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Rappelling into the Cathedral

Pine Creek Canyon
Zion National Park
Technical Canyoneering

          Pine Creek is one of my favorite Utah slot canyons. The first item, which makes this an attractive adventure, is the extreme beauty of this narrow slit in the sandstone. The second item is the ease in which the technical aspects and beauty of the canyon can be reached.

          Most canyoneering involves either a grueling approach or retreat hike, usually both. With Pine Creek your first rappel into a narrow slot begins within 100-yards of the trailhead and the fun does not stop until you complete the route several hours later. In between you will complete five rappels, swim several cold pools and wade about one mile of stream.

General Information:
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Pine Creek is a technical canyoneering adventure that will require approximately 4 hours to complete. Pine Creek Canyon has become very popular over the years and is heavily traveled. Please allow faster groups to "play through", and submit to the fact that you will encounter other groups. As a common courtesy please consider breaking large groups into two smaller groups.

          Pine Creek Canyon requires complete technical gear to complete the route. The longest rappel in the canyon is 90-feet and will require one 60 meter rope. Additional gear should consist of several shoulder length slings, a couple double length slings, 50-feet of webbing, several rapid links, and a prusik system.

          Pine Creek has the ability to hold a large amount of water. This canyon can be completely dry or contain long, cold sections of swimming depending on recent weather. I have discovered the following observations are fairly accurate for judging the amount of water you will encounter in Pine Creek. Immediately after passing beneath the highway bridge you will encounter a downclimb into a sizeable pothole, with easy to locate rappel anchors on the far side of the pothole. If you encounter a short swim across this pothole to reach the rappel anchor you are in for major swimming since the canyon will be completely filled with water. If you encounter wading to cross the pothole before the rappel anchor you will encounter wading of approximately equal depth in the canyon. If the pothole before the first anchor is dry the canyon probably contains little if any water. I pass this observation on since it is only 100 yards from the pothole and rappel back to the trailhead where you can re-equip to match canyon conditions. If you want to be guaranteed of staying warm than always bring a wetsuit.

          Springdale East is the USGS 7.5 minute topographical map that shows Pine Creek Canyon. All waypoints and maps for this route use the WGS84 datum. Navigation for this adventure is very easy, it would be almost impossible to get lost.

          Pine Creek Canyon is rated 3B II using the Canyon Rating System. You will need a Zion backcountry permit to enter Pine Creek Canyon. Pine Creek has a serious flash flood danger, check the weather report at the Visitor Center when you pick up your permit.

Swimming through the slot Grotto Rappel

Trailhead Information:
Stop at the visitor center and pick up a permit. Your permit will probably be checked at the trailhead by the ranger manning the Zion Tunnel kiosk.

          Take Highway 9 west from the visitors center towards the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The hike ends at the 2nd switchback up Highway 9 (second from either direction). If you have a second car this is where you want to leave it. This is the Lower Trailhead. If you don't have a second car it is easy to find a ride through the tunnel after you complete the canyon. Displaying a large, easy to read sign stating "Next Trailhead" will speed up the hitching process. This is also a good time to take 5 minutes and walk down to the creek so you will recognize your exit point.

          Drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and park in the small parking lot on the right. This is the Upper Trailhead. This is also the trailhead for the very popular Pine Creek Canyon Overlook hike. If you have a few extra minutes this hike will let you view a portion of your route from above and is worth the effort.

Swimming in the soup The Cathedral

Route Information:
          From the Upper Trailhead (N37 12' 47", W112 56' 26") enter the streambed next to the bridge. Hike downstream under the Highway 9 bridge. Within 100-yards you will reach a short downclimb into a sizeable pothole with two bolted rappel anchors easily visible on the far side of the pothole against the right hand wall.

          Rappel from the anchor on the far side of the pothole, do not pull your rope, but turn the corner and continue your rappel into what is often deep water requiring a floating disconnect. This rappel is 70-feet total in length. Continue down canyon and you will almost immediately encounter a 10-foot rappel to the canyon floor.

          The next rappel is 55-feet from bolted anchors and deposits you in a large cavern known as the "Cathedral". This is one of the most incredible places to be found in any slot canyon and is very photogenic. Don't forget to bring a flash and a wide-angle lens. 

          The Cathedral is followed by a very deep dark section of narrows. The remainder of the narrows are an enjoyable concoction of downclimbing, scrambling, wading and swimming. After the canyon begins to open up you will encounter the last two rappels. The first of which is 60-feet down a steep slope from a bolted anchor. The anchor is located on the north (right) side of the canyon.

          The final rappel is very spectacular. The anchors for the final rappel are not visible from up canyon. When you reach the pour-off into the magnificent grotto you must climb up the rock to the left (south) to a ledge about 10-feet above the floor of the canyon. Follow the ledge down canyon for approximately 35-feet and you will notice the final anchors next to a small arch. In past times the arch was used as the rappel anchors but this is now considered inappropriate. An excellent bolt station has been established near the arch. This bolt station has the added advantage that ropes do not get stuck in the grooves next to the arch as in years past. The drop is a 90-foot free hanging rappel, which can be very intimidating for beginners. This is the spot where most accidents happen in Pine Creek because novice to not set enough friction in their rappel device to accommodate a long free-hanging rappel, use good judgment.

          The final rappel ends in a radiant spring fed grotto, which is a good place to pack up technical gear, explore, rest and enjoy lunch. The remaining hike is rugged and involves boulder hopping, scrambling and wading. It is a fun hike but a little anticlimactic after the incredible slot you have just passed through. The Lower Trailhead (N37 12' 52", W112 57' 28") is visible from the stream if you keep your eyes open, the retaining wall around the switchback is easy to see from the streambed. There are several large swimming holes in this area that are popular with the locals.

Cathedral Rappel Spectacular grotto rappel

          Enjoy a short entertaining video of a trip through Pine Creek Canyon.


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