Eons of time and the elements of nature have worked hand in hand in what is now known as Zion National Park to create some of the most awesome series of canyons and formations in the world.
Legendary tales of loose rock, tenuous protection, epic descents, inhospitable climates, poisonous flora and fauna, and wicked vertical bushwhacking keep most climbers from visiting Zion's sandstone cliffs. The tales are all true. But for those interested in true adventure, Zion provides, being host to many steep big walls, ranging from 600 feet to 2200 feet, located along the Virgin River canyon and its drainages. Except for a few "trade routes" (like Moonlight Buttress and Touchstone Wall), there are no easy routes in the park: all the climbs listed here have potentially dangerous sections and require considerable experience with gear placement and route finding. The approach and descent of many routes are serious undertakings in their own right. Zion is an alpine area where objective hazards such as loose rock can be hazardous to the inexperienced and ill-prepared! Rescues from the top of inaccessible summits on sloping and possibly wet sandstone slabs are unthinkable propositions--do not expect a safe ride back to the ground ever.
Navajo Sandstone Warnings
The rock is sedimentary Navajo sandstone of many layers, each layer generally recognizable by its color, and varying widely in terms of looseness, softness, and climbability. Navajo sandstone is soft and unpredictable: loose blocks teeter in cracks and on ledges, and flakes can break off at any time. A storm may be more serious than the wretched cold indicates and safe anchors may be impossible to place: when the rock gets wet it loses 2/3 of its strength, as can be readily verified by taking a loaf-of-bread sized piece: dump it in the river for a few seconds and crack it open: You will see that even with a quick dunking, the block will be mostly saturated and will crumble easily. Drilling a clean hole in wet sandstone becomes a joke.
Zion Nation Park is located near the sleepy town of Springdale, Utah, in the southwestern corner of the state. It is a 3 hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada, and a 4 hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah.
MAP of southwest Utah and MAP of Zion National Park,
(maps courtesy Greg Opland)
Zion is a National Park with its own rules and regualtion system. It is up to the climbers to maintain good relations with the rangers to ensure future climbing in this beautiful area. Permits from the park service are required for any ascent requiring more than a day; request a backcountry permit with exact details of the planned ascent at the Visitor's Center. The Visitor Center is also home to the Zion Climbing Guidebooks, two volumes of semi-organized notes, comments, topos, and route information on most of the established routes in Zion.
Click Here to read about the history of Zion.
Good camping is found at the National Park Campgrounds, located inside the park, and at private campgrounds in Springdale, which have showers available for two dollars. Water for filling water bottles is available at the Zion Lodge, in Zion canyon. Food is available in Springdale, but for major shopping, it is economical to go to a major supermarket in St. George or Cedar City (about a one hour drive). The Bit and Spur in Springdale, known nationally for its fine Mexican food, is a most excellent spot to drink and feast before and after a good wall ascent.
The weather in Zion goes to extremes. Average summertime temperatures (June through August) exceed 100 degress, and from November through December, the average lows are below freezing. Winter ascents are possible, but beware of the serious immobility that snow-covered sandstone presents to the vertical adventurer. The best seasons are the spring and fall, the fall possibly preferred. In late fall, the North Face of Angel's Landing sees very little sun during the day. After a thunderstorm it is good policy not to climb on the rock for a few days, as wet sandstone is very fragile.
Most of the park is closed to climbing from January 1 to August 1 for Peregrine protection. A few area remain open, most notably the Temple of Sinawava in the upper canyon. There are six known nesting pairs of birds in the main canyon of the Zion sighted in the last few years. The six nesting pairs each year pick their sites on different cliffs from year to year and as a consequence, 12 areas have been closed each year for the past three years--roughly 80% of the climbing areas. The closure is posted sometime in the spring and continues to the end of fledgling season (mid August in 1994) as determined by a NPS wildlife specialist. A closure may be in effect for many of the cliffs, so check with the Visitor's Center about the current peregrine nesting sites before climbing.
National Park Permits
All overnight climbs must be registered with the Park Service with a backcountry permit. Permits are available at the Visitor's Center (only open in the day). Zion is a National Park with federal laws: it is up to the climbers to maintain good relations with the rangers to ensure future climbing in this beautiful area. The Visitor Center is also home to the Zion Climbing Guidebooks, two volumes of semi-organized notes, comments, topos, and route information. For more information, contact: Superintendent, Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767; or call 801-772-3256.
Zion is a very well preserved wilderness area and climbers need to be aware of the impact humans have on the fragile desert landscape. Pack all trash up the route, and use a container to carry human waste off the route: DO NOT TOSS BAGS OF SHIT OFF CLIMBS! Besides garbage, be aware of trail impact and take care to follow but not trample existing paths: the plant life in ZIon is incredibly fragile and takes years and years to recover from a single thoughtless passage of humans.
ZION IS A FRAGILE AREA AND MAXIMUM ATTENTION TO ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT MUST BE OBSERVED FOR CLIMBERS TO CONTINUE TO ENJOY THE AREA IN THE FUTURE.
Be aware of rock damage: place clean gear whenever possible, and when on the nailing routes, be aware that the rock often scars from careless or poor pitoncraft. Be respectful of the established challenge of the routes without having to alter them. Zion has had some manufactured ascents; unfortunately, these have the most obvious scars of human passage. If no clean placement is available, then it is helpful to clean the piton in a manner that will create clean placements in the future (Click here to read how). Generally this will happen naturally before the placement gets "beaten out". Be wary of any new terrain until you are familiar with the rock and general difficulty of the established routes. Be prepared for very high nailing standards on the harder routes, the ratings used are subjective and are generally given modest ratings compared to the equivalent difficulty of a climb on granite.
Camping and general Provisions
Camping is available at the Watchman and South Campgrounds, located inside the park, and at a private campground in Springdale, which has showers available. Springdale is host to several markets and a liquor store. Water for filling water bottles is available at the Zion Lodge in the main canyon. Several hotels and motels are located in Springdale, as well as an ATM machine.
Favorite Local Hangs
Breakfast: Pioneer Restaurant, Springdale
Lunch: The Pizza Noodle, Springdale
Dinner: The Bit and Spur, Springdale
The Bit and Spur in Springdale offers fine Mexican food, and is an excellent spot to drink and feast before and after climbs in Zion.
Many climbers come here under the misimpression that it is possible to get started on sandstone climbing on the shorter crags in the area and find that there are no "trainer routes" in Zion. The rock does not lend itself well to straightforward routes, and even on the easiest climbs, experience and knowledge are needed in order to set up a safe anchor. The good shorter climbs start at 5.10 , while "easier" routes (5.8 and 5.9) often represent loose chimneys. The rock also does not lend itself to bolted face climbs; between cracks, the sandstone is generally flawless. There are several cragging areas do exist in the park (most notably at the base of Touchstone Wall), but these areas unfortunately have the highest climber impact. The NPS is currently discouraging use in a few areas, hoping as we all should that such places remain in pristine condition. Increased tourism in general has jeopardized these areas and climbers should do their part to alleviate the problem and avoid trampling new areas. The best cragging around is in the nearby Snow Canyon which offers excellent routes (guidebook available at Desert Rock Sports in St. George).
General Equipment concerns
A standard Zion free climbing rack consists of 2 or 3 sets of cams, hexes, and stoppers, plus a load of full length slings and biners. Many routes require wide crack protection, such as the Black Diamond #5 Camalot, as well as an assortment of Bigbros, tube chocks, Tricams, and/or large hexes. The trade routes and many of the free routes do not require either pitons or a bolt kit. Be prepared for very high standards on Zion routes, the ratings used are subjective and are particular to the area. Zion routes are generally given modest ratings compared to the equivalent difficulty of a climb on granite.
Nailing routes may require a bolt kit. A 3/8 " or 1/2" hand drill with 3 1/2" (or longer) bolts and hangers constitutes an anchor kit. Rawlbolts are considered the best bolts. A standard nailing rack consists of 3 or more sets of cams, loads of stoppers and brass-nuts, biners, slings, hooks, plus 3 or 4 birdbeaks, 3 to 5 knifeblades, 3 to 5 horizontals (Lost Arrows), 2 to 3 each baby angles (1/2" and 5/8"), and 1-2 each of the bigger pitons. Routes that require more nailing gear are noted below. Offwidth gear can mean several large pieces. Check the route carefully from the ground to make final rack selections. Trust your judgement and realize that route information is only an guideline to one's choice of route and rack and varies depending on individual preference.
Notes on routes included in this mini-guide:
Selection was based on the overall classic potential the route has, and is purely a subjective list. Many more routes exist in the park.
The Temple of Sinawava is the end of Zion main canyon before it enters the Narrows. Note on river crossings: the routes on the west side in the Temple of Sinawava require crossing the river to approach. In high spring river levels, this can be difficult if not downright impossible in many spots. Check all the options and look for established paths.
FA: Brad Quinn and Linus Platt, 1992
Rack: Standard Nailing rack, extra Lost Arrows and 1/2" baby angles.
Lunar Ecstasy is the crack system left of Moonlight Buttress. Climb the first pitch of Moonlight Buttress or start left in a loose 5.10 loose corner.
Descent: Angel's Landing Trail
Moonlight Buttress 5.13 or 5.9 C1
FA: Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis, 1971
FFA: Johnny Woodward and Peter Croft, 1992
Grade IV 5.13, or 5.9, C1
Rack: Standard free rack, extra TCU's.
THE classic of Zion, often done in a day. Must be one of the best free climbs of the world. Approach from a pullout on the other side of the river. Moonlight Buttress is the obvious buttress standing proud on the west side of the Temple of Sinawava. The route starts down and left of the Buttress. Scramble up 3rd class ledges to get to the base of the roped climbing.
Descent: Angel's Landing Trail.
Swoop Gimp (or be dust)
FA: Barry Ward and Alan Humphrey, 1992
Grade VI, 5.9, A2+
Rack: Standard Nailing Rack, extra beaks and blades.
Park at a pullout 1/2 mile from the end of the canyon opposite the Leaning Wall (Spaceshot). On a smooth wall several buttresses to the right of Moonlight Buttress, a right leaning ramp leads to indistinct thin cracks. Upper part of the route reportedly has poor hauling.
Descent: Angel's Landing Trail.
FA Ron Olevsky and Rob Schnelker, 1978
FFA: Drew Bedford, 1984
Grade III, 5.12
The sweeping corner 50 meters from the last bend in the road before the Temple of Sinawava parking lot. Often done as a 5.10 A1 route.
Descent: Rappel the route.
Grade V, 5.11 A3
Rack: Standard nailing rack, bathooks.
This route climbs the overhanging buttress to the right of the Leaning Wall Buttress. Park in the Leaning Wall pullout.
Descent: Rappel the route.
FA: Ron Olevsky, 1977
Grade III, 5.10 A1
Rack: Standard free rack, extra carabiners.
Located on the Cerberus Gendarme, the tower that presides over the Angel's Landing parking lot. An obvious bolt ladder marks the start. Good cragging can be found on the walls left of Touchstone.
Descent: Continue to the true summit, then descend north to the notch on the right of the Cerberus Gendarme. Several rappels down the gully takes one back to the canyon floor.
East Temple routes can be approached from the bridge at the bottom of the tunnel switchbacks.
FA: Dave Jones and Gary Grey, 1983.
Grade IV or V, 5.10, C2+ (one pitch of C2+, some A0 on upper pitches).
Lovelace follows the soaring crack system directly behind the Fang Spire. From the bridge at the bottom of the switchbacks, hike up to the base on the left side of the Fang Spire. Reportedly excellent crack climbing.
Rack: Standard free rack, extra small wires and offwidth protection.
Descent: rappel the route.
The Fang Spire
FA: Kyle Copeland and John Middendorf, 1988
Grade IV or V, 5.10, A3+
This is the obvious 650 foot white-capped spire seen from the tunnel switchbacks. Route ascends thin cracks on the outside face of the spire and continues above a very large roof seen on the south side. Excellent hooking and location.
Rack: Standard Zion nailing rack, hooks.
Descent: Rappel the route.
Cowboy Bob goes to Zion
FA Hugh O'Neall, Dave Jones, 1986
Grade IV or V 5.10+ C2+ (5 moves aid reported).
Cowboy Bob Goes to Zion climbs the leftmost of the three Towers of Fate that form the southern side of the East Temple . The route begins 100 feet below the highest point on the scree slope approach, and continues up right of an white finger pillar about 1/3 the way up the wall. This route has a bold unprotected 5.10+ section at the top.
Rack: Standard free rack, offwidth gear.
Descent: 2 rappels down the ridge to the right, then 4 down a gulley to top of the scree slope. All natural anchors on the descent. There are no fixed anchors on the route itself.
FA: Stacy Allison, Dave Jones 1986
Grade IV or V, 5.11a, C1 (5 moves aid reported)
Uncertain Fates ascends cracks just right of center on the middle Tower of Fate. Begin in left hand cracks in an obvious recessed slot at the base.
Rack: Standard Free Rack.
Descent: Hike west, staying high along the ridge to the Great Arch overlook at the end of Pine Creek Canyon.
FA: Dave Jones and Stacy Allison, 1985
FFA: ("Free or Burn") Mugs Stump and Wheels, 1991.
Grade IV, 5.11+
This route climbs to the right of Uncertain Fates in a beautiful straight-in crack system with a small bush visible low down. A more obvious crack system is see just left of this route. Begin in a sandy alcove between the two rightmost Tower of Fates.
Rack: Standard free rack, with 4: #3 cams, and 3: #3.5 cams.
Descent: same as for Uncertain Fates
The Sentinel -Birdbeak Spire
FA: Will Oxx and John Middendorf, 1993
Grade IV, 5.10, A2
Approach: This route climbs the outer face of the 800 foot detached spire on the East Face of Sentinel. The approach requires 2-3 hours and has several sections of 4th class which may require a rope. Start on the sandbench trail and work your way up the slope at the base of the East Face of Sentinel. Approach the upper tier by a loose and dangerous gulley system on the right, then cross over the tier to get to the base of the spire.
Rack: Standard nailing rack.
Descent: Rappel the route.
Issac-Tricks (of the trade)
Note: this route has mistakenly been called Tricks of the Tramp (taken from a preliminary topo)
FA John Middendorf, Brad Quinn, and Bill Hatcher, 1993
Grade V 5.10+, A2
This route only has 60 feet of aid in over 1800 feet of climbing. Some hard offwidths. Approach from the Court of the Patriarchs parking area and hike to the toe of the outermost buttress on Issac, the center of the three Patriarchs. The route starts in a clean 4" crack 50 feet right of a major chimney system on the outside of the buttress.
Rack: Standard Free Rack, plus 2 Birdbeaks, 2 Lost Arrows, and 1 each baby angle.
Descent: Continue to the summit of Issac, then descend slabs to the northeast. Several rappels may be needed to continue into the drainage between Issac and Jacob. Hike down the drainage to the hanging valley and continue rappelling. Allow 6 hours for descent.
You can read my story about this climb by clicking here
Issac-Sands of Time
FA: Rick Lovelace and Paul Gagner, 1994
Approach via the Court of the Patriarch pullout. Start in an offwidth crack around the corner to the left of the Tricks buttress. Excellent location. The upper part of this route climbs the crack on the outside (south) face of the upper buttress. The route ends on the top of the upper buttress (not the summit).
Rack: Standard Nailing rack, extra beaks and blades. 55 METER ROPES MANDATORY.
Descent: Rappel the route.
The Spearhead-Iron Messiah
FA: Ron Olevsky solo, 1988
FFA: Darren Cope and Jeff Rickerl, 1989
Grade III, 5.10
This classic Zion route climbs to the shoulder left of the Spearhead formation. Park at the Grotto Parking area. Hike south (left) on trail to second or third drainage. Hike up drainage. To find the start, you must first locate the obvious upper corner the route follows. Climb to the start of the route 50 yards past an exposed traverse, then mantle to the base some easy 5th class climbing. The first pitch is a bolted face climb just to the right of a right facing corner. A bizarre 3 pitch bolted variation avoids the short 5.10 section above the third pitch.
Rack: Standard Zion free rack, #5 Camalot optional.
Descent: Rappel the route.
Red Arch Mountain-Shune's Buttress
FA: Steve Chardon, Dave Jones, 1980
FFA: Conrad Anker, Dave Jones, 1992
Grade IV, 5.11c
Rack: Standard free rack, extra hand sized cams and hexes.
This route starts on the North face of Red Arch Mountain, the outstanding formation that towers over the Zion Lodge. On the Northwest corner of Red Arch Mountain, an obvious finger pinnacle is seen. Hike up to the left side of the base of the finger pinnacle. This route is the Astroman of Zion, with an incredible 5.11c overhanging thin hands and finger pitch up high.
Descent: Rappel the route.
The Mountain of the Sun-The Tao of Light
FA: Paul Turecki, John Middendorf, 1994
Grade VI, 5.10, A3
This route ascends the arete on the left side of the major corner on the Mountain of the Sun. Park at the Court of the Patriarchs pullout, and hike up below the huge arch on the right side of the Mountain of the Sun. An excellent Zion mixed route (free and aid) in a outrageous location. Good bivouac ledges on the top of pitches 5 and 12.
Rack: Standard nailing rack. 60 METER ROPES MANDATORY.
Descent: Descend the back side, or rappel the route.
Right Twin-Peyote Dreams
FA: Eric Rasmussen, Sean Plunkett, 1994.
Grade VI, 5.10, A3+
Rack: Standard Nailing rack, extra pitons and hooks.
An excellent find by Eric. Sweet splitter cracks up the center of the Right Twin Brother formation. Scope the route with high powered binoculars. This is one of the longer routes in the park and sure to be a hard classic.
Descent: Scramble and rappel down obvious slabs to the south to the drainage. 2 rappels down drainage to the ground.
FA: Jeff Lowe and Mark Wilford.
RACK: Standard free rack, plus some offwidth protection.
This climb climbs the left most of three obvious cracks seen from the pullout just north of the junction at the base of the switchbacks. Excellent crack and wild wide climbing.
Descent: It is possible to rappel from the top of the third pitch, otherwise, continue to the top and descend down canyon behind with several rappels.
Mostly Free and/or Clean routes: Moonlight Buttress, Touchstone Wall, Spaceshot, Prodigal Son, Shune's Buttress, Monkeyfinger, Iron Messiah, Issac.
Nailing Routes: Lunar Ectasy, Desert Shield, Lowe Route on Angel's Landing.
Free and clean routes: Moonlight Buttress, Touchstone Wall, Shune's Buttress, Monkeyfinger, Sandblaster, The Iron Messiah, Free or Burn.
Mostly free and clean routes: Tricks, Lovelace, Cowboy Bob Goes to Zion, Uncertain Fates.
Shorter nailing big wall routes: Lunar Ecstasy, Swoop Gimp, Desert Shield, The Fang Spire, Birdbeak Spire.
Longer nailing big wall routes: The Tao of Light, Peyote Dreams, Sands of Time.
1. The Northeast Buttress. IV, 5.11a.
FA: Mark Austin, Randy Aton, and Phil Haney, 1981.
Rack: 1 1/2 sets Friends, stoppers, hexes, slings.
This excellent all free alpine type route starts on the east side of the ridge between Angel's Landing and the Organ.
2. The Swiss American Route. VI, 5.9, A4.
FA: Xaver Bongard and John Middendorf, 10/19 to 10/22, 1991.
Rack: 10 Knifeblades, 12 Lost Arrows, 4 each 1/2" and 5/8" pitons, 2 each 3/4" pitons, 1 each 1" pitons, 2 1/2 sets of Friends, nuts, hooks, beaks.
An excellent route up the continuous crack systems leading directly to the summit. 14 holes drilled on the first ascent (all belay bolts).
3. Original (Lowe) Route. V, 5.8, A2.
FA: Jeff Lowe and Cactus Bryan, 9/70.
Rack: Standard desert rack (2 sets TCU's and Friends to #4, nuts and slings), plus 10 to 15 pitons, mostly KB's and LA's. Only pitch 7 requires nailing, otherwise all clean.
A popular introduction to Zion big wall climbing. A spectacular route with several good bivouac sites.
4. Angel Hair. V, 5.9, A3.
FA: Dean Tschappat and James Dunn, 1974.
Rack: Knifeblades to 6" bongs, nuts.
No bolts used on the first ascent. Jimmy Dunn believes this route may go all free. Lots of difficult chimneys.
5. Empty Pages. VI, 5.8, A4.
FA: Dave Jones and Mark Pey, 5/29 to 5/31, 1982.
Rack: 6 KB's, 8 LA's, 6 each 1/2" pitons, 3 each 5/8" pitons, 2 each 3/4" pitons, 1 each 1", 1 1/4" pitons, rurps, hooks, 2 to 3 sets of Friends and TCUs, nuts, #3 copperheads for shallow drilled holes.
Serious hooking (some manufactured) and some loose rock. No anchors on top. Bolt kit may be required for blown out drilled copperhead holes.
6. Archangel. VI 5.8, A3.
FA Ron Olevsky solo, 10/1 to 10/8, 1978.
Rack: Pitons and nuts to 3", keyhole hangers.
Many bolts and fixed pitons. Mostly follows the Prodigal Sun route.
7. Prodigal Sun. IV 5.5, A2.
FA: Ron Olevsky, solo, 9/81.
Rack: 1 set of Friends, many small nuts, one hook, keyhole hangers.
Prodigal Sun is a clean aid route and is an excellent introduction to multi-pitch aid routes. Many bolts, fixed pitons, and manufactured placements keeps the difficulty to a minimum, and makes for fast climbing.
8. Ball and Chain VI 5.10, A4.
FA: Glenn Randall, solo, Spring, 1978.
Rack: 20 KB's, 20 LA's, 3 each Angles, 2" to 5" bongs, nuts to 8" tubes.
Very direct line ascending the major cleft between Angel's Landing and Scout's Landing.
9. Days of No Future VI 5.9, A3+.
FA: John Middendorf and Barry Ward, 5/23 to 5/25, 1991.
Rack: 15 KB's (mostly long), 12 LA's (mostly long), 4 each 1/2", 5/8" pitons, 3 each 3/4" pitons, 2 to 3 each 1", 1 1/4", 1 1/2" pitons, hooks, stoppers, and Friends to #7.
Excellent soft rock route up the center of Scout's Landing, overhangs most of the way. 10 bolts required for the first ascent.
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