Sheltering the East Fork of the Virgin River, Parunuweap Canyon Trail is considered by many to be even more spectacular than the Zion Narrows. The canyon begins as a rocky gulch just south of the Mount Carmel Junction, and crawls west for 16 miles, where it opens up and empties into the Virgin River. A Paiute word meaning roaring water canyon, Parunuweap becomes extremely narrow as it carves its way deeper into the sandstone. At some places, the river rushes between walls that are only 20 feet apart, and tower hundreds of feet over the riverbed. Parunuweap is loved by many canyoneers and hikers for its rugged beauty, its lack of noise and crowds, and the thrilling challenge of a long, strenuous wade/climb through one of Zion’s marvelous narrows.
Trail Type: Hiking
Length: 29 miles roundtrip
Upper Parunuweap Canyon is open for hiking, in the area known as The Barracks. It is located on BLM land adjacent to Zion Park. The lower canyon, in the park, is closed, from the Powell Plaque downstream.
Several options are available to get into the canyon. All are difficult, long hikes, but are worth it because the area is so beautiful and unspoiled. The classic route begins and ends near Mount Carmel Junction. It is a long 29 miles round trip, if you begin at the gate on the dirt access road. If you have 4-wheel drive you may be able to shorten the hike a little by driving the jeep road as far as possible beyond the gate. Another option to shorten the hike is to exit the canyon via the ridge on the west side of Misery Canyon, hiking to a shuttle vehicle waiting at Checkerboard Mesa. This option cuts the hike to about 18.8 miles (though the hike up the ridge is steep and strenuous).
Hikers who wish to explore the confines of Parunuweap’s lower end without the long trek can begin at Checkerboard Mesa, within the national park, enter Parunuweap from the ridge on the west side of Misery Canyon, explore the best part of the narrows, then return the way they came in. Alternatively, hikers who have the technical skill and equipment can rappel down Misery Canyon itself, and then climb back out to Checkerboard by way of the ridge to the west.
Just a little bit over a mile south of the junction, a road leaves to the west. It meanders one third of a mile, until it is crossed by a gate. This is the trailhead for the classic hike.
Cross the gate and follow the jeep trail all the way into the canyon. The first four miles of the hike are open and hot, following the East Fork as it wanders through a wide gulch before entering the depths of Parunuweap Canyon.
Located near the edge of the national park boundary, the Powell Plaque commemorates Major John Wesley Powell’s historical journey through the canyon. The plaque is also conveniently close to the mouth of Misery Canyon, making it easy to visit even if you want to start at Checkerboard Mesa, instead of doing the entire trek from Mount Carmel Junction.
This is an impressive waterfall tucked into the impossible depth and adjacency of the canyon, about a half-mile farther downstream from the Powell Plaque. It is difficult but possible to visit the top of the waterfall, but you are not allowed to hike farther downstream.
This can be both the starting and ending points of the visit, if hikers choose one of options to shorten the hike. Checkerboard Mesa is of itself a famous landmark in Zion, and many people come to marvel at the uncanny graph pattern cut into the slope of the formation.