great West Canyon] Day 1
After obtaining a permit to do Right Fork North Creek (a.k.a. Great West Canyon), Kessler drove to the lower trailhead and hitchhiked to Lava Point. I had been up the canyon from the bottom several times in the 1980's and once from the top in 1992, but not since then, so I was excited to see it all again. We took three days so we would make sure to have plenty of time for side trips and exploration. We were told that we would be first through the canyon this year, but we found some footprints that seemed pretty fresh.
We made our way down Wildcat Canyon (a.k.a. Blue Creek). There was quite a bit of bushwhacking, but it would be a small price to pay for all the wonderful scenery and absolute solitude ahead. There was a lot of knee deep to waist deep water to wade as well (this part of the canyon was completely dry last time I was there).
Wading and bushwhacking in upper Wildcat Canyon.
The scenery was quite pretty and we took some extra time to explore some of the slots in Wildcat Canyon. There are some pretty good ones in there, but almost no one takes the time to check them out. We waded through one walk through slot and I went through another one that required jumping into pools.
Resting on a bench above Wildcat Canyon.
Kessler in Wildcat Canyon.
A seldom seen section of Wildcat Canyon.
A slot in Wildcat Canyon, Zion National Park.
The route down to Left Fork was rather rugged, but the days are long this time of year so we still had time. We found a little stream with literally thousands of frogs jumping around.
We left Left Fork and made our way to the saddle between the Left and Right Forks.
Elk antlers at the Left Fork/Right Fork Saddle.
The route from here to the Giant Staircase was steeper and more rugged than I remembered it. We had to so some routefinding and a little backtracking to avoid brush, but eventually we made our way to the ridge. Once on it, the route was easy to follow. We did some poking around some of the peaks in the area.
It was getting pretty late by the time we reached the Giant Staircase so we looked around for a campsite. We didn't find anything that good, but found a flattish place on the slickrock that would do. There were thousands of frogs around and it was extremely noisy! The noise continued well into the night. I didn't sleep that well tonight.
May 29: Right Fork North Creek [Great West Canyon] Day 2
After a rough night, we packed up camp and climbed down the Golden Staircase and ledges down to the floor of the Right Fork. It wasn't too bad and the route down the crack was actually fun. At the bottom, there was the first of several rappels. It landed right into a pool of water.
The first rappel in Right Fork North Creek.
We headed down canyon and had to do a deep wade under a huge chockstone boulder. It was cold, but not as cold as in Echo Canyon (which we did Friday). After that, there was another rappel that didn't exist in 1992. After much bouldering we found our way to a nasty rappel, the hardest one in the canyon. Maybe there was an alternate route, but we went down this rappel. We had to lean over a void to get to the anchor and it was very slippery. The rappel was short, but very difficult to clip into and not fun.
The first cold pool in Right Fork.
The second rappel in Right Fork.
An easy section in Right Fork.
Not long after that we found ourselves at the infamous Black Pool. Since we didn't bring wetsuits (I had a bad reaction to neoprene on Friday, but my son brought a neoprene jacket), we had originally planned to bypass the Black Pool as well and the pools at the next rappel after that (the water at the Grand Alcove is usually warmer). I jumped into the Black Pool to test it out. It didn't feel that bad to me (my son apparently didn't fully agree with my opinion), so we just swam though it. The water temperature was probably around 50F/10C. Not long after a pool, there was another rappel into a pool, but the swim was much shorter.
Exiting the Black Pool.
Swimming in the cold waters of Right Fork.
An easy, but beautiful section of the canyon.
After much wading and a fairly easy section of canyon, we found ourselves at the Grand Alcove, which is one of the most impressive alcoves in the world. The best slot in the canyon, and one of the neatest slots in the world is right under the alcove. Surprisingly, most people that do come here bypass it. We wanted to do it directly (as we did in 1992). There were some very slippery slides and some tricky downclimbs, plus lots of swimming, but the clear spring water was much warmer than the stagnant water higher in the canyon.
The Grand Alcove in Right Fork North Creek, Zion National Park. Not many people see this part of Zion.
The beginning of the slot under the Grand Alcove.
Part of the wet slot under the Grand Alcove.
Part of the wet slot under the Grand Alcove.
A slippery log obstacle in the slot.
More fun in the depths of the slot.
Inside the Grand Alcove.
Nearing the end of the slot in the Grand Alcove.
Springs in the Grand Alcove.
The wonderful end of the slot under the Grand Alcove.
Last swim in the Grand Alcove Slot.
The lower end of the Grand Alcove.
After getting through the wonderful slot, we were at the last technical obstacle of our route, Barrier Falls. It was a neat rappel down to the pool in the canyon below.
A section of Right Fork above Barrier Falls.
The rappel off the Barrier Falls.
Another shot of Barrier Falls.
After completing the technical section of the canyon, we decided to take an inventory of all out equipment and see if anything got wet. The only thing that got wet was Kessler's sleeping bag, but only the top corner of it. We laid it out to dry and relaxed by the water. Unfortunately, out of the blue, a big wind gust came and blew Kessler's drying sleeping bag right into the water! We spread out the sleeping bag once more to dry while we ate lunch and explored around.
Right Fork between Barrier and Double Falls.
Another cascade in Right Fork.
One of the many little waterfalls in Right Fork.
After a few hours and once we had everything packed up, we headed back down canyon. There were many waterfalls to bypass. We had to dodge poison ivy in sections as well. We took another break at the beautiful Double Falls, which were actually Quadruple Falls since there was more water in the canyon than there normally is.
This is known as Double Falls, but with more water in the canyon it was actually Quadruple Falls!
Kessler behind Double Falls.
There were no more real obstacles after Double Falls and we made time to explore the first side canyon, which came in from the north. There was some wading and some bushwhacking, but we pushed pretty far up canyon. After exploring the side canyon, we headed down the main Right Fork to the next side canyon, this one coming in from the south. This is the best of the side canyons of Right Fork. It's a really good one with many waterfalls and pools and with a very impressive headwall and dripping falls at the end. The end is a huge and impressive amphitheater. Daylight was fading so we hurried back to the main canyon and set up camp.
A side canyon of Right Fork.
We had a much better sleep and the frogs weren't as numerous and noisy here. It sure was a beautiful day.
May 30: Right Fork North Creek [Great West Canyon] Day 3
Today we had a 5.2 mile hike out to the trailhead and then a very long drive home. Some refer to the hike out as a slog, but it is still pretty and the stream has some nice pools in it. Other than some pools to wade and many rocks to walk over and a few minor cascades, there weren't any real obstacles. We eventually found ourselves at the confluence of the Right and Left Forks.
The walls of Right Fork North Creek/Great West Canyon.
From the confluence we headed down canyon a little ways to locate the informal trail up the boulders and lava cliffs which formed the rim of the canyon. Apparently people have gotten lost here, but we found the trail without a problem and only got off course a few times. At the rim, we also saw the first people that we had seen in three days. We greeted them briefly and hiked along the flats to the vehicle. We did lose the trail for a bit, but found it again and were soon at our car.
The final (and hot and dry!) exit route after a wonderful three day trip through the Right Fork of North Creek.
It sure was a beautiful and spectacular route and one that isn't very popular. With a feeling of accomplishment, we headed back home.