School of Rock: How to Take Your Family Canyoneering
Adrenaline-seeking doesn’t need to end when you have kids. There’s a lot to learn from a mom who took a three-generation trip to Zion.
By Kim Cross
Photographs by Elliot Ross
Illustrations by Bene Rohlmann
Seven years old, with a climbing harness cinched over his dry suit, Austin stood on the ruddy sandstone lip of a slot canyon in southwest Utah. My husband, Eddie, double-checked the figure-eight knot securing our kid to the rope. Attached to the other end, 25 feet below, Austin’s grandfather stood in a sinuous room carved out in the Navajo sandstone. The canyon walls flickered with slivers of sunlight bouncing off a frigid pool.
“On belay?” Austin shouted down to his grandpa.
“Belay on!” his grandpa yelled up.
After years of hearing canyoneering stories, Austin had convinced us he was ready. He had practiced rappelling drills, first on flat land, then off small vertical cliffs. He had passed repeated rope-safety checks. He’d memorized the verbal exchange that initiates each descent.
Sitting back in his harness, Austin tiptoed down a sandstone slope a bit steeper than a playground slide. Beaming, he splashed down into the cold water, high-fived his grandpa, and yelled encouraging words to his grandma, who was roping up.
For a family who shares the love language of adventure, vacations don’t get any better than this.
Before we were parents, Eddie and I fell in love with canyoneering — our preferred way to ditch summer crowds and explore the postcard labyrinths most people only see in a gift shop. Combining rappelling, hiking, swimming, and navigation, it doesn’t require a lot of upper-body strength or rock-climbing skills. All you need is a trained guide and a sense of adventure.
“People think canyoneering is a lot scarier than it really is,” says Micah Young, an Airbnb Experience host who has guided hundreds of newbies through canyons just outside Zion National Park. “Almost all of our guests say, ‘We’ve never done anything like this before.’”
While technical canyons inside the national park are restricted to self-guided visitors with permits, commercial outfitters offer beginner-friendly canyoneering tours right outside park boundaries. Many cater to families, offering half-day excursions with options for shorter rappels. “We’ve had guests as young as 4,” Young says, “and up to 78.”
“More and more, parents are seeing the profound benefit of introducing kids to these natural-high activities. They instill a sense of accomplishment and a respect and connection to nature.”
— Heidi Lee, Airbnb Experience host
Austin was 15 months old when we planned his first Zion trip. Traveling with our not-yet-verbal toddler and close friends, six weeks away from delivering a baby, we were forced to recalibrate our idea of adventure. Suddenly, being Those People with the Crying Baby on the Vegas Flight felt as daunting as rappelling out of a helicopter.
Veteran parents warned: “Expect to take twice as long to go half as far.” We scaled back plans, packed extra snacks, and decided to skip Angels Landing, a bucket-list hike with perilous cliffs. We braced ourselves to feel sort of bummed about beating the beaten path. To our surprise, we found wonder, humor, and joy in moments we’d missed in epic mode.
Walking slowly through Refrigerator Canyon, we noticed the 10-degree temperature drop. Hiking up the 21 switchbacks of Walter’s Wiggles, frequent breaks gave us time to drink in the ever-ascending views down Zion Canyon. Instead of the daily Nap War, Austin dozed like a champ in a backpack-style carrier that weighed less than 200 feet of rope.
He awoke to a real-life IMAX: supersize landscapes scrolling by the bike trailer on our nine-mile ride through Zion Canyon, where we pulled over for photos and neck-stretching views of the Court of the Patriarchs, a stunning set of sandstone cliffs. During most of the year, traffic in this part of the park is limited to shuttles and overnight guests of Zion Lodge, so we felt safe riding roads with no bike lanes. And if we needed to bail on the ride, buses with bike racks were everywhere.
We drove in air-conditioned comfort through Bryce Canyon National Park, where the road climbs to 9,100 feet, yielding sweeping vistas of the geological steps that form the Grand Staircase. We hiked Bryce’s easy Queens Garden and Navajo Loop trails to get down among the world’s greatest thicket of hoodoos — those totem pole–like rock formations sculpted by water and ice. The hardest part was encouraging Austin to drink water and avoid dehydration headaches as piercing as a crying baby on a Vegas flight.
The highlight of that trip may have been the flaming marshmallows. One night around the campfire, we took a group portrait with a 30-second exposure, writing “Zion” on the canvas of night with the light of burning sugar on a stick. Austin slept through this, too. For parents of a nap-averse toddler, this in itself was a vacation.
When Austin was 7, we returned to Zion for a three-generation vacation. Joined by his grandma, grandpa, and aunt, we hiked the two-mile, stroller-navigable path to Lower Emerald Pool, where waterfalls plunge into the trail’s namesake oasis. We got our feet wet in the Narrows, a hike up the Virgin River, which cuts through over 1,000 feet of sedimentary rock. We pressed against the current, marveling at the architecture of time and the dance of water on stone. Despite the name, this canyon can be as wide as a road (and on holiday weekends, almost as busy). But with each half mile, the crowds thinned and Austin’s eyes widened.
Then we won the lottery (well, the permit lottery) for a one-way trip through the Subway, a classic Zion canyon named for its tube-shaped tunnels. It would be an all-day commitment: nine miles of hiking, multiple rappels, and several cold swims (without a dry suit). We debated: Would this be an epic memory or a monumental misadventure?
But Austin begged. So we lightened his pack, doubled up on snacks, and set expectations for a long, hard day. We left early to make time for many rest breaks. We cut a deal: If Austin made it through whine-free, he’d earn a new Lego set.
Austin and Grandpa swam together through emerald water framed by cinnamon walls. Exploring the canyon was like entering a life-size Georgia O’Keeffe painting. After the final 30-foot rappel, we emerged into a bright valley, sun warming our arms as we walked down a staircase of waterfalls. We broke up the long hike by stopping to snack by primordial mud imprinted with fossilized dinosaur tracks. True to his word, Austin didn’t whine once. That night, he played with his brand-new Lego set while the rest of us slept like babies.
Canyoneering for Newbies
Hire a guide.
Zion National Park prohibits commercial canyoneering guides in the park, but a number of companies offer family-friendly trips outside park boundaries. “We’ve taken more than 1,000 people, and we haven’t had one who didn’t build enough confidence to get through the canyon,” says Micah Young, East Zion Experiences cofounder and Experience host. “Our first rappel is about 60 feet, but it starts out flat and the pitch is gradual. Only the last 15 feet are vertical.”
Go at kid speed.
You know your children best, so set expectations within their comfort zone. Look for half-day kidcentric programs designed to engage young explorers without wearing them out. “We have a program geared toward ages 3 to 12 called the Rock Hoppers that teaches the basic techniques for canyoneering and rock climbing,” says Heidi Lee, owner of Rock Odysseys and Experience host.
Choose the right locale.
“Diana’s Throne is a true beginner’s canyon in terms of technicality, with no rappels over 40 feet,” Lee says of the canyon near Springdale. “Lambs Knoll is two broken parallel slot canyons, so there are a few exit points and it works for different experience levels.” Young recommends Ladder Canyon, near Orderville. “In some spots, you can rappel 100 feet or opt for the ten-foot route,” he says.
Remember to stay hydrated.
Outside of the national parks, water fountains are scarce, so be sure to carry at least one liter of water per person at all times.
About the author: Kim Cross is the author of the New York Times best-seller What Stands in a Storm. She has written for Outside, Nieman Storyboard, Bicycling, Bike, ESPNw, Garden & Gun, Southwest, The Drake, and more. You’ll find her on a mountain-bike trail, a fly-fishing stream, or at kimhcross.com.