While most descend Misery Canyon via the West Fork, the East Fork of Misery Canyon is also an interesting route through a remote and photogenic stretch of slot canyon. Like the standard West Fork route, the approach hike starts from Checkerboard Mesa Canyon within the NPS boundary, but the East Fork makes for a longer and more strenuous day in some very remote territory. Even though there is only one real rappel in the East Fork, it is a physically demanding canyon with many downclimbs, random obstacles, and a few stagnant pools to wade or swim through. After the confluence with the West Fork, Misery Canyon continues to the beautiful Barracks section of Parunuweap Canyon, and a long uphill scramble and exit hike will 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 10-14 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.
|Rating:||Strenuous canyoneering route|
|Access:||Route 9 roadside parking near Checkerboard Mesa.|
|Time Required:||10-14 hours|
|Elevation Change:||400-ft ascent of Checkerboard Mesa Canyon, 1400-ft descent of Misery Canyon to Parunuweap; 1400-ft ascent during return exit hike.|
|Technical Challenges:||Two rappels up to 35 feet, many downclimbs, wading through pools with some possible swims, navigation on the approach and exit hikes.|
|Equipment Needed:||80' rope, climbing harness and rap device, climbing helmet, webbing and rapid links, drybag. Wetsuits aren't needed during the warmer months.|
|Seasons:||Late spring through fall for the general public.|
|Permit Required?||NO; the canyon is located on BLM land just outside of Zion National Park|
|Flash Flood Warning:||Do not do this canyon if there is a forecast of rain!|
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.
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. 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 the West Fork Misery Canyon is a large bare slickrock formation that looks like a giant beached whale. Once on top, scan the area for a good way down and up the far side. (There is no one correct route.) Once past the West Fork, continue hiking/scrambling around the next ridgeline and then head northeast towards the confluence of small drainages in the East Fork. (See map.) This is a good drop-in point that doesn't require any sketchy downclimb or rappel.
Once in the canyon, the fun begins. Several beautiful little slot sections alternate with short open sections. Like the West Fork, there will be several downclimbs and random obstacles. The canyon is typically dry, but recent rains can create a few short pools that you must wade or swim through. Near the end of the East Fork is a series of pothole rooms and a roughly 30-foot rappel off of a single bolt (RDC) into a dark chamber that may be a swim at the bottom. Around the corner, the canyon opens up and you are at the confluence with the West Fork.
Just past where the West Fork meets the East Fork, the canyon starts to get even 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.
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.
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.
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?!?!
|East Fork of Misery Canyon Map:
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
After having done the more standard West Fork of Misery Canyon route many times over the years, I realized it was finally time to pay a visit to the East Fork. This route is longer and more strenuous, but it's a treat to visit some lovely remote sections of slot canyon. As the approach and exit hikes involve a lot of cross-country route finding, allow plenty of time for this long day. A previous visit to the West Fork of Misery or the Barracks is very helpful.