The East Fork

The mighty Virgin River has two main forks: the North and the East. The North Fork is the more famous and accessible, as it carves "The Narrows" and runs through Zion's main canyon. The East Fork of the Virgin, on the other hand, begins near Mount Carmel on Hwy 89 and travels through rugged, roadless backcountry to meet the North Fork near Rockville, Utah. Though the logistics of a Barracks hike are more difficult, the beauty and solitude are worth your trouble.

The East Fork carves its own deep, narrows canyon - Parunaweap Canyon. A close cousin to the Zion Narrows, Parunaweap features the same grandoise river canyon scenery, but not as many miles of it. "The Barracks" specifically refers to the dramatic narrows section of the canyon where the walls are super tall and tight, much like the North Fork Narrows. There are also many excellent side canyons to explore, complete with the bushwhacking and route-finding you'd expect with a little-traveled area.

Lower Parunaweap Canyon, near Rockville, is an off-limits Park Research Area and closed to hikers, so most people cannot access Parunaweap from the "Zion" side. Backpackers interested in exploring The Barracks and Upper Parunaweap must use ingress and egrees points east of Zion, which I detail below. This drainage is associated with the Fat Man's Misery hike in this guide.

 
 

hike Profile


Logistics

RATINGS
Off-trail, strenuous hike with sections of knee- to chest-deep water. Backcountry travel and camping required.

DISTANCE/TIME REQUIRED
About 20ish miles one way (32 km, usually done over 2-3 days

SEASON
Late spring, summer, or fall

ELEVATION GAIN
Minimal altitude loss until the exit, where you'll climb around 2,500 feet to get out

SHADE
A mix of full sun and deep shade

PERMIT
No, but if leaving a car parked overnight inside the park (at Checkerboard Mesa), please leave a note on the dash with name, phone, destination, and date your hike ends for Park Law Enforcement.

Equipment

ESSENTIALS
Sturdy water hiking shoes, ample water, purifying tablets or pump, backpacking gear, and drybags to keep gear dry

DRINKING WATER
Water is available to purify until you begin the exit climb.

FLASH FLOOD RISK
High. The Narrows of the canyon are tight and sustained. Check the weather before you go and be aware of escape opportunities if the weather turns unexpectedly.

ACCESS
Requires a car spot or shuttle. Begins off Hwy 89 near Mt. Carmel and finishes at a pullout across from Checkboard Mesa, inside the Park.

Difficulties

CONSIDERATIONS
A long, strenuous backcountry adventure through remote terrain. It requires good navigation skills and a difficult hike out in full sun.


Seasonal Adjustments

Spring: Expect higher and colder water flowing due to springtime runoff. Crossings may be deeper. If runoff is too high, do not continue down canyon, narrow sections are dangerous and difficult at high water flow. Neoprene socks and wetsuits may be appropriate or necessary.

Summer: The open sections can be really hot, so plan accordingly. Fortunately, you are close to water for most of the hike, and there are often shady canyon walls you can hide beneath.If possible, plan your exit climb for early/late in the day, when the sun is lower.

Fall: This is the BEST time to hike this route, with great fall photography along the creek bed.

Winter: Possible snowpack and ice along the waterfalls. Not recommended in winter. Use caution and check current conditions at the Zion Wilderness Desk.

 
 
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Getting there

SPOTTING CARS
You will need to spot a car near Checkerboard Mesa, where you'll finish the hike. Since The Barracks hike is mostly outside Zion National Park, you do not need a backcountry permit for this adventure. However, this means the Park will not have your vehcile information and itinerary, SO... please leave a note with your name, emergency contact, destination, and departure date so the Park rangers understand why your vehicle is there. Some hikers park at the small pullout, across from the drainage between Checkerboard and Crazy Quilt Mesas. For a more hidden/secure spot, you could spot a car at the East Rim/East Entrance trailhead and do a short hitchhike to the trailhead when you exit.

If you don't have a second vehicle, consider hiring a local shuttle company. You can leave your car at Checkerboard Mesa, and they will drop you off at the Barracks trailhead. This is a much less popular backpack than the North Fork, so book your shuttle well in advance.

THE TRAILHEAD
The trailhead for Parunaweap is a dirt road about a half mile south of the Junction of Hwy 9 and Hwy 89. There are several spots to park at the trailhead. Stick to the road and respect private property. There are usually signs pointing you toward the river rather than private property. When the signs indicate you're crossing private land, please stop driving and start hiking.

 

The Hike

The hike starts on the road. Please stick to it, as respect for the private property adjacent to the road will maintain access to this route in the future. After about three miles, head down to the river, following an old jeep trail. At the river, study the water flow. Significant flow (more than 5 cubic feet per second) or signs of flooding indicate a higher than normal (unsafe) flow; if this is the case, return the way you came and return another day. If the river appears safe, continue on. The jeep road crosses the river a few times and the canyon is quite open in this section.

Further down canyon, a dry canyon crosses to the south. When the jeep trail leaves the river, you keep hiking in it. The hike alternates between river crossings, hiking in the river and along shoreline.

Down river, the canyon gets more and more interesting, with many side canyons coming in. If you have a couple days, it can be fun to explore to explore these canyons. Some of the major ones include Mineral Gulch, Poverty Trail, Rock Canyon, Poverty Wash, or Fat Man's Misery from the bottom.

Camping

Most backpackers camp somewhere between Yellowjacket Canyon and Rock Canyon. The East Fork has many shaded alcoves that make great campsites, so rest assured you'll have plenty of good options. Past Poverty Wash, closer to The Barracks, the canyon narrows and fewer camping options exist. If you only have two days, try to make it close to Rock Canyon the first day, to evenly split your hiking over two days.

 
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The Barracks

The highlight of this route is the last few miles of Upper Parunaweap, before reaching the NPS Boundary. Here the canyon walls soar above and the light reflects off the walls, reminiscent of the popular Narrows hike. Because of the narrowness, be prepared for waist- to chest-deep water in some spots. There also tends to be areas of quicksand after rainstorms or during higher runoff times, which can be fun or scary, depending on how stuck you are!

At one point, you'll encounter a larege boulder obstacle, creating a deep section. Depending on flow, you can either get wet and climb down the boulder, or look on the left (south) wall on the canyon. There is a tunnel-like rockfall that takes some care to get through, but will avoid the watercourse and deeper water.

Further down, you're pass another canyon come in on the right; this is Fat Man's Misery. In the final mile, the canyon opens back up. Start looking for the Powell Plaque, a small monument honoring fellow Parunaweap explorer, John Wesley Powell. Find the plaque on the right-hand wall, at a spot where the canyon turns right and the vegetation has been disturbed/eroded; this can be tough to spot, especially in the spring. The plaque marks your exit route to Checkboard Mesa, and the beginning of you climb out of The Barracks.

The Exit

Lower Parunaweap is closed to hikers, so you MUST exit the canyon at the NPS Boundary. The exit is a strenuous scramble and hike back to Hwy 9 on the East Side of the Park. 

About 50 yards upstream from the Powell Plaque, look north and find a fairly well-worn route that heads out of the river. The first stretch of the exit is quite vertical and strenuous. Make sure both hands are free to climb the slickrock. After the initial steep climb, the route levels off above the canyon. You are heading due north and slightly west; a map or GPS will help you get your bearings. Once inside the Park boundary, the exposure eases and the scenery livens up. Try to stick to the slickrock to minimize erosion and trail-making on your way to Checkerboard Mesa.

Once you are close to the White Cliffs, head west to get into Checkerboard Mesa Canyon. At the saddle, enjoy the view of Parunaweap from above. Checkerboard Mesa Canyon is usually overgrown and requires some scrambling. Soon after the canyon opens up , you are back in the Park at Highway 9, where your vehicle (hopefully) awaits.


 
 

Trip Reports

Maps

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Photo Gallery

The Barracks