Johnson Arch Canyon - An "Urban" Canyoneering Adventure in St George, Utah


Kody invited me over for a lap down Johnson Arch Canyon in St George, and said the magic words: “no need for an early start”. I’m in! This sweet half-day canyon is just north of St George in Snow Canyon State Park, and has great views of the recently-developed California-style housing developments that crowd the valley floor south of Snow Canyon. The Canyon is closed from mid-march to mid-september for raptor nesting, so it is good to get a lap in before it closes. All anchors are bolted, a decision the Park made because it is so close to the city and draws a bunch of beginners. It requires a permit from Snow Canyon State Park, with group size limits and daily quotas, but the permit can be obtained on-line. The locals call it "Arch Canyon", but since there are many Arch Canyons in Utah, I refer to it as Johnson Arch Canyon.

Four inches of snow the day before put a nice frosting on Zion, but WeatherUnderground showed it well above freezing in St George, so the canyon was likely free of snow, but would definitely be wet and cold. Any debate about the need for wetsuits was now moot.

I pulled into the Johnson Canyon parking lot at 12:35, five minutes late, and started getting my gear sorted out when Kody and Rick pulled up three minute later. We sorted out ropes and drove around to the top. Kody’s daughter had a game that morning, and I guess two hours of running around in the "Seattle sunshine" had been enough, so it was just Kody and son Kyler, plus Rick Mellen also of St George, and myself.

The walk into the canyon was accomplished without difficulty. We took the official, long-way around, stretching out the approach to a full thirty-six minutes. We soon arrived at the first rappel. My friends Amelia and Matt were showing a few people their first canyon, and were ahead of us in the canyon, having taken the "short cut". They evidently walked around this “first rap”, perhaps deterred by the pool of unknown depth below, since they did not all have wetsuits. We changed into rubber and geared up, then downclimbed the first rappel and discovered the pool was indeed chilly, and chest deep on me. Glad for the rubber, were we! Next came the crawl-through and a couple of short downclimbs. Soon we came to the second rappel where we caught up with Amelia, Matt and gang, who let us use their rope. Thanks Guys!

Second and third rap, check! The fourth rap sometimes ends in a big pool where we planned to join with Amelia’s group to set up a guided rappel to get their friends past the swim. We were surprised to find – no pool! The flow had filled the previous pool, 20 feet back, but had apparently run out of steam right THERE, so… no cold swim, no guided rappel. So we rapped regular, the rope got a little stuck on the pull (but Kody climbed up a few feet to clear it from a chockstone) and we proceeded downcanyon to the final 200 foot rappel down a corner. We thought about FiddleSticking the final rap, but it also had potentially rope-grabbing chockstones, and a conventional pull-through would probably be better for keeping the rope away from them.

Down we went. A crowd gathered. Applause, etc. A short walk out to the car…

Admittedly, when everything goes as planned, it doesn’t make for a very exciting story... Actually, I’m liking that idea!