Hike to Zion’s Hidden Canyon in the Snow

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Hidden Canyon is a nice little side canyon between the Great White Throne and Cable Mountain.  It’s an adventure to get there because the trail is narrow, and the drop-offs are steep.  Chains are available to help you, but if you’re tackling this hike in winter, those chains might not be enough.  In fact, I’d say that this is the one trail that I hiked in the snow, that I really should not have attempted.

Location

Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, about an hour east of St. George.  From Interstate 15, take exit 16 (or exit 27, if you are approaching from the north).  Follow Utah Route 9 into the park.  Route 9 runs through the park and continues east, allowing access from Kanab, Utah, and US 89.

To access the Hidden Canyon Trail, park at the Weeping Rock trailhead (driving into the canyon is allowed during winter months) or take the canyon shuttle to stop #7 (in spring, summer, and fall).  You’ll start up the trail to Observation Point, then the Hidden Canyon trail will split off.

My Visit

If I made one mistake on my trip to Zion in January 2017, it was hiking this trail.  It was just a couple of days after a big snowfall in Zion (and several other big snowfalls over the previous few weeks), and this trail was dangerous.  I had several close calls — and on this trail, one slip can send you sliding a few hundred feet down into a narrow canyon.  And while I avoided disaster, I still ended up plunging my feet into a hole full of half-frozen, slushy water.  It simply wasn’t worth the effort and the risk.

That said, I passed several other people who had hiked it successfully.  Maybe they had more experience, or better equipment, or were in better shape.  Maybe you’ll do better than I did.  Either way, here’s a look at the hike, and you can decide for yourself.

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At the beginning, the trail follows the same path as the hike to Observation Point — which I hiked a couple of days later.  It’s a fairly steep climb up to the point where the two trails split.  At that junction, the trail to the left continues on into Echo Canyon, and eventually climbs up to Observation Point.

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The trail to the right heads directly for the Great White Throne.  Hidden Canyon is between here and there.

The Great White Throne is beautiful from this trail, and it will dominate your view for much of the hike.  It looks a lot different up here than it does from the canyon floor, but it’s no less striking.

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Before you navigate the narrow trail shelves, or squeeze into Hidden Canyon, you have to climb a few more switchbacks.  Since half of the foot traffic on this trail splits off to Observation Point, only about half as many feet have compacted the snow.  On this day, that made the trail more challenging.

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But, the first sign that I should turn back came at the first switchback, after the trail split.  It’s hard to see in this picture, but the actual switchback is buried under several feet of snow.  Hikers had made stair-steps in the snow, that made it possible to climb up to the next level of the trail.  It felt like an avalanche waiting to happen.  But, I made it past several of these treacherous corners.

At the end of the switchbacks…

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… the trail reaches a plateau, and a sharp turn to the left.  There’s a sign to point you in the right direction.

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From here, the trail dips in and out of a small hollow, before entering the main canyon.

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So let’s take a moment to play Can You See The Trail?  Can you see it here?

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What about here? Oh yes, there’s a trail there.  For most of the year, when there’s no snow on the ground, this is a narrow trail — just wide enough for one person to slip by, preferably with the help of some heavy chains that are anchored into the rock.  In the winter, though, snow covers the trail, and slides down the cliff, filling that narrow shelf at a 45-degree angle.  Then, hikers trample the snow, making footprints as close to the cliff as possible.  Those footprints are about a foot or two above the original trail, which means those safety chains are about ankle-high, rather than waist-high.  And that means they’re very hard to grab, at the very moment when the trail is most dangerous.

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I was happy to get into the safety of this first hollow…

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… but it didn’t last long.  Once again I ask, can you see the trail?  Can you see the other hiker on the trail?  Can you figure out how I passed him?

Let’s just say, he took the inside, and I had to reach around him.  As I passed him, I realized, this would be a great opportunity for a psychopath to kill someone, just for the fun of it.  With one push, I would be gone, and he could report the “accident” to a park ranger.

I’m really glad he didn’t do that.

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The trail squeaks around another outside corner, before entering Hidden Canyon.

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Without a doubt, the views here are extraordinary.

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Maybe this photo illustrates the perils of this situation.  Down there at the end of my legs are my feet, and right next to them is the chain.  Seeing as how my arm doesn’t quite reach down there, the chain is useless.  And if you look on the other side of my feet, that’s a pretty significant drop.

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At the entrance to Hidden Canyon, the biggest danger isn’t elevation, it’s water.  The mouth of the canyon is dotted with pools of water, some of which are hidden under the snow.  I safely managed to navigate over the mounds of snow and around the water and ice…

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… to reach the official beginning of Hidden Canyon — which is also the official end of the official trail.

In the warmer months, this sign is nothing more than an interesting landmark. There’s still a visible trail that’s fairly easy to hike, that continues deep into the canyon.  There may be a few spots that are challenging, but almost anyone will be able to make it much further without a second thought.  But after a big snow…

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… I didn’t know what the hell to do.  The footprints of previous hikers suggested I should climb up the hillside, so that’s what I did.

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Soon, the footprints went back down to the canyon floor and led up to this seemingly impassable spot. The only route forward was to squeeze through that tiny hole to the left of the big rock.  So I did.  Just barely.

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Moments after that obstacle, I faced another one.  This one seemed fairly easy — I just needed to go up that one big step.  But when I did, my foot slipped…

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… into this.  Think of it as a mud-flavored Double Big Gulp-sized Slurpee.  As one foot plunged in, I tried to recover, and in an instant, both feet were submerged, about as far up my leg as a good pair of tube socks.

I froze.  In every sense of the word.

In a flash, I realized my feet were soaked, my boots were soaked, my pants were soaked, and I was more than a mile away from my car.  Not to mention, it was an incredibly treacherous mile.  And there was nothing I could do.  I had a spare pair of socks, but they too would be soaked with 33-degree water, the moment I put my feet back into my water-logged boots.  I was going to have to hike all the way back, with freezing cold, wet feet.

Immediately, I turned around and headed for the exit.  Only a couple of interesting photo spots were enough to cause me to pause.

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I liked the way this tree reflected in one of the ponds at the mouth of the canyon.

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Another icy pond also caught my eye, probably because…

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… I knew I had taken this picture before, on a much warmer day, several years earlier.  Yes, summer would be a much better time of year to hike this trail.  If you’d like to see more of this trail in the summer, check out my earlier hike into Hidden Canyon.

After that, I put the camera away.  I needed to stay focused entirely on getting back to the car, returning to the hotel, and changing clothes.

As if the wet feet weren’t enough, on the return trip I had one more moment that convinced me that I shouldn’t have hiked this trail in these conditions.  I was at one especially difficult point near an inside curve when I encountered a spot that seemed too narrow and too icy, with no hand-holds.  I paused there for a minute or two, plotting out a strategy.  I felt like my cat, as she tries to figure out a way to jump from one piece of furniture to another.  I got ready to go, then paused, then almost went again, then paused again.  My brain was calculating different approaches, and none of them seemed likely to be successful.  Ultimately, I decided I had no other option than to just go for it. And so I did, and of course my brain’s calculations were spot-on.  My footing didn’t hold, and I started to slide down the cliff.  In a scramble, I was able to grab the chain, and very awkwardly pull myself up.  If I hadn’t, I would have slid 100 feet, give or take, into an inaccessible slot.  Who knows how I would have escaped.  Who knows how long it would have taken.

Ultimately, I made it back to the trailhead, and back to the hotel.  I caught a fairly decent sunset that night.  All is well that ends well, but I definitely learned to be more cautious.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive into, and out of, Zion Canyon.

The Bottom Line

For at least 10 months out of the year, Hidden Canyon is a great trail with big rewards and the relatively safe thrill of hiking across narrow ledges.  But during the snowy season in Zion, I’d strongly recommend against hiking this trail – even if you talk to some other hikers who say it’s passable.  It’s simply not worth the risk — and if the canyon is snowy, you’ll struggle to get very far beyond the mouth of the canyon, anyhow.

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