THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

ORDERVILLE CANYON

``Nephi Johnson .... followed the Virgin River with his
Indian guide and reached Oak Creek, above the present site
of Springdale, where the Indian stopped and refused to go
any further. Wai-no-pits, he said, might be found there in
the shadows of the narrow canyon ...''

From ``A History of Southern Utah and its National Parks''
by Angus M. Woodbury, 1950.

Like its larger sister, the North Fork of the Virgin River, Orderville Gulch begins high on the 7000-8000ft Markagunt Plateau just outside Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. As it flows west it drops into a narrow slot canyon cut up to 1000ft deep into the Markagunt and creates Orderville Canyon, one of the spectacular gorges of Zion NP. In several places the slot narrows to a water-filled 10ft wide with walls towering over 1000ft above you. Later it joins the North Fork of the Virgin in the middle of the Park just at the lower end of the famed Zion Narrows, providing a taste of what it is like to hike those Narrows.

To reach the starting point for this hike, drive east out of Zion National Park on Highway 9. About 2.3m past the entrance station, turn left on a good paved road at a point just beyond the top of a small rise. There is a sign indicating the North Fork. About 5m from the turnoff, the asphalt ends and you continue on a dirt road that is fairly good when dry. It may, however, be impassable when wet. About 11.5m from the turn-off, the dirt road crosses Orderville Gulch, after descending alongside that distinctive feature. Turn around here and return 0.8m to where a narrow dirt road proceeds off to the west at the crest of a small hill. About 100yds down this road you come to a broad corral surrounded by a wire fence. This is where you should park if you are driving a two-wheel drive vehicle. A gate leads to a rough and steep dirt/rock road that descends to the bottom of Orderville Gulch. This is route of the hike though four-wheel drive vehicles can proceed along it also. Note however that the road is easier to descend than to ascend. About 0.7m from the corral you reach the flat bottom of the gulch; here the road crosses Orderville Creek and follows the right bank on a flat bench for perhaps 0.5m. It then crosses the stream again and proceeds for a similar distance on the left side. The dirt road ends in a broad, flat clearing in the low brush where four-wheel vehicles must stop and park.

From the clearing (elevation 5700ft), a rough trail descends to the creek and follows the almost-dry streambed for about 0.5m as it winds its way across a broad, flat bottom. About 20min from the start at an elevation of 5360ft, there is a dramatic change in the landscape when you arrive at the sudden and steep 120ft dryfall that marks the beginning of Orderville Canyon. You may choose to follow the course of the streambed and rappel down the dryfall in two or more stages. Or you may choose to rappel down an even steeper chimney about 60ft to the left of the main streambed. But this is a long hike and the much simpler and faster route is to backtrack and find the use trail about 50yds to the left of the top of the dryfall. We came upon this automatically by following the use-trail on the left bench. (An unusual conifer stands beside the trail just where it reaches the lip.) The use trail then descends by a steep dirt trail to the canyon bottom that is narrow for a brief stretch but then broadens to provide fast and easy going in a rapidly deepening canyon. This is a lovely walk on a bright summer morning and the colors of the trees, rocks and sky are heightened by the crystal air of this high plateau country. About 0.6m downstream of the dryfall (and 40min from the start) you will encounter Birch Hollow, a sculpted rock-cavity on the left with a spectacular dryfall.

       
Orderville NarrowsOrderville Narrows Zion Narrows just below
junction with Orderville

The easy going continues for another 2.2m, the canyon bottom having only a gentle grade. The canyon walls continue to steepen and, in places, they begin to close in. Then at one particular narrows the first substantial obstacle is encountered, a large, canyon-blocking boulder with a steep 15ft drop on the downstream side. It is wise to use rope or webbing to rappel or downclimb this drop. The narrow slot on the right can be chimneyed fairly safely given boots with reasonable traction but some protection or belay would be wise. When we came this way the bottom was covered in a layer of very gooey mud; we also delayed about 40 additional minutes in order to help a group of eight young people descend safely. Undelayed the bottom of this obstacle should be reached about 3hr from the start. The going downstream remains easy for the next two miles and somewhere along this stretch we stopped for lunch. Then, roughly 3hr 45min after setting out, Bulloch Gulch enters on the right and brings with it enough water so that, downstream from the confluence, a stream runs in the canyon the rest of the way. Downstream of Bulloch Gulch, the canyon closes in again to a spectacular narrows crossed by fractures in several places. Then, a mile below Bulloch Gulch, a second fantastic obstacle presents itself. This consists of two huge chockstones, one of which blocks the canyon and requires another downclimb or short rappel. The other huge chockstone is lodged directly overhead forming a massive arch. There is even a tree growing on top of this upper chockstone. We used webbing to rappel about 12ft down the slot on the left though the falls on the right could also be downclimbed using the logs wedged in its face.

At this stage, you enter another spectacular narrows. The going is also harder between here and the Virgin River for you will need to negotiate a series of small waterfalls and pools some of which require swimming. Here we began to encounter groups of young people who had come up from below to enjoy the pools and falls. A short distance downstream of the huge chockstones the canyon narrowed further and we had to chimney down a small waterfall to the right of a large boulder. Then a series of pools and small waterfalls required chest deep wading and even some swimming. Beyond this we arrived at the top of an 8ft waterfall dropping into a deep pool. We jumped into this pool since others were present to confirm the depth; if this had not been the case we would have had to arrange a belay or rappel. A similar obstacle occurs a short distance further downstream but here it is easier to slide down from the shelf on the left into the end of the pool.

A series of more modest pool and falls obstacles are encountered before a last stretch of narrow and deep slot canyon. This leads directly to the junction at 4568ft (and 5hr 30min from the start) with the awesome Zion Narrows where the North Fork of the Virgin River flows through an incredible 1000ft slot canyon whose bottom is filled with Virgin River cascade. Stop and savour this awe-inspiring cathedral of a place. Though you will only travel the last 100yds of this great gorge, it provides a taste of the Zion Narrows adventure described elsewhere in this journal. The exit of the true Zion Narrows is just about 100yds downstream of the Orderville Canyon confluence. Then the canyon broadens a little and pretty wooded benches appear again. Sunlight penetrates and it is a beautiful hike downstream to the the point where the concrete Riverside Walk begins. By this stage there are usually crowds of people enjoying the canyon and the adventure of a short hike up into this wilderness. The terminus of the concrete and asphalt Riverside Walk is usually crowded with people peering up into the drama of Zion Narrows. From there it is but a 20min walk to the parking lot at the Temple of Sinawava (elevation 4411ft) and the conclusion of this marvellous adventure. The end should be reached about 7hr after setting out from the mesa now high above and far behind.

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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen