Hiking and Rappelling in Utah's Slot Canyons

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

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 the slot canyons that are prevalent there. Ask climbers about rappelling into those same slot canyons and they'll likely get a giant grin across 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 these gorges are wide at the top but get much narrower as they drop, often up to 100 feet or more. Picture yourself squeezing through a space between the walls where you have to suck in your gut –– or push your pack through the fissure first –– in order to pass through. Not for the claustrophobic, hiking the canyons can nevertheless be a very rewarding experience.

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 into slot canyons. Technical climbers have long hiked and abseiled into incredibly tight slot canyons in remote locations around the globe, often finding remote places for an adventure as a result.

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-Escalante, the Paria Canyons and the Lake Powell region. Here are several canyons that are unique, wild, and fun to explore the time you're in the area.

Definitely not for the claustrophobic, Spooky Gulch is a popular destination for hikers and climbers alike. At its narrowest points, the canyon gets so tight that it is actually dark at the bottom. This loop route is only 3.5 miles in length however, making it a great option for those looking for a day outing.

The wavy rock formations in Capitol Reef's Sheets Gulch in the Waterpocket Fold canyons has some narrow slots to wander. Once you enter the curving red sandstone walls, it's nine miles to the far end, although despite the distance it is a relatively easy hike. Some visitors prefer to do a shorter out-and-back walk instead, taking in just a sample of the gorgeous topography as they go.

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

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.

As the name implies, the Kanarra Creek slot canyon features a fair bit of water, so bring your applicable shoes. This is easily one of the most beautiful canyons to was through and includes several spectacular waterfalls along its 3.5 mile length. Due to some challenging water crossing however, this is a moderately challenging trek, so take care when wandering along the path, which can be slippery at points.

The truly adventurous may want to take on Buckskin Gulch, which is a continuous slot that runs for more than 15 miles. You'll want to dedicated two to three days of hiking if you want to see it all, but day hikers can get a sample of what Buckskin has to offer by entering at the Wire Pass Trailhead, including a look at ancient petroglyphs.

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 gorges themselves can turn the experience into a nightmare, so exercise caution when setting out.