Fat Man’s Misery West Fork of Misery Canyon – Zion’s East Side
Rumors: We had heard rumors- “Many swims”. “Really cold”. “Difficult, Dark and Mysterious”. “Rappels into pools…” So Brian and I saved it for a scorching hot day in the middle of summer, loaded for bear and headed out.
Admittedly, it had been completely dry for months. So we left the wetsuits in the car, and hiked up the canyon next to Checkerboard Mesa to find our way into the canyon. Long sections of “Lawrance of Arabia” style wide open sandy wash were punctuated by short sections of beautifully carved and blessedly cool narrows. We found a few rappels, some interesting ancient hardware, and a big bang finish – a deep, wonderful grotto with a small stream piercing the final barrier to attain the refreshing coolness of the East Fork of the Virgin River . We siesta’d for a few hours and rehydrated, then climbed a steep ridge to get back to Checkerboard Mesa.
Fat Man’s Misery is a classic canyoneering adventure just outside the east boundary of the park on BLM land. Getting to the canyon and escaping back to your car requires some navigation skill – have a good map and use it. Unfortunately, the Trails Illustrated Zion National Park Map does not cover this area, so the USGS “The Barracks” and “Springdale East” quadrangle should be used.
Misery Canyon drops into the East Fork of the Virgin River through a beautiful grotto – the highlight of the trip. The East Fork is followed briefly, then a steep climb up a ridge leads back to civilization. The climb out can be scorching hot in summer so Fat Man’s is best reserved for spring and fall. Water can be filtered from the East Fork.
Used to be, one of the rappels could be avoided by worming down a narrow passage between boulders – thus the name “Fat Man’s Misery”. This feature has eroded away, but the hike out still provides a dose of misery for those of us sporting a little extra flesh.
In several places, single old bolts COULD be used for rappels. These things are dangerous – please admire their antiquity, but rig your rappel off more reliable anchors.
From the main canyon, take Highway 9 toward the East Entrance. There is a large turnout for the classic view of Checkerboard Mesa just east of the actual mesa. Turn around here, and drive back about 1/2 mile. You will be hiking up the obvious canyon to the west (right) of Checkerboard Mesa. Drive back along the road until you can see that canyon, then find a place to park.
Getting to Misery Canyon is your first objective, and requires a good map and the skills to read it. The west fork of Misery Canyon is the north-south running canyon just outside the park boundary. It runs south from just west of Pt 6445 on The Barracks map. It does not matter exactly where you drop into the canyon.
Ascend the canyon west of Checkerboard Mesa to a sandy pass, then descend the other side about ½ mile to where the canyon flattens out. Traverse left around the nose of a round sandstone buttress. Cross a shallow drainage, then a second, larger drainage. Ascend the ridge on the other side, then descend into the Misery Canyon drainage. Access to the canyon floor is blocked by a 200 foot cliff – traverse the rim downcanyon until a reasonable place to walk into the drainage is found.
Open, sandy washes alternate with sections of nice, sculpted narrows. A few rappels are required – avoid using the single, ancient bolts and find safer, natural anchors instead. One section of narrows is a good place to practice your partner-assisted downclimbing skills. There are numerous natural bridges, and there might be some swimming or deep wading.
After several narrow sections, the canyon intersects the east fork of Misery Canyon . Avoid some small potholes by traversing slabs left, then downclimb ledges overlooking the east fork to a tree. Rappel 60 feet (18m) to the canyon floor.
Below the confluence, the canyon begins to narrow up. A dirty section of canyon usually requires a rappel – this is where the “Fat Man’s” down-crawl used to be. Choose your anchor carefully – the canyon is eroding rapidly and the rocks are unstable.
Shortly past this obstacle, the canyon enters a grotto, its deepest and coolest section. The grotto leads to the East Fork of the Virgin River . Enjoy the coolness and soaring walls of the East Fork.
This is one of the most beautiful of Zion ‘s canyons. Like a half-scale North Fork Narrows . Clear, cold flowing water forms delightful pools (but still requires filtration). Explore up and down canyon at your leisure, however, the canyon downstream is closed at the Park Boundary about 1/2 mile west of the mouth of Misery Canyon .
Getting Back to Civilization
From the Misery/East Fork confluence, wade downcanyon about 3/10 of a mile (500m), 10-15 minutes. On the inside of a sweeping bend to the right is a grassy/reedy/brushy area. This is the exit. Take a trail into the grass, then climb up a steep gully toward the rim. (A plaque commemorating the Powell expedition of 1872 can be found on the downstream side of the grassy area).
The East Fork is closed to public access at the park boundary, 1/10 mile west of the Powell Plaque.
Above the gully, follow a ridge north toward Checkerboard Mesa. Approaching the Mesa , trend left to the round sandstone buttress, then cut left into the approach canyon. Follow this back to the road.
6 rappels up to 60 feet. 5-1/2 hours from road to E Fork; 2-3/4 hours back to road. Reports indicate this canyon often has a lot of swimming through those narrows sections, so be ready for it. Bolts are in bad need of replacement.