A Classic Introduction.
Rapid-fire rappels, beautiful soaring walls, and constantly changing light and water conditions make Pine Creek a wonderful learning experience for the intermediate canyoneer, or a delightful jaunt on a summer evening for the grizzled veteran.
Pine Creek demonstrates the ever-changing nature of Zion canyons. Full of water from spring runoff or recent thundershowers, it is a freeze-fest requiring thick wet suits or drysuits to prevent hypothermia. After a period of extended drought, it can be completely dry. Be sure to check at the Backcountry Desk for current conditions and, more importantly, believe them when they say you NEED wetsuits.
Pine Creek is divine, though the thunder of traffic in the tunnel kind of cuts into the wilderness experience. The technical section is done by competent small parties in an hour or less, and struggled through by large groups of incompetents in 12 hours or more. Expect to encounter other parties when descending Pine Creek. The light is best near mid-day, so sleep in, slurp coffee -- no need for an early start.
Being adjacent to the road, Pine Creek has a higher daily use quota (50 people) and a higher allowed group size (12) than most canyon in Zion. It DOES "sell out" on summer days, but there is much less of a mad scramble for permits than for other canyons.
First descent of the canyon down the watercourse, as currently done: Dennis Turville and Dean Hanniball, September 21, 1977.
2 to 6 hours (or more if a large or novice group)
Spring, summer, or fall
100 feet (30 m)
WARNING! - Pine Creek is also Zion’s most popular technical canyon for misadventure. Rappelling off the end of the rope, losing control of a rappel, or getting stalled out by too large a group and too little experience are common ways of demonstrating incompetence in Pine Creek. Don’t do this. Pine Creek is a serious canyon with serious obstacles, and should not be taken lightly.
Helmets, rappelling gear, webbing and rapid links.
COLD WATER PROTECTION
Highly variable, but wetsuits are generally required.
FLASH FLOOD RISK
Moderate - Pine Creek has a large collection zone, but the streambed above the slot has a huge capacity to absorb water.
Requires car spot, or short hitchhike.
Here are some suggestions for avoiding misadventure:
Know what you are doing. It may seem self-evident, but Pine Creek requires canyoneering skills to descend. Everyone in your party should know how to rappel BEFORE entering the canyon. Many rappels feature awkward starts, or require disconnecting while swimming.
Keep your group small, to six or fewer people. If your group is larger, break it into two smaller groups. If you do not have enough experienced people to do this, break the group in two, and have the experienced people run through the canyon twice.
Bring the right equipment. Everyone must have his or her own harness, gloves and rappel device, plus a helmet and proper clothing. Do not underestimate the need for wet suits.
Pine Creek is almost always a fun option, but of course changes season to season:
Spring- Sometimes means melting snow and flowing water through the canyon. Rappels may be flowing and some downclimbs become a little harder. And of course, the water is COLD!
Summer and Fall- Usually a good time for friendly conditions in Pine Creek, but water levels vary widely. Be careful of summer monsoons, which suggests getting an early start.
Winter - Can be really fun, but also VERY full-on with flowing water and icy conditions. Be very prepared for ice flowing, falling and hampering your descent. Icy canyon floor and sides makes for a harder descent, as well as VERY cold temperatures. Warmer winter temps also can cause significant flow through this canyon.
Pine Creek is the drainage that follows the famous Zion Tunnel. From Springdale drive north a few miles to Canyon Junction. Follow Rte 9 up Pine Creek Canyon to the second switchback and park. This is where you will exit. Continue up the road and through the tunnel. Park at the east end of the tunnel in a small parking lot on the right. If you have only one car, park at the top and have one person hitch back to the car after completing the canyon.
From the parking lot, follow a small trail close to, then under, the bridge to the canyon bottom. Five minutes of walking and downclimbing leads to the first rappel. Wetsuits and harnesses are commonly put on in the shade of the canyon a few meters short of the first rappel. There may be odd-seeming bolts well before the first rappel. These are for Search and Rescue; please just leave them alone.
First Obstacle: A short drop and pool must be dealt with before getting to the first rappel. There are several options depending on water level and skills. Straight down the watercourse often is the best choice. An exposed climb up left, then down on a ramp can work better when the pool is full.
R1: 70 feet (20m) Rap from a bolt anchor to a pothole. Walk to the exit of the pothole and continue the rappel another 20 feet (6m) to the ground (sometimes pool). The last person can flip the ropes left around a horn, to avoid sticking the rope in the crack on the last part of the rappel. Pull the rope carefully, slow and steady.
Historical Note: In ancient times, the first few rappels were avoided by walking the rim of the canyon and rappelling from a tree. Don't do this. The possibility of knocking rocks onto canyoneers below is too high, and you miss some nice canyon.
Walk 20 meters to the next obstacle. This area changed in 2015. We used to climb under the rock, but it got filled in with debris.
R2: 15 feet (5m) Rap from a 2-bolt anchor past a chockstone. Can be downclimbed, but a surprise bad-landing resulted in 3 ankle injuries in 2015, so rapping or handlining is recommended.
Walk 20 meters past a small arch.
R3: 10 feet (3m) off a log into a pothole.
R4: Great Cathedral Rappel. Walk carefully out a slippery ramp to the anchor. (May require a belay in some conditions). Rap 50 feet (15m) off a bolt anchor past 2 arches.
Walk or swim out the end of the pothole (through arch). Walk down a beautiful fluted corridor 100m to the next obstacle. Downclimb a log into a slot (and often a swim), or follow the rim on the right up and over to a bolt anchor and short rappel (20 feet, 6m), avoiding the deepest part of the swim. Walk or swim a long corridor. The canyon turns sharply right. Walk and downclimb 100 meters or so to a short drop.
Carefully downclimb some logs into a pool. Walk 200 yards (200m) to one last swim where the canyon turns sharply right. Carefully climb up to atop two large boulders wedged into the canyon.
R5: Rap 15 feet (5m) off a single, glue-in bolt to a pool, often a short swim.
Make your way to where the canyon opens up. This is a good place to have lunch and warm up.
Work through large blocks 200 meters, trending right near the end to a flat ledge and a bolt anchor near a small tree.
R6: Rap 65 feet (20m) down a corner. Pull the rope carefully to avoid getting it stuck in the corner crack. Walk through a neat keyhole to an open area. Climb slabs left to a bench, then walk down to an arch and a bolt anchor for the final rappel.
Safety Note: The canyon "floor" in the open area is debris wedged in-between giant boulders, and is unstable. It forms the roof of a cavern below. Use caution when moving across this possible collapse area.
R7: Rap 100 feet (30m). A spectacular free rappel leads to a rocky area that used to be (and will be again) a delightful Fairy Glen with a small spring.
Alternate Rap 7: Rappel 90 feet (27m) using a two-bolt anchor off the front face of the boulder that blocks the canyon into the chamber under the rock. Downclimb/scramble down a corner to a pool at ground level - easier than it looks. The pool is usually waist deep.
Relax, drink some water, remove harnesses and pack the rope. Sometimes it is best to wait until the canyon goes into the shade for the walk out.
Descend the canyon. The floor of the canyon is littered with large blocks and the walk out is strenuous. Very difficult in the dark. Take it slow and have fun. It usually takes at least an hour, not including time for playing in pools. The masonry wall of the 2nd switchback is clearly visible from the canyon bottom just before the largest and best swimming hole. Find a small trail in the woods from just above the pool, or from the level of the pool, leading to the road.
Emergency (NOT alternative) Exit: It is possible to follow a traversing trail across to the end of the top switchback of the Pine Creek road. The trail is closed except for emergencies, REAL emergencies. The ongoing use of these trails is easily seen from the Canyon Overlook trail and has a huge impact on the sandy hillside. Following the drainage is a low impact exit -- please use it.