By Published On: April 7, 2024Categories: arizona, canyoneerTags: , , ,

The Virgin River Gorge, known as the VRG, is a place of transitions and contradictions. It is the intersection of the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert, between sandstone and limestone, between an incredibly arid climate and the Virgin River flowing through it, between remote wilderness and nearby civilization. Located between St. George and Mesquite, the VRG is accessed through I-15, one of the most expensive highway projects ever constructed. This section of highway is a challenging drive in the best of conditions due to an extremely curvy road, small shoulders and surprisingly high speeds. Add in high winds or darkness and the fact that there is no cell signal in most of the Gorge and the drive can become somewhat nerve-wracking.

There are several technical canyons in the VRG, accessible through small pullouts off I-15, if you know where to look. This area is popular in the winter and early spring due to being warmer and dryer than the St George area. We have been to the VRG a couple of times this winter, but we especially wanted to run Portal, the longest and most difficult canyon in the area. The best time to visit Portal is in the spring when the days are longer, but before the weather becomes too hot. Ideally, the best time to go is when the Mexican Redbud trees are blooming in the canyon. No permits are required for this canyon and beta is available here: Portal Canyon – ropewiki.

And so it was that we finally got a group together on April 7th. The weather was perfect, the Virgin River was not running too high (accessing Portal requires it to be crossed twice), and we were set to meet up with Adam Elliott, Wayne Myers and Ali White at the parking area at 8am. A few miles into the VRG, almost out of signal and civilization, we suddenly got a flat tire. A flat on this stretch of road where everyone is going 80 and there are no pullouts is a scary proposition. The nearest and only exit, Cedar Pockets, was a few miles away and the pressure in the affected tire was dropping precipitously. There was really nothing to do except get behind a passing truck going 40 and limp along to the exit. I managed to message the group with the last of my signal and ask for a pickup at the campground at Cedar Pockets. We finally reached the exit, the tire practically shredded but the wheel still intact.

Adam drove up just as we got there and whisked us away to the trailhead. We left our car near the bathroom with a note that we had a flat and would return. Fortunately, Wayne and Ali were still waiting for us. We changed into our wading gear – shorts, poles, neoprene socks and sandals and made it down the steep slope to the river. After wading across, we left our wet clothes, changed into hiking gear and began the 2500-foot climb to the top of the canyon.

The approach trail is actually quite stable and well-worn, as it is also the same approach as the more popular Cherry Canyon (misnamed for the many Mexican Redbuds that are also pink when they bloom) which is Portal’s little brother next door. However, the trail is pretty steep and unrelenting. After reaching the top of Cherry Canyon, we continued to hike up a wash, giving us a bit of relief from the elevation gain, but soon we turned off to climb yet another steep slope. It was right in the middle of this slope that I almost stepped on a very large rattlesnake, calmly sleeping in a rock indentation where it blended in completely. I was about a foot away and about to step on the rock when I noticed the occupant, jumped backwards and screamed fairly loudly. Everyone ran to take photos, but the snake didn’t react at all. Early mornings are tough on us all.

After what felt like hours of climbing, we finally reached the Portal drainage, a shrubby wash with tall grass and large boulders. It was time to drop in and descend 2,000 feet straight down. Portal, like most of the canyons in the VRG, is made of limestone and is very similar to Death Valley canyons: lots of downclimbs and natural anchors off trees, rocks or cairns. This is a long canyon with nearly 20 rappels and many downclimbs.

In the first section, we faced many short rappels off chockstones with very awkward starts, trying to avoid smacking our faces when the rock fell away under us. A rappel down a polished limestone chute brought us to a huge limestone bowl shaped like an amphitheater. This chamber was particularly beautiful, with varying shades of white throughout. Nearby, we saw our first flowering redbuds, with new leaves coming out and the flowers about to open. If we had waited a few days, all the redbuds would have been on display.

The middle section of the canyon contains the two longest rappels, over 150 feet. Both of these rappels can be challenging due to the fact that they can stick ropes and it’s hard to see the bottom. After this section, we walked a wash for quite a while until we encountered the final technical section with many short rappels and downclimbs.

Eventually we reached the last rappel, a pretty wall with great views of the surrounding area. At the bottom, I saw something very odd – a whitebud, which is a redbud tree with white flowers. It was beautiful but I am still wondering whether this is a different species or just a weird mutation that produced white flowers. There is very little chance that someone planted a horticultural variety of redbud in this very remote and super dry place.

We still had to exit, which is a fairly long walk from the last rappel and involves going through another small canyon with a couple rappels, known as Bonus Canyon. Then we walked out to the Virgin River, found our clothes, changed yet again and waded through. Surprisingly, the whole canyon, car-to-car took us only eight hours because we were so efficient doing the technical portion.

However, the day wasn’t done yet. Wayne and Ali kindly agreed to help us change our tire, so we all drove to Cedar Pockets to rehabilitate our car. Wayne is a tire-changing wiz, and we were on our way within 10 minutes. Definitely a fun and strenuous day with good friends.

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