Great West Canyon (Zion NP)


By: Gary Craig


You've clambered up a waterfall or two, negotiated something called the "slime traverse", and hauled yourself out of the canyon of the "Subway", carved by the Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park. After passing through forest, and ascending glistening white sandstone, you're at the summit of South Guardian Angel. But wait! What's that spectacular gorge farther to the south?

The Right Fork of North Creek has carved the "Great West Canyon" in Zion; it provides a three-day adventure for those willing to meet its challenges. Several rappels are involved, and efficient routefinding is tricky. The route is described in gory detail in several Zion Backcountry handbooks.

Over the (long) weekend of July 4th-6th, I had the pleasure of descending the Great West Canyon in a group of eight, under the (unofficial) leadership of Ron Bartell and Rich Henke. The other members of the group (aside from the author) were Rena Tishman, Christine Mitchell, Jim "Cadillac" Mitchell, Robin Schell, and Bill Eschenbruecher.

The first day's hike is straightforward enough. Hike down the trail from Lava Point for a while, and descend Wildcat Canyon to about 6000 feet where the "seeps" are shown on the map. This is pretty straightforward, as long as one is wary enough to avoid the occasional rattlesnake (we saw two). There's some up and down on the way to avoid some nasty drop-offs as one travels down the canyon, and the worst of the brush is passed after an hour or so. There is essentially no water until one reaches the seeps, which form a few pools large enough for a cooling dip. Many campsites present themselves in the burned area around these pools. We picked a nice spot near the stream and were soon joined by other parties making the descent who camped nearby. After a fine camping dinner and rappel practice, a few meteors provided a 4th-of-July show for those of us willing to stay awake for it.

The hike on Saturday the 5th started out uphill, which was quite demoralizing considering that the end of our car shuttle was three thousand feet lower than the start. After crossing a saddle (with great views) to the south of our campsite, we hiked down increasingly difficult and confusing terrain into the Right Fork of North Creek. After a lunch break when we finally reached the bottom of the canyon, we had a couple tricky moves around/under giant chockstones; swimming would have been needed if the water was higher. Just beyond, we encountered a junction where the canyon narrowed and turned west in earnest. This is where the fun begins.

Just a few minutes below this point, one encounters the "black hole". This is a dank series of pools which one can swim or bypass via class four moves to the left (south). We climbed out, and made our first rappel descending back to the floor of the canyon (into knee-deep water) after this obstacle. The increasingly narrow canyon (no chance of getting lost here) continues west to the second fun spot, a forty-foot dry waterfall which one bypasses via a rappel from a tree on the right.

Another hour or so of walking and boulder-scrambling brings one to the Grand Alcove. This is an unmistakable, and popular, camping spot. Just as the creek descends through a series of pools with a huge overhanging wall towering hundreds of feet overhead on the right, a large shelf appears on the left with plenty of sand and slabs to spread out on. The next day's hike begins just beyond, with a double rappel down cliffs at the end of the shelf, back to the creek. Our early start enabled us to be the first party to reach this point, so we had our choice of spots here. More campsites are available a few minutes back upstream. At dusk, a large, poorly-led party appeared, and seemed ready to start the rappels despite the late hour. Most of the fifteen or so in that group would have had to rappel in total darkness, but wiser counsel prevailed and they retreated upstream to make camp. They apparently got a late start the next morning too, and we never saw them again.

Another early start on Sunday morning saw us quickly through the two rappels in the Grand Alcove, and just a few minutes beyond we came to the top of Barrier Falls, which requires the third rappel of the young day. The bottom half of this rappel is actually *in* the flowing water, providing "tricky" footing. But we had no problems, and at the bottom of the falls we packed the harnesses and ropes for the seven mile hike down to the lower end of our car shuttle. The canyon below Barrier Falls quickly widens and provides occasional views north (toward South Guardian) and south up remote canyons. A use trail appears and guides one along a reasonable route along the stream. We thought that travel along this portion of the canyon bottom was somewhat easier than along the lower approach to the Subway. The worst difficulty was at Double Falls, where we puzzled a bit before finding the faint trail which bypassed the Falls on the south.

The lower altitude and wide-open canyon made travel for the next several hours fairly hot. Just before lunch, we passed a deep, cool, inviting pool where Robin decided to go for a swim, curiously, while still wearing her pack. Not to worry, Bill fished her out in short order. Several hours of increasingly warm walking brought us to the junction of the Left and Right Forks of North Creek, where the trail climbs out of the canyon back to the road. We reached the cars about 4PM, and Rich, Ron, and Cadillac unwound the car shuttle while the rest of us enjoyed a rest. In short order, we were all on our way home to L.A.

Thanks to Ron and Rich for their guidance and to the others for their company.

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