While most people know Keyhole Canyon as the popular little technical canyoneering route that involves a few short rappels, downclimbs, and cold swims through a dark subterranean slot, canyoneers typically only see the lower half mile of the canyon. Upstream from the canyoneering route is a beautiful open wash with expansive sandstone formations in all directions. A visit to Upper Keyhole Canyon is a fairly strenuous hike that may take between 3-5 hours depending on how thoroughly you want to explore the area, including a few tall and narrow side canyons near the head of the wash and a great view of the backside of the Jughandle Arch.
WARNING: This off-trail route involves a fair amount of navigation challenges as well as a few spots of Class 2/3 scrambling on loose rock with some exposure. This hike is not recommended for casual hikers with no wilderness or route-finding experience.
Similar to the Keyhole Canyon canyoneering route and the Jughandle Arch scrambling route, this hike starts along Route 9 road in the Upper East Canyon, roughly 3.5 miles east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel (2 miles east of the small 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 pull-offs closest to the start of the route. Carefully walk along 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 the hoodoo into Keyhole Canyon. The scramble down can be quite intimidating, especially with all of the loose sand stirred up from other hikers and canyoneers.
Once in the drainage, canyoneers looking to descend Keyhole Canyon would turn left and start hiking downstream, but to explore Upper Keyhole Canyon, we are going to turn right and head up-canyon. IMPORTANT: Keyhole Canyon downstream from the entry point is a canyoneering route that requires a permit and technical gear to descend safely. Do not wander down the canyon if you don't know what you are getting yourself into.
From the entry point, hike upstream through a short little slot section to an obvious and easy climb-out spot on the left. (Alternatively if the little slot is wet and you want to keep your feet dry, look for the alternate climbout spot just upstream and across from where you entered Keyhole Canyon. This scramble out is a fairly easy Class 3 climb over some loose sand and rock, but it may be slightly intimidating to some.) Once out of the drainage, follow the rim north keeping a respectful distance from the edge of the sloping slabs above Keyhole Canyon. A slip and fall could easily result in injury and the possibility of getting trapped in the depths of the upper slot.
After hiking north less than half a mile, you will find yourself in a wonderful open slickrock pantheon with the Keyhole Canyon drainage reduced to a shallow sandy wash. This is the easy hiking section of the route with beautiful bare sandstone waves and walls surrounding in all directions. Continuing up the wash, once you get close to the base of the Jughandle Arch, you will want to be on the left/west shelf above the drainage to pass into the more constricted upper section of the canyon.
In the secluded upper section, there are several side washes that beckon for exploration. The two to the east are particularly interesting with their soaring and narrow walls stretching high above. The side washes are littered with random obstacles, so take care and turn around when you have met your match. Near the head of the canyon is an interesting ramp to the east of the main drainage. A bit of strenuous uphill hiking and then a short and sketchy Class 3 scramble up some loose rock formations will get you to the top of a ridgeline with a wonderful view looking at the back side of the Jughandle Arch. While you will be denied access to the top of the rim, the view looking out of Upper Keyhole Canyon is pretty fantastic. Turn around when you have had your fill of random exploration.
After doing the standard Keyhole Canyon route for two decades and always wondering what the section of wash to the north looked like, I finally got around to exploring this area, and the scenery did not disappoint. Combine this with the Jughandle Arch route for a strenuous day of scrambling and navigating some challenging terrain. While this wash might not excite everybody, it should appeal to the lonely wandering soul.