The one knock I have on the Zion Narrows and much of Zion National Park in general is the multitudes of people you almost always have to share your adventure with. But Zions is a big piece of country, and I've discovered that it is relatively easy to plan some amazing solitary outings. Hiking books describe Parunuweap Canyon as "seldom visited," "accessed with difficulty," and "comparable to the Zion Narrows." This all sounded great, but the guidebooks also describe the hike as either a 1-way with a car shuttle, or a long out-and-back, neither of which were appealing to me. After scouring over various maps, I was confident that I could make a nice 18-mile loop-hike out of it IF I could find a safe shortcut through the "White Cliffs" -- a 1000-foot-high continuous band of Navajo Sandstone that towers high above Parunuweap and the East Fork of the Virgin, stretching from the main Zion Canyon to nearly Mt. Carmel Junction. Maps revealed a couple of steep, narrow notches in the cliffs just east of the park boundary that COULD be passable. There was only one way to find out.
Parking at Checkerboard Mesa to start the loop, I was surprised at the amount of snow still lingering on a warm early April day in Zion. After road-walking about a mile to the park's east entrance, I veered southeast and began the easy scramble toward the top of the White Cliffs which are not so imposing when approached from the north.
After reaching the top of the cliffs and looking down into the first notch-like canyon, and seeing sheer walls, house-sized chokestones, and a few areas that appeared to slot up, I guessed my chances were about 50-50 of safe passage. Climbing around the rim a ways to get a better perspective, I decided It was doable if I could get down a tricky-looking 15-foot resistant lip in the canyon bottom. Giving it a try, I carefully scrambled down the canyon headwall for a few hundred feet until I was on top of the lip, which I could now see was simply too risky to downclimb alone. This is typical of pioneering a new route, and I knew I had to be patient, climb back out to the clifftop, navigate to the second notch, and hope for the best.
I spotted these bumps in red siltstone derived from the Carmel Formation. These appear to be great examples of "load structures" -- irregularities that form (before the sediments are turned to rock) at the interface between two contrasting sediment types that are quickly buried (loaded) with overlying material.
The second cleft initially looked even more ominous than the first. The upper portion didn't appear to be too bad, but the lower third of the canyon was out of view and could have been harboring any number of insurmountable obstacles. Again, there was only one way to find out.
After sliding down some loose scree, and then some minor bouldering, and finally squeezing through a short slot, I emerged from the canyon's mouth onto the vast intermediate-level rimlands between the Whites and Parunuweap.
While navigating across the pinyon-studded slickrock, I wondered if I could possibly be the first non-Indian to make this particular traverse.
Heading southeast for several miles, I made my way into Poverty Wash, which I knew would quickly slot up downstream. Just prior to entering the slot, I noticed some rather large and fresh cougar tracks also heading into the slot. What is it with me inadvertently trapping animals in narrow canyons lately? But this time, instead of a harmless little fox, I had visions of an aggressive mountain lion, upset by being followed by a human. Little did I know this was going to be the first of many animals there were to give me heartburn that day.
The Poverty Wash narrows are beautifully sculpted by the countless flash floods that have roared down of the White Cliffs over the millennia. Although Poverty's drainage is not huge, there is very little soil to soak up torrential thunderstorms that drench this area regularly every summer -- nearly every drop of rain flows on top of the slickrock as sheetwash until it finds some tiny rivulet which in turn finds a bigger rivulet that eventually drains into Poverty Wash. All of those little rivulets collectively add up to impressive volumes, as evidenced by the huge pine logjams that dangle 20 feet above the wash bottom.
I made plenty of noise (beat-boxing and Tom Petty songs of course) as I descended deeper into the slot, making certain that my feline friend would have plenty of warning of my whereabouts. The cat must have found an exit because after about a mile into the narrows the tracks thankfully disappeared.
After negotiating through a couple of miles of deliciously sweet narrows, I reached a 100-foot dryfall that I bypassed to the east. A cool, clear creek supporting all sorts of greenery flows from springs near the bottom of the falls.
Less than 1 mile from the falls, I reached the confluence with the fast moving East Fork which has cut the deep and mysterious Parunuweap Canyon. Upon entering the main canyon, the first thing I noticed where the cows. Yes, cows. Out here in a secluded canyon with a raging river and little feed. Brown ones, black ones, white ones, blotchy ones; bulls, cows, calfs; all very mangy-looking with protruding ribs and large divots in their hides. Surely, the cows' owner had no clue his herd had wandered this far into the canyon. Regardless of how the cows got there, I had a problem.
They must have heard me coming because by the time I realized I had arrived at the confluence, the heard of about 20 had spooked and split with half trotting upstream and half heading downcanyon -- the same way I needed to go. At this point, the sheer-walled canyon is less than 25 feet wide and there was no way I could ease around the skittish cattle -- every step I took, they would travel deeper into the canyon. Already 5 hours and 11 miles into the hike, there was no way I could afford to backtrack now for the sake of a few cows. I knew there are very few exits out of Parunuweap, and none of them are easy, especially for cows. I also knew that in another mile, a massive rock-fall boulder chokes the canyon creating a 15-foot waterfall that the cows could never descend. Something would eventually have to give.
Initially, fairly continuous gravel bars lining the stream allowed myself and the cows to stay dry as we played cat-and-mouse down the canyon. Before long the gravel bars dwindled leaving wall-to-wall river. The herd paused at the edge of the last dry bar, allowing me to get within 15 feet of them. For a few seconds I thought their reluctance to delve into the cold river, might allow me to slip by.
But, after one of the larger ones stumbled into the water, the stampede continued deeper into the narrowing canyon.
After a few bends in the deepest, darkest portion of the canyon known as "the Barracks," I heard the unmistakable roar of river water pouring over the rock fall just out of view around the next bend. Knowing the plunge pool below the falls was a potential "swimmer," I made my way over to a small gravel bar on the side of the canyon where I could remove and set my pack down so I could put on some neoprene arm/leg warmers and to place my electronics (GPS, camera) in a sealed dry bag.
Focused on preparing for the frigid swim, I had completely forgotten about the spooked cows. Just as I was snapping the last buckles on my pack, I heard a muffled clackity-clack ... clackity-clack, growing louder - CLACKITY-CLACK ... CLACKITY-CLACK. I looked up from my pack to see the largest bull of the bunch barreling up the river at full speed. As he charged by within a few feet, he turned his head and gave me a look of rage and fearlessness, and I could see he wasn't going to stop for anything, and I realized he certainly would have plowed me over had I still been in the middle of the river. Not 10 seconds later, the rest of the crazed herd surged upriver, many slipping on the rounded boulders or stumbling over one another, nose-diving into the river, but never pausing.
After regaining my whits, I spied my route down through the rock fall boulders that also had a bunch of logs plastered on top. Hopping into the plunge pool, I was surprised to find the water level only reached my chest.
After changing into to some dry layers to warm up, I continued deeper into the twisty Barracks. In the narrower portions, where the river was quite constricted, I'd have to lean into the strong current just to stay upright.
I soon arrived at one of the larger tributaries emptying into Parunuweap. Not named on maps, canyoneers have dubbed this delightful side-slot Misery Canyon for one reason or another. I didn't have the time to explore too far upcanyon, but the bottom portion is a small slice of paradise and a welcome relief from the frigid waters of the East Fork. Like many Zion-area slot canyons, Misery has formed along a deep fracture in the earth. This fracture allows ground water, warmed several 1000 feet below by the natural geothermal gradient, to rise to the canyon bottom, collect into a small stream, and ultimately cascade down a moss-lined path into a natural hot tub full of minnows and toads.
After soaking in Misery's warm waters, I continued on knowing my exit point was just around the bend. But before scaling the canyons north wall, there was one more landmark to find. Somewhat hidden behind thick brush and flood-carried boulders, a large bronze plaque, bolted directly to the canyonside, memorializes the first group of white explorers (led by Maj. Powell) to explore Parunuweap's mysteries 138 years ago.
Shattered sandstone, broken and gouged by a minor fault, provides plenty of handholds to climb out of the canyon to the north and back onto the slickrock bench above.
After a few miles of route-finding through a fantasyland of stone domes, fins, nipples, and teepees, I finally arrived at the final ponderosa-lined pass through the White Cliffs adjacent to Checkerboard Mesa and back to my awaiting car.
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