Keyhole Canyon barely shows up on a topo map, but it is a beautiful little subterranean slot that offers up some amazing other-worldly slot canyon scenery. This route takes roughly two hours to complete and involves 2-3 short rappels, and as such, it is quite a popular route for beginning canyoneers. This canyon also has many down-climbing obstacles, and a few wades and swims through cold water, so even though it is short, it should still be taken seriously. Full technical gear is required and wetsuits are recommended.
WARNING: This route is not suitable for hikers who have no technical canyoneering experience.
As with all slot canyons, there is a high risk of flash floods, so check weather conditions before doing this route. Sadly, despite this being the shortest and easiest technical canyoneering route in Zion National Park, Keyhole Canyon is also the site of the deadliest canyoneering incident in the history of the park when in September 2015, seven hikers got swept away during a quick and severe rainstorm. Please do not ignore any weather forecast warnings. Stay out of the slots when rain is on its way and live to hike another day.
You must get a wilderness/canyoneering permit to do this route. The National Park Service limits access to Keyhole Canyon to 50 people a day, which shouldn't be a problem except on the busiest of weekends or holidays, but be prepared to share the canyon. For more information on permits and reservations, please see the Zion Permits website.
|Rating:||Short and moderately strenuous canyoneering route|
|Access:||Route 9 roadside parking|
|Time Required:||2-3 hours|
|Length:||Roughly .7 miles looping through Keyhole Canyon back to Route 9|
|Elevation Change:||250-ft ascent up to the entrance of Keyhole Canyon and back down again|
|Technical Challenges:||Numerous downclimbing obstacles and approximately 3 fairly short rappels|
|Equipment Needed:||Enough rope for a 25' rappel (a single 60-100' rope works well), climbing harness and rap device, climbing helmet, webbing and rapid links, drybag. Wetsuits are recommended even in the summer as the water is perpetually cold.|
|Seasons:||Late spring through fall for the general public|
|Flash Flood Warning:||Do not do this canyon if there is a threat of rain.|
The route starts off of the Route 9 road in the East Canyon -- roughly 3.5 miles east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel or 2 miles west of the east entrance station. Note the contours in the road in the map below and park at one of the two closest pull-offs: one right in front of the Keyhole Canyon exit and one further east, closer to the start of the route.
Walk east on the road until you can see a large slickrock bowl to the north, with a hoodoo formation at the top and a vertical ridge on the left. (See first picture on the photos page.) Hike up the bowl towards the hoodoo formation at the top, then scramble down left (west) of it into Keyhole Canyon. (The scramble down into the canyon is steep and eroded, but there are plenty of rocks and roots to hold on to.) Once in the bottom of the canyon, now the fun begins!
Put on your wetsuit and start hiking down the first slot section. You will encounter numerous obstacles to downclimb, including boulders and logs. If you are new to canyoneering, many of these downclimbs can be intimidating. Evaluate each obstacle carefully and use opposing force against the walls to control your descent. You will make it! Several chockstones above drops have webbing handlines to help you get down. Soon enough, the walls open up and we are in a sandy open section.
Only a short distance down the open section, the second slot appears on the left with a dramatic drop down into the dark abyss. Rappel 1 (25 feet) is off of the set of bolts in the left wall that takes you down into a short pool; the pool can range between leg and chest deep depending on recent rains. Now we are in the golden section of the canyon. After wading/swimming through a few pools and downclimbing a few more chockstone obstacles, you will soon reach Rappel 2 (20 feet): a very straight-forward rappel off of bolt in the right (east) wall. One more pool and moments later, you are at Rappel 3 (25 feet) -- an easy sloping rappel off of another bolt in the right (east) wall.
After a few more downclimbs over boulder obstacles, you will reach the crux of the canyon: a downclimb into a long narrow swimming corridor. The swim is roughly 100-feet long and can be intimidating. Keep your cool and propel yourself off of the walls. Soon enough, you will make it to the far shore! Hike through a few more shallow pools and you will soon be back in the light of day. Hike out the wash to your car. Wasn't that fun?
Keyhole Canyon is a great introduction to canyoneering; it has several technical challenges as well as great scenery, and it is so short, people who are miserable can escape soon enough. Keyhole is loved by newbie canyoneers and veterans alike. As such, it sees a lot of traffic, so please do your best to minimize your impact on the canyon.