Top 5 Slot Canyons in Utah
Jul 26, 2017
By: Mo Edwards
Making decisions is hard, #amirite? There are so many choices in this modern world! For example, you’re wondering, “Should I hike a slot canyon with my family this year?” That one is simple: Yes!
Southern Utah has more tiny, narrow cracks — aka slot canyons — than a shattered iPhone screen. Some are deep, some are wide; some are wet, some are dry; and none of them will shove tiny glass shards in your texting fingers.
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.) One 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 a giant bloodthirsty sandworm, flash floods can get you when you least expect it. Do not enter a slot canyon if it is raining, has rained in the past 24 hours or if rain is forecasted. Rain water collects from the non absorbent plateau and drains into these canyons creating an instantaneous wall of water. Flash flood warning signs include sudden heavy rains; clear creek water that begins to turn brown and muddy; and debris such as twigs, leaves or needles appearing 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 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.
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 5 year old. Look for petroglyphs at the junction of the two canyons. Bask in the real truthiness of it all.
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 Wildhorse 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 100% non-gluten. 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.
Have you ever wanted to be bear hugged by the earth? A nice, firm, sandy hug 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 pot holes (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.
The Narrows in Zion National Park is the one slot canyon to rule them all. The grand dame, the head honcho, the Patti Labelle, the Citizen Kane, the Billy Joel, the Beyoncé of slot canyons. In some places the walls rise to a thousand feet tall and the canyon narrows to only twenty feet across. It’s almost as dramatic as the rise of Kevin Bacon.
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. Yes 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 (just literal discarded sticks) 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. Or, 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!
Named after the Paiute chief Cannarah, Kanarraville is a tiny town 10 minutes south of Cedar City and a great pit stop on your way to somewhere else via I-15. Park in the designated lot just east of town and pay the $10 fee, then turn and say thank you to the little hamlet for keeping this trail accessible to the public. Thanks K-ville!
Sooo, ummmm, what are you wearing? Water shoes? Great! This trail is a bit wet and wild. As in: Traipsing through water, then scrambling up red sandstone, and climbing a photogenic ladder past a waterfall. The water is straight-up cold in the spring and neoprene booties are recommended. The reflected light on the red canyon walls is beautiful all year round.
Keep your littlest ones home for this adventure, unless you can deliver them via drone to the top. A coordinated seven year old is probably about the youngest you’ll want to bring, which is perfect because that’s usually the age they get too heavy for drone transport.
There has been some talk that Kanarraville will implement a permit system for this popular canyon. Do a little research before embarking, okay?