Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Checkerboard Canyon, a wild gem in an ever busier place

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on August 8, 2016

The sun comes up during the approach along Dakota Ridge.

Checkerboard Canyon, 3BIV
Zion National Park
June 2016

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First a warning. I let too much time get in the way before sitting down and writing about our late Spring descent of Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park, so a detailed cohesive report might be a bit lacking. Though easier than Heaps or Imlay, Checkerboard Canyon has the feel of a rugged, remote and wild canyon far removed from the hordes that descend the jeweled trade routes glimmering on the canyoneering crown of Zion National Park. If you want a detailed report you can easily find one out there but this won’t be it. Included are a few gems that cut through my memory fogged from rearing 3 children, too many hours working outdoors in the hot Arizona sun and too many after work cocktails.

Checkerboard eluded us last Fall when weather made a descent out of the question. I wasn’t going to miss it this time around, but 48 hours away from home was about all the time I had. This includes 14 hours of driving and around 12 hours for the descent itself. Driving solo and trying to make time I let my speed get the better of me and I’m pulled over east of Kanab by the Utah Highway Patrol. The trooper can not be nicer and lets me off with a warning, but not before he asks me about what are my canyoneering plans for the weekend. He tells me he has never descended Checkerboard. Needless to say my weekend could have easily gotten off on a worse foot had it been for a different cop.

Mark in more diagonal walls.

Upon arriving the rest of the crew is already established at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It is more crowded than I’ve ever seen it.  We awake before sunrise in preparation for the long day. The dozens of other campers still sleeping. The journey begins on the long approach along Dakota Ridge. As expected we have this part of the park all to ourselves. Though only a few miles as the crow flies away from Zion Ponderosa Ranch it feels a world away from the zip-line, swimming pool, ATVs and drunk campers. Ironically, we may have been some of those drunken campers last night but on this morning we are all business as we march efficiently across Dakota Ridge.

After a several hour approach the canyon begins in dramatic fashion and never really lets up. Some rather tough down climbs, tight squeezes, diagonal walls and awkward start rappels which are far more characteristic of points Utah east than normally found in Zion, are rather common in this canyon. Cold water comes in and so do humping frogs. Narrows are sustained and the canyon ends with a unique rappel dumping us just above the confluence with the North Fork of the Virgin River.

The crew at Big Spring on the hike out in the Narrows.

Spring run-off is still a factor and we are able to body kayak down some of the deeper sections of water. The higher flows and the fact that it is late in the day are keeping the crowds out of this normally busy place. We not only have Big Spring to ourselves but don’t see a single other person until we are just upstream of Imlay Rock. Soon as we get downstream of Orderville Junction the crowds explode. It is an international sea of humanity. I have never seen this many people in the Narrows in over half a dozen visits. Though it is wonderful to see so many people from all across the world connecting with this magnificent place it also brings up notions of ‘loving your park to death’. We reach the shuttle stop to find a line of people backed up well over a 100 -yards. The word comes down the line that it will be a 45- minute wait. As we wait I think back on the contrasts of the day. It’s good to know that wild and isolated places still exist in our smaller and more popular national parks. At least for now. It’s been a 100 years. I worry what it will be in another 100. We are on the shuttle in 30- minutes.

– David

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  1. […] an intense all day adventure descending Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park the day before all I had in store for this day was the seven hour drive back […]


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