Dry Canyoneering or How I Spent Memorial Weekend Scraping, Slipping, and Sliding Down Sandstone


Coming Out of the Dark in the Leprechaun

It is easy to explain the sport of canyoneering; one drops into a canyon, progresses down the canyon, and either climbs or hikes out of the canyon.

In it’s simplest form, it is much like kayaking; with a “put-in” and a “take-out”. Except, rather than floating downstream and navigating obstacles, one manipulates and contorts one’s body to flow with the ripples of the canyon walls. Rather than waterfalls, one is confronted with complex rappels over cliffs, where the landing zone is completely obscured from view.

Erin Downclimbing
Erin Down Climbing the Leprechaun, photo courtesy of Erin Thompson

Through a newbie lens, it feels risky and dangerous in the “I don’t know what I don’t know” sense. And yet, even though I am still in the thrillingly steep upward section of the learning curve, I heartily recommend canyoneering. Especially, if one gets the chance to go canyoneering with Jill, see her picture below. Jill is a very good teacher and our trip was amazing!

Jill Having Fun in the Leprechaun

Having previous rock climbing, scrambling, and/or caving experience certainly helps as well! Other skills such as navigation with maps using gps/compass, climbing techniques, athleticism, flexibility, and ability to judge distance are invaluable.

Byron Teaching High Stemming
Byron Teaching High Stemming to Clare, Fred, and Erin, photo courtesy of Erin Thompson

In canyoneering, unlike climbing, it is essential the group work together to overcome obstacles. Some obstacles can be negotiated with the talents of 1 or 2 members, but others require the strength of the whole group. This team aspect of canyoneering is very attractive. It is one of my greatest joys to see how people pull together to solve problems; how every member of the team can be a valuable contributor to a successful canyon adventure.

Desert Derby Move Sans Skates
Gear is important too! I was fortunate to have elbow and knee pads, a helmet, my alpine bod harness, a comfy pair of sticky rubber approach shoes, summer gators, and some sticky palmed gardening gloves.

For our trip to North Wash Utah, I found the following three sources invaluable! These sites are professionally done and have maps, GPS coordinates, forums for questions, and information about the rappels.

Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide, Courtesy CanyoneeringUSA.com
Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide
BluuGnome – GPS Waypoints and Pictures!

I also discovered there is a guidebook covering our destination at North Wash, Utah! If canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau, a definite must read is Kelsey’s “Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau”. It’s now in it’s 2nd edition and I found it extremely helpful.

Now that I have introduced Canyoneering, here are the details about our awesome Memorial Weekend Trip to North Wash, Utah!

Over Memorial Weekend, we did 3 different canyons; Leprechaun, Hogs, and Blarney. In between, we took a nice little detour to Capitol Reef National Park to do the Chimney Rock Loop Hike and play in the Fremont River.

The Leprechaun
We woke up really early and left camp at Sandthrax, for the canyon. We miss the turn for the east slabs approach and end up taking the West Rim Hike. It takes us about 3 hours to get to the drop-in point, but it is a beautiful hike augmented with scrambling.

Kim and Dennis Descending Leprechaun Canyon
Dennis and Kim Descending Leprechaun Canyon

We dropped into the canyon and spent the next 5 or so hours thrashing our way out of the canyon. It is thrilling and exhilarating to try high stemming for the first time, crawl under boulder heaps in the sand, and squeeze through eerily dark slots (see Jill below!).

Jill Detangles a Hand Line in the Leprechaun

We worked together as a team to overcome obstacles and enjoyed almost perfect weather. A tad on the hot side, but perfect in the shade!

The Hogs
On day 2 of canyoneering, we kick it up half a notch. It starts with a 4WD down a deeply rutted desert road. Over the course of the day, we descend some wicked high elevators and do a free hanging rappel over a great huge pool of water. We get to try our hand at some more high stemming and twice ascend a 5.7(R) slab to exit the system of canyons.

Fred Rappeling Miss Piggy
Fred on a multi-stage rappel.

It is hotter than day 1, but we manage to stay hydrated and are traveling down canyon more efficiently. We all really enjoyed the Hogs and are happy we had the adventure.

Capitol Reef National Park Hiking
It’s a “rest day”, so we go to Capitol Reef National Park for some hiking. The loop hike we pick, Chimney Rock, treats us to amazing desert cliffbands, cactus, and wildflowers. We visit the ranger station in the park and hear part of an educational lecture on the geology of the region. We are all fascinated by the youthful exuberance of the park ranger. She is obviously passionate about geology!

Chimney Rock Panorama
Chimney Rock Panorama

After that 6 mile hike, we do another shorter, but steeper, hike. This time, it’s not far from the Ranger Station and we have more of the same amazing desert scenery when we get to the overlook. After the 2nd hike, we cool off in the Freemont River and then take a quick stop to see the Petroglyphs. We stop in Hanksville for showers and then head back to camp.

On our last day in North Wash, we do a very fun but short romp down Blarney. It’s the easiest canyon so far and I’m sad when we finish in just a couple hours.

Rappel Number Two in Blarney
Clare Ready to Rap in Blarney. Jill providing a safety back-up. Photo courtesy of Erin Thompson.

I wish Blarney were a longer canyon! After Blarney, we break camp and head back to Denver. 7 hours in car was not fun, but the entire weekend was totally worth the time driving!

For in-depth coverage, including pictures, check out the following blogs:
Nerdysheep (Erin Thompson)
The Leprechaun
The Hogs
Capitol Reef National Park Hiking

Climbergirl (Clare Reda)
The Leprechaun
The Hogs
Capitol Reef National Park Hiking


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