MISERY CANYON (Fat Man's Misery)

Route Description Photos 1 2 3 4 5

Misery CanyonOverview:
Misery Canyon is a technical canyon that skirts the eastern border of Zion National Park. Although the canyon is completely outside of the park, the approach hike starts at Checkerboard Mesa Canyon within the NPS boundary. Misery isn't too technically difficult, but it is a long strenuous day that involves a handful of rappels, many downclimbs, and a few stagnant pools to wade through. The canyon ends in the beautiful Barracks section of the East Fork of the Virgin River (Parunuweap Canyon) and a long uphill hike takes you back out to Checkerboard Mesa. This route is not suitable for hikers who have no technical canyoneering experience.

Although this route starts and ends near Checkerboard Mesa in Zion National Park, the technical section of Misery Canyon is outside of the NPS boundary, so a Zion wilderness permit is not needed. This route may take roughly 9-12 hours to complete, so an early start is recommended. As with all slot canyons, do not hike if rain is in the forecast; Misery Canyon drains a large area so its flash flood potential is great. Note: a wetsuit is not necessary during the warmer months as this south-facing canyon does not retain cold like many other slots in Zion.

Detailed Description:
The West Fork of Misery Canyon to/from Checkerboard Mesa can be broken down into several sections:

  1. The Approach Hike:
    Misery CanyonPark at one of the pull-offs just west of Checkerboard Mesa and begin hiking up "Checkerboard Canyon" -- the north/south drainage just to the west of Checkerboard Mesa; the route starts and ends here! The hike up this drainage is non-technical, but there are a few obstacles that are bypassed by social trails to the side of the streambed. (Make note of these obstacles as this information will be helpful should you need to do the exit hike after dark.) After a final steep sandy ascent up to the top of the saddle, you will have a great view in both directions.
    Hike down the south side of the saddle, then start veering east as you clear the White Cliffs. You will cross over two minor drainages (not counting the one south of the saddle) until you reach the third: the West Fork of Misery Canyon. There is no one correct route to get to Misery, but a map and compass/GPS are useful to make sure that you are not heading down the wrong drainage. (Try to stick to existing social trails or slickrock to minimize impact on plant life and cryptobiotic soil.) The upper section of Misery Canyon is an open wash, so it should be fairly easy to find a simple hiking route down the slickrock slabs into the wash below.
  2. Upper Slots (West Fork of Misery):
    Now it's time for some fun! After about half-a-mile of hiking in the sandy open wash, you will come to the first slot section. A short 15' rappel off an old bolt (or a downclimb) takes you into the slot. Misery Canyon is usually mostly dry, but several potholes will contain water that you must wade (or less-commonly swim) through. Misery Canyon You will encounter several chutes into potholes -- most can be downclimbed, but some may require a short rappel (depending on current conditions and your ability). Evaluate each obstacle and do what is best for you; one person's downclimb is another person's rappel!
    One notable landmark is what I call the "Indiana Jones rope swing" -- a chute with an old bolt in the right (west) wall that can be used to swing to a ledge that can be easily downclimbed. Just beyond this is a small, yet beautiful natural arch (bridge) that you walk under. The immediately following chute may be difficult to downclimb, so you can use the arch as an anchor to rappel off of. (Please be as gentle as possible with your rope pull!)
    The canyon alternates between open sections and slot sections and all of the slots can actually be bypassed by hiking the rim above on the east side of the canyon. Just before the confluence with the East Fork, you can avoid a final short slot section by hiking up the east wall and scrambling down several ledges. You can either do a fun 35' rappel (off of a tree) down to the sandy confluence or find the hiker's route down (further east from the ledges).
  3. Lower Slot Section and Grotto:
    Just past where the West Fork meets the East Fork, the canyon starts to get more interesting and scenic. Not too far downcanyon from the confluence is a 35' rappel, traditionally off of webbing wrapped around a boulder on the left (east) side of the canyon. Misery Canyon As the anchor is low, the start may be a bit intimidating, but it ends in a fun short free rappel. If your rope is long enough, keep walking backwards to rappel the next short downclimb.
    After sliding/downclimbing a few more chutes, you will downclimb into a very dark chamber with (usually) waist-deep water. Let your eyes adjust for a bit and you will see two beautiful natural arches (bridges) in the walls above. Continuing downcanyon, we reach the grotto section and a beautiful little spring in the left (east) wall. The downclimb at the spring is a bit awkward, so a handline or really short rappel may help. Now near the end of the canyon, we finally have clean flowing water to enjoy! Just downstream are the final sandstone cascades and the confluence with the mighty Parunuweap Canyon.
    Note on pothole water: Misery Canyon has a tendency to always have one or two really "ripe" pools. While most of the potholes are benign, I personally have experienced a few "vomitous-maximus" pools in my trips through this canyon. The clean flowing water at Misery Spring and Parunuweap will be a joy to freshen up with.
  4. Parunuweap Canyon:
    As if the lower section of Misery Canyon wasn't cool enough, as an added bonus, we have half-a-mile of hiking through the beautiful Barracks section of Parunuweap Canyon (the East Fork of the Virgin River) before the final hike out. Misery Canyon Parunuweap is a lovely isolated section of canyon, comparable to the more popular Zion Narrows (North Fork of the Virgin River). If you are doing well on time, enjoy your time in the water before beginning your exit up and out of the canyon.
    While hiking down the river, keep your eye open for the exit route on the right (north side) of the canyon. Soon enough, you will reach a lush area where the river makes a sharp turn to the right (north). You should see an overgrown grassy bench on the north side, continuing around the corner. Climb out of the river at the beginning of the grassy bench; the exit route begins here. But first, walk the grassy bench around the corner to view a curious landmark: the Powell Plaque, dedicated in 1972 honoring the Powell expedition of 1872.
  5. Exit Hike Out:
    Now it's time to pay the piper! From the start of the grassy bench, start hiking up the scraggly rock formations looking for the path of least resistance. This is by far the most strenuous part of the route, especially if on a hot sunny day. While the climb out is not at all technical, it is a Class 3 scramble and could be intimidating to those with a fear of heights. Soon enough, you will be several hundred feet above the river with an impressive view of the canyon below and the climb will start to level off. Hike north amongst the slickrock, staying fairly close to the ridge line and avoid heading west too soon (into the drainage to the west).
    Just like the approach hike, there is no one correct route -- do not trust all of the random cairns! A map and compass/GPS will be very helpful to track your progress, and if you start to run out of steam (like I often do!), headlamps are useful for a post-dusk escape. After three miles of uphill hiking from Parunuweap, you will be back at the saddle of Checkerboard Canyon, retracing your steps back to the car. Wasn't that fun?!?!
Misery Canyon Map West Fork of Misery Canyon Map:
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Joe's Spin:
Misery Canyon is a wonderful canyoneering route with great scenery and interesting obstacles and it is one of my personal favorites. There are only two downsides: 1) There always seems to be at least one or two really nasty pools to wade/swim through; 2) The exit hike is long and grueling (but beautiful) in the late afternoon summer sun. While the name "Fat Man's Misery" refers to a geological feature that has long since eroded away, "Misery" lives on to describe the hot uphill slog. But for such beauty in a remote location, it is worth it to pay the piper!

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