A number of unofficial, secret trails hide near the popular Zion Canyon Overlook. From easy, kid-friendly trails to scenic paths into a wash, the area is the epitome of adventure. And one of the most thrilling outdoor pursuits among them is Zion Shelf Canyon hike.
Zion Secret Trails: Shelf Canyon Hike
We walked up and down between several overflow parking lots (that look rather as off-road parking spots) along Route 9 on the east side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel for nearly 20 minutes. Were we looking for the epic Zion Shelf Canyon Trail? Not at all.
The truth is, we didn’t even know about its existence. Our point of interest was quite predictable. While the main area of Zion National Park (a section that is accessible only by shuttle most of the year) offers endless official trails, the eastern section boasts a limited number of the trails you can find on the park’s map.
Thus, following all-too-familiar recommendations, we longed for a well-trodden path. To be exact, the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail. As fate would have it, we got lost within approximately 0.7-mile stretch of the road. On a side note, there was no way to miss the trailhead we were looking for.
I even asked a random hiker for direction to the official trail, but to no avail. We didn’t make to the Zion Canyon Overlook until about 2 hours later. Instead, unknown to ourselves, we opted for the hike into secluded Shelf Canyon, which trailhead is located about 0.5 mile from the tunnel.
Upper East Canyon: Zion’s Unofficial Trails
And what an adventure it was to hike in Shelf Canyon! The trail was the best off the beaten path an adventure seeker can only hope for. I confidently call this slot canyon by its name now. At the beginning of our journey, the area was nameless, secluded, and certainly unfamiliar to me.
Wrongly believing that we were hiking to the Zion Canyon Overlook, I expected to see hordes of visitors here. Instead, only two small groups of two and three people shared the trail with us. In fact, I must thank one of these hikers for all the initial information we learned about the Zion Shelf Canyon Trail, including its name.
Yet if you think that we were lucky to stumble upon this secret trail in the upper East Canyon area, let me assure you in the opposite. The eastern section of Zion doesn’t release its secrets eagerly and remains pretty untrodden. Instead of the official hiking routes, countless little cracks and off-the-beaten-path trails, such as the Zion Shelf Canyon hike, prevail here.
Off the Beaten Path: Lesser-Known Trails in Upper East Canyon
Often these trails don’t even have the names. The idea here is simply. When you see a trail that looks appealing to you, set out for a hike, and let it surprise you. We saw families with kids hiking along some random, winding down a hill trails without even knowing where these paths were going to lead them. If it’s not one of the greatest examples of how to nurture an explorer spirit in your kids then I don’t know what it is.
Upper East Canyon is indeed a whole new world full of secrets and the hidden trails. I’m content to confirm that the Zion Shelf Canyon hike is just one of them. Some of the other secluded trails you might want to explore include the following:
- Clear Creek
- Gifford Canyon
- Upper Pine Creek
- Progeny Peak (Peak 6275)
- South Ariel Peak
- Jolley Gulch
- Checkerboard Mesa Canyon
Introducing Zion Shelf Canyon Hike
For now, though, let’s focus on the Zion Shelf Canyon Trail. Plain and rather uninspiring at the trailhead, this short path brings a number of hoodoos, slickrocks, and other obstacles to conquer on the way to the narrow section of the slot canyon.
With such “courses” on the menu, Zion Shelf Canyon is rather selective, allowing only the most persistent visitors to hike here. Furthermore, topping off its scenic surroundings with required boulder hopping and some rock scrambling, the canyon limits its audience to adults only.
The playground for the more advanced hikers, however, doesn’t disappoint once you push yourself a little harder. The Zion Shelf Canyon hike gets more intense and interesting as you move deeper into it. The trail, though, comes to an abrupt end as soon as you work up your excitement to that level when nothing can stop you.
Why Should You Hike in Shelf Canyon?
1. One of the Most Unusual Secret Canyons in Zion
If you like slot canyons and the feeling of mystery they bestow on you, do yourself a favor and hike inside Shelf Canyon. While the place lacks light beams typical for world-famous Antelope Canyon, it astounds with a series of boulders, stacked on each other to create natural “shelfs”.
Once you reach the towering cliff walls, the Shelf Canyon hike ceases to be just a walk. Exhilarating scrambling over the massive rocks replaces the trudge along the mostly flat path. The surroundings also improve tenfold.
2. Feeling of Unknown and Discovery
Most nature lovers are normally adventurous, and Zion’s visitors prove it again and again. See it for yourself. Those great outdoors enthusiasts that venture to the eastern section of the park don’t stick to just the official trails. Instead, they crave the secret trails and canyons that themselves are the biggest rewards for their challenging discoveries.
The Zion Shelf Canyon hike certainly falls into this category. I won’t be the first to state that this secluded area makes you feel like a real life Indiana Jones. You go for a hike, but can’t even imagine what awaits you on the other side of the trail. And that’s the beauty of the Zion Shelf Canyon hike.
3. One of the Most Secluded Hikes
Looking for a trail to enjoy the nature, not endless chatting of other hikers? The Zion Shelf Canyon hike is definitely for you. Turning away most of the poorly prepared hikers at the first big obstacle, a steep slickrock with not much support to climb on it, this hidden gem of Zion relishes serenity and tranquility.
4. Great Workout that Doesn’t Feel Like a Tedious Exercise Session
A few people surprised me arguing that the Zion Shelf Canyon hike is not challenging enough, especially for the experienced hikers. I definitely can’t compete with the best of the best, but hiking in general doesn’t scare me. Neither does Zion Shelf Canyon. Yet starting as a walk downhill and eventually transforming into a scrambling over the various rocks, the trail stretches you like a gym might never does.
How to Get to Shelf Canyon
Zion Shelf Canyon sits in the eastern section of the national park. From the East Entrance, head toward the South Entrance, passing through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. A small parking lot, nestling on the right, offers a temporary haven for Zion’s guests’ vehicles as soon as you exit the tunnel. Normally, people aiming at the Zion Canyon Overlook would stop here, cross the road, and head over to the vantage point.
For those who yearn for a hike between the narrow cliff walls of Zion Shelf Canyon, walk for approximately 0.4 mile along Route 9 toward a ranger station and restrooms. A limited overflow parking lot sits to the right of them.
Continue walking straight for approximately 30-35 feet until you spot a tiny, barely visible path winding downhill. No official sign points at the existence of the trail. Many paths in the area, including the Zion Shelf Canyon hike, are considered secret for a reason after all.
As you descend, follow the sandy path with enough footprints to assume that there must be a trail somewhere here. The section near the road is wide-open, hardly suggesting that you can find Zion Shelf Canyon at the end of your hike.
When to Hike in Shelf Canyon
The Zion Shelf Canyon Trail is accessible all year round. You barely find any unforeseen obstacles on you way to the heart of this hidden gem neither in winter, not in summer. Small puddles of water, however, can slow you down in the canyon even during the hot summer months.
- The tiny pools expand into somewhat serious hurdles during the monsoon season. In the American Southwest, it’s normally from July through mid-September.
- The Zion Shelf Canyon hike may present additional challenges in winter. The trail tends to get slippery and icy when the temperature drops.
- As far as the time of the day goes, the Zion Shelf Canyon hike, unlike its closest neighbor, the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, feels quiet and serene most of the time.
Shelf Canyon Hike Stats:
- Time: 1.5-3 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
- Distance: Approximately 0.5 mile up the little drainage
- Elevation Gain: About 260 feet
Hiking in Zion Shelf Canyon
It’s not easy to find Zion Shelf Canyon on the majority of the topographic maps of the area. The place is secluded and rather challenging for the regular visitors of Zion National Park. As you start your Zion Shelf Canyon hike and walk down into the wash, the trail passes through the overgrown with trees and bushes area. In fact, you can barely see a trail here.
Slowly the open area narrows, allowing the more noticeable section of the trail to emerge. This first part of the hike is easy. You might even doubt if you are heading in the right direction. As the distance between the canyon walls shrinks, the large boulders and slickrocks gradually reveal the true essence of the Zion Shelf Canyon hike.
Hike inside Zion Shelf Canyon
The difficulty level increases shorty after you pass the open area. The large, almost vertical slickrock crosses the path, presenting arguably the biggest obstacle of all of them. To move forward, you must scramble over the rock. This part of the path, however, doesn’t give in easily, troubling the majority of the adventure seekers. Both groups we met on the trail were complaining about this stubborn slickrock.
TIP: Some hikers were considerate enough to leave two thick tree branches at the bottom of the rock. Definitely, exploit them, step on them, and use as a primeval ladder. Once you scramble on the slickrock, don’t forget to place the branches back for many other nature lovers to use them during their Zion Shelf Canyon hike.
The going gets easier from now on. Yet don’t cherish yourself of having the obstacle-free hike deeper into Zion Shelf Canyon after this point. Occasionally, the large boulders and slickrocks still try to prevent you from moving farther up. While some people might find them difficult enough to slow down, I think, these obstacles make the Zion Shelf Canyon hike more interesting and exciting.
Zion Shelf Canyon Hike: Final Stretch
The farther you hike, the closer the canyon walls approach each other. Plants also hardly sneak into this hidden kingdom of the towering cliffs and chilly, narrow passages. The muddy puddles, however, love this “ambiance”, thriving in the deeper sections of Shelf Canyon and seeking to spoil your hike.
Wade through them and continue scrambling up until you reach a secret alcove, adorned with a myriad of sturdy ledges. Having a rope would such a good idea now to look for hidden nooks and climb up as far as you can. Hiking farther up, however, is impossible.
TIP: Still, you can prolong your Zion Shelf Canyon hike by mounting the ledges and shouting down to your travel companions that you see a way up the canyon just to admit a few minutes later that it’s probably a dead end. Be careful, though, as going back down from the ledges is not easy and can be dangerous.
Once you have enough of Zion Shelf Canyon, hike back to Route 9 the way you came.
Is Zion Shelf Canyon Hike for Everybody?
Despite the irresistible sense of mystery and ultimate discovery, the Zion Shelf Canyon hike is not for everybody. The short, but strenuous trail, infused with the bountiful boulders to scramble over, may present too great of a challenge for elderly hikers.
Furthermore, I wouldn’t recommend to attempt the Zion Shelf Canyon hike carrying infants or toddlers in a carrier. They say nothing is impossible. Yet you don’t want to take any risk while exploring Zion’s hidden gems with your precious little ones attached to your back or front.
Can You Hike in Shelf Canyon Alone?
The experienced adventure seekers can march through Zion Shelf Canyon and finish the hike in about an hour. The average hiker, however, should invite a friend or two to accompany her or him on the trail. You can’t never reject a helping hand when scrambling over the tall rocks. And trust me, you will have enough of these when hiking in Zion Shelf Canyon.
On top of that, relatively few adventurers venture into this secluded area of Zion National Park. So if something bad happens, you need somebody to help you out of the canyon.
What to Pack for Shelf Canyon Hike
- Layers of clothing. Scorching heat can exhaust you in the open areas of Zion National Park, such as the Canyon Overlook area. Inside Shelf Canyon, however, temperatures barely catch up with those outside of it. Even in summer, the area often remains chilly. So have a light jacket to stay warm, surrounded by the cool giants.
- Non-slip shoes. Unlike some other popular trails in the national park, the Zion Shelf Canyon hike requires proper hiking shoes. Slippers or open toe shoes won’t work here. The rocks covered with sand, steep slickrocks, and slippery boulders abound along the trail. Thus, prepare for the worse and wear a pair of good, non-slip shoes.
- Water. Drink plenty of water. Even if you’re pretty good at hiking and can cover the long distances in no time, don’t do the Zion Shelf Canyon hike without a bottle of water.
- Hiking sticks. Bring along some sturdy hiking sticks to lean on when wading through the puddles or scrambling over the slickrocks when hiking in Zion Shelf Canyon.
Final Thoughts on Zion Secret Trails and Shelf Canyon Hike
Zion National Park boasts the secret passages and trails that can easily dim some of its most popular areas. As is the case with the Zion Shelf Canyon hike, these off-the-beaten-path gems, however, get often overlooked simply because of their insignificant “beginnings”. Don’t join the ranks of the oblivious travelers when you visit Zion National Park next time. Instead, go off the trodden path and explore some secluded trails and hidden gems, including Zion Shelf Canyon.
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