The Barracks is a great canyon along the East Virgin River just outside Zion National Park. Sections of the lower end rival the Narrows, but without all the crowds. Though most people just visit the lower canyon, it is possible to hike the entire 22-mile stretch from Mt. Carmel Junction to the boundary of Zion and then exit near Checkerboard Mesa. Spending 2-3 days for this trip allows for time to see some of the impressive side canyons along the way. The lower section is gaining popularity for its beauty and its inclusion as part of the Hayduke Trail. Since it’s BLM land, no permit is necessary but note that good camping spots are sparse and the canyon is very prone to flash floods.
Though many may opt for out-and-back day hikes or overnighters via Zion, I’ll describe the canyon from the top down for those who may go for the full experience.
Upper Barracks: Mt. Carmel Junction to Rock Canyon
The route begins following a gravel road along the river as it winds its way alongside some towering and colorful Navajo sandstone cliffs. There are several parcels of private property along this stretch, so make sure to stay on the road as much as possible.
After about 6-7 miles the road turns south and up into the hills via the Elephant Cove ATV route. Hikers should continue down the river — from this point on one will be constantly in and out of the water. The lack of a road doesn’t stop the cattle unfortunately, and one is likely to see cows and their droppings frequently along this stretch of the upper Barracks.
In about another 3 miles look for a small canyon entering from the right — possibly with a small amount of water flowing. This is Mineral Gulch. If you have 1-2 hours to spare, it’s worth a side-trip up this impressive canyon. Near the bottom there are some petroglyhs and caves with signs of ancient habitation, then a little farther up is a good set of narrows, and finally even farther up is an even more impressive set of narrows. For those looking for more adventure, it’s actually possible to come down Mineral Gulch as an alternate start when hiking the Barracks. However, be advised that there are a few drops near the top that require fairly long bypasses.
Continuing downstream the canyon begins to get deeper and more scenic. Just about 2 miles down from Mineral Gulch and right before Rock Creek enters from south, look for a large petroglyph panel on the northern wall. There are evidently more petroglyphs up Rock Canyon, but I personally haven’t visited those.
Lower Barracks: Rock Canyon to Labyrinth Falls
West of Rock Creek is where the Hayduke Trail enters the Barracks from the south. Downcanyon from here the red walls close in more and more and springs dripping with water become a common sight. The walls are moderately high at this point and get taller as one moves downstream.
After a few miles look for side canyons entering on the left. The third one is French Canyon and looks inviting from the river. It’s worth a short walk up to see its scenic walls. It’s possible to continue up this canyon for a scramble exit to connect with the Jeep route and/or Hayduke Trail up on the rim.
Just a little farther down canyon a noticeable canyon enters on the right. This is Poverty Wash and it’s definitely worth the 40-minute round-trip diversion to go up and see the narrows and grotto. Read all about it in this post: Poverty Wash Diversion.
Just over a mile below Poverty Wash one arrives at the only obstacle in the main stretch of The Barracks. Here a rockfall has created a constriction in the canyon resulting in a 12′ waterfall and logjam. At times it’s possible to carefully climb up/down the boulders and logs on the side of the waterfall and wade through a likely chest-deep pool below. However, at other times water has been known to be rushing over the entire obstacle and/or the logs to be unstable. Luckily there is a cave-like bypass route which can also be used. Read more about this in the Barracks Obstacle Bypass or watch a video about it. One good thing about the obstacle — it stops the cows from going any farther down the canyon!
Below the obstacle is another stretch of gorgeous canyon before another small canyon enters on the right with a small waterfall which often makes a pool at the very bottom. This is Misery Canyon and it’s possible (though difficult) to climb up into the lower section of this slot canyon. To see all of the amazing narrows though, one needs rappelling gear and to start at the top to do the full Fat Man’s Misery technical route.
The Hayduke Trail climbs out of The Barracks via a very steep gully just downstream from this point. However, continuing down canyon to the next exit is a better option. It’s a little bit longer, but the exit is not quite as steep there and this way takes one through arguably the best parts of the canyon. I will refer to this as the “Alternate Route”, but really it is the main route for all but the Hayduke Hikers.
Continuing down canyon one will almost immediately enter a great set of narrows. This is the narrowest section of The Barracks and at times the light through this section can be stunning.
Below the narrows the canyon opens up a bit and a spring bubbles up on the left. Watch out for quicksand in this section. The next few hundred meters is a gorgeous section where the wider walls allow enough sunlight in to give life to moss, flowers, and small trees alongside the river. Soon one will see the bench on the right which is the alternate way up.
BUT… before climbing up, drop your bag and explore a little more down river.
Immediately downstream from the exit route is the Powell Plaque commemorating John Wesley Powell and his team who first explored this canyon in 1872. The plaque is on the same side of the canyon as the exit route and tells how Powell gave it the name Parunuweap Canyon from the Paiute Indians meaning ‘Roaring Water Canyon’.
Continuing downstream one passes the boundary of Zion National Park. Then the canyon constricts again into another spectacular set of narrows.
The canyon continues to be very scenic until a group of boulders blocks easy progress down the canyon. Ropes and/or climbing skills are needed to continue down past this point and around the bend to where one can get a glimpse of the top of Labyrinth Falls. This is as far as one can go (not only safely, but due to park restrictions as well.) Turn around and head back up canyon.
The Barracks Exit: Climb out to Checkerboard Mesa
Back at the the exit route climb up onto the a bench mentioned earlier. From there the route climbs abruptly up along a gully of stable, but sharp rocks. Though there isn’t really any exposure, a tumble here would be painful! Take your bag off if you feel the need for more caution.
At the top of the gully it flattens out and one soon intersects again with the Hayduke Route. From here one needs to get to the ridge to the north. Head north across slickrock and then up another gully to get to the ridge.
Follow the ridge north toward the white cliffs and then up on the slickrock to contour west around the “backside” of Checkerboard Mesa.
Follow the use trail which goes on the west side of Checkerboard Mesa. It might be semi-brushy as it goes up and over the saddle before dropping down into the East Canyon of Zion and intersecting the park road. The parking area for Checkerboard Mesa and the east park entrance is just a short ways up the road to the right.