While the Right Fork "bottom-up" route is a fairly long and strenuous day hike, the "top-down" route is a much longer and more physically challenging multi-day canyoneering route that involves rappelling, downclimbing, a few cold swims, and several route-finding challenges. Written up as the "Great West Canyon Route" in the classic old Brereton/Dunaway "Exploring the Backcountry of Zion National Park" book, this ingenious route descends Wildcat Canyon to the Left Fork headwaters, then ascends south to the saddle between the Left and Right Forks before following a ridgeline that finally drops into the heart of the remote Right Fork of North Creek. This route is not suitable for hikers who have no technical canyoneering or wilderness navigation experience.
IMPORTANT: The route described here follows the traditional Breteton/Dunaway "bypass ridge" to the Right Fork. The alternate Hammerhead entrance and Upper Right Fork Direct are more strenuous and committing routes involving longer rappels and more serious obstacles (keeper potholes, etc.) Make sure you pay attention carefully to your navigation.
|Rating:||Strenuous multi-day technical canyoneering route|
|Access:||Start at Lava Point (19 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin) or the West Rim Trailhead, end at the Right Fork Trailhead (7 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin)|
|Time Required:||2-3 days|
|Length:||Roughly 14.3 miles total|
|Elevation Change:||Overall 3000-ft descent with 300-ft ascent up to the Left/Right Fork Pass, 200-ft ascent up the bypass ridge, and 400-ft ascent to the Right Fork Trailhead.|
|Technical Challenges:||Canyoneering with a heavy overnight pack, navigation through rugged and extremely remote terrain, many downclimbing obstacles, roughly 7-10 rappels up to 65 feet, several cold swims.|
|Equipment Needed:||Enough rope for a 65' rappel, climbing harness and rap device, climbing helmet, webbing and rapid links, drybag, first-aid kit, overnight gear, wag-bag kit, a lot of high-energy food, water filter. Wetsuits are useful for the swims especially in cooler conditions.|
|Seasons:||Late spring through fall.|
|Flash Flood Warning:||Do not do this route if there is a threat of rain.|
A Zion wilderness permit is required for this canyoneering/backpacking route. While the fastest canyoneers who are familiar with this route can do it as a long grueling day, it is best experienced as a 2 or 3-day hike. Please see the Zion Permits website for more information.
This is a very remote canyon and rescue would be very slow and difficult. Be prepared to build or replace old anchors. Come up with contingency plans for surviving in the wild should you become injured and require rescue. Even if your friends can continue on, it could take days for help to arrive.
Plan out your gear carefully beforehand. This route involves backpacking, canyoneering, and navigation in rugged wilderness. You must find the balance between bringing everything you need to survive on your own and going light enough to keep your backpack at a reasonable weight. Bring contingency canyoneering gear (including wetsuits in the cooler months) and a lot of high-energy food. Consider leaving the tent, stove, and any other non-essentials behind to save on weight.
You must practice your best "leave no trace" ethics. Be a good caretaker and keep this remote canyon as pristine as possible. Do not litter and do not carve your name on the canyon walls. Leave campsites looking like you were never there. And you must pack out everything, including your own solid human waste (poo). If you can't handle that, you don't deserve to do this hike.
Starting at the West Rim Trailhead near Lava Point, hike the West Rim Trail for a short .1 miles before turning right (west) onto the Wildcat Canyon Trail. As you make your way along the easy to follow trail, Wildcat Canyon will appear in the distance. Then at roughly 1.1 miles from the start as the trail bends right around a minor gully, leave the Wildcat Canyon Trail and scramble down the gully into a forested area into the drybed of a small side canyon known as LIttle Blue Creek. Two straightforward 60' rappels off of bolts, one after the other, and roughly 10 more minutes of hiking will get you into Wildcat Canyon proper.
Note: While you could simply hike down Wildcat Canyon right where the trail crosses the watercourse, this upper section of canyon is choked with densely overgrown vegetation and the bushwhacking is miserable. Since you have the technical gear, Little Blue Creek is the much more pleasant option, especially if you want to test out rappelling with a heavy pack before the route gets too serious.
Continue hiking down the overgrown Wildcat Canyon, alternating between the watercourse and various shortcuts up the surrounding shoulder formations, depending on what looks easiest. After roughly 1.2 miles in Wildcat Canyon just before canyon opens up, a large lightly-forested bench will become more defined on the right (west) side of the canyon. (See map #1.) Find a spot where you can leave the drainage and easily hike/scramble up to the bench and continue hiking south with the watercourse seemingly far below to the left. There is a faint trail-of-use here although it is easy to lose.
Soon enough Wildcat Canyon opens up and the bench turns into a wide open area of rolling hills with good views of the White Cliffs surrounding in all directions. The next task is to find a spot where you can cross over the Left Fork drainage (which is a fairly significant slot even near its start). One crossover spot that I like is labeled the "oasis entrance" on map #1; navigate south and work your way into a forested gully that leads right into the Left Fork watercourse. (It may take some searching to find the friendliest route into the gully, but this is a non-technical hikers' way into and out of the Left Fork.)
Head down the Left Fork watercourse for roughly 1/10th a mile, navigating a few minor scrambling obstacles and a few typically waist-deep pools. Soon enough, you will reach "the Seeps" -- a spot where you can easily hike out the left (southeast) side. The Seeps are marked by a dark streak that heads back to a seasonal spring. Before you leave the Left Fork, it's a good idea to pump water either from the seeps or one of the Left Fork potholes as there won't be any more reliable water until we are in the Right Fork.
Alternatively, if you want to stay dry for the Left Fork crossing, you can navigate the shelf system west of the oasis entrance and scramble down to a spot just across from the Seeps. (It will take a bit of exploration and careful hiking along the outward-sloping rim.) The tree closest to the edge will probably have webbing around it; it's a roughly 30-ft rappel to a dry landing in the Left Fork. [Thanks to Jeremy for this idea!]
From the Seeps, start hiking SSE up the little open wash. Either side of the drainage offers a fairly easy line. (If you have an extra 1-2 hours to kill, a scramble up the north ridgeline of the Hourglass is time well spent!) Roughly 1.5 miles from the Seeps, you will be standing on top of the pass between the Left Fork and the Right Fork with the Hourglass far above to the right and a minor peak to the left. Start hiking down the main little chute; there should be no major obstacles, but at a little dryfall, there is an easy walk-around to the right. After roughly .4 miles in the little wash, you will reach the top of a second and more significant dryfall. Follow the shelf to the right and head off into the hills; this is the perfect spot to leave the wash and start your gradual ascent to the bypass ridge. Look for a white hoodoo formation with a red cap in the distance; that's a good landmark to head for. And before you reach it, you'll be standing on top of the "bypass ridge" with a clear view of the way to the south.
Note: If you don't exit the chute early, you will wind up in the RIght Fork proper after a few downclimbs and one awkward little rappel. Do not blindly head down the Right Fork drainage unless you know what you are getting yourself into; the "Right Fork Direct" route is a much more committing section of canyon that includes longer rappels and several difficult obstacles, including a keeper pothole. Fortunately before this section of canyon slots up, you can find a line and hike up the steep slopes to the west to join up with the bypass ridge.
Once you are on top of the bypass ridge, things get temporarily easier and there is even a trail-of-use in spots. Head south along the ridge and take in the views with the Right Fork Direct far below to the left and the wondrous Greatheart Mesa slickrock pantheon to the right. In less than a mile, the bypass ridge will start to peter out and the little vegetated wash to the right (west) will start getting larger. When you reach a spot that looks fairly reasonable, leave the ridge and scramble down into the wash which will soon open up into a bare slickrock drainage; this section is affectionately known as the Giant Staircase. Soon enough, the lovely wash ends at an intimidating drop where you can look 300 feet down at the Right Fork watercourse far below. Yes, we are going down that!
Carefully hike or crabwalk down the narrow and intimidating chute. It is at an intimidating angle, but it is reasonable if you have shoes with good traction. When the wall on the left ends, turn left and head to the side of this massive slickrock slope. The angles get more reasonable as you make your way down and to the left. (Do not go continue straight down the chute.) Note that there is a tree near the top of the chute that you can rig a rappel or handline to if you need. Exit left off the slickrock slope to the sandy manzanita hill and continue south towards the Right Fork.
After hiking down the manzanita hill to the end, you will likely reach a little alcove where you get cliffed out well above the Right Fork. Keep exploring to the right and when you see a small ridge formation on your right, back up and find a way to climb on top of it. Hike over the top and scramble down the front to cross another small slickrock wash that leads to a hiker-friendly ramp just above the Right Fork. (You can also come down the small wash if you explore to the far right although there might be a little pool that you have to slide in.) Hike down to the end of the friendly ramp and you'll be roughly 15 feet above the Right Fork. An easy rappel off of a tree down the dome-shaped slab gets you into the bottom of the Right Fork.
Now it's time for some slot canyon fun! As you hike down the canyon, one of the first obstacles of note is a huge chockstone boulder to downclimb under; there is often a pool of varying depth underneath. Next is a beautiful tall corridor with several boulders; depending on conditions and the amount of debris present, you may have to do a short awkward rappel over the top or downclimb through a hole in the bottom. Soon after, the canyon will take a sharp turn to the right; this is a lovely narrow hiking corridor that eventually leads to the infamous "Black Pool", a section of deep water that makes for a long and fun swim. (Yes, I do think it is worth it to bring a wetsuit on this hike unless it's an extremely hot day.) The end of the pool can often be filled with debris if you hit this canyon soon after a recent flood. Soon after is a 40' rappel into another water-filled slot section that typically requires a floating disconnect and a short swim. Rounding up the rope here can be a hassle.
Next is a mellow hiker-friendly section of canyon that has a very peaceful feel to it before you enter a section of canyon that is littered with enormous boulders. It will take a bit of exploring to find the easiest way around or over each boulder obstacle, but there typically shouldn't be any spot that is too difficult. At the end of the boulder field is a short and awkward rappel that goes down a chute around the backside of a big boulder. Be sure to inspect the webbing and anchor here and make sure it clears the lip of the drop.
The next section is all hiker friendly with wonderful scenery and the canyon will start to have flowing water. Soon enough, we reach the Grand Alcove, a magnificent spot where the flowing water forms a narrow slot on the right side of the canyon and you can walk the large shelf system around the corner on the left to look at the beautiful weeping walls and sandy beach far below with the magnificent alcove walls surrounding you. If you choose to camp at the Grand Alcove, be absolutely certain that you leave it looking like you have never been here. This special place deserves to be kept pristine.
There are two ways down the Grand Alcove. The first is to walk to the end of the shelf system on the left side of the canyon and rappel off of a pair of bolts down to a middle shelf and then do a second rappel off a tree down into the lower section of the Grand Alcove. Be careful as it is very easy to stick your rope. The second more fun and more challenging way is to follow the watercourse through the narrow corridor. The wet rock is incredibly slippery to downclimb so look for whatever handholds or footholds you can. Near the end is a spot I like to call the Star Wars trash compactor where you have to go through waist-deep water and then climb over a chockstone boulder to get out. After a short swim, you will be standing on the sandy beach of the lower Grand Alcove.
Soon after the canyon turns right, we are at the top of Barrier Falls, a 60-ft rappel off of bolts that heads down a slippery ramp of wet slickrock. While you may be tempted to head diagonally left down-canyon to avoid landing in deeper water, be careful not to pendulum swing. It's safer to go straight down and land in the pool at the bottom. Once you are standing under Barrier Falls, the rappelling is over and you are in the territory that bottom-up day hikers can reach.
From the bottom of Barrier Falls, it is roughly 6 more miles of hiking to the Right Fork Trailhead, but the next .5 miles to Double Falls aren't easy as you make your way around many obstacles in this boulder and vegetation-choked section of canyon. At the taller waterfall obstacles there is typically a reasonable downclimb on the right (north) side of the canyon. If you have ever done the bottom-up hike, the familiarity will really help. As you approach the top of Double Falls, back up and look for the narrow walkaround trail-of-use on the left (south) side of the canyon that heads high into the hills and then back down a sketchy slope to take under the falls.
Downstream from Double Falls, the hiking is much easier with no major obstacles except for a small pool that might be deep and slippery in certain conditions. And when you get to the wider section near Trail Canyon, stick to the north side of the stream to avoid the worst of the overgrown areas. After passing Trail Canyon, the Right Fork narrows briefly where a large landslide blocked up the canyon back in 2010.
Soon after, the canyon will open up and you will reach the confluence of the Left Fork and Right Fork. Cross over and follow the west bank for only .3 before you head northwest away from the river to climb up the lava outcroppings. There is a trail-of-use with several cairns, but it is not officially maintained and it can be hard to follow in spots. (A map and GPS can be quite helpful here.) Once you are at the top of the outcropping, it's another .3 miles along the trail to get to the Right Fork Trailhead where your car is hopefully waiting for you.
|Right Fork (Top-Down) Map 1:
West Rim Trailhead to the Seeps
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
|Right Fork (Top-Down) Map 2:
The Seeps to Barrier Falls
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|Right Fork (Top-Down) Map 3:
Barrier Falls to Right Fork Trailhead
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
This is an amazing backcountry adventure through some really rugged and beautiful scenery, but the strenuous and remote nature of this route cannot be overstated. Planning is half the battle and finding a balance between bringing what you need and keeping pack weight down is a big challenge. Take great care on this route and keep this canyon pristine and wild.