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Grand Canyoneering

The new outdoor sport of canyoneering is just as adrenaline-pumping as rock climbing but it takes a very different set of skills.
Tricky, but rewarding: Navigating narrow passages and slippery streams gives a rewarding view of hundreds of layers of limestone in Grand Canyon National Park
Tricky, but rewarding: Navigating narrow passages and slippery streams gives a rewarding view of hundreds of layers of limestone in Grand Canyon National ParkBrian Witte / AP / AP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

It’s time. Two days of training boils down to this, the biggest canyon yet, and I’m picked to conquer it first.

Heart pounding, I plant the balls of my feet on the brink of the 100-foot cliff. Somewhere behind me, hidden from view by humps of red rock, is the canyon’s bottom, tucked inside the steep walls of Water Creek near Utah’s Zion National Park. The only way down is by rope. And a deep frigid pool may be lying in wait.

As if the challenge weren’t daunting enough, our guide Jonathan insists we descend using a belay, a complicated rigging system that fashions a makeshift pulley from rope, metal clips, and basic human body weight.

That means my entire weight will need to hang off a tiny ring the size of a golf ball, bolted into rock, while Eric and Omie—the other two participants on this canyoneering trip, friends from junior high school in upstate New York, and first-timers like myself—lower me down. Gulp.

Yet my fear of falling quickly gives way to awe, as I come face-to-face with smooth, red-streaked sandstone walls, gorgeously sculpted over tens of millions of years by wind and running water. Above, beyond the groaning rope, a jagged ribbon of cerulean sky and hints of green prickly pear are the only reminders of the desert. The canyon world is unto itself.

When a Simple Hike Won’t Do

In the purest definition, canyoneering is about traveling down a river’s bed, on foot, from its source to mouth, usually without too many uphill climbs. You might start out the day by hiking along a meandering stream but then suddenly come to a canyon dropoff, which will require a rappel, that is, using rope to climb down backwards. And, you might have to complete a dozen of these backwards climbdowns before the journey is complete. Other times, canyoneering requires swimming, floating, jumping, and sliding—anything it takes to keep moving down the riverbed.

Otherwise, there really aren’t any rules in canyoneering, though there is one ethic. “Leave no trace” of your wilderness travels, though this is sometimes mush easier said than done, since it’s expected that any bolted-in anchor rings (and sometimes more) are left behind for the next guy.

It’s not the kind of sport, however, that most people can practice in their backyards

Canyoneering is greatly limited by terrain. Most suitable canyons—that is, ones with rock that is dry enough to rappel from without slipping yet soft enough to drill anchor rings into—are located in southern Utah and northern Arizona, though canyons in Nevada, Colorado, and California have also become destinations in the recent decade as the sport has taken off.

The American Canyoneering Association, a loosely organized group that promotes safety in the sport, currently boasts more than 450 members, according to its website, and that number has really swelled since the mid-1990s, when the canyoneering took hold here after arriving from Europe. There, the sport is typically referred to as “canyoning,” which requires more actual sloshing through running water.

Up to this point, there is no competitive element to canyoneering, and canyoneers say that’s probably for the better, since racing in a sport that’s so technical and potentially dangerous is asking for trouble.

For now, canyoneering’s appeal combines a unique thrill of exploration and ever-changing challenge of solving problems within a group, and this is gratifying for outdoor adventurers looking for the next big thing.

Getting Started

Some risks in canyoneering, like from falling rocks, are difficult to minimize, though others, like flash flooding, can be avoided through careful preparation. It is also wise to take some kind of course before hitting the canyon; even thought the sport has similarities with mountain climbing, it requires learning a specific set of terms and skills.

But never fear: Canyoneering doesn’t really discriminate between physically-fit outdoors types and rounder weekend warriors. That’s because the sport is overwhelmingly mental, requiring participants to figure the safest way, using a limited amount of tools, to get from point A to B, from the top to the bottom of a canyon. While the actual rappel down usually takes just minutes, thorough preparation for that descent can, at least initially, take an hour.

Canyoneering gets tricky when there are no rings already in place in the canyon (occasionally). This means canyoneers have to anchor their lines around boulders or trees while at the same time making sure there’s enough rope to reach the ground, or at least a handy midway stopping point. However you rig the rope, it’s also critical be able to retrieve it once you’re done. Otherwise, if you get to the bottom of the canyon and the rope is still at the top, you’re stuck.

Gearing up

First, you need the proper equipment, which can be rented or purchased at most climbing shops.

This equipment includes a climbing helmet; a harness to strap around your thighs and waist; a safety tether to secure yourself while you’re setting up; a handful of carabiners (aluminum, locking fasteners); about 200 feet of rope (typically, 10 millimeters thick with a "kern-mantle" construction, that is, with a stranded core wrapped in a braided sheath).

You will also need a rappel friction-device for controlling the rope (like the Pirana made by Petzl); and an “auto-block” cord (a five-millimeter thick accessory cord, which when coiled around your rope will basically serve as your brake).

For clothes, it’s might be better to throw on pants and long-sleeve shirts, to save you from scrapes. Grab a backpack to tote around excess equipment, food, and extra dry clothes. Also, make sure to stuff a form-fitting dry suit in there. While you don’t have to wear this cumbersome piece of clothing all day, it’s good to be wearing when you flop into water, which is inevitable.

Seeking guidance

While the proper equipment is fairly easy to come by, finding the right guide is almost more important. It’s a fact not lost on Jonathan Zambella, the managing partner and lead guide for Zion Adventure Company, based in Springdale, Utah ( ; 435-772-1001), which arguably has become the hub of the sport.

Zambella, one of seven canyoneering guides in Springdale, has honed his skills with ropes in tricky canyons, since April 1996, when he first canyoneered in Zion. His skills now are so formidable that Zion’s park rangers frequently call on him to perform dangerous rescues of trapped climbers.

His trips range in size and duration, starting with a half-day, basic introduction for $149 per person, but he will also lead larger custom trips, especially for corporations, some of which use canyoneering retreats as a way to reinforce group problem-solving skills; when more people are factored in, the price can come down to as low as $59 a person. (Or, there’s the three-day course I attended, which for $495 a person, includes gear.)

Each morning at dawn, you meet Zambella at his shop in Springdale and return there in the early evening. As for accommodations, almost all of the hotels in Springdale are comfortable with great canyon views. At the higher-end, there’s the airy, quiet Best Western Zion Park Inn ($105/weekdays), while the older Terrace Brook Lodge ($49) is the more affordable option.

Foremost, Zambella’s trips are all about learning the canyoneering basics down cold, especially knots, from the eight on a bite to the munter hitch to the double fishermen’s, all of which he expects to learn before you show up. If not, you might fail his regularly administered on-the-spot quizzes.

“Details are everything. A good canyoneer knows their stuff even when they are tired, hungry, cold, and behind schedule,” Zambella says. “We push students with terminology, word problems, and problem-solving scenarios to help them think outside the box.”

Short, wiry, and proudly anti-establishment, Zambella strictly adheres to a health-conscious, eco-friendly, off-the-grid lifestyle rooted in the West. In the canyons, he subsides on nuts and dried fruit and maybe fish out of a can (“Only Alaskan salmon, because you’d be shocked by how they process tuna in this country,” he says); generally swears off shampoo and deodorant; and picks up candy bar wrappers left behind by local teenagers.

This means his courses also contain holistic lessons about how humans should interact with their natural environment. If they come away with a better sensitivity about the ecology of canyons, that’s a good thing.

“‘Leave No Trace’ in every way, from flora to fauna, trails to anchors, foot steps to rope marks,” he says.

Zambella’s initial drill-sergeant firmness mellows by the final day of the course, when his advice is confined to Zen master inspired rhetorical questions like, “Why would we use a single-rope rappel here?” Or, like with my belay in Water Creek’s canyon, to push you to consider alternate scenarios, to stretch your own understanding of the sport

“I strive to help my students gain competence and confidence,” Zambella says,“so they can be proficient, safe, and eco-minded canyoneers.”

Into the parks

In a somewhat unusual move, Zion National Park bars commercially guided canyoneering trips within its boundaries, essentially to cut down on the impact on sensitive canyon walls, though park managers are currently discussing possibly amending those rules. In the meantime, Zambella conducts his classes in canyons just outside the park, which though aren’t nearly as pristine as Zion, are still impressive.

And, after the course ends, Zambella encourages students to explore Zion themselves, with a plus-one for safety; even expert canyoneers almost never go out by themselves.

You will also need a permit from the “backcountry desk” in the park headquarters, which you can usually just pick up that morning (most canyons have a 50-permit limit, which is rarely surpassed).

Pine Creek, about a five-hour trip, is worth checking out because of its twisting, narrow corridors. It’s also a good for relative novices, though it fills up on weekends. More difficult but equally beautiful is Keyhole, which Zambella calls the “the best little slot canyon in the Southwest," with its deep pools and dramatic overhangs. Plus, it’s usually not too congested.

If you’re with people who aren’t keen on shimmying down dry waterfalls, Zion also offers outstanding conventional hikes, most located conveniently in the Zion Canyon area. There, enjoy a short, easy jaunt to Emerald Pools and its three mystical waterfalls. Or for something more strenuous, hike up to Angels Landing, where the last half-mile requires clinging to chains to just to get across a narrow, treacherous exposed rock ridge.

Unless you go in early morning, you won’t have these places to yourself, however. Zion is extremely popular, and getting more so. In 2003, the park saw 2,451,977 visitors, up 182,649 from 2001, when 2,269,328 people visited Zion, while most national parks saw declining visitation, according to National Park Service figures. So, be prepared to see large groups of both seniors and schoolchildren, especially in the middle of the day, during peak season, which usually runs from May to October.

Park passes, which cost $20, are good for seven days, so if you have some down time on your hands, there’s no better place to spend it than Springdale, a beautiful Utah town (pop: 500 year-round, about 3,000 on a weekend in season) that seems far removed from the Utah of Mormon temples and conservative politics.

A convenient, free public bus line runs down the main drag, Zion Park Boulevard, right to the park entrance. On the way, pass open-air sculpture galleries where tie-dyed owners chat with French and British visitors, while horses and cows graze in pastures right down the street.

Recharging after a day of adventure

Proudly free of chain restaurants, Springdale offers plenty of places to stock up on supplies, including water, which is critical to have on hand in this arid climate. Of note: the Springdale Fruit Company at the southwestern end of town, which offers tasty homemade sandwiches, served on focaccia bread, as well as local apples and peaches, or perhaps soy jerky.

For post-canyoneering grub, Zion Park Boulevard is lined with quality restaurants. Zion Pizza & Noodle Co., where you can custom-design pies with toppings like sun dried tomatoes, bell peppers, and roasted garlic, in an old Mormon church, is good for families. Bit & Spur, though pricey, is a standout. The polenta appetizer, served with Italian sausage, red pepper, and walnut sauce costs $8, and the spearfish entrée (a different fish is flown in every weekend) is $24.

At either spot, wraparound decks provide lovely views of the Zion’s surrounding crumbly red mesas, which at sunset seem to shimmer out of reach like a desert mirage. Perhaps here, at day’s end, over a local microbeer, with feet this time planted firmly on the ground, any earlier anxiety about those tall rock walls may finally fade away.