THE BARRACKS (East Fork of the Virgin River)

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The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon)In BLM territory just east of the upper east canyon section of Zion National Park is a long stretch of beautiful and remote territory through the East Fork of the Virgin River (aka Upper Parunuweap Canyon). The route through the East Fork makes for a strenuous but rewarding 20-mile backpack through some spectacular and remote scenery. The hike typically starts off of Route 89 just south of Mt. Carmel Junction and heads west down the East Fork canyon for many winding miles until you reach the border of Zion National Park. "The Barracks" refers to the golden section of the hike where the walls are tall and narrow, much like the more popular Zion Narrows (North Fork) route. Many interesting side canyons give a hiker opportunity to extend the hike and see some spectacular remote scenery. While the East Fork doesn't have any major technical obstacles, it is a long strenuous hike through knee- to chest-deep water and requires very good navigation skills for the exit route. Note: Lower Parunuweap Canyon (inside of the park) is an off-limits "Natural Research Area," so you must take the strenuous alternate escape route to exit by the Checkerboard Mesa.

Getting There/Logistics:

Since this is a through hike from Mt. Carmel Junction to Checkerboard Mesa within Zion National Park, you will need to spot a car at or near the exit. (The East Entrance Trailhead would be a good secluded place for your car, rather than parking at one of the exposed roadside turnoffs.) IMPORTANT: No NPS permit is required for this backpacking trip as the route is located almost entirely outside of Zion National Park (in neighboring BLM land), but if you are spotting a car within the park, it would be best to inform the rangers at the Backcountry Desk, so they don't sticker your car with a "you are overdue" notice.

From your car spot, take a shuttle or a second car to the starting point: a dirt road roughly half-a-mile south of Mount Carmel Junction off of Route 89. (Mount Carmel Junction is roughly 12.5 miles east of the NPS boundary, at the intersection of Route 9 and Route 89.) There are several spots where you can park at the trailhead, but alternatively, if you are staying in Mt. Carmel Junction, you can simply hike into the East Fork right from town.

Detailed Description (Mt. Carmel Junction to Checkerboard Mesa):

Starting about half a mile south of the Mt. Carmel Junction off of Route 89 (just south of the little East Fork bridge), the route follows a dirt road west into the East Fork White Cliffs. For the first several miles, you will be walking on a well-maintained dirt road in a private inset of land. The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon) Please be respectful and stick to the road and do not trespass off the trail or camp in this area. After almost three miles, a "private property" sign will instruct you to head for the river, then you will follow an old jeep trail as it follows and crosses the little river numerous times. This section of the canyon is quite open, giving great views of the surrounding White Cliff formations above.

Less than a mile west of Bay Bill Canyon (a beautifully desolate dry wash to the south), the old jeep trail leaves the river and you are now on your own. For the next several miles, you will alternate between hiking in the water or along one of the various sandy and overgrown banks above the river. (It's a judgment call as to which route is easier at each turn in the river.) The river can often be quite silty making it difficult to judge water depths and also making the edges of the water VERY slippery.

As you head down the East Fork, the scenery slowly gets more and more intense with many interesting side canyons coming in from the north and south. If you have time and energy, it is worth the effort to explore any side canyon that intrigues you (many of which have no names). If you are not tracking your progress or looking out for these side canyons, it is quite easy to walk past without even noticing. The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon) While the entire hike is roughly 20.5 miles, exploring the various side canyons can add another 10 miles of hiking. Landmarks of note:

While most of the scenery in the East Fork is quite sublime, "The Barracks" refers to the golden section of the hike -- the last few miles of the East Fork just before reaching the National Park boundary. Here the walls are tall and narrow and the canyon is dark, reminiscent of the popular North Fork Zion Narrows. In some areas, the water can get chest-deep and may take you by surprise if you have gotten too comfortable with the shallow water of the upper sections.

The most significant obstacle you will encounter is the boulder obstacle where several large boulders have choked up the river for a short section. Conditions change from year to year, so evaluate the obstacle carefully. Some years, you can easily climb down the boulder and do a short swim to safety. Other years, large logjams can form above and around the boulder creating a treacherous waterfall over the front of the boulder or a narrow and dangerous waterfall corridor on the side. The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon)Optional bypass: If the boulder/waterfall is looking too dicey, thankfully there is an alternative way around, although it is a bit strenuous and tedious. Just upstream from the boulder/waterfall, look to the south side of the river and hike up a steep boulder-filled slope that takes you roughly 50 feet above the river. Then turn right and follow the passage across to a little window into a claustrophobic cave-like fracture in the canyon wall; you may need to take your pack off to crawl through the small gap. Next, carefully downclimb the steep pile of boulders; this initial section is the trickiest and a handline could be very helpful. (See photos.) Once you have worked your way down the obstacles, you'll be back in the open.

After a final mile of beautiful canyon, the river makes a fairly sharp turn right (north) just before the NPS border. Look to the overgrown bank on the right (north) side of the river to find an interesting landmark embedded in the wall behind the overgrowth: the Powell Plaque (a somewhat difficult-to-find plaque commemorating John Wesley Powell). You will want to make a point of finding the plaque as this will help you locate the exit route. If you have time, you can hike down an extra half mile to the unofficially named "Labyrinth Falls" (the impassable waterfalls that mark the farthest you can legally go downstream).

Checkerboard Mesa Escape Route: Back in the good old days before the NPS designated Parunuweap Canyon as a "Natural Research Area" (in 1993), the Parunuweap route continued down river all the way to take you all the way to Springdale. Currently, (lower) Parunuweap Canyon within Zion National Park is closed to all hikers, so we must take a more strenuous scrambling route to the north to escape the river and return to civilization. About 50 yards upstream from the Powell plaque at the start of the overgrown bank, look up to the north to find a fairly well-worn climbable route that heads north out of the river. Many people miss this spot, so a GPS and map may prove invaluable in confirming your location and finding the exit.

The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon)Although the exit route is a non-technical climb, the first stretch is quite vertical and may be quite intimidating and strenuous, especially to those with a fear of heights. You will be using your hands for the first several hundred feet. After the initial climb, the route levels off a bit skirting the eastern shelves above Parunuweap and Misery Canyon, heading due north and slightly to the west of Peak 5534. Once within the boundaries of Zion National Park, there is much less exposure and the scenery is speckled with wondrous slickrock formations. There is no one correct route for this section and the random cairns don't always help, but try to stick to the slickrock or any existing paths to minimize your impact on the landscape.

Once close to the White Cliffs, head west to make your way up and into Checkerboard Mesa Canyon. (A GPS and map are useful here again to make sure you are not wasting your time hiking up one of the false canyons.) Once at the saddle, enjoy the great view to both the north and back at Parunuweap to the south. Checkerboard Mesa Canyon is fairly overgrown with many boulders blocking the way, but there aren't any significant obstacles (except a little dryfall that has a walkaround path). Soon enough, the canyon opens up and you are back in civilization at the Route 9 highway. Now where is my car and my car keys?

map icon linking to large map The Barracks Map #1: Mt. Carmel Junction to Bay Bill Canyon
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map icon linking to large map The Barracks Map #2: Mineral Gulch and Poverty Trail
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map icon linking to large map The Barracks Map #3: Mineral Gulch to the Powell Plaque
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map icon linking to large map The Barracks Map #4: Checkerboard Exit to Route 9
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Equipment Recommendations:

Leave No Trace:

As the East Fork is just as delicate and special as the more popular North Fork (Zion Narrows), you must practice your best "leave no trace" ethics to keep this remote canyon as pristine as possible for the next visitors. Do not litter, do not stack rocks, do not carve your name on the canyon walls. And you must also pack out your own solid human waste (poo). If you can't handle that, you don't deserve to do this hike.

Filtering Water:

While you can filter water directly from the East Fork of the Virgin River, the river is downstream from a town and a ranching operation, so this option isn't very appealing. The East Fork is also very silty especially in the upper sections, so a filter/pump may struggle after a few uses. As an alternative, crystal clear spring water is available from the mouth of many side canyons: Mineral Gulch, Rock Canyon, French Canyon, Poverty Wash, and Misery Canyon, as well as numerous springs that flow directly into banks along the East Fork. It is recommended that you purify all water.

Backpacking Options:The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon)

Between Yellowjacket Canyon and Rock Canyon, the East Fork has many, many shaded alcoves along the secluded banks that would make lovely campsites; it is very easy to find a suitable spot. In the more dramatic section of the Barracks past Poverty Wash, the options become more sparse, but a few good spots can still be found every quarter mile or so. Downriver from the boulder obstacle, there aren't really any idyllic spots for an overnight. (Note: Camping is not permitted in the Barracks Ranch private inset near Mt. Carmel Junction.)

If hiking the Barracks as a two-day hike from Mt. Carmel Junction, I would try to make it close to the "Desolation Gullies" or Rock Canyon on the first day which would divide up the days quite evenly. Doing the hike in more days allows for all sorts of possibilties depending on how many side canyons you want to visit and how leisurely you want to explore.

Seasons and Spring Runoff:

The best time of year to hike the Barracks is late spring through autumn, with the height of spring runoff usually taking place in April. But in record snowfall years like 2005 and 2011, water levels can remain high even though June and early July. While higher water levels might not seem significant in early sections of the canyon, it could make the deeper sections near Misery Canyon and the exit much more treacherous and the boulder obstacle may be impassable. To see the current and median water levels, check the USGS's water data website. 40cfs is close to "normal"; levels that are much higher could indicate dangerous conditions.

Variations for Seeing the East Fork:

Aside from the recommended route from Mt. Carmel Junction, Poverty Trail is a 7.5 mile long "shortcut" road/trail of sorts that allows you to bypass the upper East Fork and enter the river just downstream of Mineral Gulch. (I have hiked Poverty Trail to Checkerboard Mesa in a day and it was still a very long and grueling experience.) The Barracks (Upper Parunuweap Canyon) Also off of Route 9, you can descend Meadow Creek and Mineral Gulch to get to the East Fork, although the overgrown nature of Meadow Creek and the one waterfall obstacle make this option relatively unappealing. The much-less travelled "French Canyon" is an option to hike in or out of Parunuweap from the south, although a high-clearance vehicle is required to get to the trailhead.

For dayhikers who want to sneak a peek at the Barracks, the Checkerboard Mesa Escape Route can be hiked in both directions to allow access to the river. (This route is still very strenuous and would take a full day.) Similarly, Misery Canyon is a strenuous, yet not too technically difficult technical canyoneering route that ends in the most dramatic section of the Barracks.

Joe's Spin:

This is a great backpacking route through some fantastic scenery; it's a lot of work, but it's worth it! And with all of the interesting side canyons that could be explored, you can make this hike as big or as small an adventure as you would like. This one drawback to this route is also its primary feature: because this territory is so remote and difficult to get in to or out of, you are unlikely to see many people in the East Fork. Most people would opt to day-hike the bigger and easier North Fork Zion Narrows instead.

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