MISERY CANYON (Fat Man's Misery)

Canyoneering Guide Photos 1 2 3 4 5 6

Misery CanyonMisery 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 from Checkerboard Mesa Canyon within the NPS boundary. While Misery isn't too technically difficult, it is a long strenuous day in a physically demanding slot canyon that involves many downclimbs, a handful of short rappels and chute slides, and a few stagnant pools to wade or swim through. (The term "Fat Man's Misery" is a reference to one of old narrow obstacles along the route.) The canyon ends in the beautiful Barracks section of the East Fork of the Virgin River (Parunuweap Canyon) and a long uphill scramble and exit hike take you back out to Checkerboard Mesa.

WARNING: 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 the greater Zion area.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The guide below assumes that you have the basic skills required to descend a canyon safely. Conditions in canyons change quite often, so use your own eyes to evaluate every obstacle if something is different than expected. Do not blindly follow this or any other description; use your own judgement and be safe.

The Approach Hike:

Park at one of the roadside pull-offs just west of Checkerboard Mesa; the hike starts and ends here! Begin hiking south up "Checkerboard Mesa Canyon" -- the unofficial name for the north/south drainage just to the west of Checkerboard Mesa. Hiking up this drainage isn't too difficult, but there are a few standard canyon obstacles including a dryfall that can be bypassed by a social trail on the east side of the canyon. Misery Canyon 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 and stick to a good trail-of-use that will keep you east just above the actual watercourse. Once you are clear of the White Cliffs, start veering east. You will cross over two minor drainages (not counting the one south of the saddle) before reaching the third: the West Fork of Misery Canyon. (While social trails will lead the way, it's important for you to reference a map and GPS to verify that you are aiming for the correct drainage. Several groups have gone down the wrong canyon and have required rescue.)

The final ridgeline to the west of Misery Canyon is a large bare slickrock formation that looks like a giant beached whale. Once on top, there is no one correct route down the other side, but it should be easy enough to find a simple scrambling route to the bottom of the open drainage.

Upper Slots (West Fork of Misery Canyon):

Hike down the wash past a series of potholes and after about a half a mile of open sandy wash, you will reach the first slot section. Now it's time for some fun! A short 20' rappel off of an old bolt in the wall (or a deadman anchor in the ground) takes you into the slot. Misery Canyon This first chamber is a good indicator of how wet or dry the rest of the canyon will be; if it's wet here, expect a lot of pool-filled corridors throughout the canyon.

The West Fork of Misery Canyon alternates between open sections and four narrow slot sections, each with their share of downclimbing obstacles and claustrophobic corners. You will encounter several chutes into potholes; most can be downclimbed, but some people may appreciate a handline or a short rappel. Evaluate each obstacle and do what is best for you.

One of the more notable landmarks is the "Indiana Jones rope swing" in the third slot section -- a chute with an old bolt in the right (west) wall that can be used to swing to a ledge that can then be downclimbed. Just beyond this is a small natural arch that you walk under to a short rap into a pool.

The fourth slot section (which can be bypassed by hiking the rim above on the east side) has a short and tight rappel into a chamber that then requires a narrow squeeze to get up and out the exit... this is the Fat Man's Misery. Just after is an intimidatingly tall slide down a chute into a pool to exit the slot. Near the confluence with the East Fork, hike up the inviting east side and follow the ridgeline to the confluence. Downclimb to the mouth of the final dryfall and it's a fun 35-ft rappel off a tree down to the sandy confluence with the East Fork.

Lower Slot Section and Grotto:

Misery CanyonJust past where the West Fork meets the East Fork, the canyon starts to get more interesting and scenic. Roughly .2 miles from the confluence is the biggest rappel of the day: a 35' rappel down a huge undercut boulder in an active landslide zone. (Like an arrowhead, a giant boulder is pointing downward at the landing zone and it will probably come down in the next few years. Tread lightly here and do not linger.) Right after this rappel is another fairly intimidating downclimb past several boulders trapped in a chute; some may prefer a handline or a short rappel.

After sliding/downclimbing a few more chutes, fresh water starts to appear in the canyon and you will downclimb into a very dark chamber with usually waist-deep water or a short swim. 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 the beautiful little Misery 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.

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. 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, relax and enjoy the water before beginning your exit up and out of the canyon.

Misery Canyonhile 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.

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 that shows obvious signs of previous travel. 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 ease into uphill hiking. 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 an unofficial trail of use, but it is easy to lose from time to time and you shouldn't trust all of the random cairns that you encounter! A map and GPS/compass will be very helpful to track your progress, and if you start to run out of steam, headlamps are useful just in case you make a post-sunset 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:
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.

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!

VIEW THE PHOTOGRAPHS! Return to the Greater Zion Area

Please note: This web site and all images on this site are the property of Joe Braun Photography ©2023. Unauthorized public or commercial use of any of the images or text on this website without explicit permission is strictly forbidden.