Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Birch Hollow Canyoneering

After being stuck in Las Vegas for a week of work (I hate Las Vegas with a passion) I managed to escape to do some canyoneering in Zion National Park with Laura and Rachel. At least that was the plan. I managed to get a permit to descend Orderville Canyon which begins as a mostly dry creek on the high plateau east of the park and turns into a narrow canyon with a few short rappels before joining the Virgin River Narrows. After Googling around for information on the route I discovered that Birch Hollow is a smaller slot canyon with (supposedly) about 4 longer rappels that drops into Orderville Canyon. As this alternate entry is completely outside Zion National Park it wouldn't require any permit changes and would make the route a little more interesting (little did we know just how interesting it would get). The plan was to get shuttled up to the top of Birch Hollow, spend all day descending it, Orderville, and the Zion Narrows, and then catching a park shuttle back to town.

But first, some sightseeing in Zion itself. We took the overlook trail from the eastern end of the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel and ran across a female bighorn sheep with two juveniles, one with an obvious broken leg, hanging around the overlook. On our way down we spotted a whole flock of bighorn just before we made it back to the road, and then as we were leaving the parking lot a male jumped up out of the creekbed below the bridge, sprinted across the road, and took off up the cliff in the direction of the herd.

20170731-220170731-420170731-5A flock of bighorn watching the cars go into the tunnel.

On our ride up to Birch Hollow we were informed that the canyon had just suffered a flash flood two days earlier and that it might be a bit of a mess. The disturbed plants, boulders, and old lumber from some sort of structure that used to be in the canyon made it plain that the driver wasn't kidding. Unfortunately Laura caught a rusty nail to the leg while climbing past one of the old timbers. It ended up requiring stitches but there wasn't anything we could do at the time and we didn't have a car at the trailhead to go back to so we carried on and began the series of rappels deeper into the canyon.


Pretty soon another leftover from the weekend's flash flood became apparent: deep pools of stagnant water at the bottom of each rappel. Not good for people with big gashes from rusty nails in their leg.


Considering that the canyon description only listed 4 rappels in Birch Hollow we realized that something wasn't quite right around rappel number 5 or 6. Without much of a choice we carried on down the canyon doing rappels because with such high walls the only way out is through. It turns out that the last few hundred horizontal feet of Birch Hollow before it reaches Orderville Canyon drops a hundreds of feet vertically and that what is basically a series of back to back rappels was all considered part of rappel number 4 ("A series of fluted chambers") in the canyon description. This was the most spectacular part of the canyon and would have been much more enjoyable had we been expecting it instead of wondering how many more rappels we had to go.

Just as we were finishing what turned out to be our last rappel through an incredible chamber with a chockstone high in the rock we felt the first few drops of a rain shower followed shortly thereafter by the sudden crack of thunder. Looking up we could only see a narrow band of what was still blue sky but with the prospect of rain we needed to get off the canyon floor quickly so we sprinted out of Birch Hollow and scrambled as high up the banks of the much larger Orderville Canyon as we could to wait and see if we were facing a light shower or a larger thunderstorm that would cause the canyon to flash. We still had many miles to go to get to the Virgin Narrows and the Zion shuttle bus, we weren't even inside the park boundary yet.

After a few minutes we began hearing some more voices coming from the mouth of Birch Hollow, unbeknownst to us there had been another party that started an hour after behind us and they were still in the canyon trying to get through the final series of rappels when the rain started. It turned out to be a guided group from the same outfitter that dropped us off and their plan was to ascend Orderville Canyon after finishing Birch Hollow. To that end, they had staged a Land Cruiser with enough seats for an army at the top of Orderville. Given how long it had taken us to complete the unexpected series of long rappels, how far we had left to go, and the uncertain weather we immediately took off with them heading up into the wider part of Orderville and a ride back to town instead of down into the Narrows.