Pine Creek Falls was a pleasant little waterfall (possibly 25-30ft) downstream from its technical slot canyon near the giant alcove known as the Great Arch (not really a natural arch as the name implied). What stood out to us about this waterfall was that we typically didn't expect to find quiet waterfalls like this in Zion National Park (a park not exactly known for waterfalls), especially given its close proximity to Zion Canyon (i.e. the main touristy part). But perhaps that was the very reason why this quiet little spot was the perfect escape to enjoy the relative quiet and cool off from the desert heat, or at least provide an opportunity to enjoy a waterfall with a pool to play in.
Julie and I visited this waterfall back in April 2003 and then again in April 2018. Based on our limited sample size, we can say that the flow of Pine Creek is highly dependent on how much snowmelt would drain into Pine Creek. During the Summer monsoon season, there can be a flash flood risk, which was why we tended to time our visits to avoid rain. That said, we can't say much else about the reliability of its flow at other times of the year.
Anyways, I suspect that the reason why this waterfall wasn't very well known (relatively speaking when you consider how crowded the Zion Canyon and its shuttle system can be) was because it wasn't all that easy nor obvious to reach. First, it wasn't easy to find as there was no signpost indicating its presence (see directions below). Second, we had to get through some fairly rough scrambling obstacles involving some mild dropoffs. Indeed we had to exercise a little patience with the rough parts despite the relatively short distance we were covering on this excursion. Then, there was the flash flood risk, which wasn't lost on us as the boulder obstacles seemed more frequent on our latest visit than they were on our first visit 15 years prior.
This excursion started innocently enough with a fairly well-used informal trail that left the UT9 at a bridged hairpin turn traversing Pine Creek itself. We then followed the trail as the wide canyon quickly narrowed, and pretty soon we found ourselves walking on sandy terrain belonging to the Pine Creek Wash. Beyond the wash, the canyon narrowed even more to the point that we had to cross the creek a couple of times then negotiate some boulder obstacles.
In perhaps the most difficult obstacle of the excursion, we had to go around a fairly large stagnant pool that was wall-to-wall. Both times we were here, we had to scramble up a wedged boulder on the right side of the pool, then cling onto a somewhat dicey sandstone ledge, which allowed us to climb even higher up the wall before finally getting to flat enough ground to continue further upstream past the pool. With the everpresent dropoff danger, a misstep here (especially with the potential for a slick surface due to rain) could mean a real nasty fall, and this was the one part where it was pretty sketchy for kids. That said, according to some people we encountered here, there might be an easier path going around the left side of the stagnant pool though it was not as obvious to us. And since we didn't do it, we can't really say more about it.
In any case, beyond the difficult pool and bouldering obstacle, we had to do a little more awkward scrambling. One such bouldering obstacle involved getting through a stack of big wedged boulders that forced the adults to sprawl and crawl onto the bottom boulder while trying not to hit our heads on the upper boulder as we squeezed through the tight opening. Since the kids were smaller, this was one obstacle where they actually fared much better than the adults.
When Julie and I first came here back in April 2003, I didn't recall having to go through these additional boulder obstacles before. So this suggested that years of flash flooding may have deposited more boulder obstacles, which wound up making this scramble a bit trickier than in the past. Who knows if in the coming years whether this excursion will be even more difficult or perhaps easier depending on the whims of Mother Nature? So that difficulty rating above (which we actually bumped up from our first time here) is really a snapshot of our assessment given our latest visit.
After the crawl obstacle, we then finally made it to the secluded Pine Creek Falls. With the waterfall's plunge pool, the kids wasted no time chucking rocks as well as also playing in the water. On our latest visit, there was another family who arrived just as we did, and they seemed to already know this place. So the father scrambled his way all the way to the backside of the waterfall, where he then used the sloping surface as a waterslide to slide right into the plunge pool immediately at the base of the waterfall. In addition to being a fun little play waterfall, the reddish ledges and the hint of even more tall sandstone cliffs in the distance made the falls pretty friendly for photographs.
Once we had our fill of the well-earned visit to Pine Creek Falls, we then scrambled back the way we came. We had to be careful not to miss the tricky pool and scrambling obstacle on the return (or else risk going to a dropoff dead-end as my Dad almost did), then carefully maneuver our way back to the flatter terrain at the mouth of the pool. Beyond the difficult scramble obstacle, the rest of the hike was pretty much a cake walk.
Overall, we spent on the order of 90 minutes on our latest April 2018 visit, and we probably spent closer to a little less than an hour on our first visit back in April 2003. According to my GPS logs, the distance only covered about a half-mile round trip, but it was the bouldering obstacles and hazards that forced us to bump up the difficulty score.
Finally, we were aware that there was another more strenuous way to reach the waterfall, but that would require technical gear as it would involve canyoneering through the Pine Creek slot canyon. While canyoneering is a pretty popular cult sport in the slot canyons of the desert southwest, this probably wouldn't be an option for those of us who haven't taken up the sport and would not be well-equipped enough to handle the technical obstacles.
Just a short distance further upstream of Pine Creek Falls was the Canyon Overlook Trail, which yielded this nice view over the Zion-Mt Carmel Road as well as glimpses of water in Pine Creek itself
While on the Canyon Overlook Trail (just on the other side of the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel), we were able to look right into the Pine Creek Slot Canyon from above
Deep within Zion Canyon, we were adventurous enough to do the 5-mile round-trip hike and climb to the summit of Angels Landing in the main part of Zion National Park to get this vertigo-inducing view
On our way out of Zion National Park's east entrance, we noticed this cool formation known as the Checkerboard Mesa, which was best seen early in the morning when it would get soft glow
View of the Great Arch (the Great Alcove?) seen from the switchbacks on the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway. If you're driving on the UT9 and you start seeing this arch, then you missed the switchback by the bridge you're supposed to park the car to do the Pine Creek Waterfall scramble
This is the Zion-Mt Carmel tunnel at the top of the switchbacks. If you're intending to do Pine Creek Falls and you made it this far, you definitely went too far up.
On our latest visit in April 2018, it was Spring Break, and the parking situation was crazy. Amazingly, the cars clogging all the pullouts and shoulders nearest the Pine Creek Wash were for the Zion Canyon Shuttles!
The family approaching the Pine Creek Wash after leaving the UT9
The further along the Pine Creek Canyon we went, the more the walls closed in, and we then found ourselves hiking on the sandy surface of the Pine Creek Wash
Pretty soon, the canyon narrowed even more to the point that we had to start getting around and over some boulder obstacles
This was one of the minor crossings of Pine Creek, where we had to give the kids a little help
This was another crossing of Pine Creek
More bouldering obstacles to negotiate en route to the Pine Creek Falls
While it was pretty, this pool presented the most difficult obstacle on the way to the Pine Creek Falls
While it may not look like much in this photo, there was actually a dicey dropoff between Julie and Dad at the most difficulty obstacle
Looking back at another family who caught up to us and handled the difficult obstacle section much faster than we did
Dropoff hazards and bouldering obstacles were more frequent after the difficult part, but they weren't as bad in terms of difficulty
The family climbing over another bouldering obstacle
My nephew getting through the tight sprawl and crawl bouldering obstacle. I never recalled having to do this the first time Julie and I were here back in April 2003
Julie getting past the last of the bouldering obstacles with Pine Creek Falls right behind it
The family finally making it to the Pine Creek Falls
Looking downstream immediately from the waterfall area
The family enjoying their well-earned visit to the Pine Creek Falls
Direct look at the attractive Pine Creek Falls at midday with some overcast skies
Another look at the Pine Creek Falls from the far left side of the plunge pool. I recalled the first time we were here back in April 2003 that it was easier to approach the falls on this side. That wasn't the case on our latest visit in April 2018
This was what the Pine Creek Falls looked like when we were first here back in 2003
It was sunnier on our first visit back in 2003 so there were shadows making for difficult photographs
On our way out, we saw a handful of more people making their way to the falls. So while this place wasn't quite unknown, it still was a far smaller fraction than the parked cars along the UT9
Finally making it back to the UT9 at the mouth of the Pine Creek Wash with the Sentinel looming in the distance
The Pine Creek Falls was just east of Zion Canyon within the boundaries of Zion National Park. The nearest town is Springdale, which is right at the southern entrance of the park literally at the mouth of Zion Canyon.
In order to reach the start of the hike and scramble, we had to drive north out of Springdale and into Zion National Park as the UT9 curved eastwards at the mouth of Zion Canyon. Keeping straight past the bridge over the Virgin River (turning left here would enter Zion Canyon where only authorized vehicles; namely shuttles, maintenance, and Zion Canyon Lodge guests are allowed to drive in peak season), we'd then find parking at a large pullout area right at the start of a bend in the road at a bridge. That bridge is traversing Pine Creek.
This pullout is where the hike up the Pine Creek Wash begins. It's just under 2 miles north from the Watchman Campground turnoff, or about 1.6 miles down the switchbacks beyond the west exit of the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel (if you're coming in from the east).
One thing worth noting in crowded times (which was especially the case of our April 2018 visit) was that the limited parking in Springdale and the Zion Visitor Center area resulted in many parked cars clogging the shoulders all along the UT9. This included the pullouts fronting the Pine Creek area. There are a few more pullouts further up switchbacks on the UT9 towards the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, but this obviously increases the hiking distance quite a bit.
For geographical context, Springdale is about 40 miles (about an hour drive) west of St George, 57 miles (a little over an hour drive) south of Cedar City, 43 miles (a little over an hour drive) west of Kanab, 83 miles (under 2 hours drive) southwest of Bryce Canyon City, 117 miles (under 2.5 hours drive) west of Page, Arizona, and 159 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada.
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