Mystery Canyon

Is anything more mysterious and wondrous than the natural world? Every time I venture out into it — into places few people set foot — I am struck by the power and beauty of our surroundings. I know it sounds cliché, but the feeling is anything but.

Mystery Canyon, in Zion National Park, is not the most remote place I’ve been by any means. Up to 12 people a day are given permission to explore it, after all. Nonetheless, it’s not a place most people see. One has to pay the price of sweat, pain, and rugged determination before Mystery Canyon unlocks its secrets. But trust me — it’s worth it!

The day after Mike and I hiked the 1400 vertical feet to Angel’s Landing, we got up at 6:00am, packed up our tent, and headed back into Zion for more adventure. This time we went straight to the Back Country Permits office; no super-highway hikes for us on Day 3! The office opens at 8:00am, but we had to get there extra early because sometimes the permits go fast. While we were waiting, we struck up conversations with the people in line.

Enter Jon and Tawni. These two like-minded adventurers were just ahead of us in line and were also hoping to get permits for Mystery Canyon. Although they live fairly close to Zion, they had a hard time securing this particular permit in the past. As a result, they had done many of the other canyons in the park, and they were biding their time for this particular run.

Luck was on our side, though, and all four of us managed to secure a permit into the canyon for the day. Having already talked quite a bit, we decided to join up and do the canyon together. This had the added benefit of giving us less to carry — instead of hauling our super long (super heavy) rope into the canyon, we brought our shorter rope. We were then able to tie our rope to theirs for the longer rappels of the route.

After gathering our things and packing our bags, we took off. The hike started at the base of Weeping Rock and followed the Observation Point trail for most of the climb. This took us up 2100ft over the course of approximately 4 miles. The route to Mystery Canyon split off just a little before the actual Observation Point, but we had amazing views of the park for much of our climb.

Jackie in a narrow section of the approach hike

Jackie, Tawni, and Jon on the approach hike

Pretty scenery on the way up

Mike, showing off one of the fantastic views

After a stop for lunch, predicated by Mike’s close encounter (not too close) with a rattlesnake, we finally started working our way into the canyon. This was no easy task at first. In fact, the descent into the canyon is aptly named “Death Gulch.” The mountain dropped off into the canyon at an alarming angle. When we first saw the “trail” we figured we were in the wrong spot. We continued on a little farther in hopes of finding an easier descent. There was none. We backtracked to the first “trail” and started down. The canyon entrance dropped at a 75 degree angle and was covered with loose rocks. We spread out and inched along, trying not to send a small landslide down on top of each other. After a bit, the small, loose rocks disappeared, but the angle of the slope didn’t ease much. Instead of sliding through the rocks we were down-climbing exposed tree roots (apparently the trees weren’t quite prepared for the angle of the slope and the erosion either). This was all a little tricksy, but we managed fine and were pleasantly surprised by little patches of blackberries along the trail. Hike, slide, swing, om, nom, nom, hike, trip, jump, om, nom, nom, hike, twist, slip, om, nom, nom. And so it went for some time.

Jon and Tawni at a relatively flat part of the descent into the canyon

After many hours of hiking, we arrived at our first rappel. I’m afraid I can’t give you many details because there were so many rappels in this canyon — they all just kind of run together. I’m not even sure how many we did exactly, but it was around a dozen. They ranged from around 20ft – 120ft. Most of the rappels had awkward starts that required us to squeeze between rocks or scoot over the edge of an overhang, but that just adds a little fun and drama to a rappel.

Mike rappeling, Jon and Tawni watching

I really dig their expressions in this photo

Jackie on rappel

Stemming to avoid a small but cold and icky pool

Tawni starting one of those slightly awkward rappels

Jon on rappel

Mike on rappel

Beautiful, high, sandstone walls

Have you ever seen such pretty sherbet-colored rock before?

The canyon is supposed to be a “wet” canyon, so we all brought along our wetsuits anticipating swim-throughs. The August heat and dryness seemed to have slowed the raging waters, however. We encountered almost no water at all until the base of our second-to-last rappel, where Mystery Spring bubbles up/trickles down from the rock. This rappel and the last rappel are definitely the most dramatic. They are each over 100 feet, and the last one drops you down a waterfall (watertrickle in our case) into the area of Zion known as the Narrows. The Narrows is a popular day hike spot because tourists can wade through the water in a section of Zion Canyon that has dramatically high walls. The last part of our hike took us through a half-mile or less of the Narrows before spitting us out onto a two-mile path back to civilization.

The 110-foot, second-to-last rappel into Mystery Spring

Tawni's turn!

Jackie's turn!

Tawni on the 120-foot "waterfall" rappel into the Narrows

Mike on the big rappel

Jon at the slipperiest part of the "waterfall" rappel

The whole trip only took us about 13 hours to complete. We hiked about 10 miles or so. We went up (and down) 2100 feet. We had fun. We know how to have fun, and you’re welcome to join us in the future! 🙂

2 Responses to “Mystery Canyon”
  1. Kristen Mott says:

    That day trip sounds amazing! I’m in awe that they only let 12 people access in a day – pretty cool that it all worked out for you guys! Wonder how may dozens of hours it would take us “non-experienced” folk to complete – ha!

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