Family Friendly and Less Dangerous Slot Canyon Hikes in the Backcountry of Southern Utah
Outdoor lovers from around the world flock to Utah for its collection of 5 magical National Parks. Why wouldn’t they? Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the more remote Capitol Reef National Park offer such unique opportunities for building memories. Regardless of the time of day or season, the parks will leave you with many stories to tell your friends and family back home! Don’t let the time of day, month, or year be your deciding factor. The parks offer beautiful scenes no matter when you visit.
For more of what Utah nature has to offer during the various seasons, check out my Instagram feed at https://www.picsbyricks.com/about-2/?swcfpc=1
But…Utah outdoors is A LOT more than just National Parks!
Southern Utah also has the highest concentrations of slot canyons in the world with over 1,000 slot canyons. Some you may have heard of include Buckskin Gulch, Spooky and Peek-a-boo Gulch, the Zion Narrows, Zebra Canyon, and The Subway, among others.
What is a Slot Canyon?
A slot canyon is a narrow opening that continues to widen due to environmental forces that erode the rock. Slot canyons have distinct characteristics that add to their environmental susceptibility. Slot canyons are very narrow and deep and typically have smooth canyon walls. This essentially leads to water funneling down and turning slot canyons into a river of no escape.
The Dangers of Slot Canyons and Slot Canyons in the Media
Slot canyons seem to only get media attention when something bad happens! The steep cliffs, fast-flowing rivers, and severe weather of Zion National Park claimed 43 lives in 10 years. The geological features of slot canyons create many unforeseen dangers, including drowning, hypothermia, and heat exhaustion. Because slot canyons are deep and narrow, it is difficult to get out quickly when a monsoon rain occurs. In addition, their smooth and tall canyon walls make it nearly impossible to climb out of, especially when they are wet.
Why I Created This List
As an adventure photographer, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen a lot of tourists do a lot of unsafe things and not even realize it. The one over-arching theme is that all slot canyons are NOT suitable for everyone. In addition, there really isn’t a comprehensive educational program that empowers outdoor explorers, road trippers, and people of all countries to ensure their safety in the wilderness. Not all dangers of slot canyons are readily apparent.
Case in Point
For example, hiking Zebra Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante involves a 5.2 mile out and back hike that takes 3 to 4 hours, IN IDEAL CONDITIONS. The canyon also gets high amounts of rain in a very small window of time, especially during Utah monsoon season. For planning purposes, monsoon season is generally from mid-July to mid-September. Even when the canyon doesn’t have standing water, the hike requires you to climb up the canyon walls and walk backwards on your heels to get to the end. And you thought the crab walk exercises in gym class were pointless!
Considerations To Make
(1) What type of adventurer are you?
- A beginning hiker
- A backpacker
- A camper
- A climber
- An experienced canyoneer
Resource: To determine the level of experience required for hikes, see the American Canyoneering Association Website at https://www.canyoneering.net/
(2) What is your level of expertise?
Expertise levels range from Class 1 (non-technical casual hiking) to Class 4 (advanced canyoneering experience and complex rope work required.)
(3) Do you have experience traversing wet terrain?
Water Class Ratings range from A (normally dry) to C (strong currents, waterfalls, requires wet canyon rope techniques)
The popular 1.6 mile Kanarraville Falls hike that leads to a waterfall and a rope ladder is an example of a hike that requires water travel through the stream bed.
(4) How much time do you have?
Grades range from I (short lasting a couple of hours) to VI (requiring two full days or more, such as with overnight backpacking)
(5) What is your risk tolerance?
- No Rating (normal risk factors)
- R (risky; requires sound judgment; not appropriate for beginners)
- X-Extreme (multiple risk factors that could result in serious injury or death and meant for expert canyoneers)
(6) What is your navigational experience?
When planning your hiking trips, research the areas you plan on visiting. Make sure to consider whether there are marked hiking trails and the remoteness of the surrounding area.
How Can You Mitigate Your Risks When Planning a Slot Canyon Adventure?
- View the National Weather Service forecast at https://forecast.weather.gov/
- View the NOAA Flash Flood Potential Ratings Forecast at https://www.weather.gov/slc/flashflood
- View National Park Alerts by state at https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/alerts.htm
- Sign up for Wireless Emergency Alerts at https://www.weather.gov/wrn/wea
- Download the National Park Service App at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/digital/nps-apps.htm
Non-Technical Slot Canyons for Your Utah Family Road Trip Vacation
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Peek-a-Boo Gulch
- Spooky Gulch
- Burr Trail’s Singing Canyon
- Willis Creek
*Note: Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch are some of the narrowest slot canyons you’ll see.
- Beginning of Buckskin Gulch
- Wire Pass
- Furniture Draw
San Rafael Swell
- Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park
- Ding and Dang Canyon
- Jenny’s Canyon
Near Zion National Park
- Hobbit Hole Slot Canyon
A hike you should do even though it’s not rated easy
- The Narrows at Zion National Park through which the Virgin River flows. The Slot Canyon is part of one of the largest networks of slot canyons in the world.
For more places I’ve explored, check out https://www.picsbyricks.com/about-2/
For a resource provided by the American Canyoneering Association: https://www.canyoneering.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ratings.pdf
ADA Accessible National Park Info: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/accessibility.htm