Canyoneering Guide Photos 1 2 3 4 5 6

Mystery CanyonMystery Canyon is indeed a mystery... a deep and beautiful hanging canyon that feeds into the bigger Zion Narrows, making an abrupt 90-degree turn in direction along the way. This "hike" is one of the the crown-jewel canyoneering adventures in Zion National Park, featuring a steep and intimidating entrance, numerous rappels in beautiful dark sculpted narrows, an enormous landslide/rockfall obstacle in the middle of the canyon, and two big-wall rappels near the end that really get your attention. The grand finale is the rappel down Mystery Falls that lands you right in the Zion Narrows only a quarter of a mile upstream from the Temple of Sinawava.

WARNING: This route is not suitable for hikers who have no technical canyoneering experience.


Like all other technical canyons in Zion National Park, you need a canyoneering permit for each member of your group. The National Park Service limits Mystery Canyon access to only 12 people a day, so during the summer months and especially weekends, there is stiff competition to get permits. Due to high demand, NPS has put a lottery system in place for both the Subway and Mystery Canyon. Complete info on the Zion Canyoneering Permits website.

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.

Finding the East Mesa Trailhead:

The most common approach to Mystery Canyon is from the East Mesa Trailhead, located in a remote corner of Zion National Park accessible via dirt roads behind the Zion Ponderosa Resort. Roughly 1.7 miles east of the Zion National Park border along Route 9, turn north onto the paved North Fork Road and follow it for 5.4 miles, then turn left onto the dirt road that heads west under the Zion Ponderosa gate. Follow the main Pine Angle Road as it heads west and then north towards the trailhead. (See map below.) In recent years, signs have been placed at the major intersections to point drivers in the correct direction.

When dry, the dirt roads are easily accessible by low-clearance cars, but things could get tricky in snow or muddy conditions. The East Mesa Trailhead has enough room for several cars to park, but less than half a mile from the trailhead, the road descends a fairly steep hill that may be treacherous for some cars. Use your best judgment and if preferable, find a spot above the hill to pull over and walk the remainder of the road to the trailhead at the NPS boundary. (All of the land east of the Zion National Park border is privately-owned by the Zion Ponderosa and many independent owners of lots and cabins. Do not block any roads and please be respectful of private property to guarantee future access for others.)

The Approach Hike:

From the East Mesa Trailhead, hike 2 miles along the East Mesa Trail to reach the head of Mystery Canyon. (Alternatively, if you hike up from Weeping Rock, it is .9 miles along the East Mesa Trail from the junction with the Observation Point Trail.) The East Mesa Trail passes quite close to the start of the canyon, so you should be able to see it open up to the north as you hike by. IMPORTANT: There are a few north-facing canyons in the area; make sure you are at the correct one! UTM/NAD27 Coordinates: Easting 328983 Northing 4128478.

Start of Mystery and the Death Gully:

Walk the rim and find the very head of Mystery Canyon where you can see the canyon plunge right in front of you and stretch off to the north. From this point, walk east about 50 feet to find the start of the steep trail-of-use down into the canyon. The trail will head left for about 20 feet, then turn right into a short open section over the loose white shards of rock and then quickly head into the safety of a forested area. Mystery Canyon (If you spend more than a few moments on the exposed white shards and you are sliding down small drops fearing for your life, you are not taking the best route!) For the next 30-60 minutes, you will continue hiking down this steep erosion gully which is affectionately referred to as the "Death Gully." While this route is manageable, there are a few minor downclimbing obstacles and it is quite easy to slip and/or set a large rock in motion.

Warm-Up Rappels:

Once at the bottom of the canyon, the hiking gets more pleasant in the dry streambed of the overgrown canyon with a handful of short rappels to get you warmed up. (In the past, people used walkarounds to get past the drops, but due to the human impact on vegetation and erosion, hikers are urged to stay in the watercourse.) If you are new to canyoneering, these raps are also a great opportunity to practice technique before hitting the more serious rappels.

Rappel A (20 feet): an easy slanted rap off of a pair of bolts in the exposed rock of the left wall. Soon after is Rappel B (15 feet) down a small chute on the left side. (The anchor is webbing wrapped around a boulder at the top of the chute. If missing, feel free to replace. This spot can be also be downclimbed, but it may be awkward for many.) A few more minutes downcanyon is Rappel C (20 feet), a simple rap off of one bolt on the left. (This spot can also be downclimbed and and upclimbed without too much difficulty.) Then after hiking past and downclimbing a few logjam obstacles you will reach Rappel D (20 feet), another simple rap off of one bolt on the left. Now the canyon walls are taller and things are about to get real.

The Rock Narrows:

Mystery Canyon Rappel 1 (50 feet): Just past the last little rap is the first official/big rappel of the canyon, a 50-foot rap down a fluted chute into the first slot section. The rappel station is a bit exposed, so you may want to hitch into the easy-to-reach old bolts for safety before you step out onto the exposed plank to reach the the newer glue-in bolts. Once down, you are now in an awesome dark and narrow slot. Just a few feet down canyon is Rappel 2 (40 feet), a straightforward rap off of bolts on the right wall. And right after is Rappel 3 (25 feet) off of glue-in bolts on top of a chute on the left. (Raps 1-3 are one after the other; you won't even bag the rope.)

Just past a few downclimbing obstacles is Rappel 4 (10 feet); downclimb an old wedged log to a short little rap. (Anchor may be webbing on the log or an old bolt on the right wall.) And just beyond is Rappel 5 (50 feet) off of two bolts in the left wall. This fun rappel curves left down a few steps and descends through a V-shaped chute. After another little downclimb, you exit the dark slot section to a more open and shallow section with a nice view of the White Cliffs in the distance.

The Shallow Slot Section:

Continue hiking down the sunny shallow slot and make your way down a narrow V-shaped wedge section that goes under a chockstone. (This spot has a few old bolts and rap rings from when it was filled with debris and you rapped from the top of the chockstone. This spot may fill in again in the future!) Soon enough, you come to the next two raps: Rappel 6 (40 feet) off of two bolts in the right wall down an angular slab, followed by Rappel 7 (15 feet) -- a short one down an obstructed chute.

Devil's Hole and Landslide:

Now the canyon opens up and changes mood again. Continue hiking down the wider forested box section and in about 15 minutes you will arrive at a spot known as the Devil's Hole where a big rockfall/landslide has blocked the canyon and a large swampy lake often forms. Mystery Canyon If conditions are merciful, the area will be completely dry but after any big rains or spring runoff, this spot could be mud or even a swimmer. (Check current conditions before your hike and plan on the possibility of getting wet here.) Hike up the landslide and down the other side following the trail-of-use. The view from the top of the landslide is quite outstanding in both directions.

Back in the belly of the canyon, the next section has a few minor drops that can be downclimbed by most, but trees can also be used to rappel off of if necessary. (You will probably find webbing wrapped around a few.) Rappel 8 (30 feet): One drop has two glue-in bolts right in the rock slab on the ground for an easy rap down. After a few more downclimbing spots including an awkward log in a chute, the canyon gets dramatically deeper again and as you turn left, you will be standing at the top of a dryfall looking 100 feet down to Mystery Spring far below!

The Lower Riparian Section:

Mystery Canyon Rappel 9--Mystery Spring (110 feet): This is the rappel that really gets your attention and great care is needed for rigging:

Down-canyon from Mystery Spring, the canyon is now alive with lush vegetation and a small stream of flowing water. After a few slippery spots to downclimb, the next noteworthy obstacle is a big boulder with an emerald pool under it. Rappel 10 (15 feet) is a very short rap off of a tree behind the boulder into the pool below. After walking through a short section of jungle, you will arrive at the grand finale...

Mystery Canyon Rappel 11--Mystery Falls into the Narrows (120 feet): Mystery Canyon ends dramatically with a wonderful view looking over the top of Mystery Falls flowing down like a waterslide into the Zion Narrows. This is another big rappel that gets your attention. Notes:

Once down, pack up your gear and hike the quarter of a mile in the Zion Narrows to the Riverside Walk. After spending the day in isolated Zion wilderness, it may be a bit shocking to be surrounded by so many people at the Temple of Sinawava!

map icon linking to large map Map #1: Driving to the East Side Trailheads
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
map icon linking to large map Map #2: Mystery Canyon (from the East Mesa Trailhead)
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Joe's Spin:

Mystery Canyon is an amazing hiking/canyoneering experience through some of Zion's most compelling canyon scenery. But while many descriptions of this canyon label it as easy, do not take it for granted and do take great care on the big Mystery Springs and Mystery Falls rappels. When you touch down in the Zion Narrows after a wonderful day in the designated wilderness, you will forget all about the hassle of dealing with the Zion Permit System...

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