A Classic Introduction.

Rapid-fire rappels, beautiful soaring walls, the subterranean nature and constantly changing light & water conditions make Pine Creek a wonderful experience for well-led beginner canyoneers and grizzled veterans alike. 

Pine Creek demonstrates the ever-changing nature of Zion canyons. Full of water from spring runoff or recent thunderstorms, it is a freeze-fest requiring thick wet suits to prevent hypothermia. After a period of extended drought, it can be completely dry. Be sure to check at the Zion Backcountry Desk for current conditions and, more importantly, believe them when they say you NEED wetsuits. 

The technical section is done by competent small parties in an hour or less and struggled through by large groups of less-competents in 12 hours or more. Expect to encounter other parties when descending Pine Creek. Play well together. The light is best near mid-day, so sleep in, slurp coffee—no need for an early start. Or enjoy it late in the afternoon for a less-social experience. 

Being adjacent to the road, Pine Creek has a higher daily use quota (50 people) and a higher allowed group size (12) than most canyons in Zion. It DOES "sell out" on summer days, but there is less of a 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. 

 
 

Canyon Profile


Logistics

RATINGS
3B II ★★★★★

TIME REQUIRED
2 to 6 hours (more if a large or novice group)

PERMIT
YES

SEASON
Spring, summer, or fall

LONGEST RAPPEL
100 feet (30 m)

SKILLS REQUIRED
WARNING! – This is not a beginner canyon. Pine Creek is Zion’s most popular canyon for misadventure. Rappelling off the end of the rope, losing control of a rappel or stalling out with a large inexperienced group 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.

Equipment

ESSENTIALS
Helmets, rappelling gear, webbing and rapid links.

COLD WATER PROTECTION
Wetsuits are generally required, even in hot weather.

DRINKING WATER
Bring your own water.

FLASH FLOOD RISK
Moderate - Pine Creek has a large collection zone, but the streambed above the slot has a huge capacity to absorb water.

ACCESS
Requires a car spot, or a 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.  

SEASONAL ADJUSTMENTS

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.

 
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Getting there

Spotting Cars

Pine Creek is the drainage that parallels 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.

The Approach

From the parking lot, follow a small trail close to and 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 are odd-seeming bolts well before the first rappel. These are for Search and Rescue’s frequent rescues of poorly-led parties.

 

The Business

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 and 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, slowly and steadily. 

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:  50 feet (15m) The Cathedral Rappel. Walk carefully out a slippery ramp to the anchor (may require a belay in some conditions). Rap 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. 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 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. (Can be avoided by downclimbing underneath, sometimes.) 

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; it leads 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. 

 
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The Exit

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. Work your way down the streambed, following signs of traffic. It takes one to two hours, plus 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 trail in the woods 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. This trail is eroded and collapsed in a couple of spots and is easily seen from the Canyon Overlook trail as it has a huge impact on the sandy hillside. Following the drainage is the low impact exit—please use it.


 
 

author’s experience

Pine Creek was my first technical canyon in Zion, in June 1999 with Scott Holley.  I have descended it once or twice a year since then. 

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