Take a drive through southern Utah, and you’ll see some of the most incredible landscapes anywhere in the American West (or anywhere else, for that matter). Those red-rock walls and wide-open desert scenes are something to write home about. But if you’re impressed by the views, just wait until you see what lies beneath them!
Canyoneering requires some of the technical skills and systems used for rock climbing and caving: setting up rappels, squeezing through narrow openings, and always knowing your way out. But ropes, harnesses, and helmets aren’t the only equipment you’ll need. Like the scrambling required for many mountaineering outings, canyoneering uses hands and feet, plus elbows, shoulders, and sometimes a bit of creative contorting.
Rock climbing routes are graded on the Yosemite Decimal System, and canyoneering routes have a similar (but more complex) rating system. They’re rated on the basis of technicality—from pure hiking to technical canyoneering—as well as how much and what type of water you’ll encounter, how long and committing the trip is, and, in more advanced canyons, the additional risk involved. Read more about the actual ratings and what they mean here.
Looking for a memorable canyoneering experience? St. George, Utah, is the place to be. Whether you’re a novice canyoneer on your first adventure or an expert eager to tackle a new challenge, St. George is widely considered to be home to some of the best canyon exploration opportunities anywhere. Here’s where to go:
Just outside the border of Zion National Park, Lambs Knoll is beloved not only for its relatively beginner friendly canyoneering but also for its abundance of sport climbing at the same location. It’s easy to spend a whole day here. There’s limited hiking between rappels, but those trips will take you between 60 and 70 feet down, so you’ll definitely have to do some work. When you’re not enveloped by sweeping red sandstone walls, you’ll be swept off your feet by breathtaking views of Zion and its surroundings.
Yankee Doodle Canyon
Thanks to its super short approach and more straightforward route finding than you’ll experience on many advanced canyoneering routes, Yankee Doodle Canyon is a popular trip for those ready to take on more technical canyoneering challenges. The route includes two mandatory rappels, one of which is a 30-foot, free-hanging rappel right off the bat, as well as some scrambling and wedging one’s way through the narrow slot. Natural and bolted anchors mean you’ve got some built-in protection for the big drops. There’s also some wading, which means this is a no-go if there’s rain in the forecast.
Island in the Sky
Not to be confused with the Canyonlands National Park district of the same name just outside Moab, Island in the Sky is a steep-walled butte and technical route in Snow Canyon State Park. Ascending the butte, which rises above the landscape on all sides, requires some traditional climbing gear placement and some easy, but unprotectable, climbing. It also requires some mental fortitude and comfort with exposure, plus excellent navigational and route-finding skills. Like its neighbor, Arch Canyon, it requires a permit).
Zion National Park Canyons
The canyoneering opportunities within Zion National Park are virtually endless. There’s the Narrows, one of the best known and most iconic canyoneering routes in the country, which requires adventurers to hike downriver — literally in the river — for miles.
Or check out the Subway, which includes several mandatory rappels and swims. Keyhole Canyon makes for a quick morning outing, while dramatic Englestead Hollow takes a full day.
It’s a smorgasbord for experienced canyoneers, but there’s no commercial guiding allowed in the Zion Wilderness, which means it’s not where you’ll be headed if you hire a guide. Still, when you’re ready to strike out on your own (and you’ve gotten the requisite National Park Service permit), this is the place to be.
Excited to start rappelling into canyons and finding your way out, but not quite ready to take on the challenge alone? Fortunately, there are several trusted guides and outfitters in the St. George area. Paragon Adventures is a well-known service with knowledgeable guides and tons of information on the area, and Red Desert Adventure offers guided tours, as well as instruction for beginner, intermediate, and advanced canyoneers.
While the idea of climbing and rappelling can be intimidating for beginners, most people simply find it a lot of fun, particularly if you get proper instruction from the start. It doesn’t take long to realize that canyoneering is one of the best ways to explore this incredibly scenic part of the country. You owe it to yourself to give it a try.
Arch Canyon’s proximity to St. George — it’s practically right in town! — and its half-day length makes it a great intro trip for new canyoneers. Still, it’s not just a hike. The approach typically takes about 40 minutes, at which point many parties opt for wetsuits since a few of the rappels end in pools, and a very chilly wade out is required. You’ll need a permit for Snow Canyon State Park for this one, as the relatively urban location has prompted the park to institute daily quotas to avoid too much traffic. The only downside to this canyon is its relatively short window of availability — it is closed from March 15 to September 14 to protect a population of nesting birds. Plan accordingly.
Note: Because there are numerous Arch Canyons in Utah, this one is sometimes referred to more specifically as Johnson Arch Canyon.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with St. George Tourism.
Featured image provided by Anna Papuga