Hiking and Rappelling in Utah's Slot Canyons

Have You Ever Hiked Through, or Rappelled Into, a Slot Canyon?

Hiking in Bryce National Park
Hiking in Bryce National Park. (c) Lois Friedland

Ask a hiker who loves to explore the wilderness in southern Utah and he or she will eventually start talking about hiking in slot canyons. Ask climbers about rappelling into slot canyons and they'll get a grin on their faces.

Slot canyons are narrow slashes in the crust of the earth formed by the wind, water, and eons of time. A lot of them are wide at the top but as they drop (some up to 100 feet or more) they narrow down. Picture yourself squeezing through a space between the walls where you have to suck in your gut (or push your pack through the fissure) to pass through. I've hiked in them and rappelled down them just enough to know that I want to go back for more.

If you've never experienced what it's like to zip down the side of a canyon wall, there are companies, especially in Moab and other parts of Utah, that will take even never-evers on hikes that include rappels in slot canyons. Technical climbers have long hiked and rappelled into incredibly tight slot canyons in remote locations around the globe. (Take a look at dramatic images on environmentalgraffiti.com, to see some of the 15 Most Incredible Slot Canyons on the Earth, according to the author.)

Slot Canyons to Challenge in Utah

The Navajo sandstone rock in southern Utah is soft enough that nature's forces have created lots of slot canyons. You'll find them in Zion National Park, the Grand Staircase, the Paria Canyons and the Lake Powell region.  Here are two them that are fun to explore, and a third that is quite special.

Hikers like to walk through Spooky Gulch because it gets so narrow in parts that it's dark at the bottom. (Don't take this hike if you're claustrophobic!)  It's rated as a 3.2-mile moderate hike roundtrip.

The wavy rock formations in Capitol Reef's Sheets Gulch in the Waterpocket Fold canyons has some slot canyons. Once you enter the curving red sandstone walls, it's nine miles to the far end. (Or, you can stop partway then turn around and walk back.) The topography in the canyon is gorgeous.

Zion National Park is reported to have more slot canyons than anywhere else in Utah. The most famous adventure is the hike through Zion Narrows. The Virgin River flows through this canyon, which has cliffs that stretch upward 2,000 feet. Hiking upstream may be doable part of the year. (Yes. you will get wet.) Inquire at the park office for details, conditions, and permits.

You have many other choices in the park. Walking up the Sand Wash to the Red Cave is a much easier way to explore the beauty of Zion's slot canyons.

For a list of slot canyons and information about hiking or exploring them, click on the American Southwest website's slot canyons page. Always check with the local Park Service office or qualified locals to see if it's safe to hike through any slot canyon on a particular day. Flash floods starting in areas far from the canyons can turn the experience into a nightmare -or worse.

About.com's Climbing Expert, Stewart Green, has several articles where you can learn more about rappelling.