There are hundreds of slot canyons in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park, but most are hard to find, and it might take days afoot to reach them. A few, however, are accessed fairly easily on a day trip, as long as you are up to driving rough gravel roads and able to hike a round trip of a few moderate miles.
The park, established in 1996, is about 1.9 million acres stretching from just north of the Arizona Strip north of the Colorado River all the way south/southwest to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. For this excursion, start at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center on Utah Route 12 in the town of Escalante.
Not only can the center provide topographic and road maps for your visit, its staff is knowledgeable about the park and the changing weather and road conditions, especially pertinent for this trip.
The trailhead’s elevation is about 4,950 feet, so expect temperatures 10-15 degrees lower than in Las Vegas, ideal for hiking this time of year. From the parking area, head on the well-worn path down the somewhat steep, slick rock area, where you will follow cairns that mark your route when a visible path isn’t obvious. Take this route down about 1 mile, until it ends in a wide and obvious sandy wash, Dry Fork.
To reach Peek-a-boo Gulch, walk directly across the wash to the other side and you will be at the base of Peek-a-boo, the first slot canyon. The entrance is about 12 feet above you; sometimes there is a log there standing endways and sometimes there is no such convenience. But in the latter case you will find Moki steps, carved into the sandstone, to assist you. Children will need help at both the bottom and the top of this stage.
Once inside, make your way up the slot, enjoying the corkscrew twists and turns. You will even find a rare double arch in the stone. These are tight quarters, so I advise you to arrive early in the morning so you don’t have to share the space.
Once you exit the way you came, head downstream in the Dry Fork Wash for about a half-mile and look for the cairns that mark your left-hand turn to the path. This route starts immediately before a large sandstone outcropping. Walk this mostly sandy path for about five minutes and you’ll reach the entrance to Spooky Gulch.
As long as you aren’t claustrophobic, this is a fun one, especially for kids, who can go farther inside than adults can. Be sure to leave your backpacks at the entrance. Keep a sharp lookout as you enter and immediately before, as I have seen rattlesnakes more than once. Be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp. The adventure normally takes only five or ten minutes, but if you fail to bring light and think about the rattlesnakes, it will seem like weeks.
Wear long pants and shirts, as these slots will get your skin. Never hike, drive or remain near these slots if it is raining or even threatens to rain. The danger of flash floods is very real in the park’s slot canyons, and they have claimed many lives.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.