Why Southern Utah Is a Perfect Canyoneering Destination

Leap into the unknown from the Beehive State’s rocky cliffs.

Rock climber sitting on bouldering cliffs at Zion National Park

Thanks to its mountainous landscapes, the BLM lands surrounding Zion National Park are a popular destination among climbers and boulderers in the know.

Photo by Janelle Dransfield

I’m usually OK with heights, but this situation is a little different: I find myself leaning over the edge of a 140-foot cliff with nothing but a rope and a harness to keep me from an imminent, gruesome demise. It’s the equivalent of dangling off the roof of a 14-story building, and a sudden rush of anxiety fills me as I realize what I’m about to do.

I’m atop a craggy sandstone rock face in southwestern Utah, and I’m gathering the nerve to plunge down it in an epic rappel, the grand finale of an all-day canyoneering tour.

This region is best known for Zion National Park, which draws adventurers from around the world with its giant, photogenic red boulders and awe-inspiring canyons. However, the magnificent geology continues beyond the park’s borders into Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property—public, multi-use space for all types of outdoor recreation, including rock climbing, UTV (utility terrain vehicle) riding, and mountain biking, without the stricter regulations, permits, and wait times required for the national park.

About an hour from Zion Canyon Visitor Center is a slice of BLM land in Dammeron Valley, a vertical playground for climbers who have lots of adrenaline and zero acrophobia. My guide, Todd Perkins of Southern Utah Guiding, has led me here to experience his secret stash of boulders and slot canyons, away from the crowds of the greater Zion area.

Left: A person rappelling down a cliff. Right: A person wearing sunglasses and cap looks up.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management administers 245 million acres of the country’s land, and more than 99 percent of it is available for recreational use with no fees.

Photos by Erik Trinidad

“Just hashtag it ‘Zion,’ so no one finds out about it,” Todd jokes, trying to keep our location unspoiled.

I’ve enjoyed everything leading up to this final descent: maneuvering through narrow slots, scrambling from boulder to boulder, crawling through natural tunnels, and even rappelling down some 50-foot drops. But none of those challenges was as intimidating as the depths before me now.

“Lean back and take your time,” Todd coaches me.

I remind myself that he has me safely on belay, and then I hop over the edge slowly, securing my footing with each baby step. Eventually, I brave bigger leaps—it helps that I never look directly down. The view toward the horizon is more awe-inspiring anyway, the azure-colored sky contrasting with the dusty-beige sand speckled with green desert shrubs. Suspended there between earth and sky, I perceive it all differently than I did when I was standing at the top or even when my feet were planted on the ground earlier in the day. Here, I feel the sensation of hovering in limbo, both physically and metaphysically.

Once I land back on the ground, I shake the residual stress out of my legs—and my soul. Then I look up as Todd, a veteran canyoneer, bounces his way down like a rubber ball. He even does some flips, showing me how fast and thrilling the rappel can be.

But I know from my slower descent that taking one’s time comes with a reward here: the unequaled, otherworldly view of the high desert and its beauty. Just don’t tell Todd that I told anyone about it. #Zion

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