Top 10 Slot Canyons in Utah
Jul 26, 2017
By: Mo Edwards
Making decisions is hard, #amirite? There are so many choices in this modern world! “Should I diversify my IRA or bury it in the backyard?” Depends on your short-term goals. “Should I get a turtle or a dirtbike?” Could go either way. “Should I hike a slot canyon this year?” That one is simple: Yes!
Southern Utah has more tiny, narrow cracks than a shattered iPhone screen. Some are deep, some are wide, some are wet and some are dry, but none of them will shove tiny glass shards in your texting fingers.
Slot canyons are nice because you don’t have to make very many decisions in them. Carved by wind, water and dinosaur tears, slot canyons can be hundreds of feet deep and so narrow you have to cram yourself through sideways. (There’s one near Zion called Fat Man’s Misery.) Another benefit, among many, is that their unique shape and basic astrophysics means slot canyons are shady all but a few minutes a day, making them a pleasant respite from the relentless summer sun!
A word to the wise: Slot canyons can be as dangerous as they are beautiful, much like Kevin Bacon. Much like a giant, bloodthirsty sandworm, flash floods can sneak up on you quick. Rainwater collects from the non-absorbent plateau and drains into these canyons creating an instantaneous wall of water.
DO NOT ENTER A SLOT CANYON IF IT IS RAINING, IF IT HAS RAINED IN THE PAST 24 HOURS OR IF RAIN IS FORECASTED.
Flash flood warning signs:
- Sudden heavy rains
- Clear creek water begins to turn brown and muddy
- Debris such as twigs, leaves or needles appears in the water
Seek high ground immediately! Don’t worry about foot vibrations; just get out of there. Even climbing a few feet could save your life. Check the weather and talk to the appropriate park/BLM authority before you go. And finally, plan an alternative itinerary in case the weather turns against you. If you reeeally want to gamble with slots, go to Vegas. That’ll ruin you too, but more slowly.
- Location: Along the Utah/Arizona border, near Kanab.
- Distance: 3.5 miles
- Best for: Families can totally do this slot.
- Best time to go: Spring and fall are ideal, but you can hike here year-round.
The entirety of Buckskin Gulch canyon is one of the longest slots in the world. Or so proclaims the internet. And the internet is always… interesting? ...a spectrum of truth and falsehoods?
Really though, to hike the whole thing would take a few days, a precious permit and some technical gear. Sounds fun! Maybe not with the kids though. Try this: Buckskin Gulch via the Wire Pass trailhead. Wire Pass winds through a spectacularly striated little slot canyon to Buckskin Gulch. There are a few obstacles to toss the kids over (don’t toss the kids; that’s a joke, an internet falsehood, fake news), but nothing prohibitive and round trip it is only 3.5 miles! Do-able for a sturdy five-year-old. Look for petroglyphs at the junction of the two canyons. Bask in the real truthiness of it all.
- Location: South-central Utah near Goblin Valley
- Distance: 8 miles for the full loop, but many just go as far as they like and turn back
- Best for: Ideal for families, but fun for all
- Best time to go: Spring and fall
This place is perfect for all the wobbly little foals in your life. A stone's throw from Goblin Valley — a Burning Man of strange and playful sandstone goblins — Little Wild Horse is a strange and playful sandstone canyon. Smaller in scale than, say, the Narrows, its dry, sandy wash is friendly to all abilities. The kids will naturally propel themselves along the twists and turns with nary an expletive from parents. The entire loop (up Little Wild Horse and down Bell Canyon) is about eight miles — a liiiittle too long for kids who aren’t a pre-Prefontaine, perhaps — but families can explore at their leisure until it’s time to return to the car for more fruit snacks (or kale, or spelt, or gluten-free chia pet seeds, or whatever kids eat these days). If they’re having too much fun galloping about and ignore your call to head back, tell them you’ll call the BLM about some little wild horses in Goblin Valley that need to be immunized. “The feds are coming! With the vacciiiiines!! RUUUUUNNNNNNNN!” Threats don’t work with kids but it doesn't hurt to try.
- Location: On Hole-in-the-Rock Road, 26 miles south of the town of Escalante.
- Distance: 3.5 miles
- Best for: Claustrophiles (is that the opposite of claustrophobes?); robust children and adults unafraid of tight curves and a few drop-offs. Broad-chested, pregnant, or otherwise girthier people might want to skip this one as the paths are extremely narrow.
- Best time to go: Year-round
Have you ever wanted to be bear-hugged by the earth? A nice, firm, sandy squeeze that lingers so long it becomes awkward. “Earth!” you say, “I like you, but… I don’t like-like you.” “Oh,” Earth says, a little embarrassed. “I just thought… maybe you and I—” “No, Earth. No. Our kind cannot be together. We would destroy each other.”
If you’ve never had this conversation, dear reader, you’ve never been to Spooky Gulch. Located along Hole in the Rock Road in Escalante Canyons country, Spooky and Peek A Boo Slot Canyons make a great half-day adventure. Start at the bottom of naturally sculpted Peek A Boo and climb up, passing under a few arches and over a few potholes (usually dry). From the top, follow the cairns over slickrock and sand to the entrance of Spooky. Leave your backpack behind. Shed any unnecessary layers: “fun” hats, push-up bras, ironic mustaches, fanny packs, babies in baby carriers, the ticket to Tremors 7 in your front pocket... Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope and nope. Slide sideways through this narrowest of the earth’s crevices and ponder how a canyon can taper so. Kids love this part! Finally an activity they can accomplish more swiftly than adults. Send them to get help when you find yourself trapped hard in Earth’s awkward embrace.
- Location: Along Buckhorn Wash Road in Emery County
- Distance: 2.5 miles
- Best for: Families or anyone looking for an easy hike
- Best time to go: April to October
Sometimes you just need a calm, dependable slot canyon. No 10-inch-wide walls closing in on you, no frigid water to wade or swim through, no rappelling or scrambling or climbing. Like a nice hallway. Furniture Draw is the family-friendly slot canyon you’ve been searching for. Bring sunscreen.
- Location: Zion National Park
- Distance: Variable up to 16 miles
- Best for: Anyone at least four feet tall can hike out-and-back hike from the bottom; at least some hiking experience and endurance are required to do the whole thing top-down.
- Best time to go: Later spring and summer yield lower water levels in the river.
The Narrows in Zion National Park is the one slot canyon to rule them all. The grand dame of gorge-ous divisions. The Citizen Kane of sightly crevasses. The head honcho of heavenly chasms. The Patti Labelle of parted pathways. The Phil Collins of fault-less canyons. The Beyoncé of handsome breaches. In some places the walls rise 1,000 feet above you and the canyon narrows to 20 feet across. It’s almost as dramatic as the rise of Kevin Bacon (the Meryl Streep of actors).
There are a couple ways to go about the Narrows:
1. Start from the bottom at Temple of Sinawava and mosey upstream in the Virgin River. No, not along the river: IN the river. Bring (or rent from local outfitters) some great water shoes and a walking stick for stability on slippery rocks. Sometimes vintage walking sticks au naturel (aka discarded branches) can be found at the beginning of the hike. Continue up the river for two or three hours and arrive at Wall Street, the narrowest section of the canyon. Gawk. Go back from whence you came. Or amble on for a bit; the farther up the canyon you go, the fewer humans you’ll share it with.
2. This hike can also be a 16-mile multi-day trip from the top, granted you are lucky enough to win a permit and popular/rich enough to arrange a shuttle. It's worth a try!
- Location: Near Fountain Green, Utah
- Distance: 1.2 miles
- Best for: Anyone who can handle some rock scrambling/basic bouldering
- Best time to go: April to October
This out-and-back trail is short, but don’t think you’re getting off easy. It’s all boulders, all the time. You’ll be walking between boulders and towering rock walls, scrambling over boulders, even climbing between cracks in boulders that fell from the cliffs at some point in time. (Don’t think too hard about that, but don’t not think about it either. Falling rock is a risk here.) Boulders, boulders and more boulders.Kids can totally take this trail, but there is one spot where a generous previous hiker secured a rope to a 15-foot boulder that you will need to scale. Your options are to loosen up that protective instinct and let your offspring give it a try, or hit the gym starting now so you can lift them up to a trusty partner who has braved the rock first.At the end of the trail is a lovely waterfall that has yet more boulders and a rope to climb it, but climbing this spot isn’t recommended unless you come prepared with rock-climbing gear.Note that this trail is on private property, but the public currently has permission to scurry and scramble their way through. Check before you go to make sure that’s still true and also that there isn’t water in the canyon.
- Location: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Distance: 5.3 miles out and back
- Best for: Moderate to more experienced hikers
- Best time to go: April to November
Zebra Slot Canyon delivers exactly what it promises: some really cool zebra-ish stripes on its narrow walls that are sure to make you the coolest kid on Instagram. That is, if you’re tough enough to earn them. You’ll enjoy a roasty walk through the desert and Harris Wash to get to the slot canyon, which does not take too long to slither through. (And slithering is about what you should expect — at one point the canyon focuses down to a 10-inch gap. Suck it in!) There are watery spots as well, and while you may see people leaving their shoes at the entrance, you’d be better off hoisting your kicks aloft as you ford the chilly pits. There are places in the canyon that you might not be able to do barefoot. And then you won’t get those Instagram shots of the zebra stripes at the end. And then you’ll be sad. However, do leave your backpack at the entrance as there’s no room for that baby. If you really want to go for the gold, you can keep going through the zebra stripes to the dry fall on the other side where the canyon opens back up again, but this is no small feat and most people treat that trek as an out-and-back. But if you’re still feeling un-slot-isfied after Zebra Slot Canyon, you can head back to Harris Wash and continue on your merry way to nearby Tunnel Slot Canyon.
- Location: Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, near Cannonville
- Distance: About 3 miles out and back
- Best for: Everyone
- Best time to go: April to October, but summer is very hot
Willis Creek is one of those unexpected, under-respected kinds of places. Nearby, flashier neighbors like Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin State Park steal all the thunder. Because who can top colorful sandstone spires or golden arches shining in the sun? Willis Creek Slot Canyon, that’s who! Or maybe top isn’t the right word. Complement. Willis Creek Slot Canyon is the perfect complement to its fabulous canyon friends. With its trickling creek and gorgeous canyon walls, Willis Creek is the friend you almost forgot to invite but turns out to be the life of the party.
The trail starts out through brush and trees, then takes a turn down toward Willis Creek. After that, you’ll follow along with the creek the rest of the way. Your feet will get wet so plan accordingly. The canyon walls start off low and comfy but the farther you go, the more they close in on you until you’re snuggled in the earth’s warm clutches. (“No” means “no,” Earth!) The hike is fun for all and great for kids, who will enjoy skipping their way through the creek. Check conditions before you go. Rain can cancel the viability of not only the slot canyon but also Skutumpah Road by which you access it.
- Location: Zion National Park
- Distance: 9.5 miles
- Best for: Experienced climbers
- Best time to go: Later summer through early October
Zion National Park is home to more than one slot canyon. While the Narrows may be the Preciousssss, the Subway is still a classic, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Casablanca or the first Star Wars (the original one, before George Lucas discovered CGI). But be aware that the Subway will kick your booty into next week and you shouldn’t underestimate it. It’s a tough, semi-technical journey, especially leaving the canyon when there’s nothing to look forward to but your job and the melted fruit snacks in your car. But on the way in, you’ll be looking forward to one of the most beautiful slot canyons in Utah.
The top-down route is the classic way to get to this classic canyon. This route involves wading, scrambling, slip-sliding, climbing your way down the Left Fork of the North Creek. Expect a long, hard 6–10 hour day with a few rappels, down-climbs and a couple surprisingly chilly swimming sessions. But all work and no play makes Jack/ie a dull climber, so take plenty of time to use all your senses. The reward for all your work: the tubular — in both senses — rock formations that give the hike its name. They’re just a smidge photogenic.
If technical climbing isn’t your bag of gummy worms, you can also start and end your climb at the Left Fork Trailhead, which is about 8.2 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from Virgin, Utah. This route is not technical and you can still see some waterfalls and the lower Subway formations. It’s still a slog, though, and you’ll be hiking for 5–9 hours, and the scenery is not nearly as great as the top-down route.
Note that you will need a permit as this hike has become so popular that visitors are now limited to 80 per day. You can get a permit from the National Park Service a few months in advance through a lottery process, or cross your fingers for a last-minute drawing two to seven days before you’d like to go.
- Location: Capitol Reef National Park, 7.8 miles down Notom-Bullfrog Road
- Distance: 8 miles
- Best for: Experienced canyon-country hikers
- Best time to go: Spring and fall
There are a few slot canyons in Capitol Reef National Park but Burro Wash gets the most action. This canyon requires some skill and, depending on how far you go, can give you an excuse to slide your butt cheeks into a climbing harness.The hike starts with a two-mile trek through an open wash before you get into the canyon. Once you’re there, expect a slot chock-full of chockstones — giant boulders that fell in/conveniently into your path. Bonus: Sometimes you get to approach them from a pool of water. Some of the chockstones in Burro Wash have ways you can bypass them, while others require Spider-Man web-jets (or climbing gear in a pinch). After several of these chockstones, you’ll reach a set of not one, but two of them near the end of the trek. If you can get past these babies, the hike ends soon after at a pour-off about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. Unless you’ve got mad technical skills and a shuttle, this is an out-and-back hike.