Searching for Hidden Treasure in Zion's Parunaweap Canyon
It had been on my list since my first (modern) trip to Zion in 1999, but somehow I had never gotten around to it. When Alicia suggested a trip through The Barracks portion of Parunaweap Canyon, it sounded like a really great idea, especially since it would make a great wind-down from an intense 6 days of Wilderness First Responder refresher course the week before. Was Parunaweap the "Hidden Treasure" of Zion? Certainly the short portion of the canyon we visit when doing Fat Man's Misery is really sweet; if there was more stuff like that then YEAH, Hidden Treasure for sure! I had also recently visited the portion between Rock Canyon and French Canyon and that was pretty good, but no Hidden Treasure. What lay between? How did it all hold together as a trip? How messy was that start from Mount Carmel? Only one way to find out. We got a reasonably early start and spotted a car inside the Park at the mouth of Checkerboard Canyon, then drove back to Mt Carmel. We had a ream of information from a couple different sources, but as a guidebook author, what is important is what the actuality on the ground is. Thus, some time was chewed up in taking notes, before I realized that this part of the trip, the setup, was 5 miles from my house and I could come and finish it up at any time.
Access to Parunaweap is blocked by a private ranch, the Barracks Ranch, which has a public road through it, with no parking allowed. We drove as far as we could, to the first crossing of the river, an expanse of mud my large-tire station wagon would not handle, and dropped the packs. We then drove back eight-tenths of a mile and parked on the side of the road and walked packless back to the river. We avoided getting our feet wet at the first river crossing and headed out on the north bank of the river, quickly picking up the ATV trail that continues for another 2.8 miles and that shortly (as in 3 minutes) led to the first stream crossing.
In this part, Parunaweap is wide open, with 500 foot walls rising on both sides, split here and there by side canyons that beckoned - but not enough. We had some hiking to do if we were gonna make camp before dark. The ATV track/road made for easy (if somewhat soft-sandish) hiking, and the river was but ankle-deep when we crossed it - which was frequently. After two hours, the ATV track escapes south up a steep hillside, and we were left with the canyon in a more natural state. The canyon tightened up some, but not a lot. At 2.45 we stopped at Mineral Gulch and walked up a ways to check that out - lovely little narrows, well worth the 45-minute round-trip.
Soon, we crossed a fence, and the canyon changed from slightly cowed up to thoroughly cowed up! Yuck. Our plan was to camp up Rock Canyon a bit, and this was looking like a good plan, as the water would be less polluted in Rock Canyon. My first trip down Rock Canyon with Dean Kurtz, he showed me some interesting petros AND the 'Spanish Sword' carving, that supposedly showed the way to the hidden Spanish Treasure. We arrived at Rock Canyon with a half hour of daylight left, dropped the packs and went off looking for petros. The GPS coordinates I had were not quite right, so we had to search a bit, but quickly found the panel. We enjoyed the Native American panel for a bit, then dashed off to look for the Spanish Sword - based on MY MEMORY, always a dubious venture. We wandered up the slickrock and searched all over to no avail. ATV tracks - yup. Spanish Sword - nope. On the way back down to the river, Olicia pointed out something I had stepped over... you know, the Spanish Sword! By then it was dark - we'd have to come back in the morning.
Back down to Rock Canyon, we picked a relatively flat spot for the tent, pumped water, made some dinner and retired for the evening.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we hiked back a few minutes to the Petros, now with some light on them, and back to the Spanish Sword. It was good to stretch the legs and get the blood flowing in the morning, before breaking camp. Quickly we returned to camp and packed up, on the trail by 8:30. This stretch I had done before and it is nice, though escapes from the canyon are available at numerous places. Above Rock Canyon, we had seen lots of sign of cows; below Rock Canyon we started seeing lots of cows - 23 in all. I was somewhat surprised to see that this section of canyon was so heavily grazed. The cows certainly seemed to be doing well!
It took us about 3 hours to get to French Canyon, which was considerably less-draped with poison ivy than on my summer visit. Half an hour later we were at Poverty Wash and grabbed a bite to eat, and wandered up the lovely narrows of Poverty until it pinched off. Great side trip.
There is an obstacle to navigation in The Barracks, a feature called simply The Waterfall. Clarity on exactly what was involved was difficult to tease out from the various descriptions, so we brought a short piece of rope in case we had to do something technical. An hour past Poverty Wash, the canyon grew tall and narrow, and we soon found ourselves at The Waterfall. Would we have to swim? Uh, no. A bypass on the south side made complete sense and we climbed up, over and down the other side with little trouble, handing up or down packs at two points. We were soon below the little waterfall, grateful to not have to go deeper than crotch-deep in the chilly water.
A half hour later, we found ourselves in familiar territory at the end of Misery Canyon, soon after at the Powell Plaque and our exit route. Our timing was good, as we had 3-1/2 hours till dark, and the exit takes about 3-1/2 hours. This exit can be miserable in summer, with the sun beating upon the overheated hiker, but in November, even on the startlingly-clear day we got, it was pleasant, though somewhat more uphill than desired. We boogied, made good time and reached Olicia's car right as it got dark.
An excellent adventure. A second Zion Narrows? Hardly. Three stars on a scale of 5 - four stars if there were no cows. But the continuity and scale of the narrows of The Barracks do not compete with the North Fork Narrows. Just doesn't.